BOSTON — Only the Indians had a better bullpen ERA in the regular season than the Red Sox’ 3.07. What’s both strange, and welcome, is how different the Sox’ David Price-reinforced bullpen is expected to look heading into the playoffs.
Makeovers don’t usually await a group that has been so reliable for so long.
“It’s been added to a lot with the addition of [Addison] Reed and obviously Price's now placement in it,” manager John Farrell said. “But for the majority of the season, we've had guys that have stepped up in the face of injury when [Tyler] Thornburg wasn't available, when Carson Smith took maybe a little bit longer than anticipated to come back.”
In games the Sox are leading in the postseason, the ideal plan seems to be a progression of Price, Reed and Craig Kimbrel. Throw in a potentially dominant Smith as well.
But Kimbrel’s the only one who has been in his role all year long. Reed joined midseason via trade, and Price and Smith are both September additions.
Consider that there were eight Sox pitchers with at least 35 relief innings pitched for the Sox in relief this year. The way things are shaping up, maybe three of them will be in the team’s postseason ‘pen: Kimbrel, Joe Kelly and lefty specialist Robby Scott.
“There's going to be some guys that are disappointed, plain and simple,” Farrell said. “Guys that have been contributors. We've got 35-36 players [on the roster overall] that have contributed in some way, and yet there's going to be 11 that are not active. I wish they all could be. But I think guys get it. The tough decisions, I think there are different degrees of decisions when it comes to who's active and who's not, and those explanations are deserved to the individuals, and we'll provide those.”
Righties Heath Hembree and Matt Barnes could be on the outside looking in, even though Barnes threw more relief innings for the Sox than anyone, 69 2/3. He had a 5.59 ERA in the final month of the season.
Change has been kind of a constant in the Sox bullpen the whole year, though. The depth of the 'pen proved perhaps the most pleasant surprise of 2017 for the Sox.
“When you look at the growth of individuals by increasing their responsibility, how they executed, it's never been a question of stuff," Farrell said. "From Kelly to Barnes to Hembree to Robby Scott, Fernando Abad — who has had a strong year and yet has not maybe been one of the focal guys of the bullpen — but they've performed very well."
“They've been leaned on, and then when we've had some additions with Reed. What they've done in the last 7-8 weeks is the reason why we sit here today [atop the division]. You look at our record in extra innings, and it's large in part because of that group, and they've been fantastic. They've been powerful, they've pitched, I would venture to say, the highest number of leverage innings throughout the league, and they've responded extremely well.”
Farrell has not outlined his bullpen for the first round down to a man yet, but he has said the Sox expect to carry 11 pitchers — four starting pitchers, and then seven relievers (including any starters moved to the bullpen).
Here’s one projection: Kimbrel, Reed, Price, Smith, Scott, Kelly and Doug Fister.
Fister is insurance if Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez or anyone else has a rough start, so that Farrell can very quickly swap out starters. Or if the Sox are getting blown out, he can use Fister and not waste the other higher leverage relievers. (There’s always the extra-inning possibility too.)
Fister has 16 career relief appearances in the regular season, with a 2.86 ERA in 28 1/3 innings, with 6 1/3 innings coming this season for the Sox.
But Fister could well wind up with a start and one of the other starters moving to the ‘pen instead. Farrell hasn't committed yet to carrying all his starters on the postseason roster, but that seems the proper move.
One reliever to keep an eye on who has a bit of length if the Sox don't carry all their starters: righty Austin Maddox, who allowed one earned run in 13 2/3 innings in the final month of the season. He went 2 1/3 innings in his final outing of the regular season.
Maddox struck out 14 and walked two in 17 1/3 innings overall, good for a 0.52 ERA.
Another righty, Brandon Workman was at times impressive, but had a 6.43 ERA over his final 14 outings, and also doesn't do particularly well vs. lefties.