It’s tough to say Dave Dombrowski is anything but good at his job. He won a World Series while running the Marlins in 1997 and built a farm system that brought another championship in 2003. He turned one of the worst teams in history in Detroit’s 2003 squad into a pennant winner three years later. He built one of the greatest rotations in history, again in Detroit. The Red Sox just set a single-season franchise wins record, quite the feat considering how long they’ve been around. But these Red Sox, like the Tigers immediately prior, did have one glaring issue - the bullpen is rife with question marks. You have to wonder how that bullpen could disrupt the end to a brilliant season in Boston.
It’s a little dire sounding to just say that, especially with October so close. But on a dominating team, it’s the glaring flaw. We’ve seen how the game is played in the playoffs, so we have to wonder if that’s going to rear its head. More than that, I can’t help but wonder if Dombrowski, great eye for talent and all, may be a bit out of step with the times.
This bullpen issue of his wasn’t a problem in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. Back then it was more the realm of garbage ballers and failed starters. That second hasn’t really changed much, but the velocity situation, that’s gone meteoric. And they do have the back end guy that the Tigers were missing when they got swept by the Giants. Watching Jose Valverde cave in that 2012 postseason— Papa Grande allowed nine earned runs in 3.1 innings that October— was just depressing. That probably won’t happen with Craig Kimbrel. He’s much, much (much) better than anyone the Tigers had in the bullpen. But what about everyone else?
First, what are the stats we care about with relievers? (Obviously saves, but beyond that, I mean) ERA is too funky with the sample size, and counting stats are all too silly. I usually pay attention to strikeout rate, walk rate and ground ball rate, then get into other batted ball stuff— hard hit rate, things of that nature. Aside from Kimbrel, the Sox are a bit thin in pitchers who do well in these stats. Here’s their five most used, non-Kimbrel relievers:
Red Sox reliever stats
Ryan Brasier was included because he’s been a bit of a breakout sensation for the Sox ‘pen and likely figures to play a role in October. It doesn’t include Nathan Eovaldi, recently brought over in a trade and packing triple digit velo, but you have to think he’s going to be some kind of starter, or at least a long man of some kind. Not exactly the type of pitcher you rely on to throw a single shutout inning in October two or three nights in a row. Anyway, only eight of his career 154 appearances have been in relief. So he’s a bit of a question mark rather than an X factor.
It’s a little amazing that history lurks in the shadows for Dombrowski, threatening to repeat itself. Likely not in a closer implosion as he saw the last time he built a team like this, but getting there is unsettling. Which isn’t exactly Dombrowski’s fault, not completely. Finding good, consistent relievers who dominate for years is generally impossible. The Cleveland Indians had a couple in recent seasons, but even Cody Allen and Andrew Miller are looking shaky. Chris Devenski was a revelation for the Astros the last season or two as a multi-inning fireman type, but his strikeout rate has slipped and - though still very good - isn’t the same batter bedeviler he was. It’s just the way it is with relievers— they failed as starters because they weren’t consistent. It makes some sense that would show up again when they’re going max effort each inning and only exposed in small sample sizes. Eventually things degrade, or you get exposed, or you just hit a spate of bad luck.
The Good News
The saving grace for the Sox and their ‘pen is, as with any relief pitcher, velocity. Kimbrel, Barnes, Brasier, and Kelly all average at least 96 mph on their fastball. In no particular order they’re the 4th, 20th, 21st and 27th hardest throwing relievers in all of baseball. Velocity isn’t everything— and even Jordan Hicks and his 100.1 mph average has allowed two home runs— but it certainly helps. Speed kills. And in October the devil of small sample size can sometimes be a kind of twisted angel. Maybe they’ll get creative too— use David Price out of the bullpen like the Rays did a decade ago, or use an Opener in the form of Eovaldi and get him out before a second time through the order penalty can rear its ugly head. His FIP does bounce from 2.90 the first time through to 3.59 the second time batters see him, so maybe it could work.
Is Dombrowski cursed to have bad relief pitching when it matters? Hopefully not, that would be a crushing thing for a great Sox team to have to endure. Nothing is more gutting than bad relievers. And seeing as Alex Cora was sentient when Kimbrel stood in the Braves bullpen as their season ended, he knows that can’t happen again. The Sox don’t have the fullest of magazines when it comes to bullpen bullets, but they’ll shoot the shots they have. I guess their bats just have to do some blasting too, and make it a bit more comfortable for their comparatively shaky ‘pen. At least Dombrowski makes it interesting. Which is something.
Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball thoughts at Beyond the Box Score and Indians rants at Let’s Go Tribe. Give him a read at both places, one of them being here. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.