Whatever high the Red Sox fan base had felt the past few days, as Boston brought the gap between themselves and a playoff berth as close as it has been in months, dissolved almost entirely thanks to a single inning in this afternoon’s contest. I don’t want to get into whether or not John Lackey should have stayed in the game, or whether or not Jonathan Papelbon should be the closer or not (just count me as a fan of Sully’s plan), but I do want to take a look at the bullpen as a whole.
Thanks to a bullpen without depth, Jonathan Papelbon has no wiggle room. That isn’t to say he’s without blame for this season–he is no longer the relief ace he used to be, and he is not as reliable as he once was, and things will get worse with him before they get better. The thing is, we wouldn’t notice as much if the Sox had more than two arms worth bringing in from the pen. They have two bullets each game, one named Daniel Bard, and the other Papelbon, and compared to past years Papelbon doesn’t shoot nearly as straight as he used to.
This shouldn’t be a shock–while many people pointed to the lineup as if it was going to be the problem in 2010, the bullpen was always the issue. It was an issue in 2009, but it was overshadowed by a poor defense and a Red Sox record that had more wins in it than it should have. It was going to be even more of an issue in 2010, with Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito leaving. The thing is, with the combination of starting pitching, defensive upgrades and the lineup, the bullpen was going to be the lone weakness on an otherwise stellar club–New York is structured similarly, as the pen is their Achille’s Heel as well.
Then the injuries started to pile up, and the Red Sox roster envisioned in February and March was rarely together on the field, meaning the glaring weakness that was the bullpen was relied upon more often, shouldering more of the load, and their inadequacies magnified because of it. In terms of performance over replacement level, the Sox pen has cost the team somewhere in the area of two-to-three wins this year, three wins they will likely wish they had when the end of September comes around.
WXRL is wins above replacement for relief pitchers. It uses the importance of a situation (leverage) along with performance to calculate a reliever’s value. Looking at the team rankings for WXRL, the Red Sox look spiffy, as they sit in ninth in the majors. Take a deeper look though, and you find that is all due to Daniel Bard, whose 4.2 WXRL puts him fourth in the league and #1 amongst non-closers. The rest of the Red Sox bullpen has combined for 1.5 WXRL, which is to say the entire rest of the Red Sox bullpen has the same value as Atlanta’s Peter Moylan, who ranks #42 in the statistic.
That isn’t all Papelbon’s fault either–Paps has been the #2 reliever on the club with 2.6 WXRL. The problem has been everyone after those two. Ramon Ramirez ranked third with 0.49 WXRL. Ramirez is now gone, meaning Dustin Richardson has inherited third place. Manny Delcarmen has looked better of late, but he was no better than replacement level prior to that. Felix Doubront (though that’s in a small sample), Michael Bowden, Scott Schoeneweis, Fernando Cabrera, and the worst offender of them all, Hideki Okajima, have all been worse than replacement level. This means that you could pull a random pitcher from Pawtucket or the waiver wire and they would more than likely pitcher better than any of the above.
In his 32 1/3 innings pitched, Okajima has cost the Red Sox just shy of a full win under replacement. Combine the efforts of all of the negatives above, and you get -2.1, or two wins under replacement level. The only difference between the Red Sox and the worst bullpens in the majors is Bard, and you can’t use him every single game–nor should you have to.
The Red Sox know they have a terrible bullpen. Terry Francona knows it as well. There’s little to be done about it, and given the construction of the roster and the amount of depth they have everywhere else on the team and in the minors, it’s hard to even complain about it. No team is perfect, and in Boston’s case, even without the injuries, the bullpen is that spot of imperfection. The fact that everything else has gone wrong has just caused it to blow up in a way the team may not be able to afford.