Although the American League East is only the second of the six divisions in baseball that are still up for grabs, the Boston Red Sox have a 99.9 percent chance of making the postseason, so they’re all but guaranteed an appearance this fall. Around this time of year is when you start thinking about performance in the postseason instead of just getting there, and how specific players can help put their team in the best position to succeed when the season ends.
With several recent controversies — the Eduardo Nunez bunt on CC Sabathia, the looming sign-stealing scandal coming to eruption, the earlier controversy between David Price and several members of the media as well as his injury at the beginning of the season — the Boston front office and coaching staff appear to have been a bit distracted of late.
They were so distracted that they barely addressed a bullpen almost solely comprised of average role-players, and that they didn’t address at all a crumbling rotation (aside from signing Doug Fister who was sitting at home, unemployed after a disappointing stint with the Angels). Sure, they did acquire Addison Reed from the New York Mets at the non-waiver deadline to help shore up the back-end of the bullpen, but that move isn’t going to fix the rotation and won’t make any of the other current relievers pitch any better. Yes, Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale are both dominant forces, which I believe is why these issues have been ignored — they’re easy to overlook with those two casting such a large shadow.
You do have Chris Sale taking the mound every fifth day during the season and every third or fourth game in the postseason. However, even he’s having his share of issues lately. Sale has pitched less than six full innings only four times out of his 28 starts this season, yet three of those four starts have come in his past seven games and two in the past three. This suggests fatigue could be wearing on Sale, as he only has three starts under 100 pitches and has 17 starts where he threw at least 110 pitches. Whatever is causing the issue, it’s going to require the bullpen and the rest of the rotation shoulder a bit more of the load, maybe permanently and at least until he bounces back.
Rick Porcello is basically the opposite of the pitcher that he was last season when he won the Cy Young, as his 4.67 ERA and 4.57 FIP rank 17th and 18th worst, respectively, among 63 qualified starters.
David Price has been on the shelf for most of the season — only tossing 66 innings so far this season — and when he was pitching he had some off-field issues with the media, as I mentioned earlier. Furthermore, Price has a well-documented history of struggling in the postseason, which continued in his first year with the Sox. He has yet to put together a solid string of starts that demonstrates he’s back to his old self on the mound. Price has 11 starts this season and has allowed at least three runs in seven of those starts, not to mention he’s only recorded an out in the seventh inning on three occasions.
Eduardo Rodriguez’s ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA are all above 4.0, and although he improved from last season, he’s still pitching worse than in his rookie year in 2015. He’s also getting hit quite hard, as his hard hit rate is over 30 percent. Rodriguez relies heavily upon flyballs with a flyball rate over 44.2 percent, so those hard hits can turn impactful quickly.
Fister had a rocky start in Boston after being signed in June due to depth issues with the rotation; he took a loss in five of his first seven appearances. Since then he’s been great, with only one rough start where he allowed five runs on seven hits and four walks over four and one-third innings. His last four starts have been spectacular, pitching at least seven innings in all four starts while allowing one run in three starts and two runs in the fourth start.
He’s definitely pitching above average, but with his limited time this season coupled with his terrible seasons both in 2015 and 2016, I question how long he can keep it up. He’s clearly overachieving and while he’s allowing less runs, his walk rate has only changed a little bit. In his twelve total appearances this season his walk rate is 9.9 percent, and over his last four starts where he allowed two runs or less his walk rate is still just over 7 percent.
The only other clear postseason-capable starter is Drew Pomeranz who's had a respectable season, basically identical to his season last year after he was acquired at the non-waiver deadline from the San Diego Padres. With only two clear-cut choices to compile a postseason rotation that has to be at least three pitchers deep, this adds to the responsibility of the bullpen, since they will likely need to pick up slack from the third starter and very well could have to do the same for Sale. The silver lining is it’s possible that Price puts his postseason woes behind him, or they could get a surprise performance from Fister.
Craig Kimbrel can only pitch one or two innings a night maximum, so if your starter isn’t pitching at least seven innings you need at least one or two, sometimes even three guys to bridge that gap between the starter and Kimbrel. These can’t just be any relievers either; they must be able to pitch in high-stress situations at any point in the game, and most importantly be consistent and reliable in those situations.
I mentioned their acquisition of Addison Reed and how important that is, but he has allowed six runs in eight innings in 10 postseason games with the Mets between 2015 and 2016. With results like that you must question his reliability in the postseason. Reed also has already reached over 63 innings this season and had over 77 last year, so fatigue could be a factor for Reed as well and could explain his previous postseason struggles.
Fatigue seems to be a common theme with the roller-coaster performances from the Red Sox rotation, and this in turn has put increased stress on their bullpen. Reed is a prime example, although he was only recently acquired. The Red Sox have eight relievers who have pitched at least 30 innings and four of those eight relievers are already over 48 innings (that’s not including Reed’s 66 and 2/3rds innings).
Apart from the innings counts, there are six telling statistics I used to help show the Red Sox bullpens’ weakness: ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, walk rate, and strikeout rate. Although there is some overlap in the stats, these give us the best and easiest understanding of how the Red Sox relievers are pitching and how we should expect them to pitch in the future.
Out of the nine Red Sox pitchers that have all pitched at least 30 innings, four of them are below league average in at least three of the six categories I mentioned. The four pitchers are Joe Kelly, Fernando Abad, Robby Scott, and Blaine Boyer. The two that stick out to me are Kelly and Abad, specifically since they are vital pieces to the pen.
Kelly trails the league average in SIERA, as well as walk and strikeout rates. The walk rate isn’t that surprising, considering Kelly touches over 100mph on a nightly basis and tends to be a bit wild, but the strikeout rate is concerning. He’s a known power pitcher with some of the nastiest stuff — anecdotally speaking — so he should be striking out batters around 30 percent of the time rather than the 20 percent clip he’s currently put up. With him not striking out batters and his high velocity, there’s real risk that at some point he’s going to get hit hard, and that won’t be pretty in a small park like Fenway.
Abad trails the league average in xFIP, SIERA, and strikeout rate. Abad isn’t as important to the Red Sox’s success as Kelly is, but he also can’t be a liability in the postseason, as he’s their main lefty specialist (non-Kimbrel division). Right now he’s performing well, but he isn’t exactly trustworthy.
Scott and Boyer are not concerning as they most likely won’t make the postseason roster, so if you remove those two which have the worst performances of the bullpen, you’re left with seven relievers of the original nine relievers I mentioned, all of whom have a good chance of making the postseason roster.
The issues I mentioned appear to be taking their toll, as over the last 14 days the Red Sox are 6-8, and also are 17th in ballpark adjusted ERA among their entire staff despite the seventh lowest walk rate and fifth highest strikeout rate over that stretch. Their BABIP is .332 which is third-highest; however, they’re also not stranding runners, as their left-on-base rate is 25th. Only three teams have allowed more than the 22 home runs the Red Sox pitching staff has allowed over the past two weeks.
Even if the Red Sox bullpen has a strikeout rate well above league average and a walk rate that beats most other teams the rest of the way — which are both best-case scenarios — this is exactly the problem I foresee in the postseason: The Red Sox will play half of their games in the confines of Fenway, and end up getting beat by home runs and small ball, especially with there are runners on base.
The one thing that will likely be the deciding factor in the success or failure in the postseason is their offense. Ranked 21st in WRC+ and wOBA, 28th in ISO and 21st in OPS, this type of offense cannot support the pitching we’ve been seeing the last couple of weeks.
They have the defense to backup a lack of dominant, high-strikeout relievers — the only exception being Kimbrel — but between the ballpark and the lack of offense it really hurts their chances in the postseason. I don’t want to see the Red Sox fail, but it’s certainly hard to imagine them succeeding if things continue the way they’re currently going. The pitching must improve drastically in order for the Red Sox to have a hope of making a deep run in October.