The Red Sox weathered a lot of storms to get here. Clay Buchholz pitched like a rookie (and not the kind that tosses no-hitters and dominates the league). Early on, the only thing David Ortiz hit hard was the DL, with a wrist injury, which sapped his power even when he finally returned to play.
Schilling hung up the cleats, and Manny Ramirez hung the team out to dry. And a variety of injuries sidelined Drew, Lowell, Lugo, Beckett, Wakefield, Colon and Matsuzaka at various points this year. But more than any one factor out of the smorgasbord of issues that could have derailed Boston's playoff hopes, the bullpen seemed to be the biggest threat to Boston's chance to defend its 2007 championship during the first few months of the season.
Consider this: After the first month of baseball Boston relievers had a combined ERA of over five. By June they had lowered that number to 4.33, still an alarming rate of hemorrhaging runs for guys who are supposed to be holding leads. That isn't even counting the inherited runners left on by Boston's starters who came around to score on the bullpen's watch (I wrote about this phenomenon in more detail when discussing Okajima’s early season woes).
Mike Timlin, once a bullpen stalwart, compiled a 6.31 ERA by the All Star break, and Craig Hansen, once anointed as "closer of the future", rung up an ERA of 5.58. Even Manny Delcarmen, who had a breakout 2007 season with a 2.05 ERA, struggled to a first half 4.54 mark.
Fans were clamoring for a deadline deal to bring in a reliable reliever, and there was much gnashing of teeth in Beantown when the Jason Bay deal failed to nab Jason Grabow. Instead, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein stayed the course and counted on his bullpen arms to round into form in time for October. Guess who looks like a genius again?
With a 3.49 ERA over the past month, Boston has sported the third best bullpen in the American League, and the best among all AL playoff contenders over that span. During that same time Tampa Bay, Boston's current division rival, had a 3.82 bullpen ERA, and Anaheim, Boston's likely first round playoff match up, had a 4.17 relief ERA.
Boston has relied of five high-leverage arms to protect leads or keep the team in ballgames over the past couple of months. Let's take a closer look at each of them.
Masterson has quietly compiled a 2.23 ERA and 1.14 WHIP as reliever this year, after giving the Red Sox several quality starts while filling in for injures around the middle of the season.
At first Masterson was used somewhat inefficiently in the bullpen as a mop-up man, pitching when Boston was either winning easily or down by many runs. But gradually manager Terry Francona eased the towering righty into more meaningful situations. Lately he has not even been afraid to bring the sinkerballer in with men on base, making use of Masterson’s ability to draw batters into double plays. Masterson has been especially good in September, compiling a 1.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP, and helping to fuel Boston's playoff push.
The one criticism you could levy against Masterson is that he sometimes gets too fine, walking batters in an attempt to make the perfect pitch, rather than coming right after them. This is especially maddening when a double play is in order. Hopefully, this tendency will disappear as Masterson matures as a pitcher, and learns to trust his ability.
In the meantime, nobody will argue with the results he has put up as a rookie. The only questions remaining are whether he can keep it up under postseason pressure, and whether his long-term place will be in the bullpen or the rotation.
Lopez is one of the more dramatic examples of a situational lefty that you could find. In 2008, as in most years, righties have pounded him at a .305/.357/.458 rate, while southpaws are absolutely tamed by him to the tune of .187/.307/.290. Actually that lefty split would look even more dominating if not for Lopez's one flaw: control.
For some reason Lopez gives up a high number of free passes when facing his own kind. Perhaps it is because he relies on swings and misses or poorly hit grounders off of his breaking pitches, which he throws out of the strike zone (usually low and away from left-handed hitters). When those hitters guess correctly and hold off on that pitch, he walks them.
Who knows what would happen if he decided to throw strikes in those three ball counts. Maybe he would get crushed. But it must be frustrating for Francona to bring Lopez in against one lefty (like he did against Grady Sizemore a few days ago), only to see that batter trot to first base in the end.
Interestingly, despite the massive righty/lefty split, Francona has pitted Lopez against just about as many righty batters as southpaws this year. Nevertheless, the fact that righties have hit only just as many RBIs against him as lefties have this year (despite the splits) suggests that Francona has been careful not to leave Lopez in against righties when men are in scoring position. In fact, it's probably safe to say that many of those at bats against righties came in low-leverage situations, when the game wasn't close and Francona wanted to squeeze a complete inning out of Lopez. You can bet (or at least pray) that Francona won't be keeping Lopez in against righties in critical postseason at bats.
Lopez, like the rest of the bullpen, has also had September success, not allowing a run this month. But his WHIP of 1.50, and his 6/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, illustrate that his problem with walking batters hasn't improved lately.
If you expected Delcarmen to repeat his astounding 2007 performance in 2008, then you're likely disappointed.
With an ERA of 3.36 and a WHIP of 1.12, Delcarmen has performed within the range of an excellent reliever; but, those numbers do not scream "future ace closer." An ERA of 4.54 over the first half of the season caused many to forget just how exceptional he was last year.
September, however, has been a different story for Delcarmen, who returned to dominant form with an ERA of 0.68 and a WHIP of 0.67 this month, while holding opposing batters to a .161 batting average.
Of course, sample size is key here- clearly Delcarmen could not keep up those miniscule numbers over the course of an entire season. But with an 8.96 strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio (that's just about a batter per inning), the Boston native has the tools to retain some of his September gains and party like it's 2007 during the postseason.
Luckily for Red Sox fans, the young Delcarmen should remain in Boston for years to come.
Okajima may never again have another 2007, when his unusual delivery and unorthodox repertoire took American batters by surprise, leading to a 2.22 ERA, .097 WHIP, and an All Star selection.
As his current 2.66 ERA and 1.18 WHIP would suggest, however, he continues to be a very reliable pitcher. He still strikes out about a batter per inning (he has an 8.56 K/9IP rate in 2008, a touch higher than in 2007), and the struggles he had with allowing inherited runners to score appear to have been merely an early season blip. His September numbers have been even more outstanding (1.50 ERA, 0.80 WHIP), and Terry Francona seems to trust him as an ace set-up man again.
Okajima is especially useful when multiple lefties are set to bat in the seventh or eight inning (he has dominated lefties at a .188/.241/.317 clip this season), but he is also very effective against righties (.242/.326/.355), and thus can be used in any late and close situation.
Pairing Okajima with Delcarmen, Boston has a steady bridge between its starters and Jonathan Papelbon, a definite postseason advantage. Although, after Daisuke Matsuzaka's phenomenal season, Okajima may no longer be thought of as the best Japanese pitcher on the Red Sox, he remains an excellent under-the-radar acquisition by Theo Epstein.
It’s fitting to end this piece with a player who has brought a close to many a Red Sox win in his short time in the big leagues. Can Papelbon ever outdo himself after the way he started his career?
With an ERA of 1.98 and a WHIP of 0.89 this year, he sure is trying.
In fact, all of his stats are gaudy, to say the least. A 10.01 strikeout-per-game ratio? Absurd. A 10-1 strikeout-per-walk ratio? Even more ridiculous. Only the fact that we’ve come to expect such dominance from him keeps us from truly appreciating how incredible he’s been.
Papelbon was never the problem in the pen, but he did start off the first half of the year with a relatively pedestrian (for him) 2.43 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. Since then he has been on an unreal pace: 1.35 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and not a single walk. Think about that again. Not one walk over the past 2+ months.
He refuses to back down, and opposing batters still strike out, despite knowing that he’s going to throw bullets across the plate. He just overpowers them.
There's never a sure thing, especially in October. But when the game's on the line there are only a few relievers who make their fans feel truly safe, and Papelbon is one of them.
Even after the felicitous events of 2004 and 2007, Red Sox fans who can recall 1975, 1986, or even 2003, are always waiting for something to go wrong, especially when things seem to be going right.
In 2008, however, things started going right for the bullpen just when it seemed like relief pitching might be the primary thing that would hold Boston back in October.
Maybe this will finally convince some Red Sox fans that they can drop "cursed" from their baseball vocabulary. But I have a feeling that some of those same fans are thinking, "Uh oh, now what?"
No matter. Theo Epstein is on another crusade to prove them happily wrong, and believe me, he's armed to the teeth.