Season Preview: Bullpen

According to ESPN’s metrics, the Boston Red Sox Bullpen was the 4th best in the MLB last year. That’s an especially impressive ranking considering the personnel that comprises that staff. Aside from lights out closer Craig Kimbrel, the rest of the Sox ‘pen includes rookies and question marks.

Boston didn’t address the bullpen in free agency this year, but still a few newcomers will be joining the familiar faces from 2017. Two of those newcomers have actually been with the organization for some time but are just now healthy for the first time, and two more are rookies seeing their first big league action.

To begin the year, the bullpen will look like this:

-Craig Kimbrel

-Joe Kelly

-Matt Barnes

-Carson Smith

-Heath Hembree

-Bobby Poyner

-Marcus Walden

(Photo credit: SI.com)

Kimbrel enters the new year coming off of one of the most dominant seasons a closer has ever put up in a Red Sox uniform. The prototypical power pitcher throws a high 90’s fastball and a devastating curveball to equal effect. His arsenal led him to a league leading 16.4 K/9 and .681 WHIP in 2017. Most importantly, he kept his notoriously high walk rate down at a respectable 1.8 BB/9, greatly minimizing danger on the basepaths compared to years passed. After throwing just 126 innings over the last 2 years, expect Kimbrel to be fully rested and ready to extend his dominance to 2018.

(Photo credit: boston.com)

After 2016, Red Sox Nation was ready to run Joe Kelly out of town. In 2 and a half years with the Red Sox (1 and a half as a starter), he never posted an ERA lower than 4, including a monstrous 5.18 in 2016. At the time, it looked like his time in Boston was over, but the Sox weren’t able to find anything to do with him, so they were forced to keep him on, and he rewarded them with an impressive (and honestly shocking) season in which he was one of the most effective relievers in the league. His 2.79 ERA and 1.190 WHIP were both vast improvements, and he managed to remain a strikeout-centric pitcher with over 8 per 9 innings. Another season like that would be one of the most important storylines for the Red Sox in 2018, but the likelihood of that happening is yet to be seen.

(Photo credit: masslive.com)

Matt Barnes’ story for 2018 is similar to Kelly’s. He also enjoyed a resurgent year in 2017 in which he saw his ERA drop over half a point below his career average while increasing his strikeout rate all the way to 10.7 K/9. A change in his approach to the game is probably the biggest contributor to that. Barnes was much more varied in his pitch selection in 2017. Last year, 50% of his pitches were fastballs, 31% were curveballs, 13% sliders, and he threw 0 changeups. Compare that to his career averages of 61%, 26%, 7%, and 6%, and it’s clear that his new, less predictable approach helped make him a more effective arm for the Sox. Presumably, he’ll bring that same approach into 2018, hopefully with the same results.

(Photo credit: Trifecta Network)

One of those newcomers that I mentioned above is Carson Smith. Smith came over from Seattle after the 2015 season in which he lit it up and became one of the hottest relievers around. Unfortunately, an elbow issue forced him into undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2016, and we haven’t seen much from him since. He boasts an impressive career stat line, (1.95 ERA, 11.4 K/9, 3.96 K/BB), and had a strong finish to 2017, throwing 6.2 innings of 1-run ball in September. His hard sinker induces about 66% ground balls on contact, an ideal number for a Fenway pitcher. He’s expected to play a large role at the back end of games this year, likely acting as part of the bridge to Kimbrel in the 9th. With the history of elbow injuries and extended layoff, though, he’ll be on a short leash for Alex Cora and the rest of the Sox coaching staff.

(Photo credit: Alchetron)

Heath Hembree is a hard throwing righty who will be used in mostly situational and garbage scenarios. He can hit 97 on the gun with his fastball and his slider has speed and bite. He improved his strikeout and walk rate over his career averages last year (10.2 K/9, 2.6 BB/9) but regressed in ERA and WHIP. He can eat innings (62 IP in 2017) and will be counted on to help keep the rest of the bullpen arms rested throughout the long season.

(Photo credit: Boston Herald)

Poyner and Walden are the feel good stories of Spring. Both non-roster invitees to camp, they both thoroughly impressed, each posting ERA’s and WHIP’s under 1. They’ll be stepping on a big league mound for the first time in their respective careers, and they have their work cut out for them with Tyler Thornburg and company vying for a spot once healthy. Poyner will be the only lefty in the ‘pen, increasing his chances of sticking around.

(Photo credit: Boston Herald)

Tyler Thornburg is worth mentioning here, as well. He’s working his way back from an unusual surgery in which he reportedly had a rib removed to treat his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and will presumably have a place waiting for him upon his return. He doesn’t throw incredibly hard (mid-90’s fastball), but he generates a very high swing-and-miss rate (25% on fastballs, 43% on curveballs) on his way to a stout 9 K/9 career strikeout rate. He was wonderful for the Brewers in 2016, posting a 2.15 ERA and .940 WHIP over 67 innings. He missed all of 2017 with that shoulder injury, but should return to be a key player in later innings in 2018.

One last thing to consider is the guys who will start the year at the bottom of the rotation. Brian Johnson and Hector Velasquez are expected to begin the season in the 4th and 5th spot on the mound, but Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez or Steven Wright will most likely displace each of them when they return from the DL. Cora may see some things he likes from one or all of them and decide to make a cut or two from the relievers in order to make room for them in the bullpen. Keep an eye on that situation.

Overall, the Sox have a promising bullpen who collectively had an excellent Spring. They should once again be towards the top of the league, so long as they can stay healthy and repeat their respective strong 2017’s.

Finally, no season preview is complete without my very specific predictions.

MVP – Craig Kimbrel: 33 saves, 1.41 ERA, .815 WHIP, 14.9 K/9

Most Improved – Matt Barnes: 2.88 ERA, 1.102 WHIP, 9.98 K/9, 2.61 BB/9

Biggest Surprise – Carson Smith: 1.96 ERA, .997 WHIP, 12.3 K/9

Biggest Disappointment – Joe Kelly: 3.88 ERA, 1.422 WHIP, 9.91 K/9, 4.12 BB/9

Number of All-Stars – 2: Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith

(Header photo credit: Ballparks of Baseball)

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