By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The walls may be closing in on Dave Dombrowski.
On Tuesday, in the Red Sox-owned Boston Globe, Dan Shaughnessy led his column by saying, “I’ll be shocked if Dave Dombrowski is back with the Red Sox next season.”
Hours later, perhaps in an effort to try to put some shine on the work he’s done this year, the Red Sox’ president of baseball operations joined the NESN pregame show and defended himself against critics who wanted him at the very least to add a reliever at the trade deadline.
Dombrowski’s dismissive answer flies in the face of reality.
“I have gone through the blown saves, and I know we’ve had a number of them, but really it hasn’t cost us as many games as what you would think throughout the year,” Dombrowski said, per NESN. “Our bullpen has basically has been fine.”
Without naming any names, Dombrowski went on to conclude that the bulk of the blame for this season’s disappointment falls on the shoulders of Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, and David Price.
“Our club, if we are going to thrive, and thrive well, it’s going to be because of our starting pitching,” Dombrowski said.
Of course, there is merit to that statement. Red Sox starters have a combined ERA of 5.08, which ranks seventh in the AL. The one addition Dombrowski did make this summer — Andrew Cashner — now has a 1-4 record to go with a 7.53 ERA since joining the Red Sox.
The starting pitching has been a massive problem, no doubt.
But so has the bullpen.
Dombrowski downplayed the impact of the blown saves, indicating that they have not cost the Red Sox too many games.
While yes, one blown save does not equal one loss, it does represent the giving away of a lead in the late innings. That’s something that’s obviously going to happen over the course of a 162-game season, but ideally, a championship contender is not going to want to hang out near the top of the league in that category. It’s the sign of a bullpen that can’t hold leads and, thus, struggles to win games.
And as everybody surely knows by know, the Red Sox’ bullpen has blown 20 saves this year, tied for second-most in the American League and fifth-most in all of baseball. In the previous four seasons, the Red Sox as a team finished with 18 blown saves three times, and 20 blown saves in 2015. With 48 games remaining on the season, and with no help arriving at the deadline, this year’s bullpen is set to keep blowing saves through August and September, thus making winning that much more difficult for a team that ranks second in MLB in runs scored.
But Dombrowski says it’s fine.
The major criticism of Dombrowski when he arrived in Boston to replace Ben Cherington four years ago was that he struggled to build quality bullpens. That remained the case through last year, when Boston relievers together ranked sixth in the AL in WHIP. The Boston bullpen did rank fourth in ERA, but that was largely thanks to an All-Star season from closer Craig Kimbrel. Outside of the closer, a reliable reliever was hard to come by.
Then, though, because baseball is baseball, some magic happened in October. Joe Kelly went from having a 4.39 ERA and 1.355 WHIP in the regular season to inexplicably posting a 0.79 ERA and 0.706 WHIP across nine playoff appearances. Nathan Eovaldi turned into a lights-out reliever. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier posted matching 1.04 ERAs. Chris Sale’s two best innings of the playoffs came in relief. Everything just went right — outside of, coincidentally, the best reliever in Kimbrel falling apart in five of his nine appearances.
Somehow, some way, a mediocre bullpen managed to put together a dynamite postseason. They’ll keep that trophy in Fenway forever now as a result.
But in the offseason, after losing Kimbrel and Kelly (who together accounted for roughly 22 percent of innings pitched by Boston’s bullpen a year ago), Dombrowksi simply didn’t replace them. He called upon Brandon Workman, Barnes, and Brasier to have increased roles, and he took a flier on Colten Brewer and his magnificent spin rate. It’s not working.
Granted, outside of Saturday night’s loss in the Bronx, the bullpen has not played much of a role at all during the Red Sox’ current putrid stretch, which has them at 1-9 over their last 10 games. The bullpen hasn’t really even been given the chance to blow any games, given how badly the starting rotation has performed.
Still, just because it hasn’t been the most recent reason for the Red Sox sitting far out of a playoff spot doesn’t mean that it all just disappears. Boston relievers rank seventh in the AL with a 4.46 ERA, and they’re ninth with a 1.392 WHIP. They’ve issued the fourth-most walks (207) out of any AL bullpen, and with 22 saves, they’ve recorded the third-fewest in the AL.
That’s in part because of the lack of opportunity, but it’s also severely affected by the 20 blown saves already recorded. No matter what Dombrowski says on any pregame show, nothing’s going to change that.
A year ago, Dombrowski built a mediocre bullpen and got away with it. This year, with no improvements, it’s caught up to him. Underperformance by the starting staff has no doubt been a significant hindrance to winning this year, but Dombrowski’s commentary on the bullpen looks a lot more like a baseball decision-maker passing the buck on what clearly has been a known debacle, dating back as far as November.
This statement comes less than a week after Dombrowski boasted to the media about all the phone calls he received from GMs looking to poach his relievers at the deadline. Suffice it to say, believability for Dombrowski is at an all-time low.