When Ben Cherington added Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara to the bullpen this offseason, it looked like he’d created a real strength for the team. Those two arms solidified a stable that already included Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow. The Sox pen was on track to be one of the best in the AL.
The Sox bullpen really should be good. Given the talent it’s stocked with, the pitching expertise of Juan Nieves and John Farrell, and the team-first attitude that’s helped bullpens in Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the Sox pen looks on paper to be an immovable object. Some of the numbers testify that it has been as much; Sox relievers have a 3.19 ERA, certainly a strong number. But the passable statistics belie a bullpen that has blinked in tough situations.
It’s impossible to talk about the bullpen’s struggles without noting the Sox’ 9th inning implosion. Joel Hanrahan doesn’t even deserve discussion, and although Andrew Bailey initially looked to be a decent replacement, he hit a snag when he blew a save against Tampa Bay and didn’t manage to recover before losing his job this past weekend. The absolute futility of Bailey’s pitching was pretty amazing, with the three-walk performance in Tampa and the instantaneous collapse in Detroit standing out. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, as far as we know. He just hasn’t been able to take the heat, folding completely under the pressure of a normal save situation.
Bailey isn’t the only one who hasn’t pitched the way he should. The Sox bullpen as a whole has underperformed its talent, with a pedestrian 11-10 record (the Yankees bullpen is 12-7). That’s ten times that the pen has let a game get away, not counting blown saves or games they couldn’t keep close. Take the infamous Nava-drop game in Detroit; yes, they were on the wrong end of a blown call, but instead of responding with confidence, they let the game slip away.
Closers aside, the pen has actually been pretty solid, but it could be much better. The continuing struggles in high-leverage situations, where good bullpens thrive, are a mystery. Many great closers struggle in non-save situations: they need to feed on the pressure. Sox relievers have been doing the opposite, letting the pressure eat them alive. For a good ‘pen, that’s a load of bull.