I haven’t been this angry with a game in nearly two-and-a-half years. I’m serious. Not even during last September’s epic 7-20 slide that pushed the Red Sox out of the playoffs was I ever this angry. Confused, yes, but never angry. For whatever reason, Saturday evening’s collapse had a different feel. No, it wasn’t because it was against the Yankees; though that does add to the sting. I don’t know. Something feels different this time.
Since the game ended, a few questions have been consuming my baseball related thoughts:
- How can a team allow 15 unanswered runs after being ahead 9-0 after five innings?
- How does a team with a $175M payroll construct a bullpen that is this bad?
- Was Saturday’s collapse Bobby Valentine’s fault?
- Can the bullpen continue to be as bad as they’ve been through the first 14 games?
- Who can the Red Sox bring in to help turn things around?
Here’s what I came up with.
How can a team allow 15 unanswered runs after being ahead 9-0 after five innings?
Beats me! No, seriously. How does a phenomenon such as this happen? Nearly every pitcher Bobby Valentine called upon had his worst stuff. It defies logic and probability. The Red Sox trotted six relievers to the mound over the final three innings of Saturday’s masscre, and only one of those pitchers left the game without allowing a run. Taking Junichi Tazawa‘s 1-1/3 innings of scoreless relief out of the equation, the remaining five pitchers allowed 14 runs on 12 hits and 5 walks over 1-2/3 innings. For those of you who aren’t quick with math, their combined ERA and WHIP were 75.45 and 11.38 respectively.
Among the worst offenders was our best reliever, and closer, Alfredo Aceves. He entered the game with a runner on first with no outs, and the Red Sox ahead 9-8. Rather than put out the fire, he faced six hitters, retired none, and allowed four on a free pieces (albeit two intentionally). He started the day with an ERA of 9.00, and left the game with a cool 24.00. This was the third appearance out of six where he’s failed to produce an out. I’m not saying he can’t handle the pressure of the closer role because I don’t think that’s the case. My concern is that he’s not as good of a pitcher as the one he appeared to be last season.
How does a team with a $175M payroll construct a bullpen that is this bad?
It wasn’t intentional. The Red Sox were never going to pony up the kind of money the Philadelphia Phillies threw at Jonathan Papelbon. As good as Paps has been over the years, he probably won’t produce enough on-field value over the life of his contract to justify his salary. With the Red Sox having some payroll flexibility issues due to the number of big contacts it has on the ledger, he was a luxury the Red Sox couldn’t afford.
Daniel Bard seemed like an obvious choice to assume the vacant closer role, but a pair of vacancies in the rotation forced the Red Sox to rethink their plans for the young fireballer. Although most people didn’t agree with leadership’s line of thinking, it actually made a lot of sense. Starting pitchers produce considerably more value than relievers, including closers. As such, its better to have you best pitchers throwing more innings, and having a greater impact over the outcome of a game. Furthermore, what good is having a dominant reliever closing games and protecting leads, if the starting pitching doesn’t put the team in a position to have a lead.
Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, both very capable relievers, were acquired to replace Papelbon and Bard in the bullpen. While it was unlikely the former would match the latter’s on-field performance, there was no reason to think that the new combination couldn’t be very effective. Of course, that all went out the window when Bailey hurt his thumb, and Melancon struggled out of the gate. Now, the Red Sox are stuck with seven mediocre relievers; five of whom may not even be worthy of Major League roster spots.
Was Saturday’s collapse Bobby Valentine’s fault?
My initial, alcohol influenced reaction was, yes. Now that I’m sober and thinking about it rationally, I don’t believe the collapse was Valentine’s fault. Unlike his performance during Bard’s last start, he actually called for the correct reliever in each situation. Let’s recap:
- Up 9-1, he called in one of his lowest leverage relievers in Padilla. As which frequently happens with crappy pitchers, Padilla pitched poorly. He loaded the bases, allowed a grand slam, and left the game with a runner on second. Valentine was right to call in Padilla in this situation. Even as mediocre as Padilla is, it’s nearly impossible for him to give up a nine run lead on his own in relief.
- Up 9-5 with a runner on second and one out , Valentine calls for Matt Albers, another low leverage reliever, to get the Red Sox out of the seventh inning. Mike Aviles promptly botches a play on a ground ball by Alex Rodriguez, which ultimately lead to the opposite field home run by Mark Teixeira. Aceves leaves without recording an out, and the score is 9-8. Again, Valentine made the right move by using a lower leverage pitcher in this situation.
- Up 9-8, Valentine recognizes the potential gravity of the game’s situation, and he calls in Franklin Morales. With Bailey and Melancon out of commission, Morales has become Valentine’s second most trusted reliever. He gives a hit, but finishes off the inning without allowing a run. All looks good. In the eighth, he goes back out to the mound, and promptly allows a single. Valentine removes him from the game.
- Still up 9-8 with a runner on first and no one out, Valentine calls for his best reliever to pitch in the game’s most crucial situation. Aceves comes out to pitch, and blows up on the mound. While we can openly question Valentine’s decision to walk both Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson intentionally (as their IBBs actually improved the Yankees chances of scoring runs), calling for his best guy prior to the eighth was the right move. Furthermore, both IBBs came after the Red Sox had ceded the lead, so one could argue the resulting damage was irrelevant, at least in hindsight.
- Justin Thomas and Junichi Tazawa followed. Both pitchers were called in for the right situation–mop-up duty. Neither pitcher has proven himself to be worthy of higher leverage situations at this point, so Valentine made the right calls.
Sometimes a manager makes the wrong moves, and everything turns out alright. In this case, Valentine managed his bullpen very well, and it turned out to be a disaster. This was more about the talent of the personnel than anything else.
Can the bullpen continue to be as bad as they’ve been through the first 14 games?
Luckily, no. Currently, the Red Sox bullpen has an 8.64 ERA and a 6.05 FIP, neither of which will continue to remain that high. The Red Sox relief corps has a 20.8% HR/FB ratio and a .358 BABIP. Regression is clearly in their future. How much? I’m not sure. Regression or not, this bullpen is going to be among the league’s worst all season unless a move or two is made to remedy the situation.
Who can the Red Sox bring in to help turn things around?
In April and May, the trade market well is pretty dry, so we’re probably talking about internal candidates in the short-term. That is, of course, unless Roy Oswalt decides to return to action. (Yeah, I’m not holding my breath.)
After yesterday’s rainout, Bobby Valentine announced that Bard’s next start will be skipped, and he’ll be temporarily placed in the bullpen. While it’s not unusual for the fifth starter to have his start skipped, the timing of the move is rather curious. My initial thought is that they’re moving him back to the bullpen with the hope Aaron Cook asserts himself in AAA to the point where the Red Sox feel comfortable adding him to the 40-man roster. According to the contract Cook signed in the offseason, he has to be on the Major League roster by May 1st, or else he has the option of invoking the “opt out” clause in his contract. With that date being only eight days away, the Red Sox have a big decision to make. Adding Cook to the 40-man roster means means that the Red Sox will have to designate another player for assignment. Who will they DFA? The recently recalled Lars Anderson? Justin Thomas? Furthermore, if Cook is added and replaces Bard in the rotation, what role will Bard play in the bullpen?
- Mark Melancon – While the sample is incredibly small, he’s looked pretty good in his two appearances. He’s probably the best of the six pitchers I mentioned as possible solutions, but the Sox will probably leave him in Pawtucket for a few more weeks to build up his confidence.
- Rich Hill - He just started his rehab the other day, and he’s only made one appearance. As such, he’s not really a short-term solution. He’ll likely be called up once he’s eligible to return from the 60-day disabled list.
- Andrew Miller – Miller has been pretty brutal this season for Pawtucket. Let’s put his ugly 8.31 ERA aside for a second. While that’s bad, his 9/9 K/BB ratio in 4-1/3 innings is much more gruesome. Until he improves his command (probably never), management shouldn’t even consider recalling him.
- Ross Ohlendorf – Like Cook, Ohlendorf will need to be added to the 40-man roster, which will require a corresponding move to balance it out. While he’s pitched well, I don’t think he’s pitched well enough to warrant being added to the 40-man roster at this time.
- Clayton Mortensen – So far Mortensen has looked pretty solid for Pawtucket. While he’s certainly someone to watch going forward, I don’t see him being someone that can help the Red Sox out in high leverage situations.
- Alex Wilson – So far Wilson is being used as a starting pitcher in AAA. Considering the Red Sox’s late season issues with starting pitching depth, this makes sense. Still, I don’t see Wilson’s future in Boston as a starter. I think he’d transition nicely to the bullpen as it would allow to use his two best pitches (a four-seam fastball and a slider) more frequently. If push comes to shove, he could be a solid solution.
The Red Sox season is far from over. We’re only 14 games into a 162 marathon. This club has more than enough talent to reach the playoffs, and reinforcements (Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury) are hopefully on their way. If the Red Sox bullpen can sort through their issues during their light schedule over their next few weeks, they could be in a decent position to make a decent run. If not, the Red Sox may be in “sell” mode by Memorial Day. Until then, though, let’s stop panicking and take it game by game.