The Boston Red Sox had a less-than-remarkable first series of 2022, dropping the first two games of the season to their archrivals in the New York Yankees. They were able to salvage the weekend a bit with a victory on Sunday Night Baseball. On the broadcast, if you ignore the Kay-Rod feed that many would like to forget about, play-by-play broadcaster Karl Ravech brought up a very interesting narrative that has been going around. Ravech talked about how the Yankees have a great bullpen, while the Sox have a horrible one.
That raises the question, does Boston have a bad bullpen? Through the first series, the answer was no. They allowed just one run during the series. DJ LeMahieu hit a short-porch job on Opening Day off of Garrett Whitlock, the obvious bullpen MVP in 2021, who still looked good. Of course, looking to three games as any form of sample size is not the way to go.
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The leading factor for the narrative is the obvious command issues that the bullpen collectively has. Of the eleven Boston relievers with at least 20 innings pitched in 2021, only two had a BB/9 under 3.0. It was Whitlock and Matt Andriese, the latter of which was awful in just about every other place. That problem was somewhat fixed by subtraction, with the wildly inconsistent Adam Ottavino leaving for the Mets, and both Brandon Workman and Yacksiel Rios being dumped aside. Some of this was canceled out by Jake Diekman and his 5.0 BB/9 rate.
The Red Sox also optioned Darwinzon Hernandez to the minors to start the season. Hernandez had a putrid 7.0 BB/9 in 48 outings last year, overshadowing his amazing stuff. Still, there are command offenders currently on the roster. Hirokazu Sawamura (5.4 BB/9), Hansel Robles (4.7), and Phillips Valdez (4.3) all saw action. The plus side of the bullpen is an incredibly high strikeout rate. Seven of those eleven relievers are still on the team. Just Valdez had a 2021 K/9 under 9.0.
The series versus the Yankees saw two notable absences: Matt Barnes and Josh Taylor. Barnes was on the roster but deemed unavailable by Manager Alex Cora as he deals with a back injury. The closer for most of 2021, Barnes had an electric start to the season. Through July, he had a 2.30 ERA in 43 games while striking out 66. He had a 0814 WHIP while batters had a .487 OPS against him. That changed entirely in the final 17 outings. Batters had a 1.051 OPS against him, as Barnes struck out 18 and walked nine in 11.2 innings with a 9.26 ERA. A fully healthy Barnes is obviously important to the team.
Taylor, a southpaw who started the season on the injured list, was the opposite of Barnes. In April, he had an ERA of 8.68 with an opponent’s OPS of .993. However, his FIP was 3.81. Those tides turned soon after. The rest of the way, Taylor had a 2.11 ERA and a 2.60 FIP with 49 strikeouts in 38.1 innings. Those are elite numbers. Even with the addition of Diekman, Taylor is the team’s top left-handed reliever.
The Red Sox also missed Ryan Brasier for most of 2021. Brasier had a rocky start to 2021 personally, filled with injury and familial loss. He returned to the team in September and delivered a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings, although his peripherals were not as strong. Brasier looked solid in two outings this week, prompting hope for this year.
The Rest of The Pen
Diekman is a known commodity at this point. He gets whiffs, but when batters don’t swing, bad things generally happen for Diekman. He received the team’s first save opportunity on Sunday and delivered, striking out Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Joey Gallo consecutively. Given his repertoire, Diekman could make more sense as the closer going forward over Barnes. Another addition is southpaw Matt Strahm, who missed most of 2021, so the expectations for him are unclear. The team immediately gave him high-leverage activity after a strong Spring Training. He has a ton of horizontal movement on his pitches and generally has kept barrels low. The Sox seem to like him a lot, although Strahm is yet to earn a major role.
The big acquisition at last year’s trade deadline was Hansel Robles, who was terrible with Minnesota. With Boston, he was a revelation. Aside from one blowup against those Twins, Robles was fantastic. In the final month of the season, he had a 0.61 ERA in 12.2 innings with 15 strikeouts and four walks. The risk is there with Robles, but as he showed with his 2.48 ERA in 2019, he has back-end potential.
The interesting piece is Sawamura, who benefitted from some amazing luck last year. He finished with a 3.06 ERA, which looks outstanding compared to his 5.00 FIP. Sawamura walked 32 and allowed nine home runs in 53 innings pitched. However, he also struck out 61. He is equipped with baseball’s second-fastest splitter, and both the splitter and slider had whiff rates over 45% last season. If he turns away from his fastball a bit more, then Sawamura has the potential to succeed in 2022.
The clear ace of the bullpen is Whitlock, a Rule 5 pick from the Yankees who Boston signed to an extension just after Opening Day. There were rumblings in Spring Training of a move back to the rotation, where he was in the minors. Whitlock was filthy in 2021, with a 27.2 K% to just a 5.2 BB%. He had a 1.96 ERA with a 4.1 barrel percentage and a 2.94 xERA. Whitlock also pitches multiple innings often, making him one of the top multi-inning relievers in baseball.
Are They Good?
There is a decent chance that the Red Sox bullpen is horrible in 2022. However, there is too much potential there for them to fall on their face. A healthy Barnes and Taylor will be huge for the Red Sox. If Diekman and Hernandez can have some sense of control, they will be elite. The middle-relievers like Robles, Strahm, and Sawamura have some upside to them. A small re-tooling come summer and this bullpen will easily be able to upset the narrative.
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