Last year, the Red Sox bullpen was a key reason why the team won the World Series. Led by All-Stars Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima, the 2007 Red Sox bullpen had the second lowest ERA in baseball at 3.10, as well as the lowest opponents' batting average at .226.
But a major reason for this success was STARTING pitching. The starters went deep into games which kept the total innings thrown by relievers to a minimum. The Red Sox bullpen pitched 447.0 innings, the 3rd lowest total in baseball. The Sox starters threw the 4th most innings in baseball at 991.2. This translates into 6.12 innings per game. On average the Sox bullpen only threw 2.76 innings per game (the reason 6.12 and 2.76 don't add up to 9 is the discrepancy caused by extra innings games, weather shortened games, and games in which the home team doesn't bat in the 9th).
With Papelbon and Okajima each going an inning, in theory, the rest of the Sox bullpen would only have to pitch in less than an innings worth of work, on average. This was why the Sox had a bullpen ERA of 3.10.
But will that be the case in 2008? Both Schilling and Colon will be coming off injuries (assuming they eventually come off them), and neither are in tip top shape. Lester has a major difficulty keeping his pitch count low enough to go deep into games. And Tim Wakefield has shown a propensity for being figured out by opposing hitters, forcing him to leave early.
If the Sox starters can't get to a total of around 980 innings, the bullpen will become a major problem. It just isn't deep enough to handle that kind of workload.
Now for a look at the bullpen from top to bottom:
Jonathan Papelbon returned as the closer in '07, and did extremely well. He had 37 saves, with only 3 blown saves (92.5%0). He also added a pair of holds. His WHIP of 0.771 was outstanding, his ERA of 1.85 was great, and his 84 strikeouts in 58.1 IP were beautiful.
He also had a perfect post-season, going 10.2 innings, not allowing a run, allowing only 5 hits and 4 walks, striking out 7 and going 1-0 with 4 saves. He saved games 2, 3 and 4 of the World Series, which was huge because Okajima appeared to run out of gas in October.
In 2007, the Red Sox tried to keep Papelbon healthy. The collapse of the '06 team happened at about the same time as Papelbon stopped pitching, and the Sox wanted their premier closer to be healthy in September and October. So they avoided pitching him for more than an inning (only went more than 1.0 IP in three games). They avoided pitching him more than two days in a row (only had one stretch of 3 consecutive games). They gave him regular rest and regular work whenever possible. And it worked.
Papelbon isn't a guy who will go out there and get 50 saves. The Sox won't let him. He isn't a guy who will make 75 appearances, or pitch 100 innings of relief. The Sox won't let him. But he is a guy who will make about 60 appearances, around 40 saves (with very few blown saves), and give you a solid 60 innings of work. He'll be the glory end of the bullpen once more, getting 36 saves, with an ERA below 2.00 and a WHIP below 1.000.
Hideki Okajima made his debut as a Red Sox Star on April 20th, when he pitched a hitless 9th against the Yankees, earning the save in a classic 7-6 victory. After allowing a homerun in his MLB debut on April 2nd, he didn't allow another run until May 22nd. He recorded 5 saves and 27 saves for the Sox.
Before August, Okajima was one of the best relievers in baseball. He was named to the All-Star team, had an ERA of 0.87 at the end of July, and had only 1 blown save. But in August, things stated to unravel. He allowed 6 runs in 10.2 innings in August (5.06 ERA), then allowed 6 more in 6.2 September innings (8.10 ERA). It got to a point that the Red Sox had to shut him down for a bit. The rest seemed to work as he pitched well in the ALDS and CS. But in the World Series, particularly Game 4, the mediocrity returned.
I'm not doctor, but what Okajima went through at the end of the 2007 season was a lot like what Papelbon went through. The stress of pitching so often wore him out. The Japanese baseball season is about 20 games shorter than the Major League season.
In 2006, Okajima made 55 appearances for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, pitching 54.2 innings. The Japanese leagues also have a different, and shorter, playoff system. Instead of a best of 5 series (LDS), then two best of 7 series (LCS and World Series), the Japanese have a qualifying best of 3 series between the 3rd and 2nd place teams in the league, with the winner advancing to a best of 5 series with the top placed team. The winner of the best of 5 plays the opposing League champion in the Japan Series. So to summarize, an American post-season can be as long as 17 games. A Japanese post-season can only last for 13 games.
Hideki's statistical decline began right around the time he reached the 54 inning mark at the end of July. This was what he did in an entire year in Hokkaido, but the season was only 2/3 over in Boston.
It will be interesting to see if the Red Sox try to keep Okajima fresh in the same way Papelbon was kept healthy. Okajima was the go-to-guy in '07 whenever Papelbon was unavailable to close, but that stress proved costly at the end of the year. The Sox should make a considered effort to keep Okajima's innings to around 10 a month in order to keep him on his game in September and October.
Mike Timlin was solid in 2007, making 50 appearances with an ERA of 3.42. But he missed most of the month of May, and didn't pitch in very many close game situations. With Okajima, Papelbon, and a strong starting staff; he didn't need to. He tallied 8 holds, a save, and 2 wins.
But Mike turned 42 a few days ago. He's pitched 17 Major League seasons, and over 1,100 innings. Throw in 48 post-season innings, and he's over 1,200. In '03, '04, and '05, he was pitched incessantly. Since then, he's been a semi-mop-up kind of guy, or a reserve set-up man. He's gone from late relief to middle relief.
Like Papelbon, and Okajima, the Red Sox will have to keep a close eye on Timlin's innings and appearances. I doubt he'll pitch two games in a row, or go more than 1.1 innings. He'll be a means to fill the gap between the starters and the finishers. But a means that can't be used very often. Fifty appearances sounds just about right for him. Anything more and his arm might fall off. 56 appearances will put him 6th on the all-time list.
Timlin is a solid experienced pitcher, which will help out younger guys like Papelbon, Delcarmen, and even Okajima. Having 4 World Series rings tends to do that.
Javier Lopez's 2007 numbers are slightly deceiving. He had an ERA of 3.10. But ERA for a bullpen pitcher (especially one like Lopez who comes in with runners on, and rarely pitches to more than two batters) is a useless statistic. He had a WHIP of 1.328, which isn't bad, but isn't good. Opponents hit .240 off him, with an OBP of .335. Again, not bad, not good.
What bugged me about Lopez is that his role was that of a situational lefty. He was brought in to get lefties out, then removed from the game after 1 or 2 batters. But lefties hit .293 off Lopez, with a .366 OBP. Lopez inherited 49 runners in 2007, and 15 of them scored (31%).
For comparison, here are how the other Sox relievers did with inherited runners:
Manny Delcarmen - 26 inherited, 5 scored, 19.2%
Hideki Okajima - 28 inherited, 4 scored, 14.3%
Jonathan Papelbon - 19 inherited, 5 scored, 26.3%
Kyle Snyder - 19 inherited, 6 scored, 31.5%
Julian Tavarez - 7 inherited, 1 scored, 14.3%
Mike Timlin - 25 inherited, 6 scored, 24.0%
Papelbon and Snyder have high percentages, but they're utilized best when starting a fresh inning anyway. But a guy like Lopez is used in the middle of innings, WITH RUNNERS ON. But 3 times out of 10, those runners would score.
These runs had no impact on his ERA. He allowed 14 earned runs all year, but 15 more runs were allowed when he was pitching. Furthermore, inherited runners he left to other pitchers (mostly to Okajima or Delcarmen), were frequently stranded.
The fact that lefties hit well against him, and that he struggled with inherited runners (not a new thing for him, he's inherited 199 runners in his career, 52 or 26.1% have scored) adds up to one thing:
JAVIER LOPEZ SHOULD NOT BE USED AS A SITUATIONAL LEFTY!!!
I'm not saying he's a bad pitcher, but the role he fills right now simply isn't for him. He could be a decent middle-reliever, pitching in the 6th inning, eating up innings in 4 or 5 run games in order to save strain on Timlin or Okajima. But coming in to face a tough lefty with a runner on? That's bad news.
Manny Delcarmen will be a key to any success the Red Sox have in 2008. He had a solid 2007, making 44 appearances, pitching 44 innings, with an ERA of 2.05. Opponents hit .183 off him, with a measly OBP of .270.
With Papelbon, Okajima, and Timlin all limited in terms of innings and appearances, Delcarmen will be called upon to fill in the voids. He'll be used as a set-up alternative to Okajima, and he just might have to close a game or two in a pinch.
Delcarmen is an X-factor. What he'll do in a full Major League season is unclear. But if he can give the Sox 60 or 70 solid innings, with an ERA at around 3.00, the Red Sox will become an extremely powerful team in the late innings. But if he falters, or has to go down to AAA, the Red Sox bullpen will begin to collapse.
Kyle Snyder is a decent man for the job he does on the team. He's the long-relief, the mop-up, the guy who goes in there when the starter is pulled in the 4th. He's the guy who pitches the 15th and 16th innings of a marathon game. He put up an ERA of 3.81 in '07, and for his role, that's pretty good.
Snyder wasn't needed too much last season. He only made 46 appearances for 54.1 innings. That was a good sign that the starters were going deep into games. But with the cast of characters assembled for 2008, he might be needed a bit more often.
There are some rumblings of Snyder being a starter, at least at the beginning of the year. But I don't see that happening unless there's an emergency. The Sox would use Buchholz, and Tavarez before Snyder got a crack at starting. Moreover, Snyder's history as a starter isn't a very attractive one.
Julian Tavarez is a man who may begin the season starting games, but will eventually find himself in the bullpen. He had a below average 2007, with occasional sparks of brilliance overshadowed by consistently poor performances.
When the Red Sox acquired Tavarez, he was coming off two very good years with St. Louis and a solid season with Pittsburgh. But since coming to Boston, he's struggled.
The only explanation I can come up with is that he has no consistent role with the Red Sox. He's started 29 games with the Sox, and he has never been a good starter. He's finished 13 games, and has made 50 other relief appearances. He's all over the place.
Then again, if you look at his career in its entirety, he's never been consistent. In 1997 and 1998, he pitched solidly for the Giants, making 149 relief appearances with an ERA of 3.83. Then in '99, he makes 47 appearances with an ERA of 5.93.
There's a reason why the Red Sox are Julian's 8th different team. His performance is a massive question mark every year.
I'm not gonna lie, I have no clue as to what Tavarez will do in 2008, and neither does anyone else. He might pitch great, fit in as a set-up man, or even in the rotation as the #4 or #5 starter, but he might go out there and rack up a 6.23 ERA.
David Aardsma holds the notable distinction of being the first man in an alphabetical list of every Major League Baseball player ever. He was also one of the few additions the Red Sox made over the off-season.
He's only 26, but he's already with his 4th organization. A good way of looking at this deal is to say that Aardsma is the bullpen's version of Bartolo Colon. He doesn't cost the team that much, but he has a significant amount of upside.
Aardsma has had a few decent years in several minor league systems. After being drafted out of Rice, he dominated at A+ San Jose with a 1.96 ERA and 8 saves in 18 games. In 2004, the Giants promoted him up to AAA Fresno where he had a 3.09 ERA and 11 saves in 44 games. He spent 2005 at AA in Norwich (San Francisco) and West Tennessee (Chicago Cubs), and did well, even starting a few games.
In 2006, he made 29 appearances for AAA Iowa, and 45 appearances for the Cubbies. He didn't do badly in his first consistent amount of Major League work. He was 3-0, had 5 holds, a 4.08 ERA, twice as many strikeouts as walks, and an opponent batting average of .214.
But he faltered in 2007 after being traded across town to the White Sox. He had a 4.33 ERA in AAA Charlotte, and a 6.40 ERA in 25 appearances for the White Sox.
But he's got potential. He can strike guys out and make a lot of appearances. He won't be starting this season with his 4th different AAA club (at least not yet), which I'm sure will be a major relief for him.
The word "journeyman" comes to mind when Bryan Corey's name is mentioned. The Red Sox are his 9th organization, and he's actually changed teams 10 times. He had two non-consecutive stints with both the Cubs and Tigers. He's played for 13 different minor league teams. If you're planning on touring the PCL, he's the guy to ask where the good bars are in Des Moines.
Corey's had some modest success in the Majors, but nothing amazing. He's at the bottom of the bullpen and will probably throw more pitches at McCoy Stadium than in Pawtucket.
Twenty-seven year old Connecticutter Crag Breslow will start the year in AAA, but he did decently in limited time with the Big Club in '07. He hasn't put up the kind of miles that Corey has, but his career is shaping up to be that of a journeyman's. Don't expect to see much of him unless he's filling in for someone else.
A glimpse at Craig Hansen's teams in 2005 tells the story of how much was expected from him. He made 30 relief appearances and 1 start for St. John's University. Then he made 2 appearances and pitched 3 innings for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox. Then he made 8 appearances with AA Portland. Then he made 4 appearances for the Boston Red Sox.
Then in 2006, he only made 19 minor league appearances before once again pitching in Fenway, and once again he struggled. Before last year, spent entirely in Pawtucket, Hansen had more Major League appearances and innings than minor league.
It's easy for me to say in hindsight, but bringing a kid up so quickly, especially a pitcher, is just a bad idea. You can bring hitters up right out of college. Hitters are used to slumps and occasional failure. Hell, great hitters FAIL 2 out of every 3 times at the plate. But pitchers are different. They have sporadic bad outings, but most of the time it's a cakewalk.
Just imagine this: you're a pitcher. You've DOMINATED every level you've pitched at. Little League, AAU, American Legion, high school, college. Then the World Series Champions draft you 26th overrall, and you go to Fort Myers, do well, then you go to Portland, do well. And then you make your Major League debut and throw a perfect inning of relief, striking out 2, against the D-Rays.
You're on top of the world. You're rich, you're in The Show, you go to any bar in Greater Boston and score, then you come into the 7th inning of a 2-0 game in Baltimore.
You strike out the first batter. You give up a single to the next guy, no big deal. Then Melvin Mora comes up. You make one tiny little mistake and BOOM it's a homerun, the games tied 2-2, just like that. You get a groundball off the next guy, then Jay Gibbons singles up the middle and Javy Lopez doubles to left field. You get pulled with the go ahead run on 3rd, and eventually saved by Mike Myers.
But you realize that this is some hard stuff. Guys like Gibbons and Lopez are dime a dozen in The Show, but to a guy who's used to making Villanova hitters look silly, they mind as well be Babe Ruth.
A few days later, you're put into a 5-5 game in the 8th inning with 1 out and runners on 2nd and 3rd. You give up one fly-ball, it drives the runner in. Someone else gets the earned run and the loss, but you were the one on the mound when the winning run scored.
Pitchers are supposed to be nurtured and developed through the minor leagues. Some guy might already have the mechanics down, the pitches set, and his location perfect; but there's more to pitching than the physical side. You need confidence. You need to be able to brush off a mistake. You need to stay calm and relaxed.
Craig Hansen never got a chance to learn all that. He was brought into the Majors way too fast, shoved into the position of back-end relief before he framed his degree.
Unfortunately, Hansen will probably never be what he could have been, at least not for the Sox. A change of scenery might do him good, and there are plenty of teams willing to wager on his stuff.
The Sox bullpen will look strange when they're in Japan. With only two starters necessary for the trip, an 11 man staff would include 9 relievers. This means guys like Aardsma and Corey will make the trip. But when the real season begins, the pen will probably look like this:
Closer: Jonathan Papelbon
Set-up: Hideki Okajima
Set-up: Manny Delcarmen
Set-up: Mike Timlin
Mid-relief: Kyle Snyder
Long-relief: Julian Tavarez
And maybe Javier Lopez as a situational lefty (gag).
That's not too bad. But in order for it to be succesful for the entire year, Papelbon, Okajima, and Timlin need to be protected. Their innings need to be monitored very closely. This means Delcarmen has to fill those innings with quality. And the starters have to go deep into games like they did last year.
The Japan Times
The Baseball Cube