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Evaluating the New Red Sox Bullpen Arms At the Break

Red Sox bullpen

Personnel-wise, the Boston Red Sox bullpen is astronomically different this year than it was last year. In fact, one look through Baseball Reference confirms that it is entirely different for a variety of reasons, including injuries, free-agent signings, and the loss of previous bullpen staples like Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier.

General Manager Chaim Bloom was busy this past offseason refurbishing a bullpen that ranked 27th in the league last year in WAR and 25th in ERA. He specifically orchestrated headlining signings of Chris Martin, Joely Rodriguez, and closer Kenley Jansen.

But more injuries and poor starting pitching forced Boston to shake things up even more on their roster. Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock entered the rotation after Corey Kluber (7.04 ERA) and Nick Pivetta (5.29 ERA in his last six starts) were relegated to the bullpen and Chris Sale returned to the IL.

To make matters worse, Rodriguez and the typically reliable John Schreiber have dealt with their own injuries, forcing the Sox to rely on additional waiver claims and call-ups to remedy the undesirable situation.

This constant game of musical chairs usually indicates a bullpen in disarray, but Boston has kept their head above water. After their bottom five finish in 2022, the Sox bullpen now ranks 13th in WAR and 17th in ERA. Not spectacular, but still pretty good for a team with such turnover in a short period of time.

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Evaluating the New Red Sox Bullpen Arms At the Break

A Two-Headed Monster

Martin and Jansen have added much-needed stability as a one-two punch. Jansen in particular provides Boston with an everyday closer they didn’t have last year. The borderline Hall-of-Famer notched his 400th career save earlier this year, ranks 10th in saves (19), and 17th in WAR among all relievers in baseball.

More importantly, his mental health is a lot better after struggling mightily during the 2020 postseason run with the Dodgers. Since that low point of his career, Jansen has led the league in saves from 2021-2023, and the Sox in general rank 12th in saves this year after ranking 19th last year.

Martin has been even more impressive, somehow. A recent Tweet from Sammy James demonstrates a guy in his prime. Through the All-Star break, Martin has a 1.57 ERA, a .98 WHIP, and has only walked three batters out of 111 tries.

His incredibly low ERA ranks 7th out of 171 qualified relievers and his 2.7 % walk rate ranks first among qualified relievers.

By many accounts, Martin continues to be a breath of fresh air for a bullpen that surrendered way too many walks last year (ranked bottom six in walk rate). As we all know, walks lead to runs, especially at the end of games when things get tight. Any baserunner could mean trouble in those late innings.

A Big Surprise

The Sox knew what they were getting with Jansen and Martin, at least on paper, but I think everyone is surprised about how good Brennan Bernardino has been.

The 31-year-old second-year player features similar mechanics as Chris Sale: the abrupt leg kick, the quasi-sidearm release, as well as a whiplash follow-through. He provides the type of abrasive motion that throws hitters off a bit, and the stats show.

Boston picked him up off waivers once the Seattle Mariners released him. After starting slow in Worcester during the beginning of April, the Sox called him up at the end of the month, and ever since then, he’s been a pleasant surprise.

He ranks 42nd in ERA (2.51) out of 231 relief pitchers who have pitched at least 20 innings this year, and while he’s not a high strikeout guy, he makes up for that issue in groundball and walk rate where he ranks 30th among those same 231 pitchers in the former and top 60 in the latter.

It will be interesting to see how he handles the rest of the year as his innings start to mount. It’s also worth noting that Alex Cora has used him as a starter in a couple of recent situations as part of the manager’s “bullpen games” to make up for the frequent injuries we’ve seen in the rotation. My hope is with the deadline coming up, the Sox can find another starter so a guy like Bernardino can slot back into a more comfortable spot.

Winckowski’s Recent Slide

Despite some obvious improvements in the bullpen, the Sox haven’t been immune to some sticky situations.

Josh Winckowski, for example, appears to be feeling the weight of a long MLB season after a stellar start.

A 3.22 cumulative ERA for 2023 is definitely serviceable for a middle reliever, but Winckowski’s last 28 days have been abysmal (6.00 ERA after a 2.27 ERA from March to May). So, why the sudden decline? Well, he’s giving up way too many homers and walks. According to Baseball Reference, Winckowski has surrendered eight homers all year, but five of them have come over the past month while half of his 16 walks have also come during that span.

Beyond the hard stats, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Winckowski is struggling all of a sudden. His Baseball Savant numbers show a fastball spin and velocity in lower percentiles so maybe hitters are just catching up to his stuff finally.

But my other hypothesis for his recent decline is a larger workload. In 2022, his rookie year, Winckowski appeared in three to five games a month, but with a loss of players and added injuries this year, Winckowski is expected to carry a bigger load. He’s appeared in about nine games per month in 2023 and has already surpassed his innings amount compared to last year. I’m not ringing the panic bell, but this is something to keep an eye on.

Some Injuries and Bad Performances

A closer look at some ERAs, and it’s apparent how much guys like Martin and Jansen are carrying the bullpen.

The cadre of Kaleb Ort, Rodriguez, Kluber, Richard Bleier, and Justin Garza carries an ERA of 7.93, a stat that would probably be dead last in any baseball league at any level. I didn’t even include Brasier in this list because he was cut earlier this year after posting a 7.29 ERA.

But the real Achilles heel of this bullpen is the injuries. Five of their bigger names have been, and still are, on the IL, including Bleier and Ort. Schreiber, who pitched really well in his first 18 games, suffered a right teres major strain but is hopefully expected to be back soon.

Couple that with three major injuries to the rotation, and the Sox pitching overall is….thin right now.

A Possible Silver Lining

Aside from Schreiber almost returning, there are a couple of other things to be somewhat optimistic about as a Sox fan, despite the obvious issues.

For one, Pivetta has found a groove since Cora made the genius move of sending him to the bullpen. His 2.87 ERA in the last 28 days is a lot better than the 5.65 ERA he posted in April and May as a starter.

The Red Sox bullpen also has two rookies worth watching for the rest of the year: Chris Murphy and Brandon Walter. Both have combined for a 2.2 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 27 innings so far. Walter in particular pitched two shutout innings in a difficult Texas Rangers series right before the All-Star break.

It will be interesting to see what the front office does with them once guys come back from injuries, but nonetheless, it’s nice to keep tabs on them.

The Lowdown

The Red Sox clearly have a much-improved bullpen from last year, despite a few obstacles. Once Schreiber and Rodriguez return, the bullpen should be even better.

For now, though, the ball is in Bloom’s court. If the Sox trade for a starter at the deadline, some of these “bullpen games” can finally vanish. Once everyone returns to their roles, things should look a little peachier.

Main photo credits:

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Players mentioned:

Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Chris Martin, Joely Rodriguez, Kenley Jansen, Tanner Houck, Garrett Whitlock, Corey Kluber, Nick Pivetta, Chris Sale, John Schreiber, Brennan Bernardino, Josh Winckowski, Kaleb Ort, Richard Bleier, Justin Garza, Chris Murphy, Brandon Walter


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