Commentary

Signs of trouble in Red Sox 'pen?

Small sample size, but some disconcerting numbers nonetheless

Updated: April 16, 2010, 4:26 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPN Stats & Information

Adding more than $40 million to their Opening Day payroll from last season, the Boston Red Sox addressed a pair of weaknesses from 2009: defense and rotation depth.

Virtually nothing was done for the bullpen. In fact, it took a pay cut.

On the surface, it's easy to see why. The bullpen put together a 3.80 ERA in 2009, second best in the American League. It accounted for only 17 losses, tied with the New York Yankees for fewest in the majors.

Gone are the rental Billy Wagner and the 40-year-old Takashi Saito, who took his misleading 2.43 ERA with him. The additions were more characteristic of a small-market team looking to catch lightning in a bottle: an injured reclamation project (Boof Bonser), a 34-year-old with 68 innings of major league experience (Scott Atchison), and the late signing of a Brewers spring castoff (Scott Schoeneweis).

But even with that low-key approach, relief pitching would appear to be a strength on paper.

So how could the bullpen be the biggest question mark this side of David Ortiz?

Nine games offer little in the way of statistical significance, but there are some interesting early trends.

Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen have combined thrown 9 1/3 innings without striking out a batter, while walking six. As a group, the bullpen has more walks (15) than strikeouts (14), a statistic that is even more alarming considering Schoeneweis accounts for six of those strikeouts and none of the walks.

Last season, the Red Sox were 76-5 when leading at the start of the seventh inning. So far in 2010, Boston is just 3-2.

Small sample size? Yes. Cause for alarm? Not in itself. However, a closer inspection reveals discouraging trends that emerged in 2009 and have continued early in 2010.

Manny Delcarmen

Delcarmen has thrown three scoreless innings thus far, allowing only a pair of baserunners. That's encouraging, particularly given how 2009 ended. He posted a 14.14 ERA in September, the second worst September for an AL pitcher with 10 or more appearances in the last 55 years. With the bases empty, opposing hitters had a .529 batting average. Lefties hit .450 for the month. So while his start is a step forward, Delcarmen still has much to prove. The flowers are a nice gesture, but is he really a changed man?

The three scoreless innings would be far more convincing were it not for this simple fact: Delcarmen is not making anyone miss. No, really. Opponents have taken 17 swings, and they've yet to swing and miss. It's no wonder he doesn't have a strikeout. In fact, if you include his official spring numbers, Delcarmen has fanned one batter in 11 1/3 innings. This is the same pitcher who averaged nearly a strikeout an inning in 2008. A decrease in velocity seems to be at the root his issues. According to Pitch f/x data, Delcarmen's fastball averaged 95.8 mph in 2008, among the fastest in the AL. Last season, that fell to 93.9. So far this season? Just 92.9. Can Delcarmen recover that velocity and return to a pivotal role in the 'pen?

Ramon Ramirez

Ramirez posted a 2.87 ERA last season. That was just six months ago, but it seems like a distant memory. In four appearances in 2010, he has a 15.00 ERA and opponents are hitting .438. A poor start doesn't erase Ramirez's last two seasons. One of the most dependable middle relievers in the game, his 2.74 ERA over the previous two seasons is the third lowest of any reliever with at least 140 innings. However, the early implosion seems to be the culmination of a downward trend. After not allowing a run in his first 13 appearances in 2009, the contrast could not be greater.

Two clear issues have emerged. His strikeout rate dipped from 8.8 per nine innings in 2008 to 6.7 last year. He's still looking for his first strikeout this season. Meanwhile, his walk rate is going in the other direction. Ramirez's effectiveness against left-handed hitters has also suffered. In the first half of 2009, lefties hit .172 off of him. Since then, they're hitting .315.

Ramirez is also on the wrong end of a pair of alarming -- if somewhat statistically murky -- trends. Since joining the Red Sox, Ramirez has faced the Yankees 11 times and has a 10.57 ERA to show for it. Eight walks, one strikeout and four homers will do that. Then there's this: Since joining the Red Sox, Martinez has a 1.45 ERA with Jason Varitek behind the plate, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Otherwise, he's at 7.43, including 7.82 with Victor Martinez providing the target. This raises the rhetorical question: Can a relief pitcher have a personal catcher?

Okajima
Okajima

Hideki Okajima

Sure, his ERA has risen each year, but Okajima remains one of the most reliable relievers in the game. Take out a rough road trip at the beginning of September and last season's 3.39 ERA falls back to 2.75. At 34, Okajima may be in decline, but it appears to be a cushioned landing.

That said, Okajima has gone from elite against all hitters to elite just against lefties. The same pitcher who held righties to a .182 batting average in 2007 had righties hit .309 against him last season. Meanwhile, he has become increasingly dominant against left-handed hitters, holding them to a .167 clip last season. Last September the split reached a ridiculous level: Lefties hit .083, righties hit .476.

Based on Inside Edge scouting data, Okajima appears to be relying more on his fastball and less on his changeup against righties. The result? Righties missed on 29 percent of their swings in his first two seasons, but just 19 percent since. This has been clearly reflected in Terry Francona's usage patterns. In 2007, Okajima faced 174 batters from the right side and 98 from the left side. Last season, that became 142 righties and 116 lefties. Can Okajima regain his early dominance of both sides of the plate?

Daniel Bard

With Delcarmen and Ramirez question marks and Okajima struggling against righties, you can't blame Francona for frequently making the call for Bard. According to Fangraphs.com, Bard's average fastball was clocked at 97.3 miles per hour last season, second fastest in baseball behind Jonathan Broxton and the fastest by an AL pitcher since Joel Zumaya in 2006. Bard averaged 11.49 strikeouts per nine innings, a Red Sox rookie record.

More than anything, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein's hands-off approach to the bullpen was an endorsement of Bard. That said, if the start to 2010 is any indication, the Red Sox could be in danger of overusing their young fireballer. Bard became just the sixth Red Sox pitcher in the last 90 years to appear in six of the team's first eight games. He joined an eclectic list that includes Alan Embree (2004) and Dick Drago (1979).

Like any 24-year-old pitcher, Bard still has plenty to prove. Chief among the concerns is his struggle on the road. He has a 1.29 career ERA at home with only six walks in 28 innings. But on the road, Bard has a 5.93 ERA with 19 walks in 27 1/3 innings. The early 2010 returns have not been positive. At home, he's allowed only one hit in 3 1/3, compared to two earned runs in 2 2/3 road innings. It's hard to imagine a pitcher with Bard's repertoire continuing with such a massive home-road disparity. Ultimately, the real question will be: If the other options falter, will Francona show restraint in using Bard?

Jonathan Papelbon

Apart from David Ortiz, no Red Sox player received the statistical scrutiny that Papelbon did in 2009. Ultimately, his core numbers (1.85 ERA, 38 saves) were exceptional as usual. The destination was the same; it's just that the ride wasn't as smooth. Look at it this way: Papelbon got one fewer out than he did in his breakout 2006 campaign, but he threw 161 more pitches. He had 61 batters reach a three-ball count, more than twice his 2008 total. Papelbon walked the first batter seven times, equaling his career total going into 2009. Opposing hitters started showing much more restraint. In 2008, they chased 45.5 percent of pitches out of the zone in three-ball counts. That has since fallen to 24.3 percent. So how was Papelbon so successful? He became a wizard at getting out of his own jams. Opponents hit .128 with runners in scoring position, the lowest for a Red Sox pitcher in the past 35 years. Of the 24 walks he issued, only three scored, according to Baseball Info Solutions. In 2008, four of his eight free passes scored.

This winter, Papelbon acknowledged that his split-finger fastball got away from him in 2009. "There were times when I was choking it down a little too much and overthrowing it, and there were times when I was throwing it perfect," he said to a gathering of reporters. "But like I said, that comes with experience, and this year I'll be able to take that into the season right from the get-go."

The numbers support that statement. Papelbon threw 19.7 percent splitters in 2006, according to Baseball Info Solutions. That has declined each year since, bottoming out at 9.3 percent last season. The result is an increased reliance on his fastball, and more predictability. As he vowed, Papelbon has brought back the splitter, throwing it 20.8 percent of the time thus far in 2010.

The early returns suggest another bumpy ride. Papelbon has issued four walks in four appearances so far this season. In 2008, he didn't issue his fourth walk until June 22, his 33rd appearance. Factor in just one strikeout, and this is the first time in Papelbon's career that he has more walks than strikeouts. Is this just an adjustment period, or is the turbulent ride of 2009 here to stay?

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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