The greatest impact Alex Cora and Dave Dombrowski can have from here on out lies in the same area: the bullpen.
“I think that’s the toughest part of the game,” Cora said. “The matchups and where to go. One thing for sure that we feel very strong about it, the whole platoon thing doesn’t matter, if you get people out, you get people out.”
Unless, perhaps, it’s October.
As successful as the Sox pen has been in a league of great disparity, Dombrowski and Cora have to consider how their relievers will look against their likely playoff opponents. No element of a baseball team's roster — the rotation, lineup, bullpen and bench — takes on a more disparate look in October than the relievers. A starter or two inevitably contribute in relief, and usage increases, and a regular-season reliever or two becomes a spectator.
“Somebody that was in the mix the whole time, he’s out of the roster,” Cora said. “And it’s very different in a sense. But you still need your guys, like here, little by little, we do feel very comfortable with the [progression in the] seventh, eighth, ninth.”
Relievers are already on the move, with Kelvin Herrera heading from the Royals to the Nats on Monday. But what should be sought in a quote-unquote playoff bullpen? What makes a good one, in both a GM's construction and a manager's usage?
“Players that have the heartbeat to handle the emotion of the game is one criteria that you look for,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Obviously, elite stuff is always important. Execution when the game is on the line is key. But I think the slower heartbeats, in addition to the talent, is something that I noticed last season that we excelled at, and that other teams that have good bullpens [did as well].
“You look at what the Dodgers bullpen did leading into the World Series. You look at what the really good teams in the past [were able to do], the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants: being able to handle the critical moments and apply your elite stuff at that time is really good."
There seems to be no limit to the number of power arms a team can, or perhaps must, amass. One established, elite reliever, i.e. Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen, doesn’t seem to be fearsome anymore without serious backup.
In the era of swing-and-miss, the Yankees standalone with a pen averaging 12.02 strikeouts per nine innings. The Astros are second at 10.75 per nine, and the Sox fifth at 9.73. But, those figures include people who won’t be major postseason contributors and include competition that is not postseason caliber.
Power alone, though, is not enough.
“You need kind of an answer to everything,” Hinch said. “You need someone that can match up with lefties, someone that can match up with righties. That doesn’t always mean handedness has to equal that.
“In a perfect world, there’s going to be swings that don’t handle depth breaking balls. There’s going to be swings that don’t handle hard, lateral breaking balls, whether it’s a guy with a changeup — if you have a diverse set of relievers that can be matched up appropriately, it can be a great advantage in the bullpen.”
Matchups matter, but not in the conventional way, and that's true in the regular season as well.
"The days of 4-for-10 against this guy, they’re gone," Cora said. "It’s too small.”
The Red Sox entered the day off Monday with the sixth-best bullpen ERA in the majors. They’ve been successful preventing runners they’re handed by others from scoring as well, with the 11th lowest percentage of inherited runners scored.
Dombrowski had a difficult time building bullpens in his years in Detroit. But the Sox had the second-best bullpen ERA in the majors in 2017. Now, despite Carson Smith’s season-ending shoulder injury and the delay in Tyler Thornburg’s return, the team is thriving again in late innings.
But Hinch’s general point about style is one to consider with the Sox. Over the winter, Dombrowski noted the difference in looks that Smith provided in contrast to his other right-handers. Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree are all high-velocity pitchers with strong breaking balls. Smith relied on a sinker as well as a slider.
This group might be able to carry the Sox to a third consecutive division title without any help. Still, variety may be lacking.
Fortunately, the postseason process naturally provides some help. When Hinch was asked what makes a good playoff bullpen, he cracked a joke.
“Starters,” he said.
The strength of the Sox starters could be a boost to the Sox pen in a layered way. Eduardo Rodriguez’s changeup or Steven Wright’s knuckler can create a change of pace.
But the starter craze can also go too far. Cora thought it did last October.
Had the Sox come back to win the Division Series against the Astros, the turning point would have been remembered as the third inning of Game 4.
Houston starter Brad Peacock struck out the first two he faced in the frame at Fenway Park. Consecutive hits cut the Astros’ lead to 3-1. Hinch, with Cora as bench coach, played the traditional matchup with Rafael Devers. Peacock was out, southpaw Francisco Liriano was in, and he was immediately greeted by a go-ahead home run.
“We got caught up last year in certain games that probably...we talked about it, we pulled the trigger too quick on Brad in Game 3,” Cora said. “Because it was the playoffs and we went with Liriano, who was throwing the ball well, and he gives up the home run.”
It was pointed out to Cora that most of the time, Liriano probably gets the job done, that the move wasn't so bad. (Although Devers fared extraordinarily well against southpaw pitching in 2017.)
“But you know what I mean? Like, we felt that way,” Cora said. "Kind of like, we trust these guys throughout the season [to get out of a jam as starters]...We talk about it. But maybe we talk about it because he gave it up."
It's only June, but the time for the Sox to consider October pen plans is now, at least in terms of ideal personnel and a variety of looks.