While every Red Sox fan, writer, and media member has spent the first week of Spring Training focusing on the Pablo Sandoval’s weight loss, Chris Sale’s pitching mechanics, or Blake Swihart’s inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher, we have completely neglected one aspect of this team that may just put them over the top come September. This aspect is the bullpen.
Every member of the Sox bullpen had a rough patch or two last year, but it all seemed to come together in September. This resulted in an 11 game win-streak, and more importantly, it showed us what each of these pitchers are capable of. If the Red Sox relief pitchers can all take a page out of the Patriots playbook this year and “Do Their Job”, this might end up being one of the best Red Sox bullpens we’ve seen in a long time.
It all starts with Craig Kimbrel. He needs to be the tone setter for the rest for this bullpen. He can’t go out there walking the bases loaded, or giving up 500 foot bombs to Chris Davis. Kimbrel needs to return to being the lights out guy that he was for Atlanta and even during stretches of last season. The problem is that his success relies on mechanics. Kimbrel has such an unnatural delivery that if any one thing goes wrong, the ball will inevitably end up in the other batters box. The key to the bullpens success this year will be Kimbrel being able to put the ball over the plate on a consistent enough basis to be trusted in the 9th inning with a one-run lead. If he can do this in addition to learning how to pitch in non-save situations, the Red Sox bullpen is in for a big boost.
I’m not going to waste too much time talking about Tyler Thornburg. As Kimbrel proved last year and Eric Gagne proved a decade ago, relievers are not exempt from the “first year in Boston” woes no matter how good they were before they came here. Luckily for Thornburg, he is not viewed as a superstar reliever. Therefore, he’s not under the same kind of pressure as Kimbrel or Gagne. Hopefully this gives him the ability to relax, and throw the ball well enough to bridge the gap to Kimbrel.
There are two ex-starters in this bullpen who I think could be the ones to solidify its status as one of the best in the American League. Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly. People have a bad taste left in their mouth from Matt Barnes because he had a bad August in which his ERA ballooned from 2.98 to 4.37, and they never gave him a chance after that. Allowing a .310 opponent batting average for an entire month is not easily forgotten, yet the numerous times in which he came into bases loaded jams and got out of them cleanly is the last thing on Red Sox fans minds. There was a point at about the last week of July where I trusted Matt Barnes far more than I trusted Craig Kimbrel, so let’s not let one bad month get in the way of what one could say was a breakout season of the UCONN alum.
Joe Kelly was a little different than Matt Barnes. Kelly was sent to the minors to work on pitching as a reliever, and he dominated. However, during his first stint in the Sox bullpen, he was throwing 101 mph and still getting shelled in nearly every appearance he made. So Kelly went back down to Triple-A, dominated again, and came back up. Luckily for the Sox, the second time around Kelly seemed to figure something out. In 11 appearances in the month of September, Kelly pitched 14 innings, struck out 20 batters, and compiled a 0.64 ERA and a .180 batting average against. That’s pretty damn good. Heck, that’s better than good. That’s DOMINANT. If Kelly can even come close to repeating these numbers when coming out of the bullpen in 2017, Tyler Thornburg might just have to be the 7th inning guy.
Overall, I’d say this bullpen is in pretty good shape. Even with Fernando aBAD still on our roster, I think it’s safe to say that the Red Sox shouldn’t be afraid to go to their bullpen when David Price is at 105 pitches going into the eighth inning. But as Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and John Farrell mismanaging the bullpen”. I can’t wait to see how he screws this one up.
Photo: (Boston Herald)