With 10 big games upcoming, Boston’s bullpen has its chance to shine

An unheralded crew has largely made it work so far, but here come a slew of playoff opponents.

Marcus Walden has been a big part of the surprising success of the Red Sox bullpen this season.

COMMENTARY

A year ago, the Boston Red Sox used 11 starting pitchers to get through 162 games. This year, they’ve used eight to get through 50, Ryan Weber joining the club on Thursday with a performance better than any of the regulars threw up the first two weeks of the season.

“Just giving the team a chance to win and saving the bullpen was really my main goal,” said the 28-year-old with 800 minor-league innings under his belt, after he gave up one run in six innings despite a fastball that averaged 88 mph. “I’m excited and I’m proud of what I did.”

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You should be too, even if Ryan Weber’s never that good again. In winning 8-2 at Toronto, the Red Sox started a guy with one day warning, then relieved him with Travis Lakins, working on two hours sleep and one prior MLB appearance. He gave way to Ryan Brasier, who’d been out of the majors almost five years before becoming a bullpen savior a year ago, who gave way to Hector Velazquez, a $30,000 signing out of the Mexican League two-plus years ago.

This is the nature of a 162-game marathon. As is there will be forgettable series like this four-game set in Toronto, in which this getaway day miracle — look at those four names again if you consider that an exaggeration — was arguably the least memorable game of the four. It wasn’t the 12-2 win that doubled as David Price’s strong return, it wasn’t the 10-3 loss in which Marcus Stroman did Marcus Stroman things, and it wasn’t the 13-inning win where Mookie Betts’ attempt to win the game was trumped by Michael Chavis.

“In the previous at-bat, I was definitely just trying to hit a home run,” said Chavis, still in that charming ‘I just say what’s in my head’ phase of his major-league career. “Going into that at-bat, I was still trying to do damage. But I just wasn’t exactly sitting there like I was trying to hit a home run this time.”

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Kid’s like a week from ending up with a James Taylor song.

The impact of what I’m about to tell you depends on how you feel about WAR, which is a debate for another day, but I’d simply like to point out that stat says Michael Chavis has been more valuable to the 2019 Red Sox than J.D. Martinez. On the pitching side, No. 1 is Chris Sale. No. 2 is … Marcus Walden (6-0), who’s striking out 30 percent of the batters he faces and holding opposing hitters to a .162 average — twice as high as Brandon Workman’s, but walking a third of the batters he does.

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The actual WAR machinations aren’t that important to me. I bring up Walden for a couple reasons. One, because Wednesday’s game was his first real negative blip — put in high-leverage spots his last three outings, he surrendered the two ringing hits in the ninth to tie that game, then two more in the 10th to nearly lose it before he cleaned up his own mess.

In a larger sense, though, because he and his ilk have made this bullpen plan of Alex Cora work so far. And it’s grown a little leaky in recent days: Brandon Workman cracked against Colorado 10 days ago; Cora stuck with Rick Porcello in the eighth on Friday against Houston because, one surmises, he lacked an arm to trust; and Workman, Matt Barnes, Walden, and Heath Hembree all gave up runs on Wednesday.

The Red Sox bullpen has more victories (15) than any other in the game and are eighth with a 3.87 FIP. (Their 3.78 ERA is seventh.) I consider them the least of the team’s problems. And yet, they’ve also squandered more potential victories for their starters (7) than any other team, blown 8 of 19 save opportunities — some of those double up in those two categories — and are built around an untested core after Barnes of Walden, Workman (a veteran, but who made about his half his appearances last year in blowouts), Colten Brewer (a second-year man who washed out with the Padres), and Brasier (a 2018 revelation now being leaned on).

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Barnes, the bullpen ace, has thrown in as many high-leverage eighth innings as he has ninths. This is not unprecedented by any stretch, but it remains an unorthodox way to try and win in the long term.

Craig Kimbrel’s inflexibility on this likely plays a small role in his continued unemployment, but his 85 percent ninth-inning usage during his three years here is still a lot closer to conventional wisdom than the 2019 Red Sox are. He finished 8 of 11 wins last postseason. Aroldis Chapman finished 7 for the 2016 Cubs. Wade Davis for the 2015 Royals; Koji Uehara, Jonathan Papelbon, and Keith Foulke here; Sergio Romo in San Francisco; Mariano Rivera … at some point, most great teams pick a guy and put him in the ninth.

Prominent among the exceptions are the 2017 Astros team Cora learned so much with, but there’s a caveat there: Ken Giles was a mess that October, so the baton was passed around out of need. Perhaps the bigger caveat is that we’re still in May, a testing ground for when the games truly count.

The issue becomes when you’re where the Red Sox are: 27-23, still third in your division, and still a pedestrian 18-12 against teams under .500. (The 2018 Sox were 67-21, which papered over losing the season series to Oakland, Cleveland, and Houston, and a 10-9 split with the Yankees.) Nothing stings more than a bullpen loss, and it’s doubly painful when it drags a team back within range of .500 because they’ve boxed themselves in a bit of a corner.

I just got over telling you that the idea of the measuring stick is overblown, but the next 10 days are the first real test of the 2019 team’s mettle. Three in Houston, where the Astros are 18-6 (after back-to-back losses to the White Sox, thus proving everyone has a bad stretch), then three home to similarly disappointing Cleveland, and four in the Bronx. These figure to be close games, in front of loud crowds, where Cora is going to need more than three arms he can rely on late.

Untested, here’s a big test. If Boston can get to that June 3 off-day with some semblance of continued momentum, we’ll have plenty more answers about how sound this on-the-cheap bullpen strategy really was.