In Red Sox bullpen, the heat is on
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Everybody loves power, whether it’s hitting or pitching.
The Red Sox decided this offseason they needed to have a power bullpen. They will have five relievers who can hit 95 m.p.h. or better. So any time an opposing batter comes to the plate, he’ll be facing Heath Hembree’s 97 or Joe Kelly’s 100 or Robbie Ross’s 95 or Tyler Thornburg’s 97 or Craig Kimbrel’s 99. It sounds great, at least on paper. But is pure power the way to go?
Koji Uehara is almost 42 and now a Cub. It says here that if Koji is still Koji, the Red Sox will miss him.
Manager John Farrell said Wednesday that the Red Sox tried to re-sign Uehara, but he elected not to accept their offer, which was much lower than the $9 million he made with them last year. The Cubs wound up getting him for $6 million.
Uehara has had a WHIP under 1.00 since 2010. That’s sensational. Granted, injuries have started to set in, but what a force for a guy who never threw above 88 m.p.h.
“Guys like Koji are very tough,” said Pablo Sandoval. “For a hitter, the hard throwers are tough, but if they make a mistake, you can hit it. A guy like Koji, who hides the ball and whose arm action is fast, boy, that’s hard for a hitter to pick up.”
Don’t forget, Kelly’s 100-m.p.h. pitches can bleed over the plate, and good hitters can catch up to them, particularly if they’re straight. The Red Sox seemed bummed out by the fact that they weren’t among the leaders in bullpen strikeouts the past few years, so they did something about it.
Hitters will tell you that deception gets them more than speed.
Brad Ziegler, who was acquired by the Red Sox for the second half of last season, has been one of the most effective relievers in baseball the last seven years. He is one of four relievers to appear in 60-plus games each season since 2010, along with recently retired Javier Lopez, Tyler Clippard, and David Robertson.
His submarine stuff was hard to pick up, particularly from the right side, but the Red Sox felt he wasn’t good enough against lefthanded hitters (though he seemed to handle them well in Arizona the first half of the year).
Ziegler became a free agent in November and signed with Miami in December.
Over the past few years, the Red Sox have had both diversity and power in their bullpen.
The bullpen of 2013 was extremely effective with Uehara at the front of it. They had the power of Junichi Tazawa and the lefthanded deception of Craig Breslow. They had Andrew Miller, who missed most of the second half with an injury. Young Brandon Workman, through not a flame-thrower, was effective.
“You look back at four or five years and there’s been a complete makeover,” Farrell said. “What it shows you is that there are a number of ways to get the job done. What power gives, you get away with a greater margin of error within the strike zone, to get a strikeout in some of those innings when guys enter the game with runners in scoring position.
“We haven’t had that luxury, but we have a high number of guys who have that capability this year. So that’s what we like about the current group.
“As a result, with our righthanders with the exception of Hembree, who is working at improving against lefthanders, there’s equal ability to attack lefthanders and righthanders. We have the possibility to establish and assign innings and matching up.”
Asked if he would miss Uehara, Farrell said candidly, “Yes, and that’s not to say we’re not excited about the guys here, but Koji is a proven late-inning reliever, a proven closer who was unflappable in the environment in which he pitched in and that is here in Boston.
“We made an offer to re-sign him, and as it turned out, it wasn’t what he expected, so we decided to trade for Thornburg.”
Farrell said an important thing — that Uehara was “unflappable in the environment.” Boy, is that important in Boston.
Miller said toward the end of last season that pitching in Boston is as tough as anywhere in baseball, and he loved that. It takes a special reliever to embrace the microscopic lens he is under here and excel.
While we have noted that both Rick Porcello and David Price had issues their first year in Boston, we tend to overlook some of Kimbrel’s issues last season. He had been with playoff teams in Atlanta, but he had never pitched in an environment as rabid as this one.
And yes, he did have knee surgery in the middle of the season and came back within three weeks, so perhaps his knee was still on the weak side, affecting his delivery.
The power bullpen could turn out great.
Kimbrel is still one of the best closers in baseball. Thornburg had a breakout season last year in Milwaukee, with 90 strikeouts in 67 innings and a 2.15 ERA, but there was no pressure there; there will be lots of it in Boston. Kelly throws very hard and might be embracing his relief role and not thinking about starting again. He also has figured out that pitching backward (with his secondary stuff) can be effective.
Ross was an effective late-inning option who can match up against the opponents’ top lefties. Hard-throwing Carson Smith probably returns by June. Hembree and Matt Barnes can throw a baseball through a wall.
There are impressive arms and power numbers. The strikeouts should be up from the 9.70 per nine innings that Sox relievers averaged last season. The Boston pen was ranked ninth overall by Fangraphs, which had it with a 4.9 WAR. The Astros had a 7.9 WAR to lead all of baseball. The Orioles (fifth) and Yankees (seventh) were ranked ahead of the Red Sox. The Yankees had the highest strikeout rate, at 10.15 per nine innings.
What does it all mean? As Farrell said, there are different ways for a bullpen to be effective.
But Koji Uehara did it in one of the toughest environments in baseball to pitch.