My Kingdom (Farm System) For A Pen
by Jim Silva
Not a lot went right for the Red Sox in 2015. They finished 5th in the AL East, which is a nice way of saying “last”. Their rotation was awful, but their pen was – oh, the worst pen in baseball according to xFIP – a version of ERA that takes fielding out of the equation and just looks at events the pitcher has more control over like walks, strikeouts, hit by pitch, and fly balls allowed (which indicates home run frequency). Their pen as a group had a WAR of -1.4 so they were firemen in the Fahrenheit 451 sense of the word, lighting things on fire. Only one reliever finished the season with a FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) below 3.00 and that was their closer, 41 year old Koji Uehara. Logically what would you do if you were the GM and your closer was the most consistent member of your bullpen? Why, you would go out and trade four prospects for a new closer, right? Well that’s what the Red Sox did in trading for Craig Kimbrel. Look, trading for a closer to push other relievers back to the 8th and 7th is the new, hip way to revamp bullpens – just ask the Yankees, Dodgers (who tried), Astros, and A’s. But giving up the farm (literally) to get 60 innings a year from a guy who will be facing hitters with the bases empty is a mistake the Red Sox will be ruing for years to come. They gave up two prospects in the top 50 in baseball plus two other players of value for three seasons, or about 180 innings (if he stays healthy and effective the whole time) – of Kimbrel.
Kimbrel posted his worst full season in the majors last year and still managed eye-popping numbers in some categories. His ERA, hits per nine innings, WHIP, home runs allowed per nine innings, and strikeouts per nine innings were all career worsts. But would you be happy with your closer amassing 13.2 strikeouts per nine, allowing 6.1 hits per nine innings, with an ERA of 2.68 and a WHIP of 1.045? Of course you would! Unless of course you were paying that closer $9 million to be what he had been in the past. Aside from the numbers above, his season was in line with his career numbers as he succeeded in 90.7 of his save opportunities, which happens to be his career mark. It also happens to be higher than the career save rate of Mariano Rivera (89.1), who was pretty good (for a Yankee). As for the first two-thirds of this season, it hasn’t been a joy ride for Kimbrel. He spent time on the DL and has watched his ERA yo-yo up and down all season (currently sitting at 3.41 as compared to a career ERA of 1.80 ). That said, it has mostly been an effective year, even though Kimbrel’s walk rate is at 4.9 walks per nine as compared to a career rate of 3.5. The strikeout rate is at 14.1 and his hits per nine innings rate is at 5.1, so it’s not like Kimbrel needs to nibble to get guys to fan. He is also on track to match his career saves rate – a tick over 90%, and if he can close out the year dominating the AL then maybe the Sox will forget what they gave up to get him, at least for a little while longer.
The Kimbrel trade wasn’t all the Sox did to fortify the pen in the off-season. Carson Smith is only 26 and last season was his first full season in the majors. In spite of his inexperience, Smith spent the season dominating lesser mortals with his nasty offerings. Carson Smith is 6’6” of hard throwing Texan. He is mainly a two pitch pitcher throwing his fastball (averaging 92.9 mph) and slider with about the same frequency. He is very hard to hit (6.3 hits per nine innings), misses a lot of bats (11.8 k’s per nine), manages to control his nasty stuff (2.8 walks per nine), and keeps the ball in the yard like Sister Mary Constance at recess (0.3 home runs per nine). He can’t be a free agent until 2021 so the Red Sox picked up not only their new closer in Kimbrel, but also their closer of the future in Carson Smith.
The Mariners rode him hard using him in 70 games and he started this season on the DL. He came back for three scoreless appearances in May before his elbow gave out, and he recently went under the knife – Tommy John surgery. TJ surgery takes at least a year to come back from, but the Sox should stick with Smith for the long run. As for the cost to get Smith, Miley’s innings, while important, were not pretty so it is much easier to justify trading almost 200 innings of Miley for 70 innings of Smith if Smith looks as beastly as he did last year.
So, two moves to bolster the pen to support new ace, David Price – and they didn’t give up anything irreplaceable for this season, even though they single-handedly rebuilt the Padres farm system, and then gave up a lot of innings when they sent Miley to Seattle. The plan was for the pen to back up to the 6th inning with Kimbrel closing, Uehara as the primary setup man, Carson Smith pitching in Uehara’s spot or in the 7th which is now the domain of Junichi Tazawa. That’s some nice depth and some excellent quality. There is a catch though. There is a non-zero chance that the Red Sox pen will collapse entirely due to injury and overuse.
Tazawa has made over 200 appearances in the last three seasons and during the second half of 2015 he looked cooked. Opposing hitters turned into Lou Gehrig in Tazawa’s last 22 appearances before he was shut down, posting a slash line of .386/.421/.636. The relief pitcher from Yokohama saw his ERA balloon from 2.58 in the first half to 7.08 in the second half. His strikeout to walk ratio dropped from 5.71 to 2.67. When Junichi is right he pumps 94 mph fastballs, splitters, as well as the occasional slider and changeup with solid control and enough swing and miss stuff to be used as a closer on many teams. He looked excellent to start 2016 but since May started has had an ERA over 4.00 and has given up seven of his 8 home runs to bump his home runs per nine rate to 1.8. Interestingly his strikeout rate is up – now above 10.0 per nine – even while he struggles to keep the ball in the park, so are we seeing the effects of overuse or are the home runs just a fluke? The Red Sox will be paying attention to Tazawa down the stretch as they try to make it to the post-season.
So what of the disposed closer? The plan was for Koji Uehara, who has closed games for the Red Sox for the last three seasons, to get his turn in the 8th inning and the Sox stuck with that until Kimbrel went on the DL forcing Koji to resume his closer’s role. Uehara is not your typical late inning reliever. His fastball, which he throws about a third of the time, doesn’t reach 90 miles per hour on average. He relies on a wicked splitter, that he throws the other two-thirds of the time, to get outs. His numbers look like a guy who throws heat because his splitter is such a swing and miss pitch. Well, I’m not sure what’s in the Boston water, but like Tazawa, Uehara is giving up long balls at well above his career rate of which is now at 1.1 home runs per nine. To date, the 6’2” righty has given up 2.0 home runs per nine innings pitched.
Uehara has a career strikeout rate (in the states) of 10.8 per nine through the middle of August and his control is unbelievable. His career rate is 1.4 walks allowed per nine and he has actually had seasons where he has averaged fewer than one walk per nine innings. Normally you would expect that low of a walk rate to go with a higher hits per nine rate, but Uehara’s career rate is 6.3 hits per nine innings pitched. His career WHIP of .851 is unheard of and amazingly, every season since 2010 he has kept his WHIP below 1.0 for the season. Basically that means you just can’t get on base against Uehara. Uehara’s one weakness is relative. He has allowed a home run per nine innings for his career – most likely a lot of them were solo shots since, again, you can’t get on base against him. Ok, there is another weakness – he lacks a cool nickname. Uehara, but I’m not? Koji Beef? Split Personality – you know – because he throws the splitter and that sounds like a super-villain name? Eh, maybe there’s a reason he doesn’t have a nickname, but even without one he is as unhittable as ever to start 2016 although he has been uncharacteristically wild so far. The former will likely continue as the latter probably will correct with more innings – that is if he can make it back from a strained pectoral muscle before the regular season ends.
Matt Barnes is one of those guys we all love to see come up, but then are driven crazy by until they get traded. He throws wicked hard, averaging almost 95 mph with his heater while mixing in a change and a curve. Barnes issue, at least at the major league level, has been his inability to control his pitches. This problem manifests in two ways – leaving balls out over the plate where they can be turned into souvenirs, and walking too many batters so the home runs he gives up score multiple runs. In his first 52 major league innings (through the end of 2015), Barnes gave up 10 home runs and walked 17 batters. So far this season, Barnes has given up 3.9 walks per nine – even worse than his career average of 3.4 per nine. The difference being that the 6’4” righty has kept the ball in the park (0.8 home runs per nine – substantially below his career rate of 1.3 per nine) and limited hits to 7.9 per nine innings. This is more in line with his minor league numbers. Well, his walk rate mimics his minor league numbers – also 3.3 walks per nine in just over 398 innings pitched, but Barnes has limited home runs to minor leaguers – 0.6 per nine, and hits – 8.3 per nine. His minor league WHIP of 1.285 doesn’t speak to dominance but it isn’t bad. If he can recreate what he has done in the minors for the parent club, then he would be a serviceable arm in the Red Sox pen, even if he never turns into the dominant closer the Sox thought they were getting when they chose him in the first round of the 2011 draft. So far this season it looks like he just might.
Of course Robbie Ross throws hard like almost everyone in the Sox pen, and uses his fastball over 60% of the time. The difference between Ross and the aforementioned Mr. Barnes appears to be the effectiveness of their secondary offerings. Ross contributed 0.8 WAR from the pen last year – not a world beater, but certainly a contributor. He has been a solid contributor to Texas and Boston in three of his first four seasons – the exception being 2014 when the Rangers attempted to turn Ross into a starter, which clearly didn’t work. The diminutive lefty is useful because he can throw more than one inning – a chore he carried out 11 times in 2015. Interestingly, the Red Sox used him as a closer in September. That seems like an underuse of Ross, although when your pen is the worst in baseball, what the hell! With 7.9 K’s to 3.0 walks per nine (and 1.0 home runs) and strong peripherals in the second half of last year, Ross comes into 2016 with a flexible role that won’t likely be high leverage. This year has been one of Ross’ best so far with a WHIP of 1.195, a FIP (ERA taking into account only what the pitcher can control) of 2.97, only 7.2 hits allowed per nine, and a minuscule 0.2 home runs allowed per nine. Not sure why all the Red Sox relievers seem to have increased their strikeout rates but Ross has been no exception, fanning 9.7 men per nine – his career rate is now at 7.4 per nine. Also, like many of the Sox relievers Ross has walked more men per nine with a mark of 3.6 per nine so far, up from his career rate of 3.2. Manager John Farrell is still using Ross for more than an inning making him both more valuable and unusual.
Trade deadline acquisition Fernando Abad has put up really nice numbers from the pen this season, albeit mostly for the Twins. In his six appearances for the Red Sox he has allowed at least a run, although it could be just the adjustment that goes with playing for a new squad, and one that is in a pennant race. With Minnesota, a team woefully far from the pressure of the pennant race, Abad was stingy with hits (7.1 allowed per nine innings) and home runs (0.5 allowed per nine innings), but walked a few too many hitters (3.7 per nine innings) all the while striking out 7.7 batters per nine. The lefty from La Romana in the Dominican throws four pitches with his fastball getting a bit over half the use and the other three (cutter, curve, and change) making up the other half. It will be interesting to see how Boston uses him because he has been death to lefties and a lot less effective against righties. One stat illustrates that fairly well – his strikeout to walk ratio. Against righties Abad strikes out 1.36 batsmen for every one that he walks. Against lefties the number jumps to 6.50 per walk which looks like dominance especially when you pair it with the batting average against him of .179 as compared to .271 which is what righties hit against him. If the Red Sox can afford it, they should use Abad as a LOOGY (a lefty specialist) where he can shine, instead of trying to get a whole inning out of him. Uehara’s injury and Tazawa’s fade might press Boston to use Abad in a role less suited to his skill set, which would be a shame.
Acquired for two minor leaguers in July, Brad Ziegler has maintained good peripherals including a low home run rate of 0.7 per nine and excellent control issuing only 2.2 walks per nine since moving to Boston. With an ERA of 2.82 (2.92 since joining the Sox), Ziegler is a durable quality arm who can help the Boston club reach the post-season. His two blown saves and three losses for the Sox have something to do with the talk about the Red Sox courting recently released former closer Jonathan Papelbon. Ziegler has been tried at closer and setup man for the Red Sox, but as he is not the typical flame throwing beast usually given the role, he will have a short leash. With Kimbrel back from the DL, it is unlikely that the sidewinder will close again this season unless Kimbrel is unavailable. But Ziegler still induces lots of grounders with his funky delivery and should be trusted in high leverage situations in spite of his early struggles to hold onto leads in Boston. His ERA is still below 2.5 in his stint in Boston and below 2.75 for the season so it isn’t like he is throwing grapefruits out there.
The Red Sox bullpen will be better than it was last year – that isn’t saying much since they were so bad last season. But they should be a strength in 2016 – both deep and flexible. Of course the rotation has to pull their own weight. Last year the poor rotation work led to Sox relievers being overworked and if that happens again they might very well implode again. Carson Smith should have taken a lot of the heat off of Tazawa but that obviously hasn’t happened because of his injury. With Ziegler aboard and Ross and Barnes contributing, they should be able to weather Uehara’s injury and Tazawa’s stretch of ineffectiveness. But if Kimbrel goes down again the pen is in trouble. David Price and a hopefully quick return of Steven Wright will help take some of the pressure off of the relievers. If not, I bet Red Sox legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield would be willing to come back and eat some innings.