Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez show their worth in absentia
Alex Cora has often referred to Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez as the most valuable players on the 2018 Red Sox. It was a line he first broke out late last season.
Managers often over-praise role players because they appreciate them more than most of us. But what Cora said struck me as particularly hyperbolic considering Johnson and Velazquez weren’t on the postseason roster for any of three rounds.
Both pitched well, no doubt about that. But how valuable could they have really been if they weren’t needed for the biggest games of the season?
It all makes sense after watching the Red Sox without them.
Johnson has appeared in only seven games this season because of an elbow injury he suffered on April 5. He returned on June 16.
Velazquez has been in 19 games, but only one since May 29 because of a back injury.
The Sox have missed their two most versatile pitchers, both in terms of how they performed on the mound and, perhaps more importantly, the innings they took off the shoulders of others.
“It helps,” Cora said Monday before the Red Sox played the Chicago White Sox. “Going into the season last year, I mentioned that it’s always good to have multiple guys in the bullpen that can go multiple innings.
“It’s very important, regardless if it’s in win situations or games that are getting out of hand the other way, it’s always good. It helps you out throughout the week.”
Just how adaptable Johnson and Velazquez were is reflected in their statistics.
Velazquez faced as many as 23 batters in a game last season and as few as one. He started eight games and entered 39 others as a reliever, in every inning but the first or second.
Johnson had a similar profile. He started 13 games, relieved in 25 others, and entered those games in every inning but the first or second. He threw 104 pitches against the Yankees on Aug. 2 and three against the Athletics on April 20.
They combined for 184⅓ innings. Velazquez had a 3.18 earned run average and Johnson a 4.17.
The Sox have tried Mike Shawaryn, Josh Smith, Ryan Weber, and a few others to fill the void, largely without much success. Pitchers have shuttled back and forth from Triple A Pawtucket all season.
It’s telling that the Sox have used 23 pitchers through 79 games this season, the same number they used all last year.
For the Sox, it’s double trouble. Not only are they missing the quality innings Johnson and Velazquez provided, they’ve also had to lean too heavily on Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Marcus Walden, and Brandon Workman when they have leads.
Cora had two security blankets he could drop over any situation. Johnson or Velazquez frequently served as an effective bridge from the starter to the eighth inning.
“The way they threw the ball, too,” Cora said. “It’s not like they were just eating innings. They were giving us a chance. Both of them, they did it. That’s important at this level. You need guys that can do that, and adjust to their roles and different situations.
“They went from starters the first week of the season to long relievers to high-leverage [late inning] guys. Keep moving around. They adjust well and are able to do that. Not everyone can do that.”
Johnson has pitched well since returning from the injured list, allowing two earned runs in 8⅓ innings. The Sox have plugged him into the rotation as Nathan Eovaldi continues a slower-than-expected recovery from elbow surgery.
“I’ve felt great, honestly,” Johnson said. “I’m good for whatever they need.”
Once Eovaldi returns, perhaps in the first or second series after the All-Star break, Johnson can slide into the role he had last season.
Velazquez hasn’t looked right all season. He went on the injured list in May with what was essentially a fractured ERA. He came back last week and was needed for four innings in the 17-inning game against the Minnesota Twins. His lower back tightened up and he had to leave the game.
Velazquez is back on the injured list again, but is feeling better and could return in 7-10 days.
The Sox will get Steven Wright back from his 80-game drug suspension on Tuesday. They see him filling the same multi-inning role Johnson and Velazquez had last season.
We’ll see. Wright has pitched only 25 games the last two seasons because of his left knee. A knuckleballer can be effective because of what a different look he provides. But that hard-to-command pitch also means there will be some days he has to come out in a hurry.
However it works, the worn-down Sox bullpen needs help. Cora needs some MVPs.