The Bullpen Isn’t A Disaster Yet

Recently, Red Sox relief pitcher Carson Smith hurt his arm in a potentially-serious way amidst a temper tantrum. This is important for a few reasons — the first being that it’s extremely important that each team has at least one player who gets hurt while either celebrating/being frustrated. Whether it’s Kendrys Morales breaking his leg after hitting a game-winning grand slam, or Joel Zumaya straining his forearm playing Guitar Hero, baseball will forever and always be the land of dumb injuries. Carson Smith’s contribution, while significantly less humorous, is nonetheless important.

On a more serious note, Smith’s injury is just the latest in a litany of them for the team’s bullpen. Tyler Thornburg hasn’t made an appearance this season and is currently being shut down for a few days. Hector Velazquez was put on the 10-day DL recently. Bobby Poyner’s spent some time there, too.

Naturally, news of Smith’s DL stint created an all-too-familiar reaction:

I get it. There are unquestionably deeper bullpens in baseball than that of the Red Sox. But before we go smash the panic button, a few things to consider:

  • The Red Sox bullpen has pitched 147.2 innings this season, which is good for 19th in baseball. You can choose to view this as a bullpen that’s still relatively unproven or you can choose to view this as a bullpen that doesn’t necessarily need to be relied on as heavily as others, thanks in part to a talented starting rotation. It’s not the strongest point, but that’s why I listed it first.
  • Before Wednesday’s game, the top four relievers this year, based on FIP, have been Marcus Walden, Joe Kelly, Craig Kimbrel and Heath Hembree. The latter three are not only healthy but playing a prominent role in the bullpen; outside of Matt Barnes, no pitcher has thrown more innings than the Kelly/Kimbrel/Hembree trio.
  • The Red Sox bullpen has the seventh-best FIP in baseball. Their 8.6 percent walk rate is sixth-best in the league, and their 26.3 percent strikeout rate is fifth-best. Teams aren’t hitting the ball hard against them (31.3 hard-hit percentage — seventh-best in MLB), and they’re doing an average job keeping the ball in the park (11.7 HR/FB percentage — 15th in MLB). And people say this isn’t a quality bullpen?
  • Losing Carson Smith for an extended period of time again would be a colossal bummer. With that said, Smith’s season… hasn’t been all that impressive so far. His strikeout rate hasn’t quite bounced back yet and he was walking over one more batter per game. There’s been a ton of hard contact this year, too. He hasn’t been bad, per se, but the Red Sox aren’t in danger of losing their best relief pitcher if he goes down for a while.
  • Joe Kelly is good this year. We’ve talked about this recently, but it’s worth repeating because hell yeah Joe Kelly is good this year. This could easily open up Joe Kelly: Set-Up Man, which is not great for my nailbeds, but those are of little importance to you and quite frankly, not that important to me either, in a gross kind of way.
  • This opens the window for Bobby Poyner, which is an intriguing silver lining. Over The Monster had a nice piece on Poyner the other day, and the addition of another dominant lefty reliever is always a fun wrinkle. In the best case scenario, Poyner settles in as a late-inning lefty, giving the team 100 percent more late-inning lefty options than they had before his promotion.

Let me be clear: the Red Sox could absolutely still use some bullpen help – but they could use bullpen help in the way that every team in baseball could always use more bullpen help. Losing an average-or-barely-above-average reliever is never goodbut Smith wasn’t the backbone of the Red Sox’ relief pitching. Telling Red Sox fans not to panic is more often than not an exercise in futility, but please, Red Sox fans, don’t panic about this. Panic about Andrew Benintendi, instead!

Header photo by Kim Klement — USA TODAY Sports

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