I have a confession to make. I really love being the smartest guy in the room. In fact, sometimes when I realize that I’m the smartest guy in the room, I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you know it. Sometimes, I can get pretty obnoxious. I know it’s not the most endearing quality, but it’s part of who I am.
The other night on Twitter, I stumbled upon on one of those moments when having a discussion with Steve Berthiaume of ESPN‘s Baseball Tonight. Now, no disrespect to Berthiaume (I mean that sincerely not sarcastically), but he expressed an opinion that was I felt was wrong. As a result, I pounced on it. Yes, I know. How can someone’s opinion be wrong? After all, it’s an opinion! Rather than take my word for it, I’ll let you read our entire conversation.
Berthiaume - Albers gave up key run last night. Aceves tonight. #RedSox bullpen just can’t be counted on to get critical outs before Bard & Papelbon
Me - @SBerthiaumeESPN Both had been pretty solid prior to the last two nights. Two nights don’t make a season.
Berthiaume - @Chip_Buck Aware. They’ve both done pretty well but post-season outs in 6th & 7th are a different deal. We’ll see if they’re up to it.
Berthiaume - @Chip_Buck You feel good with Albers at Yankee Stadium with 1-run lead in 7th in ALCS & trying run on 2nd? Good luck with that.
Me - @SBerthiaumeESPN What empirical proof do you have that he won’t? Would you have bet Eckstein would win a WS MVP considering his skill?
Berthiaume - @Chip_Buck You feel good about Albers in October with 1-run lead in 7th. I get it. He’s been solid so far but post-season is another story.
Berthiaume - @Chip_Buck Logan’s K of Gonzalez won Friday’s game for Yankees. Red Sox don’t have that guy right now.
Me - @SBerthiaumeESPN way to use the tiniest of samples to create your opinions.
Berthiaume - @Chip_Buck Really? Who is the lefty in Boston bullpen that will get the key middle relief outs with guys on base in postseason?
Me - @SBerthiaumeESPN the Red Sox have a few RHP that can get LHH out. You are justifying your opinion based on one strikeout.
While it probably wasn’t necessary for me to share the entire discussion, I did it for a reason…to pose a question. Is Berthiaume right?* Should the Red Sox be worried about the state of their bullpen as they enter the stretch run of the season? In particular, should they worry about being vulnerable to left handed hitters?
* For what it’s worth, I’m dismissing Berthiaume’s “the post-season is different” argument because it’s, quite frankly, irrelevant. Obviously, pitching in the sixth and seventh inning of a post-season game is higher pressure than pitching in a similar situation in May or June. Still, I refuse to assume that a pitcher (or hitter for that matter) will pitch significantly above or below their true talent levels during the playoffs. It’s non-sensical. We’re dealing with incredibly small sample sizes. As the Red Sox proved with their 2-10 start, anything can happen over a small set of games. Furthermore, Edgar Renteria, David Eckstein, Craig Counsell, Adam Kennedy, Benito Santiago, and Jeff Suppan have won post-season MVP awards during the last ten years. I doubt anyone predicted them to win the award prior to it actually happening. If Suppan can win an NLCS MVP, then I feel relatively comfortable assuming Matt Albers will perform similarly in the postseason.
For the purpose of this exercise, I’ve decided to use FIP rather than ERA. I did this for several reasons, but mostly because ERA is an incredibly flawed metric. For relief pitchers in particular, it tends to be misleading, highly variable, and improperly accounts for situations involving inherited runner. FIP, though imperfect, does a much better job measuring a pitcher’s skills and true talent level; thus, it’s less prone to small sample variability. Really, that’s the crux of the matter. We want to know how well our relievers are pitching–not the circumstantial outcome.
Let’s take a look at how the Red Sox top relievers have fared to date.
|Pitcher||FIP (overall)||FIP (vs. RHH)||FIP (vs. LHH)|
As of August 10th, the Red Sox bullpen has produced a 3.44 FIP (for comparison, their ERA is 3.49), which is good for third in the major leagues behind only the Braves and Yankees. Considering the the injuries that have plagued Jenks and Rich Hill this season, I’d say they’re performing pretty well.
The splits tell a bit of a different story. Against RHH, nearly the entire relief corp (save for Aceves and Miller) has been extremely effective. Papelbon, Bard, and Aceves have dominated like handed hitters, and Wheeler’s showing his patented ROOGY skills. Jenks, in the rare moments he’s been healthy enough to pitch, has blown away hitters and exhibited solid command.
When facing left-handed hitters, only Papelbon and Miller have proven to be consistently effective in shutting them down. Considering the hype Bard gets as a shutdown reliever, you’d think he’d be included in that group as well. He’s not. Bard’s 3.96 FIP, though nearly two runs higher than his performance against RHH, is actually in line with his career rate of 4.18. While he’s not exactly struggling, he’s also not quite a beacon of effectiveness. Much of this is due to his fastball-slider repertoire, which typically favors success against like-handed hitters to opposite-handed hitters.* For example, against RHH, Bard’s fastball and slider induces whiffs 12% and 20% of the time respectively; against LHH, he induces whiffs only 6% and 3% of the time. Not surprisingly, Bard’s strikeout rate rate against lefties is markedly lower, and his home run rate is significantly higher.
* In the event Bard ascends to the closer role next season, it would serve him well to fully develop his change-up as a method for neutralizing left-handed hitters. Interestingly enough, Bard has only thrown his change-up to LHH this season.
Albers is another reliever with extreme lefty/righty splits. Unlike Bard, his problem isn’t getting lefties to swing and miss. Instead, his lefty struggles have come as a result of poor command, which has resulted in elevated walk and home run rates. Unfortunately, this trend isn’t likely to reverse itself. Albers has a career FIP of 5.16 against LHH, which is more than a run higher than his mark against righties.
The same is true for Dan Wheeler, whose extreme righty/lefty splits have been discussed en masse by Fire Brand‘s very own Troy Patterson. As for Jenks, in addition to frequent injuries, he’s displayed brutal command against lefties in limited exposure. While he certainly hasn’t performed at his true level against LHH this season, I don’t think its fair to assume he’ll return to form this season upon being activated. So where does it leave us?
Well, first I should probably concede that Berthiaume was partially correct. While I feel very comfortable with Albers, Wheeler, and Aceves, the Red Sox bullpen is vulnerable to left-handed hitting. It’s a fact. Miller and Morales, as the lefties out of the bullpen, have shown an ability to pitch effectively against LHH; but neither pitcher has proven he can consistently command his pitches. Unless one of them steps up and distinguishes himself as someone worthy of high-leverage LOOGY situations, the Red Sox will have to look elsewhere for solutions. Oft-injured LHP prospect Felix Doubront‘s name has been brought up as a potential candidate to take the role. He’ll likely be given the first crack at the role, provided he remains healthy.
The Red Sox could also look to the waiver trade market to make deals for a guy like Mike Gonzalez, Craig Breslow, John Grabow, or Randy Choate. Unfortunately, the waiver trade period is a complicated wilderness that frequently results in both frustration and less-than-sexy acquisitions. Having the best record in the American League, every team has higher waiver priority than the Red Sox; thus they can block any claim made by Theo and his crew. (Honestly, it almost behooves the Yankees to remain close behind in second place until after the August 31st deadline. Almost, but not quite.) The front office might have to get creative, and sneak an undervalued claim under everyone’s noses.
While I disagree with Berthiaume’s overall assessment of the bullpen situation, he is right about one thing. The Red Sox are vulnerable to lefties, and that will need to be addressed prior to the playoffs.