Monday, July 18, 2011

The Unsung Heroes

Throughout the year, the Red Sox have been dealing with some well publicized health issues in their starting rotation. Except for Josh Beckett, all the guys in the preseason rotation have spent time on the DL, and Beckett missed 13 days with the flu. However, the team has managed to compile the best record in their division, and the second best in all of baseball. One of the bigger reasons, and one that has not gotten enough publicity, is the great pitching from their bullpen.
Of course, the back of the 'pen has been the biggest strength of this unit. In the 8th inning, the Red Sox have been able to call upon a guy who has been one of the most dominant set up men in the game for the past two years. Daniel Bard is currently in the midst of a league best 22 1/3 scoreless inning streak. He has been flat out dominant in this time, posting an opponent's triple slash line of .179/.258/.339 in high leverage situations. Most impressively, he is avoiding free passes at a better rate than he has in any other point in his career. He is only walking 7% of the batters he has faced this year (He is typically around 10%), whiles striking out 26.4%. Finally, his FIP is currently standing at 2.66, a career best that indicates not much regression is lying ahead.

Behind him in the bullpen is one of the biggest questions coming into the season, Jonathan Papelbon. The closer has returned to pitching how we saw him in 2007 and 2008. His FIP is at 2.09, which shows that his 3.96 ERA is from a couple of outings, but he has been very good as a whole. He is striking out more batters (32.3%) than he has since 2007, and has walked less batters (4.9%) than he has in his entire career. What's even more amazing about Pap's performance is that he has done all of this with an opponent's BABIP of .361, about 80 points higher than his career mark. All indicators point to Papelbon staying strong throughout the year. Between him and Bard, the Red Sox have been able to shorten games by only having to win the first seven innings, as their one-two punch at the back of the bullpen is amongst the best the league has to offer.

It hasn't just been these two guys, though. The front end of the bullpen has been great this year as well, leading the the Red Sox having the second-highest WAR in their bullpen in baseball. One of the more pleasant surprises of this 'pen has been Matt Albers. He has come up big all year, posting an ERA of 2.37, with a very similar FIP of 2.57. One of the biggest reasons for Albers' improvement this year compared to the rest of his career is his 23.8% strikeout rate, which is about 9 points higher than his career mark. Another huge presence in the bullpen has been Alfredo Aceves. His value has shown more recently, as a guy who can eat up innings after the starter fails to last long into the game. Although he has struggled as a starter, Aceves has posted a 2.13 ERA in relief this year. In this time in which the team's starting pitching depth is being tested by injuries, they are relying on starters who are not particularly adept at pitching deep into games. Because of this, having a guy like Aceves, who can go three or four scoreless innings, is huge. It keeps them in games that could otherwise turn into a blowout loss.

Keep in mind, all of this production out of the bullpen is coming without Bobby Jenks, who has been injured and/or ineffective all year. Dan Wheeler struggled at the beginning of the year, but has been returning to form this year. The team's offense has been getting most of the publicity, and deservedly so. However, don't forget about the unheralded relief pitchers. Without them, the Red Sox would be having a much tougher time making it through this stretch with all the injuries to the starting pitching.

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