The Red Sox need starting pitching. The Red Sox need left-handed bats. And yet, as the World Series moves to San Francisco, maybe we are all overlooking what the Red Sox need most of all.
At the risk of infuriating the stat geeks in this age of sabermetric soup, here’s a statistic that should mean something to you as the World Series enters its middle stage: this postseason, the Kansas City Royals bullpen is a perfect 7-0. Won-lost records are supposed to mean nothing when it comes to evaluating pitching – or so we’re told – though there is an obvious difference between starters and relievers. And when it comes to bullpens, there is a simple way to determine whether they are effective.
Do they win or do they lose?
Sounds too simple, right? San Francisco and Kansas City were a respective 12th and 14th in the major leagues in runs scored this season, rankings that suggest their offenses were mediocre at best. But the teams rated first (32-14, .696 for San Francisco) and third (28-18, .609, for Kansas City) in bullpen winning percentage – they were a combined 60-32 in games effectively decided in the late innings – and are now a combined 12-1 in the postseason. For comparison’s sake, the Washington Nationals bullpen posted a 1.86 ERA this October that is nearly identical to that of the unbeaten Royals (1.81) – but they went 0-2 and are now watching baseball like most everyone else.
In the bullpen, after all, one run allowed can often be too much.
What this means to the Red Sox is open to debate, particularly given the disturbingly accepted notion that the performance of relief pitchers can be difficult to predict. The Baltimore Orioles, for instance, have changed personnel in their bullpen over the last few years, but manager Buck Showalter almost always seems to have one of more the effective relief corps in the game. Ditto for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. Terry Francona went from Boston to Cleveland and still gets the most out of his bullpen, a fact that suggests personnel is only part of the issue.
Still, before anyone thinks this is about John Farrell, it isn’t. At least not exclusively. Red Sox relievers went 4-2 with seven saves and a 1.28 ERA during the World Series run last year, but their personnel is currently in a state of flux. Closer Koji Uehara is a free agent. Left-hander Andrew Miller was traded. Right-hander Edward Mujica might have finished strong, but he hardly pitched well enough for the Sox to expect a significant contribution from him in 2015.
Right now, the Red Sox seem to have one reliever who almost certainly will factor into their late-inning mix: Junichi Tazawa. Everyone else feels like something of a crapshoot, including Burke Badenhop, who was not often used in high-leverage situations. The bottom line is that the Red Sox have significant work to do in their bullpen, too, which should not be overlooked amid the discussion about James Shields, Pablo Sandoval, Jason Heyward and most anyone else who could be a fit for the rotation or lineup.
The good news? The Sox have a cast of young pitchers who cannot all end up in the rotation. Maybe Heath Hembree or Edwin Escobar will turn into something. Maybe Brandon Workman ends up in the pen. Depending on what is available on the open market, the Sox should even consider Rubby De La Rosa or Joe Kelly as candidates for the bullpen.
Prior to this offseason, the last time the Red Sox truly lacked a front-end starter to lead their rotation may have been in 1997, the year after Roger Clemens departed and the year before Pedro Martinez arrived. During the winter following that season, the Red Sox acquired Martinez in a trade with the Montreal Expos. What many forget at the time was that the Sox were also engaged in serious discussions about then-Marlins reliever Robb Nen, who ultimately was dealt to the Giants.
The Red Sox had two options to rebuild their pitching staff, general manager Dan Duquette said at the time. One was to rebuild their staff from the top of the rotation. One was to rebuild it from the back end of the bullpen.
The fact that Duquette ultimately settled on Martinez may have been revealing – a closer is not nearly as valuable without representative starting pitching, after all – though baseball at the time was about to spike in the steroid era. The current game is much, much different. Late in the season, current Sox general manager Ben Cherington suggested that a true staff ace may not be necessary to win a championship, and the Royals (9-1 this postseason) might indeed be proof.
One way or another, Cherington’s plans this offseason will soon be known.
In anywhere from three days to a week, after all, a very important Red Sox offseason will be upon us.