Junichi Tazawa

The Red Sox’s Pitching Is Terrible In High-Leverage Situations

It happened again on Wednesday. There are many ways to lose a baseball game, but the Red Sox seem to have narrowed their preferences to only a few choices. Let’s look at some recent games.

  • The Red Sox went into the top of the eighth inning with a 6-4 lead on Wednesday but the bullpen couldn’t hold it and when the team finally got off the field the game was tied 6-6.

  • Just the day before the pen turned a 3-3 tie into a 4-3 lead for Tampa in the eighth inning.

  • That came on the heels of the bullpen blowing up Sunday’s game by giving up a billion runs in the sixth inning of what had been a 4-2 Red Sox lead.

  • You may be detecting a pattern here.

  • The bullpen has been having trouble holding leads lately.

  • But it’s not just been the bullpen. Drew Pomeranz gave up a two-run homer in the sixth inning on Tuesday to erase a 3-1 lead before the pen gave up the deciding run later.

  • Last Thursday. Pomeranz gave up a run in the sixth and another in the seventh to turn a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit. The pen even held it there but the offense couldn’t come back and that was that.

Broadly defined, these are all failures in the clutch. Some more than others, but the Red Sox have been lousy in high-leverage situations. Situations with a lot on the line equates to clutch. The concept of clutch is a sticky one for sabermetricians. Basically it goes like this: clutch is not a repeatable skill, at least not as far as we can prove. Now before you jump through your computer, out into my living room, and down my throat, let me say this:  clutch exists. It’s as real as your subscription to Cat Fancy or that huge scratch in the middle of your living room floor. When a player steps up in a tough situation and comes through, that’s clutch. But the fact that it happened doesn’t make it more likely that it will happen again given the same set of circumstances.

Now we get back to the Red Sox. The Red Sox, as you may have noticed from watching them and as I hope I’ve shown from that partial list above, have been remarkably unclutch offensively this season. I wrote a bit about that at the beginning of August right here in this space and nothing has much changed on that front. However, in that piece I focused on the offense, but really, the offense isn’t the problem. Sure, Travis Shaw maybe can’t hit, and Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts have been ice cold all August, but even if that’s the new normal, this team can still be expected to score a lot of runs. Their problem is and has been pitching, and the bullet points above show that the problem is ongoing.

I’m not sure I realized the extent of it until I got a message from our own Brett Cowett. He pointed me towards this statistic from FanGraphs, which shows how team pitching staffs have performed in high-leverage situations this year. The list sorts teams by ERA in high-leverage situations. It should be noted that, in high-leverage situations, teams have very high ERAs, much higher than normal. This likely has to do with the fact that there isn’t much margin for error, there are already runners on, etc. To prove the point, the best pitching staff this season in high-leverage situations is the Cubs and they are the only team with a team ERA below 7.00. So it’s tough. Most teams’ ERAs are between 7.00 and below 10.00. Very few teams are above 10.00. Even fewer are above 11.00. After that you’re left with two teams. You can probably guess at least one of them. That’s right, the Diamondbacks are one! I’m impressed. The other one is the Red Sox, who are actually worse than the Diamondbacks. The Red Sox have a team ERA of 12.42 in high-leverage situations this season. That is unfathomable.

The Red Sox have a team ERA of 12.42 in high-leverage situations this season. That is unfathomable.

Now not all of that is bad luck. Part of it is that the Red Sox haven’t had a stopper in the rotation all year long, part of it is that outside of Craig Kimbrel, they don’t have anyone who has been very good getting those vital innings. A bullpen that was supposed to feature Kimbrel, Carson Smith, Koji Uehara, and Junichi Tazawa instead features a lesser version of Kimbrel, the sad remains of Tazawa, and that’s about it.

To further illustrate the point, FanGraphs also has a stat called Clutch. I don’t want to harp on it too much as I’m not an expert on it, but I will say that the Red Sox pitching staff is second to last in it. The point is, when the game comes down to one pitch, when the series is on the line, the Red Sox have performed well below their true talent level. One could look at that data and say they’ve played that way because they’re soft, but I don’t think so. I think this is due partly to a lack of high end relievers, the kind of guys who were supposed to be in Boston but for various reasons mostly never showed up, but I also think this is just bad luck.

For example, just look at the horrible sixth inning that blew the last game of the Kansas City series wide open. Eduardo Rodriguez gave up a double and walked two, then got a fly ball out. John Farrell pulled him at that point, opting for Matt Barnes. With a 4-2 lead, one out, and the bases full, this is a high leverage situation. So how did Barnes do? Well, horrifically, obviously, except not really as badly as it might seem. He faced five batters, four who put the ball into play. Two of the four balls in play were absolute rockets. The other two though? They were as weakly contacted hits as you’ll ever see. I don’t have the data on it, but I bet hits like those go for outs well over 90 percent of the time. This time they didn’t though and that’s how things got way out of control. Some of it was bad pitching, but some of it was good pitching, or at least a good process that led to a bad result.

The Red Sox bullpen may not get better this season, but even if they don’t, they should be more effective in the future simply because, while being clutch isn’t a repeatable skill, neither is being unclutch. Being bad is a skill, and they are good at that, but even bad major league pitchers get outs.

Photo by David Banks/USA Today Sports Images

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