Red Sox

Red Sox

Red Sox relievers are sick of being told how bad they are.

Two months into the season, they've actually pitched pretty well overall, but fans and media seem more concerned with how bad they might one day be.

Veteran Matt Barnes, who's clearly the star of the group, knows why there's so much doubt. It's because the Red Sox lack a name closer. Before Sunday's series finale against the Yankees in New York, Barnes engaged in a frank discussion with NBC Sports Boston about all things bullpen, and he started where the critics do -- can a pen without a fireman like Craig Kimbrel actually be any good?

"I think it's the biggest problem," he said. "People assume you're not going to be great just because you don't have a name, this guy who's done it for that long, or that guy who's got these numbers and that many All-Star games. While those guys are phenomenal pitchers and would make any team better, I think sometimes people think our bullpen is worse than we are because we don't have a guy like Kimbrel in the ninth. I think if you break it down and look at the actual numbers, I think we've done a pretty good job this year."

The numbers support him. The Red Sox rank in the top 10 in baseball in bullpen ERA (4.09, 9th), strikeouts (254, 5th), strikeout-to-walk (2.65, 8th), opposing OPS (.712, 10th), and opposing average (.226, 4th). The one area where they struggle is save percentage (59 percent, 22nd), and hence the calls for a closer.

 

But that number lacks context. They're 22-4 when leading after seven innings and 22-2 when leading after eight. They've only blown two saves in the ninth inning, which is when a "proven closer" would've presumably protected them.

That doesn't mean they couldn't use another arm, or that we're wrong to question whether an inexperienced reliever like Marcus Walden can maintain his breakout production. But they have pitched better than the narrative would suggest.

"We've got a bunch of guys down there who don't have a ton of experience in the big leagues, but have pitched at this level while they've been here at a pretty damn high level and gotten the job done more times than not," Barnes said. "That's the thing. When you don't know who's doing the job because you don't recognize the name, a level of uncertainty comes just because of that.

"You have to establish yourself and prove you can do it over and over again until you get recognized. That's why people have doubts about the bullpen, because we don't have a huge name guy down there. But I think we're doing all right."

The bullpen features three stalwarts. Barnes is coming off his worst outing, a three-run eighth in the rain against the Yankees on Sunday that ballooned his ERA from 1.99 to 3.04. But he has still excelled as the guy tabbed to face the heart of the order in every close game, with 42 strikeouts in 23.2 innings, which works out to a Kimbrel-esque 16 strikeouts per nine.

"It's just a different way of thinking about it," he said. "As opposed to being ready for an inning, you're getting ready for a part of the lineup, and any number of innings. The preparation is still the same, as long as you're paying attention to the game. I know when the part of the order that I'm going to face is coming up, whether it's the seventh, eighth or ninth, given where the game is at and who's coming up. I know where I'm going to pitch."

He's joined by curveball machine Brandon Workman, who has struck out 38 in 26.1 innings (13 K/9) while posting a 2.05 ERA. Workman may not throw a 95 mph fastball anymore, but he's blessed with a fearless makeup and has limited opponents to an absurd .095 batting average.

"He's got an uncanny ability to get the job done every single time," Barnes said. "His ability to command his curveball and cutter and the way he's evolved and changed into a pitcher . . . when I came up with him, he was power starter, 95, great curveball still, and his ability to change and adapt to the league is impressive. It's why he's having success."

Then there's Walden, a 30-year-old rookie taken in the same 2007 draft as David Price, who has ridden a wipeout slider to a 6-0 record and 1.97 ERA.

"He's got two months in the big leagues and he's a stud," Barnes said. "He shoves."

Add right-hander Heath Hembree (1-0, 2.81), who has very quietly become a reliable option since ditching his slider and focusing on his 95-97 mph fastball, and that's four decent arms. If Ryan Brasier can rediscover the command that made him so effective last year, that would make five.

 

But is it enough? Many have suggested the Red Sox are an arm short including this guy, and while Barnes isn't going to refuse an upgrade, he also fiercely stands by this group. The Red Sox should be players on the relief market as trade season heats up over the next two months, with Washington's Sean Doolittle, San Francisco's Will Smith, and Chicago's Alex Colome expected to be available.

So back to the original question: do the Red Sox need a closer?

"I think we're doing pretty good the way we are right now," Barnes said. "I can see a value in adding anybody to your team that's going to make you better, and somebody that's already a closer presumably has a pretty good track record of being a good player, and anytime you add a player like that it's definitely going to make your team better.

"But do we need it? No."

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