One of the biggest criticisms of the Red Sox this season has been their bullpen.
The pen finished ninth in Major League Baseball in ERA (3.74), but was nineteenth after the All-Star break (4.32). It had 12 blown saves in the second half, most in the AL and second to only the Diamondbacks (16) for most in the majors during that span.
President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski was criticized heavily for prioritizing second base (Ian Kinsler), starting pitching (Nathan Eovaldi), and a right-handed power bat (Steve Pearce) at the trade deadline over a bullpen that seemed to be in desperate need of attention.
Fans and analysts sympathized with manager Alex Cora as he tried to piece together the late innings like a puzzle with pieces that didn't quite fit.
But all the while, as fans and media cried the sky was falling, Dombrowski and Cora remained confident. “We think realistically our bullpen is pretty good." Dombrowski said after the trade deadline, "The improvements can come from within.”
And Cora did what he's done so well as season -- not overreacting and staying grounded in reality.
"You look around the league in September, there were some great bullpens that became bad . . . It's the nature of 162 games," Cora said prior to the ALDS against the Yankees. "We're going to the same guys, and it seemed like some of them hit the wall. Hopefully, we've got the lead and we can give the ball to the next guy and the next guy, and then we'll give it to Kimbrel and we go from there."
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And that's exactly what they've done.
But what exactly allowed Cora and Dombrowski to stay so confident despite the bullpen's monumental struggles? Well, like Dombrowski said, they're pretty good.
The World Series roster has five true relievers: Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel. (Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez are starters turned lefty specialists.) Each of Boston's relievers had their struggles during the season, but they all have filthy stuff when they're on.
MATT BARNES: 6-4, 3.65 ERA, 96 K, 61 2/3 IP
The bad: Barnes' ERA in August and September was 9.64 and 5.06.
The good: In May, his ERA was 2.13 and in July it was 1.46.
Barnes was Boston's most reliable reliever this season, and a hip injury contributed to his late struggles. He features a 97-plus mph fastball and a mid-80s curve -- a devastating velocity differential. Barnes has Cora's absolute trust right now -- he's pitched anywhere from the fourth to the eighth innings thus far in the playoffs. He's allowed just one run in 7 1/3 playoff innings.
RYAN BRASIER: 2-0, 1.60 ERA, 29 K, 33 2/3 IP
The bad: Nothing. Brasier has been good all year. It just took time for him to gain enough of Cora's trust to be used in high-leverage situations.
The good: August. He allowed one run in 12 innings.
Brasier has been an incredible find for Boston this season. The 31 year-old rookie worked his way into being a key late-inning reliever. He's not afraid to challenge hitters with his high-90s cheese, and hitters haven't had a bit of luck hitting him. He's allowed just one run in 7 2/3 postseason innings pitched.
HEATH HEMBREE: 4-1, 4.20 ERA, 76 K, 60 IP
The bad: Everything expect June, July, and his one March appearance. He didn't have an ERA under 4.50 in any of the other months.
The good: June, July, and his one March appearance. He allowed five runs in 22 1/3 innings in those games.
Hembree was bad for large stretches of time this season, but he was dominant at others. His mid-90s fastball is complimented well by his wipeout slider. The inconsistantly is the reason he's hasn't pitched in a high-leverage situation, but he's yet to allow a run in 3 2/3 playoff innings.
Heath Hembree, Striking out the side with Filthy Sliders. 😷 pic.twitter.com/82o9F6dBmb— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 12, 2018
JOE KELLY: 4-2, 4.39 ERA, 68 K, 65 2/3 IP
The bad: When it's been bad, it's been really bad. His ERA was over eight in June, July, and September.
The good: When it's been good, it's been really good. Practically unhittable. April/May/August -- 38 1/3 innings, four runs.
When Kelly is on, it looks like a video game. He throws a triple-digit fastball and sinker. He toys with hitters using his changeup, slider, and curve, all of which he'll throw in any count. In the playoffs, he surrended just one run in 6 1/3 innings pitched. On the pitch below, you can see it take a left turn about halfway to the plate.
Joe Kelly, Filthy 87mph Changeup (release/spin axis). pic.twitter.com/f3JjvR1wPj— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 24, 2018
CRAIG KIMBREL: 5-1, 2.74 ERA, 42 SV, 96 K, 62 1/3 IP
The terrible: The playoffs. Still, Kimbrel and his 6.14 ERA somehow found a way not to blow a single lead.
The bad: Post All-Star break, his ERA was 4.57.
The good: Pre All-Star break, his ERA was 1.77.
It's easy to forget that Kimbrel was third in MLB in saves. It's also easy to forget that he is one of the best closers of all time. (He was the fastest closer in history to 300 saves.) His upper 90s cheese with hair (as Dennis Eckersley woud say) and crippling knuckle-curve are both strikeout pitches when he's on. And it appears Eric Gagne helped him stop tipping pitches, and he may, fingers crossed, be back. He looked dominant last night in a perfect ninth last night with two strikeous.
Craig Kimbrel, Absolutely Disgusting 3 Pitch K (98mph Fastball & two unhittable 88mph knuckle curves). 🤮 pic.twitter.com/bhR31Cnajt— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 24, 2018
Cora introduced a new wrinkle to his bullpen in the playoffs, something he's calling the "rover". This refers to starting pitchers being brought in late in games to bridge the gap between relievers and Kimbrel. So far, Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi have been used twice, and Chris Sale has been used one. The "rovers" have totaled five innings in the playoffs, all scoreless.
A major key to Boston's ability to weave through their reliever's struggles and keep winning despite them was the fortunate timing of guys hitting their strides. Kimbrel, Kelly, and Barnes dominated early. Hembree, Kimbrel, and Barnes shined in the summer. Brasier and Kelly held down the fort late.
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Cora and Dombrowski's confidence and sticktoitiveness with this group has paid off as they've all slipped into a zone at the right time. Between Barnes, Brasier, Hembree, Kelly, and the rovers, the bullpen ERA this postseason has been a sparkling 0.90. Kimbrel's had his struggles, but seems to have found his rhythm. Eduardo Rodriguez has been working his way out of the doghouse since not hustling to cover first in Game 2 of the ALDS, but came in to get lefty Cody Bellinger in Game 1.
Boston's biggest question mark coming in to the playoffs has become one of its greatest strengths. Credit the relievers for putting in the work to overcome their stuggles, and credit the Sox for sticking with them.
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