Despite winning the American League East handily, the Red Sox weaknesses have already been exposed in their ALDS series against the Yankees. Over the course of the first two games, Boston had difficulty successfully filling mid-game innings, particularly as neither starter worked deep into the night in games one and two.
In game one, reliable later innings after Chris Sale departed were hard to come by, and Boston nearly blew a 5-0 lead. In game two, New York had a two-run advantage in the sevening inning, which quickly became an insurmountable five-run lead after a challenging seventh inning. Although the Red Sox stemmed the bleeding after an all-too-predictable David Price disaster, their bullpen simply did not allow them the opportunity to close the gap.
With multiple days off per week, the games that do not necessarily require the same calculus as the April through September grind. Looking at the recent past, there seem to be multiple approaches to solving the pitching conundrum, all of which require at least one player to really shine.
One approach to postseason success is the classic ‘dominant ace’ format, the most recent example being Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 run. Bumgarner willed the Giants to a World Series victory seemingly single-handedly, dominating the postseason from a wild card game (on the road) to earning the NLCS and World Series MVP Award.
The next model of success we recently saw is bullpenning, where the game is shortened, and the team with the lead in sixth inning generally wins the game by not giving up any additional runs. We saw this with the 2015 Royals, who did not have one dominant reliever, but who basically shorted the games against the Mets, allowing only one run in innings six through nine in every game they won in the World Series. The third way we’ve seen postseason success is a return to the fireman reliever of old, which Andrew Miller and the Indians demonstrated in their AL Pennant run of 2016. Miller was not confined to a specific inning or a specific role; instead, Indians skipper Terry Francona called on Miller in high-leverage situations, regardless of inning or game.
Option one is pretty unlikely for the Red Sox, considering the trajectory of Chris Sale’s 2018 season. While Sale has the opportunity to drive the Red Sox to the World Series pretty much by himself (by pitching a dominant game four, and handling ALCS games one, four, and seven), a fairly short game one start did not exactly demonstrate this is likely to happen (editor’s note: Sale was slated to pitch in game five, if necessary). Considering the unconventional handling of Sale’s workload through the last two months of the season, it’s hard to project what Boston will get out of Sale from an innings perspective. Even a dominant five or six innings is simply not going to be enough, by itself, to propel the Red Sox past the Yankees.
Prior to his LDS start, Sale pitched a minuscule 17 innings since July, reportedly plagued with minor shoulder inflammation. Whether or not the injury was exaggerated to give Boston’s ace extra rest is besides the point, the fact is Sale has not completed seven innings in a single game since July 11th. It is unreasonable to expect that Sale jumps right into the playoffs hurling eight or nine inning dominant innings per start, and even if that looked possible, or even likely, three months ago, it’s highly unlikely to happen.
This leaves the Red Sox with one excellent starter, who can’t log many innings, and a pile of question marks, including David Price, who literally hasn’t pitched a dominant postseason game in his ten-year career. Adding to the difficulty is exactly what we saw in game one: a bullpen struggling to protect a five-run lead late in the game. Not exactly the most confidence-inspiring performance out of the Boston pen.
Looking at the roster, and the context of the starters and relievers, the key to the Red Sox 2018 playoff success is likely to be Rick Porcello. Porcello was passed over to start game three in favor of Nathan Eovaldi, which might be the best use of the former Cy Young winner. Porcello can make-or-break the Red Sox postseason run because he has the ability to shore-up high-leverage innings, and serve as a tandem starter to multiple pitchers in a short series.
Porcello is no stranger to coming out of the bullpen, which he did in the playoffs for the Tigers in 2012 and 2013, and as recently with the Red Sox in last year’s ALDS against Cleveland. With the additional days off, Porcello can be an impact player in every close game. He does not have terrible platoon splits (over his career, he has allowed a .306 wOBA versus right-handed batters, and a .338 wOBA versus lefties), meaning that late-inning pinch hitters won’t require Alex Cora to go to the bullpen, and he has the advantage considering the Yankees righty-heavy lineup.
Since he did not pitch in game two, Porcello should be available to come out of the pen in game three, early in the contest if necessary, giving Boston the chance to mitigate an early-game deficit. Thinking positively, even if Boston can get even four innings out of Eovaldi, they can use Porcello to bridge the game to the eighth, where they can mix-and-match their way to Craig Kimbrel, who can go more than one full inning, if required (frankly, if Kimbrel starts to melt down, all bets are off, and it’s simply not Boston’s year).
Boston is currently carrying 11 pitchers on their roster, five of whom spent most of their year in the regular-season rotation. Giving Porcello the opportunity to take innings away from volatile relievers like Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, and Brandon Workman will be their key to postseason success.