SAN DIEGO — No announcement was made six weeks ago when Brandon Workman started closing games for the Red Sox. It just happened.
The Red Sox decided their bullpen needed some structure and Workman was saved for the ninth inning with Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez, and Josh Taylor setting him up.
“Nobody really told me anything,” Workman said ahead of Saturday night’s 5-4 victory against the San Diego Padres. “But after a while you start to figure it out.”
Given the outsized importance conferred on closers, it’s a wonder there wasn’t some sort of ceremony on the mound complete with fireworks. Instead Workman just pitched when he was told, finishing 11 games in 16 appearances since the All-Star break and picking up five saves.
Workman closed the Padres on Saturday, leaving two runners when he struck out Eric Hosmer to end it as the Sox won for the seventh time in nine games.
“I like the adrenaline of it,” said Workman, who has held hitters to a .438 OPS this season. “It’s always close games, for the most part. Seems like there’s always good hitters coming up.”
The closer, the closer, who is the closer? It was the question the Sox decided not to answer this season. They instead put together a bullpen based on matching up inning by inning.
It might have worked had Dave Dombrowski acquired a quality arm via trade or free agency to replace some of the innings lost when Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel left as free agents. But he didn’t and ineffective relief pitching played a large role in the Sox falling 11 games out of first by June 30.
But with Workman providing structure in the ninth inning, the Sox have since fashioned what is one of the American League’s best bullpens.
Taylor, a steal from Arizona in the Deven Marrero trade, emerged as an effective setup man. The 22-year-old Hernandez added a high-powered fastball to the mix. Barnes regained his effectiveness once the Sox stopped wearing him out.
Through Friday’s 11-0 rout of San Diego, Sox relievers had allowed seven earned runs over 43 innings in 10 games. Over the last month, they have the lowest ERA in the majors (2.76) and lowest opposing batting average (.197).
The Sox are now in the upper half of the American League in earned run average (4.21), WHIP (1.34), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.61). They also lead the league with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
Advanced statistics are even more kind. Craig Edwards of Fangraphs.com recently noted the Sox relievers are among the major league leaders in Fielding Independent Pitching and second in FIP in medium-leverage and high-leverage situations. Sox relievers are also sixth in WAR.
(FIP, by the way, measures what pitchers can control: strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs. It takes fielding out of the mix.)
However you want to measure it, you probably feel a lot better about seeing Alex Cora call in a reliever lately than you did two months ago, and that’s the point.
For Workman, being a reliable reliever takes him back to 2013 when the Sox needed a good arm in July to supplement their bullpen and called him up from Double A.
Workman handled the job so well that he made the postseason roster and didn’t allow an earned run over 8⅔ innings in seven games as the Sox won the World Series.
As was planned all along, Workman went back to starting.
“That was what I wanted,” he said.
But it was a disaster. Workman was 1-9 with a 5.36 ERA in 15 starts in 2014 then needed Tommy John elbow surgery in 2015. He didn’t pitch in another major league game until May 4, 2017, and has been a reliever since.
Now he’s the closer and has pitched well enough to merit the job next season. He may only average 93.2 m.p.h. on his fastball, but Workman has other weapons beyond velocity.
“He can get lefties and righties out,” Cora said. “Not only with a fastball but a breaking ball. And he has a cutter that gives you a different look.”
That third pitch allows Workman to give hitters a different look within the same series. It’s a leftover from his days as a starter.
“I’ve had times my fastball was 88 or 89. You learn how to pitch and get people out when that happens,” Workman said.
Workman has been up to the job from a physical standpoint, too.
“He’s been the most consistent reliever that we’ve had from the get-go,” Cora said. “He’s able to bounce back. He’s durable and he repeats his delivery. If you look at it, he avoids damage, which I think is the most important thing.”
Oakland’s Billy Beane has long believed every organization has a closer. It’s just a matter of figuring out who that is.
Turns out for the Red Sox it was Workman.
“Every reliever has ambitions of being the closer. That’s the premier job in the bullpen for any team,” he said. “I really feel good. I feel like I’ve been able to maintain by stuff and my command. It hasn’t been the ideal route to get here, but we got here.”
The same can be said of the entire bullpen. It took longer than expected, but they got there.