Analysis: Reliable Red Sox bullpen shouldn’t get lost in shuffle of last-place finish

When a top baseball operations executive gets fired, especially as abruptly as Chaim Bloom’s dismissal in mid-September, it’s difficult not to see the forest for the trees, but to see the trees for the forest.

Likewise for a team that collectively finishes last, especially when it’s the third time in four seasons; the parts may be great, but they’re obscured by their sum.

In a rebuild, a general manager-type leader’s true impact is often felt later. When the farm system Bloom replenished produces strong Major League talent in coming years, the Red Sox will benefit, but he won’t be around to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

For now, at least, give Bloom credit for the bullpen he made over.

After the ‘pen blew 29 saves (fourth-most in MLB) in 2022, the Red Sox made three significant changes. They signed Chris Martin and Kenley Jansen to two-year deals, and cut bait with Matt Barnes, designating him for assignment and trading him to the Miami Marlins for left-hander Richard Bleier.

It’s been a long time since the Red Sox had a one-two punch like Martin and Jansen for the eighth and ninth innings. Martin finished the season with a 1.05 ERA (434 ERA+) and 1.032 WHIP across 55 appearances, including 12 games finished and three saves. At the end of the season, he’d only given up six earned runs, two homers, eight walks, and had struck out 46 batters over 51 ⅓ innings. Two of those earned runs came within the first month of the season; between July 30 and season’s end, he didn’t allow a single run over his last 20 outings.

Not since Brandon Workman in 2019 had a Red Sox reliever posted a sub-2 ERA over at least 50 outings. Martin is only the 12th reliever in franchise history to put up such numbers, and he’s only outdone by Jonathan Papelbon, who posted a 0.92 ERA in 2006.

Martin, 37, was the ninth-oldest pitcher in the American League this season, but ranked alongside not only the best relievers, but the best starting pitchers in several metrics. His ERA outranked all pitchers (minimum 30 innings), and his 3.8 Win Probability Added (WPA) ranked fourth among AL arms. If teachers gave out A-plus-pluses, Martin would deserve an even better grade.

Despite some injuries, Jansen continued on his Hall of Fame trajectory. Early on, he converted his 400th career save, becoming the seventh player in MLB history to join that exclusive club. His 29 saves were eighth-most in the Majors this year.

Throughout the season, too, the Red Sox made improvements to the relief core. They claimed Brennan Bernardino off waivers from the Seattle Mariners, and designated Ryan Brasier for assignment and released him in mid-May. Ahead of the trade deadline, they acquired Mauricio Llovera from the San Francisco Giants, who didn’t have room for him on their roster.

Despite only 2 ⅓ career Major League innings under his belt when he arrived, Bernardino proved to be one of this season’s unsung heroes, a strong addition to the bullpen and clubhouse. The 31-year-old rookie did whatever was asked of him; his 55 outings (all with Boston) included six starts and eight games finished, and he ended the season with a 3.20 ERA.

Llovera was better than his 5.46 ERA suggests. A few rough outings, including giving up five earned runs to the Toronto Blue Jays in a 13-1 loss, marred what was a mostly solid 25-game stint with the team. Though opposing batters hit .265 against him, it was mostly weaker contact; lineups slugged only .364 against him, with six doubles and two home runs among the 32 hits he gave up.

The Red Sox also benefited from several long-relief options. Josh Winckowski, who debuted as a starter in 2022, spent the entire 2023 campaign in the bullpen, save for one start. He appeared in 60 games, finished eight, and converted three saves. His 2.88 ERA ranked second to Martin among the team’s qualified pitchers.

A struggling Nick Pivetta found himself bounced from the rotation early on, but fueled the demotion into a strong season, and ended the year as a starter once more. His 142 ⅔ innings ranked second on the pitching staff, a combination of 16 starts and 22 games in relief. Dominant relief performances aren’t exactly new for him, though. Remember the 2021 ALDS?

Kutter Crawford also moved back and forth between the rotation and bullpen; he and Pivetta finished the season with identical 4.04 ERAs. However, Crawford spent most of the season in the rotation. His 129 ⅓ innings ranked third on the roster, his 23 starts second only to Brayan Bello. Between the start of August and season’s end, he held opposing batters to a .210 average and .650 OPS. He finished the year on a high note, pitching at least 5 ⅓ innings in each of his last three starts.

While Bleier struggled and didn’t last the full season, the trade didn’t turn out well for Miami, either. Barnes posted a 5.28 ERA, the second-worst mark of his eight-year career, and only pitched 21 ⅓ innings, his lowest season total since his debut in 2014.

Brasier, however, got his revenge. After putting up a 7.29 ERA over 20 games in Boston, he landed in Los Angeles, and posted a 0.70 ERA across 39 outings in Dodger blue, including a scoreless inning at Fenway at the end of August. He, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Joe Kelly became NL West winners together, but the second-place Arizona Diamondbacks did sweep them in the first round of the postseason.

Even with a starting rotation that couldn’t stay healthy or pitch deep into games and an infield that couldn’t defend on even the most routine plays, this was a stronger bullpen than Boston has seen in a long time, with some historically good pitching. Collectively, they only blew 16 saves, the best mark in the Majors; in 2021 and 2018, their most recent postseason years, the bullpen blew 27 and 20 saves, respectively.

It was a welcome change to be able to watch later innings of close games without the usual sense of impending doom. If the Red Sox spend this offseason making serious upgrades to the starting rotation, they’ll put a very solid bullpen – and the team as a whole – in a position to succeed in 2024.

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