This guest post was written by Matt Collins of Red Stockings Thoughts, a blog about the Red Sox.
When most people look back on this past Red Sox season, they’ll most likely discuss the starting pitching’s faltering down the stretch, John Lackey’s horrid season, or the disappointment that was Carl Crawford. However, to me, when you look at how the team was playing at any given moment during the year, you needn’t look any further than the guys in the bullpen.
Like the entire team, the relief staff came into the year with big expectations, due to a mix of returning talent and new, exciting arms brought in via free agency. The returning talent was Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard. These two had formed one of the elite one-two combos in the back of the bullpen for the past couple of years, and the front office had managed to add Bobby Jenks, two time All Star closer for the White Sox, and Dan Wheeler, who was annually one of the premiere set up guys in the bigs. The combination of these four arms in the bullpen had all of Red Sox Nation dreaming of games being shortened to just six inning games, with this brutal foursome being able to take care of the rest in just about every situation. However, due to injury and just plain poor performance, this feared foursome would only be a figment of our imaginations as the season got underway.
The bullpen was disappointing to start off the year, just like the team, who was picked to be amongst the best in baseball, then stumbled their way to a 2-10 start. In the first game of the year against the Texas Rangers, with the game tied at 5 heading into the eighth, the Sox called upon Daniel Bard, perhaps the guy who held most of the fans’ confidence coming into the year. And in fashion true to the team early on, he proceeded to give up a walk, a single and three doubles en route to a four run implosion that would wreak havoc on his ERA for weeks to come. As for the new additions, Bobby Jenks started off the year pitching well, not allowing a hit or a run in his first four appearances. However, it was all downhill from there, as he allowed four runs in his next game and never looked the same again. The month of April steadied for the team towards the end as they began to find their groove, and the same went for the bullpen. Despite his rocky start, Bard, along with Papelbon, finished the month with a FIP under one. Matt Albers and Alfredo Aceves, two guys who were mere afterthoughts following Spring Training, also provided solid relief early on, which would prove to be foreshadowing for the months to come.
As May rolled in, the team was starting to look like the force-to-be-reckoned with that everyone predicted. Although the bullpen still was not shaping exactly as the fans had envisioned it coming into the year, it was still performing at a pretty high level. The big reason for this was that unlikely heroes were coming out of the woodwork. One of whom was Rich Hill. The deceiving lefty appeared in nine games early on for the Red Sox, striking out 12 guys while walking just three and not allowing a single run. However, after getting hurt on June 1st, he would have to undergo Tommy John surgery, and wouldn’t pitch again this year.
The bullpen still managed to roll on without him for a time, and was red hot by the time the team had hit its stride in June and July. The only disappointment at this time was Bobby Jenks, who would be on and off the DL, and when he was active he pitched horribly. Finally, he was shut down in July never to be seen again. Dan Wheeler also spent time on the DL in May, but once he came back he pitched decently. He finished the year with a 4.38 ERA and a 3.78 FIP. His season was nothing outstanding, but at least it wasn’t the abomination that Jenks’ was.
As the team rolled on, the two unsung heroes from early in the year were carrying middle relief. After Matt Albers allowed six runs in a game against the Cubs on May 21st, he hit a stride that he would stay in for a long while. In the time following that game until the end of July, Albers allowed just two runs and 17 hits in 25.2 innings, while sporting a 25/10 K/BB. Alfredo Aceves was doing just as well. Although starting didn’t work out so well for the former Yankee, he found his niche in long/middle-relief. During the hot months of the year for the team (June and July), Aceves pitched 35 innings out of the ‘pen, allowing just nine earned runs and holding a 21/8 K/BB, and yielding just a .199 opponents’ batting average. As injuries began to catch up with the team’s starting staff, Aceves saw his value grow. He became to go-to guy as fill-ins such as Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield and Kyle Weiland couldn’t advance far into games. On such occasions, Aceves was called upon to keep the team in the game long enough for the offense to pull themselves back in. He had seven games in which he came out of the bullpen for at least three innings and didn’t allow a run, and four more in which he allowed just one.
Of course, the story gets sadder in the final month of the year. By this point, Matt Albers had completely lost it. He had a horrible August, with an ERA above 12 and a 6.37 FIP, and his confidence was completely gone by September. The guy was one of the best relievers on the team all year, but, like the team, faltered down the stretch with a 7.33 FIP in the season’s final month. Most of the other guys didn’t pick up his slack, though. Franklin Morales was basically the only left-handed option in the bullpen, and his control issues couldn’t be worked out as he posted a 6.36 FIP and 4.00 ERA in nine appearances in the month.
The only guys who are looking okay after this season are Aceves, Papelbon and Bard. Papelbon had the best FIP (1.53), xFIP(2.16) and HR/FB (4.8%) of his career, as well as a K/9 that was 1.5 higher than his career mark. He also had a career high 3.0 WAR. Bard was the team’s workhorse leading the team with both 70 appearances and 73 IP. While his ERA jumped from 1.93 in 2010 to 3.33 this year, his FIP actually dropped from 3.37 to 2.96. He also had the highest ground ball % of his career.
However, other than those guys, much blame can be thrown at the bullpen. Their runs of successes and failures closely mirror those of the team. They even have a poster boy who, surprisingly to me, hasn’t received a ton of blame from the fans. It’s probably because he wasn’t around for the collapse, but Bobby Jenks deserves more criticism. He was brought in to solidify this relief staff, but instead came in out of shape and couldn’t stay on the field. And when he did make his way to the mound, he was horrible, finishing with a 6.32 ERA, 4.17 FIP and 4.79 xFIP in just 19 games. Having a good Bobby Jenks in this bullpen in September could have made all the difference.