During his tenure as an MLB executive, Dave Dombrowski has earned a reputation for failing to build quality bullpens. Currently the president of baseball operations with the Red Sox, that reputation grew during his time with the Tigers and has followed him to Boston. Dombrowski took over Detroit in 2002. In 2003, the team lost 119 games. From 2004 to -15, Dombrowski’s Tigers won an average of 83 games per year, made two World Series appearances, qualified for the ALCS four times, and reached the playoffs five times overall. Those teams routinely had the worst bullpen in baseball, however.
The graph below shows average wins per year and reliever WAR from 2004 to -15.
At the end of the 2015 season, when Dombrowski came to a Boston organization with a great farm system, he shored up at least one inning’s worth of bullpen by trading for Craig Kimbrel. Dombrowski’s reputation might have come with him to Boston, but the Red Sox have gotten solid performance from their relievers the last few seasons.
How much credit or blame Dombrowski should receive is debatable, but Boston relievers have performed well the last few years. Craig Kimbrel has been generally fantastic. Matt Barnes had a rough couple seasons in 2015 and 2016 but has been a solid performer the last two years. Joe Kelly has been solid, alternating between good luck (2017) and bad luck (2018) when it comes to run prevention. That’s not great, but when the starting rotation is one of the top five in baseball like it’s been over the last three years, the bullpen doesn’t need a ton of great performers.
Even in the first round of this year’s playoffs, the bullpen was a bit of an afterthought other than concerns about Kimbrel. The offense scored 27 runs in four games, and in the team’s three wins, the starters — including relief appearances by Porcello and Sale — covered 19 innings. The team hasn’t been so fortunate in the ALCS, with starters reaching the fifth inning just once in four games. It hasn’t mattered much because the Red Sox offense has scored 23 runs over the past three games, but the bullpen has also been a positive factor.
If you were to guess the most important reliever in this year’s playoffs in terms of getting important outs, who would you say? Josh Hader? Kenley Jansen? Ryan Pressly? Maybe Boston’s own Craig Kimbrel? The answer is actually the Brewers’ Corey Knebel, but if you were choosing between Matt Barnes and Kenley Jansen or Josh Hader and Ryan Brasier, the bigger names and better overall performers seem like logical choices. Except they aren’t the correct choice.
By WPA, the Red Sox have two of top four relievers this postseason.
|Matt Barnes||Red Sox||5.2||0.00||3.51||0.54|
|Ryan Brasier||Red Sox||7.0||0.00||3.59||0.42|
|Craig Kimbrel||Red Sox||5.1||8.44||7.29||0.30|
This isn’t a list of the pitchers who have necessarily performed the best. A look at Kimbrel’s line alone will tell you that. But Kimbrel appears here because turning a two- or three-run lead into a win is good even if you use up nearly all of your margin for error. If you want to know how the Brewers have gotten this far, a look at their relievers tells you. If you want to know why the Dodgers and Red Sox are a win away from the World Series, the leaderboard above gives you a pretty good indication. Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes aren’t anybody’s version of relief aces, but so far in this year’s playoffs, they’ve gotten important outs that have helped put Boston on top against the Astros.
Barnes is a classic high-velocity prospect and former first-rounder whose lack of command prevented him from claiming a big-league rotation spot. A move to the bullpen in 2015 got Barnes to the majors, but he consistently got too much of the plate, such that he missed too few bats and gave up too many homers. He pitched better in 2016, upping both his walks and strikeouts, but seeing his homers fall dramatically. In 2017, it looked like he might be breaking out, with a 29% strikeout rate and a 3.33 FIP, but a few rough outings in September kept him off the playoff roster. He watched as the players chosen above him — Carson Smith and Austin Maddox — retired just 8 of 17 batters they faced.
This season, Barnes has found his calling as a high-fastball, low-curve pitcher. That spike curveball gets a lot of ground balls and a lot of whiffs, a near perfect combination. He threw the curve on 14 out of 15 offerings on Sunday and yesterday struck out Tyler White looking on the pitch in the highest-leverage plate appearance of the game up till that point. (Kimbrel decided to make things interesting later on.)
While not as important as Barnes, Ryan Brasier has pitched more innings and been just as effective. After making his big-league debut in 2013 for the Angels, Brasier had Tommy John surgery. He attempted a comback with the A’s in 2015 and 2016 before going to Japan in 2017. The Red Sox were the only team that called Brasier this spring after some workouts in Arizona, and even that call was simply to fill some extra slots with no guarantee of playing time. Some time as the Triple-A closer earned the 31-year-old a callup, and a great performance in the second half earned him an important role in the playoffs.
Middle relievers tend not to get a whole lot of attention generally, but the last few seasons have seen some relief aces like Andrew Miller and Josh Hader rise to prominence. Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes don’t fit that bill, but even if they did, they might not receive that much attention on a loaded Red Sox roster. It’s not clear that they’ll be able to keep up this great performance going forward, but how those two have pitched so far is a big reason the team is five wins from a championship. If the Red Sox are to win it all, the two unsung heroes are going to need to keep getting the important outs that the starters and closer might not deliver.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.