In 2015, the Red Sox bullpen was a disaster. Anyone who watched Boston’s unfortunate combination of players give up run after run knows that this was the case. Not only did the team lack talent, they lacked someone who could put up inning after inning on the regular. From last year’s group, only Alexi Ogando (65.3 IP, 44th among relievers), Robbie Ross (60.7 IP, 73rd among relievers), and Junichi Tazawa (58.7 IP, 83rd among relievers) cracked the Top 100 in innings pitched by relief pitchers while pitching for the Sox. Jean Machi (58 IP, 92nd among relievers) did as well while pitching for multiple teams. This was a team that could have used an effective arm to eat innings, be they high-leverage or low-leverage, in their ‘pen. And perhaps the best example of this type of pitcher in Red Sox history was Bob Stanley.
Stanley was a first-round pick of the Red Sox in 1974, and worked his way up the ladder until debuting for the big-league club in 1977. Over his career–all of which he’d spend with Boston–he’d fill a variety of roles. Mostly a reliever (both long and short), he opened up his career as a starter in ’77. (Well, mostly.) At the start of the season he was used mainly as a starter, but by the time mid-June rolled around he was mostly working out of the ‘pen. By the end of the season, he had earned half a win over 151 innings–while he’d posted a 3.99 ERA and 3.93 FIP, his DRA was quite a bit higher at 4.76.
The following year, he spent a few games starting, but mostly lived in the bullpen as the team’s closer and late-inning ace. He appeared in 52 games, all but three as a reliever, and absolutely crushed it. He threw 141.7 innings with a 2.60 ERA and a 3.16 DRA; a large part of this success was due to his signature skill in inducing ground balls. With a 62 percent ground-ball rate this season, Stanley ranked in the top-25 of all pitchers with 50 innings or more that season. That’s a lot of worms killed, but it would also go on to be the worst ground ball rate of his career until 1985. At the same time, Stanley struck out virtually no one–his 2.4 strikeouts per nine was the fourth-lowest mark among that same sample of 247 pitchers. Despite his lack of whiffs, he earned a seventh-place Cy Young finish and the same share of MVP votes as teammate Fred Lynn.
Despite his lack of whiffs, Stanley earned a seventh-place Cy Young finish and the same share of MVP votes as teammate Fred Lynn in 1975.
So how do you follow up a season like that? Naturally, you move back to the starting rotation. Despite spending 30 games as a starter, Stanley also dropped into the ‘pen as needed from time to time, logging another 10 appearances there. He started a game and lasted a third of an inning, he started a game that lasted 10 innings. Along the way, he racked up a career-high in innings: 216.7. His DRA bumped up to 4.24, but he hit the top-10 in ground ball rate and he earned an All-Star selection for the first time in his career.
And that brings us to 1980. With the new decade came a rotation run, until a few poor outings to close June of that season booted him back to the bullpen. It would be the start of Stanley’s long run as the stalwart of the Sox’s bullpen. He went into July with a 4.43 ERA, but his performance in that month made him the Red Sox’s closer by August–in that month he appeared in 15 games, and either won or saved 14 of them. By the time the season was over, he dropped that ERA all the way down to 3.39 over his 175 innings. It wasn’t the almighty success as a starter that he or the team might’ve hoped for, but it set the tone for good things to come at the back of the bullpen.
Of course, before he’d really hit his stride in 1982, there had to be that misspent season of ’81, where his ERA was shiny (3.83), but his DRA was 4.64 and his cFIP was 117, meaning that both his deserved performance and his seasonal true talent level were far below average. The less said about ’81, the better … but this would lead to far better things coming forward for Stanley over the next four seasons.
Unlike the closers of today, Stanley was a pitch-chucking machine; he logged a massive 145.3 innings in just 64 appearances in 1983.
In both 1982 and 1983, Stanley was fire. ’82 saw The Steamer post a 73 percent ground ball rate–no Kent Tekulve (77 percent), but still!–and 3.3 WARP as a full-time reliever. In just 48 relief appearances, he logged a staggering 168.3 innings of work, and saw his strikeout rate rise to non-basement levels at 4.4 punch-outs per nine. Between that and the worm-burning ways of his sinker, he earned 3.3 WARP … and took home his second seventh-place finish in the Cy Young voting. ’83 would be more of the same: an 84 cFIP, an All-Star nod, and MVP votes as the closer for the Red Sox. Unlike the closers of today, Stanley was a pitch-chucking machine; he logged a massive 145.3 innings in just 64 appearances.
1984 and 1985 were very good years for Stanely as well, but he didn’t get the same awards recognition as the previous two seasons. In 194.3 innings over those two seasons, he’d post a 3.24 ERA and a 3.67 FIP, not too much different from his previous two years. The only major difference was the change in those innings pitched. After putting forth something close to starting pitcher innings in each of the past two years, he was merely doing the work of a mortal reliever in both ’84 and ’85.
Then it was on to 1986, or “The Year That Must Be Forgotten.” Stanley had pretty good peripherals (a 3.70 FIP and 88 cFIP put him solidly above-average in terms of walks, strikeouts, and dingers), but his ERA was the highest of his career to that point: an ugly 4.37. Our DRA metric that examines what his deserved performance was 5.67, which earned him a WARP of -0.6. That’s right, he was a below-replacement pitcher for the season. Part of the reason the ERA and DRA numbers differ so was due to his unearned runs–he gave up eight over the course of the season. If you take those into account, his ERA transforms into a 5.25 RA9, something far more ugly.
Then, of course, there was the World Series. In Game 6 of the World Series, he was the pitcher on the mound at the end of the game, attempting to close things out for the Sox. Effective in six appearances prior to Game 6 (2.31 ERA), Stanley relieved Calvin Schiraldi with two outs in the 10th, coming in to face Mookie Wilson. A wild pitch plated Kevin Mitchell, and then Bill Buckner’s error sent the series into a seventh and final game, and delayed the Sox’s grand curse-breaking for another 17 years.
The irony is that Stanley did the one thing he did better than anyone else: he induced the ground ball that he was supposed to. He did his work. Anyway, here’s video, if you need the pain to help you know you’re alive.
After that debacle, life moved on. By ’87, Stanley was nearing the end of his run, but the Sox decided to try and return him to the starting rotation. No matter where he pitched–rotation or ‘pen–he had a rough go of it. In 152.7 innings, he saw his signature ground ball rate dip all the way to 54 percent, and his ERA topped 5.00–just barely–for the year. By 1988, he had fallen back to the ‘pen, where he had a very solid bounceback year (101.7 innings, 3.18 ERA) that also included the lowest DRA of his career: 2.60. 1989 would be his final season, and he scuffled in 79.3 innings as both his strikeout rate and ground ball rate dipped from his career norms. In September, he’d announce his retirement, ending his run with the only team he’d ever play for in his career.
Looking back at the entirety of his career, we get the picture of a thrower who worked wherever he was asked: rotation, swingman, closer, and middle relief. His ability to leverage his rubber arm into multiple-inning stints gave him 1,707 career innings for the Sox, which is the sixth-most among all pitchers with the team since 1900. He only trails Tim Wakefield, Roger Clemens, Cy Young, Luis Tiant, and Mel Parnell. That career ground ball rate of 64 percent was the key to his 3.64 ERA as a useful pitching piece over more than a decade.
Looking back at the entirety of Stanley’s career, we get the picture of a thrower who worked wherever he was asked: rotation, swingman, closer, and middle relief.
I talked a little about the current Sox and how they could use a pitcher like Stanley: a little above average but able to function as swingman or leveraged reliever. But is there anyone on the team as currently constructed who could do this job? Perhaps. The guy that comes to my mind has great stuff and experience starting: Joe Kelly. Kelly could potentially be used as a swing starter or multi-inning reliever if a pitcher like Henry Owens or Roenis Elias bumps him out of the rotation. Kelly also has a pretty sweet ground ball rate–he didn’t display it last season (46 percent), but saw percentages around the mid-50s in previous seasons. Kelly could certainly play a Stanley role in a perfect world.
Reliable, versatile, and effective, Stanley was never a superstar, but was almost always available. Every team would love to have a team lifer like him as part of the plan, and precious few players like him have ever existed. He’s earned his spot in the Sox Hall of Fame, and in the annals of the team’s storied history.
Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images