The Red Sox have a few relievers whom the fans know. Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, for sure. They have excelled on the big stage, as has Craig Breslow. Edward Mujica was around last year. Brandon Workman has been around a little bit too, though he may be on the outside looking in right now.
After that, it’s a whole lot of fresh blood. Let’s get to know them from a statistical perspective.
Peter Abraham recently took his second crack at projecting the Red Sox roster. He had three mostly new names in his projected bullpen – lefty Tommy Layne, and righties Alexi Ogando and Anthony Varvaro. To that mix we’ll add lefties Dana Eveland and Robbie Ross Jr., and righties Matt Barnes, Mitchell Boggs, and Zeke Spruill. We’ll even add Workman too – he’s a familiar face, but he’s also fighting for a spot, so it makes sense to include him.
What is most noticeable is just how similar all of these pitchers are. This is both good and bad. The bad news is that none of them are standouts, none of them clearly project to be so good as to make themselves automatic candidates for inclusion. Mitchell Boggs is clearly at the bottom of the pile, but aside from him, the group is bunched pretty tightly.
The good side of the equation is that it gives the team a solid base with which to work. Most teams end up using a plethora of relievers to get through the season. Over the last five seasons, the Red Sox have needed an average of 20.2 relievers per season, with an average of 11.8 relievers tossing at least 10 innings. In other words, the team will need more than its initial seven relievers, and with a number of guys at similar talent levels, there shouldn’t be a great deal of drop-off when injuries occur to any of the non-Uehara relievers (if Uehara’s hamstring barks all year, that’s a different story).
Another benefit to having a number of pitchers with similar talent levels is that it leaves more wiggle room for manager John Farrell to pick and choose the guys he feels may be primed for a strong season. Let’s take a look at some of their standout features.
Eveland: Journeyman who has been much better in relief, including last season, when he posted a 2.63 ERA and 3.21 FIP in 27.1 innings with the Mets. Eveland relied heavily on his slider – throwing it 54.1 percent of the time. That’s generally not a good idea for a pitcher’s arm health, but it worked for Eveland – he had the 11th-most valuable slider among relievers last season, despite pitching far fewer innings than most relievers.
Ross: Lefty who isn’t afraid to bust righties inside and generates a lot of ground balls. In his three seasons in the majors, he has generated ground balls on 53.8 percent of the balls he has allowed in play, which is the 21st-highest rate among all pitchers during that time (minimum 200 innings pitched).
Barnes: He doesn’t have enough of a statistical profile as a major leaguer or a reliever to say anything definitive, but one thing to keep an eye on is his changeup, which graded out well in his five innings of big-league ball last season. Barnes also was tabbed as a consensus top 200 prospect heading into this season, as well as a top 10 Red Sox prospect by FanGraphs, ESPN, and Baseball America. That’s not common for a guy who is considered by many to be a reliever.
Varvaro: Slightly above average in most respects, Varvaro pumps strikes and is able to get batters to make weak contact. Last season, Varvaro got batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone 32.3 percent of the time (league average was 30.1 percent) and batters made contact on those pitches 67.6 percent of the time (league average was 62.9 percent).
Ogando: Owns a 2.37 postseason ERA, to go with 23 strikeouts in 19 postseason innings. His velocity was ticking slowly up before an elbow injury ended his 2014 season. If he can regain his 2011 form, the Sox will have a steal on their hands, but that is unlikely.
Workman: He has struck out eight percent more batters as a reliever than he did as a starter, though he has also been more homer prone.
Layne: Like Ross, Layne generates a lot of grounders from the left side, though his velocity is very underwhelming – there was only a four mph difference between his fastball and slider last season.
Spruill: Acquired quietly in December from Arizona, Spruill has a thin major league track record, but has performed very well as a reliever, to the tune of a 2.47 FIP in 21.2 innings. In the majors, he has notched strike one 64 percent of the time – five percent better than league average – and generated a ton of grounders, though he generated more as a starter.
Boggs: Like Ogando, his best work is probably behind him. He was good in 2011-2012 for the Cardinals, but was horrible for two different teams in 2013 and didn’t pitch in the majors last year. When he’s right, he’s another pitcher that generates a lot of ground balls.
That’s not even all of the possibilities. There is also Steven Wright, though he may make more sense in the rotation, and there are prospects like Edwin Escobar and Heath Hembree, Cuban import Dalier Hinojosa (who struck out 65 batters in 61.2 innings last year at Pawtucket), and reclamation project Felipe Paulino (who was a 2.5 WAR starter back in 2011 before being beset by injuries).
Most teams need more than seven relievers to make it through the season. Most of the relievers in camp with the Sox right now may not be familiar faces, but the team has built up a reserve of above-replacement pitchers, and that is likely to serve them well in 2015.Paul Swydan is a writer and editor for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter at @swydan.