Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! Over the next four months, we’ll be breaking down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
The 2016 season will be Pat Light’s most important yet. After being added to the Red Sox’s 40-man roster earlier this winter, expectations are beginning to rise for the soon-to-be 25-year-old right-hander, and that makes sense considering this will be his fifth year in their system. In addition to being his fifth overall, this will be Light’s second season out of the bullpen, which means he and the team will be unable to use the “learning curve: excuse in the face of any early struggles. There is a lot of pressure on Light as he enters Spring Training with the big league club, but make no mistake about it; with pressure comes opportunity, and that is something the Red Sox are likely to give him at some point this season.
There is little doubt the Red Sox thought Light would have broken through by now when they selected him with their supplemental first-round pick in 2012. A pick they received, quite coincidentally given his current makeup, as compensation from the Philadelphia Phillies for their signing of Jonathan Papelbon. However, Light’s rise and growth within the system was stunted as a result of a switch in his role prior to last season.
For his first three years in the Red Sox system, Light was being groomed as a starter with a three-pitch repertoire: fastball, slider and changeup. His fastball was consistently in the low 90s during this part of his career, but he had the ability to turn it up when he had to. Things started out well for Light, who immediately reported to Lowell after being drafted. He started 12 games that year, pitched 30.1 innings and finished with 30 strikeouts, 5 walks and a 2.37 era. However, that would be the last time Light saw success as a starter.
In 2013, after moving up a level to Greenville, Light started nine games and pitched 28.1 innings. He surrendered 44 hits, issued 14 walks and finished with an 8.89 ERA. In 2014, after moving up another level, he started 22 games and pitched 115 innings, surrendering 135 hits, issuing 35 walks and compiling a 4.93 era. However, of most concern to the Red Sox at the time was his low strikeout rate, which had dipped to a career-low 11.2%. Given his performance to date and ability to reach back and throw in the upper 90’s, the organization decided to make a change and try Light out as a reliever in 2015 — a role many had him pegged for when the Sox first drafted him.
What Went Right in 2015
Light began the 2015 season in Portland and he did so with a brand-new pitch repertoire. He shelved his slider and changeup, which he had limited success with, and started to throw a splitter that he used throughout college, but never after. Armed with an upper-90s fastball and swing-and-miss splitter, Light set out to prove himself as a reliever and he did just that. After giving up six earned runs in his first nine innings with Portland, Light settled in and surrendered only two runs over his next 20.2 innings. It was at that point he was called up to Pawtucket. Overall, Light finished his time in Portland with the following numbers: 21 appearances; 29.2 IP; 18 hits; 3 HR; 11 walks; 32 strikeouts and a 2.43 era. Simply put, he was dominant, striking out 27.1% of the batters he faced, with opponents only hitting .168 off him. All the reason why it was the right time for him to move up and test himself in Pawtucket.
What Went Wrong in 2015
Light was unable to find the same success in Pawtucket, and that had a lot to do with his loss of command. He appeared in 11 games before the Triple-A All-Star Break, which saw him walk 12 batters in 11.1 innings and only strike out 10. Opponents hit .318 off him during this 11-game stretch and he compiled an 8.74 ERA. It was one of the worst stretches of his career and by far the worst in his short time as a reliever.
During the second-half of the Triple-A season, although Light never obtained the level of success he found in Portland, he did improve. He pitched 21.1 innings over 15 appearances, held batters to a .210 average and compiled a 3.32 ERA. Most importantly his strikeout and walk numbers improved. In the first half, he struck out 10 and walked 12, but in the second half, he walked 14 and struck out 25. While his command remained an issue, the return of his swing-and-miss stuff was encouraging for he and the Red Sox organization.
Despite the strong finish, there is no question that Light struggled through much of his 33 innings in Pawtucket. Overall, he surrendered 31 hits and walked 26 batters. Contrast that with his near-30 innings in Portland, where he surrendered 18 hits and walked 11 batters.
There were a lot of encouraging signs from Light’s 2015 season, which is why at the end of the year, BP Boston’s Alex Skillin labeled him one of the top five prospects to watch for in 2016. It is important to remember that while he struggled during much of his time in Pawtucket, it was not only his first time pitching out of the bullpen, but also his first battle with Triple-A hitters. It is entirely plausible, and reasonable for that matter, to imagine he was simply over-matched when he first arrived there. However, recently, a new theory arose that the Red Sox think he was tipping pitches. It is an issue they have figured out this offseason, but if true, may explain Light’s struggles. Ultimately, Light figured it out long enough to produce a strong month of August (14.1 IP, 8 H, 19 SO, .157 BAA) with Pawtucket, which was something he could hold onto heading into the offseason.
Light did not have to wait long to put some of the things he learned from his time in Pawtucket to work, as he and the Red Sox organization decided to have him pitch and continue his relief work in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Although he once again dealt with command problems, issuing eight walks in 11.1 innings, he struck out 10 batters and compiled an impressive 1.59 ERA.
Light is likely going to debut with the Red Sox in 2016. That is no doubt the plan, and anything less will be disappointing to both him and the organization. He’s unlikely to start the year in the pen given the offseason acquisitions of Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith and out-of-options players like Tommy Layne and Steven Wright ahead of him, but he’s certainly in the next tier of depth.
Regardless of who wins the 12th spot out of Spring Training, I think Light is going to throw his first pitch in Fenway Park in 2016 for the following reasons: (1) barring a complete meltdown both this spring and to begin the Triple-A season, he is going to be one of the next men up in case of an injury or need; (2) on the injury front, Koji Uehara is turning 41-years-old in April and dealt with injuries and slightly diminishing stuff this past season; (3) Matt Barnes has yet to find success at the Major League level and there is not much reason to believe anything will be different this season; and (4) Light fits the mold of what GM Dave Dombrowski wants in his bullpen and that is the ability to throw 100 MPH.
If there is a need and Light is pitching well, Dombrowski will not hesitate to give him a chance. Light could give the Red Sox yet another flame-throwing righty out of the pen, and thanks to Boston’s offseason moves, he shouldn’t be rushed into high-leverage situations right away. That’s a great situation for a reliever to find himself in, and Light could position himself for a more consequential role in 2017 and beyond.
Photo by Kelly O’Connor, www.sittingstill.smugmug.com