By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox bullpen blew a save in the ninth inning on Wednesday night in Toronto. The Red Sox bullpen also blew a save in the 11th inning on Wednesday night in Toronto.
In a related story, the Boston Red Sox won their game on Wednesday night in Toronto. Baseball is a rather humorous sport like that.
But of course, on a night when Marcus Walden and Heath Hembree each add a blown save to their season stats, the absence of a bona fide closer is going to come under the microscope. Such an examination is inevitable.
Now, to be completely fair, the timing of such a look is a bit disingenuous. Unless you’ve been fretting all season long about the lack of experience on the back end of the bullpen, it would be slightly dishonest to now try to paint the 2019 Red Sox as a team with a full-on bullpen crisis.
At the same time, the facts are fairly straightforward: The Boston Red Sox, despite having some of the very deepest pockets in Major League Baseball, did not deem Craig Kimbrel or any other closer worthy of getting a big contract during the offseason. And with fans paying some of the highest ticket prices in baseball while guzzling the most expensive beer and downing the most expensive concessions, it is certainly fair for anybody to question a decision that appears to have been made mostly with regard to budget and not necessarily with on-field performance.
There’s room for debate there, sure, but for the sake of discussion, it’s worth looking at the 2019 Red Sox through 49 games and see how they compare to the past three years, a stretch during which Kimbrel recorded 108 saves while blowing just 11 saves.
You could really start there; Kimbrel blew two saves in 2016, four saves in 2017, and five saves in 2018. This year, through 49 games, the Red Sox have blown eight saves — just three fewer than Kimbrel blew over three years.
But, OK, well, when I gave you that information, that was a bit of a lie. Well, maybe not a lie. But a fib. Because yes, Kimbrel only blew 11 saves over three years, but saves aren’t only blown by the closer. Relievers can blow a save earlier in the game, and over the past three years, the Red Sox blew their fair share of saves:
BLOWN SAVES, BY YEAR
Considering this year’s team is only 28 percent of the way through the season, it’s not ideal to have already blown eight saves. That puts them on a pace to blow 26 saves this year, which isn’t spectacular. Last year, 26 saves would have been tied for fifth-most in the majors or second-most in the AL. A year prior, it would have been tied for the most blown saves in all of baseball.
As it stands this year, the Red Sox are tied for the fifth-most blown saves with eight. With 18 save opportunities, their save percentage of 57.89 ranks fourth-worst in the AL and sixth-worst in MLB. The AL average save percentage is 70.21 percent, leaving the Red Sox well below average.
SAVE PERCENTAGE BY YEAR
Again, that’s a bullpen stat, not specifically a closer stat. Looking just as Kimbrel, here’s how the right-handed flame thrower has fared through 49 team games of the past three seasons.
CRAIG KIMBREL, THROUGH 49 GAMES
0-2 record, 12 saves, 2 blown saves
20.1 IP, 2.66 ERA, 0.738 WHIP
33 SO, 8 BB, 2 HR
2-0 record, 13 saves, 1 blown save, 1 hold
21.2 IP, 0.83 ERA, 0.369 WHIP
40 SO, 2 BB, 1 HR
1-1 record, 15 saves, 2 blown saves
21.1 IP, 2.11 ERA, 0.797 WHIP
30 SO, 5 BB, 4 HR
You could look at those numbers and draw various conclusions. You could look at his 2017 numbers and picture him on the 2019 team and add two or three wins to the Red Sox’ current total. Or you could look at his 2016 numbers and see a slow starter. Or you could look at this 2018 numbers and notice a modest decline from the previous season and factor in a shaky-as-all-tarnation postseason performance, and you could surmise that the soon-to-be-31-year-old would be a tick worse this year.
All of that depends on your stance, I suppose.
One thing, though, that must be stated is that focusing squarely on the Red Sox may not paint a complete picture. Which is to say that the clear and obvious lack of a big name/proven performer at the back end of the bullpen is undeniable, but does it make the Red Sox any worse than the rest of MLB’s current playoff picture?
In some instances, yes. In others, not at all.
Twins: 2 – T-30th
Astros: 3 – T-26th
Rays: 4 – T-22nd
Brewers: 4 – T-22nd
Phillies: 5 – T-17th
Yankees: 6 — 13th most
Braves: 8 – T-5th
Red Sox: 8 – T-5th
Dodgers: 8 – T-5th
Cubs: 9 – T-2nd
Of the 10 playoff teams, the Twins and Astros are among the very best at maintaining leads. The Rays and Brewers are above average, while the Yankees and Phillies are in the middle of the pack. The Red Sox find themselves in a group with the Braves, Cubs and Dodgers on the worse end.
That’s the negative stat. On the positive stat, the Red Sox are very much on the bottom end.
Yankees: 16 – T-2nd
Dodgers: 16 – T-2nd
Brewers: 15 – T-4th
Rays: 15 – T-4th
Twins: 14 – T-8th
Astros: 14 – T-8th
Phillies: 13 – T-10th
Braves: 13 – T-10th
Red Sox: 11 – T 21st
Cubs: 9 – T-25th
Save totals, though, are in large part a product of save opportunities (tough to figure, I know), so here’s where those playoff teams rank in terms of save percentage.
Twins: 87.50, 1st
Astros: 82.35, 5th
Brewers: 78.95, T-8th
Rays: 78.95, T-8th
Yankees: 72.73, 13th
Phillies: 72.22, T-14th
Dodgers: 66.67, 19th
Braves: 61.90, 24th
Red Sox: 57.89, 25th
Cubs: 50.0, 27th
Looking at the rankings, it does appear as though the Red Sox would be in much better position to stay afloat among the playoff teams if they did indeed employ a more reliable closer.
That doesn’t mean they are doomed. Out in Chicago, Joe Maddon is managing a committee of closers in the absence of Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow, and the Cubs currently own a two-game lead over the Brewers for first place in the NL Central. Winning with a committee can be done.
At the same time, Maddon might be better qualified to manage such a situation, given his years spent pulling the levers for the Tampa Bay bullpen. Maddon had seven different pitchers earn saves in 2008 (including the playoffs) en route to an AL pennant.
Surely, though, operating in that manner is a bit more difficult than having a singular, dominant pitcher to turn the lights off in 10 out of 11 times. Alex Cora has thus far been creative and judicious when deciding when to throw Matt Barnes into games, eschewing some modern conventions of closer usage. Barnes has performed reasonably well, recording three saves and seven holds thus far while blowing three saves.
Only 56 pitchers in the American League have blown a save this season, and the Red Sox employ five of them (Barnes, Brasier, Hembree, Walden, Brandon Workman).
Barnes has the three blown saves, which has him tied for most in the AL. Ryan Brasier has two blown saves, which has him tied for fifth-most in the AL (with 12 other pitchers).
The Red Sox haven’t had a pitcher finish in the top 10 of the AL in blown saves since 2015 (Junichi Tazawa, 7), which also happened to be the most recent time the team finished in last place in the AL East.
And as one more reminder, Kimbrel blew just 11 saves over three full seasons.
So really, when you look at the whole picture and you ask the question of whether or not the Red Sox truly do need Craig Kimbrel (or someone like him) this year, you can’t necessarily give a definitive yes or no. On the one hand, the likes of Brasier and Barnes and Walden have to be a little bit better when given their opportunities. If one of them reaches another level of pitching, then it wouldn’t be the first case of a player ascending to fill a more demanding role in sports. That’s another way of saying that established veterans aren’t the only players who end up performing well in big roles.
On the other hand, navigating the waters of a close ballgame in the late innings is certainly a bit more challenging for Cora, in just his second season managing a baseball team. The Red Sox may not be in desperate need of Kimbrel or a Kimbrel-like pitcher … but having that closer would certainly not hurt.