Thursday, October 8, 2009

Picking your spots with the Red Sox bullpen

Theo Epstein constructed perhaps his most impressive bullpen this winter and this summer, acquiring Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner and promoting Daniel Bard from Triple-A to supplement a group that already had experienced quite a bit of success. Among American League teams, only the Oakland Athletics had a better bullpen ERA during the regular season than the Red Sox.

The postseason, though, is where it counts -- and for all of the group's individual ups and downs, the postseason is where the group's reputation will be made.

But it's not just about talent and execution. It's about Terry Francona and the way he employs his bullpen. Certain relievers thrive in certain situations, and for the Red Sox to get past the Angels (and beyond), he'll need to pick and choose his spots for each of his guys. Here's a primer on how Francona might go about doing that:

Daniel Bard
The rookie went the entire month of July (and beyond) without surrendering an earned run, ripping off a string of 14 innings with an ERA of 0.00. He endured some ups and downs in August and September -- he allowed at least one earned run in six of his 10 appearances in August, for example -- but remains an electric arm with the ability to strike out just about anyone.

Use him: In Games 3 and 4 at Fenway Park. Opponents hit just .207 off the rookie in home games this season, and his 30-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio is astounding. His ERA this season was 1.46 at home and 5.84 on the road.
Don't use him: Against lefties who can go deep. Lefties slugged .488 against him this season and hit four of the home runs he gave up: Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira (twice) hit home runs off him from the left side, but Evan Longoria is the only hitter to have gone deep against him from the right side.

Paul Byrd
The veteran righty came out of retirement this summer to contribute a handful of starts down the stretch, and he'll fill the same role in the playoffs this year that he did last year: Long man out of the bullpen. Byrd made one appearance a year ago, relieving Jon Lester in a Game 3 against Tampa Bay that got out of hand quickly. He gave up an eighth-inning home run in that game to -- you guessed it! -- Rocco Baldelli.

Use him: When a game already has been decided in the early innings. Byrd probably wouldn't even be on the roster if not for the diminishing effectiveness of Manny Delcarmen down the stretch, and his primary use now will be to save the rotation in case of a disastrous start by one of the other starters -- or to make an emergency start if someone gets hurt.
Don't use him: Against lefties, if at all possible. Lefties hit .405 off Byrd in his seven starts -- including seven doubles and three home runs.

Hideki Okajima
The lefty endured one of his most bumpy seasons -- but if you believe in trends, that could be a good omen: He had a lousy ERA in April, June and September but a great ERA in May, July and August. Maybe he's due for another run of being unhittable.

Use him: Against the toughest lefties. Billy Wagner had a slightly lower batting-average-against with lefties (.125 to Okajima's .167), but Okajima had a much better strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.71 to Wagner's 2.67).
Don't use him: When he's inheriting runners. Opponents hit .305 and OBP'ed .380 against Okajima this season with runners on base this season, but they hit just .199 and OBP'ed .259 against him with the bases empty.

Jonathan Papelbon
The closer has seen opponents hit just .189 and slug an amazing .264 against him in the second half, the result of a change in his set position that made him more comfortable even if it increased the wear and tear on his shoulder a little bit. He's well aware he's thrown 25 straight scoreless innings in the playoffs, a run of success he intends to maintain.

Use him: In the game's biggest spots. Opponents hit .128 against Papelbon this season in 86 at-bats with runners in scoring position -- and with the bases loaded, opponents were 1 for 15 this season with 10 strikeouts.
Don't use him: On three days' rest, the only time his control really starts to evaporate. His strikeout-to-walk ratio dipped from 16-to-1 on two days' rest to 13-to-9 on three days' rest, and opponents slugged .409 against him in that situation as well. That makes for a tricky situation in Game 1 -- he'll be on three days' rest after having pitched on Sunday -- but he should be all set to go on a more normal schedule during the rest of the postseason.

Ramon Ramirez
"RamRam" scuffled in the second half but not to the extent of some of his counterparts: His first-half ERA was 2.33, but his second-half ERA still was just 3.48. He throws like a power pitcher but doesn't miss bats like a power pitcher: His strikeout rate is just 6.7 per nine innings, lowest among the relievers left in the bullpen.

Use him: In Games 1, 2 and 5. No Red Sox pitcher has had as much success away from Fenway Park this season as Ramirez: Opponents are hitting .182 off him and slugging .295 off him when the Red Sox are on the road. At home, though, Ramirez has seen opponents hit .285 and slug .477 off him.
Don't use him: Against lefties who can go deep. Lefties slugged .452 against him this season but hit six home runs and eight doubles. When he got hit by lefties, he usually got hit hard.

Takashi Saito
The former Dodgers closer often was used as one of the last relievers out of the bullpen and seemed to benefit from it: His ERA was an impressive 2.43 despite relatively unimpressive peripherals -- including a WHIP of 1.35 and 25 walks issued in 55 2/3 innings.

The Red Sox call him "Sammy," but no one knows why.

Use him: Againstlefties and against switch-hitters with better numbers from the right side. Saito has a pretty severe reverse split -- lefties hit just .195 and slugged just .257 off him -- and that makes him a good weapon against switch-hitters who would prefer to hit righthanded. (This is not the case, however, for the Angels' Kendry Morales or Chone Figgins, both of whom hit better than .300 against righthanded pitchers this season.)
Don't use him: Against righties in a high-leverage situation. Righthanded hitters hit .304 and slugged .500 against Saito this season, including four home runs. No Red Sox reliever allowed more home runs to righthanded hitters.

Billy Wagner
The veteran lefty has terrible career numbers in the playoffs: In his years with the Astros and Mets combined, he has a 9.58 career ERA. It's hard to know what to make of that, though: You can't predict this season's results based on what he did in 1997, can you?

Use him: When you have some righties sandwiched in with a run of lefties. Wagner pitched effectively against lefties, of course, but he actually had just as much success against righties in his short run in Boston -- a .200 batting average against and a 3.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his career, Wagner actually has held righties to a lower batting average (.186) than lefties (.200).
Don't use him: When a walk would be disastrous. Wagner has fought control issues off and on since his arrival, and no reliever on the postseason roster has a higher walk rate than Wagner's 4.6 per nine innings. Then again, the times when a walk would be disastrous are the times a strikeout would be great, and Wagner is averaging 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings since the Red Sox acquired him.

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