Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Terry Francona doesn't use long relievers

Boof Bonser arrived in Fort Myers -- well, actually, he never really left Fort Myers -- with an eye on breaking into a Red Sox bullpen with space for just an arm like his. He's been a starting pitcher throughout his career but almost certainly won't be a starting pitcher with the Red Sox unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong.

His background as a starting pitcher, though, makes him a natural fit as a Justin Masterson-esque long reliever, a guy who can eat up three or four innings out of the bullpen in a lopsided game to preserve the bullpen for another day. The Red Sox even will stretch him out as a starter this spring so they'll have the option of using him for multiple innings once the season begins.

Here's the only problem: Terry Francona doesn't use long relievers.

Since his arrival in 2004, Francona has been less and less inclined to use relief pitchers for more than two innings at a time. When Brad Penny got shelled by the Cleveland Indians in late April, sent to the showers in the third inning, Francona used five relief pitchers to finish the game. Only Hunter Jones pitched more than one inning of relief, and even Jones was done after the fifth inning.

Granted, the Red Sox will tend to use long relievers less often because their pitchers tend to pitch deeper into games. A day Josh Beckett starts doesn't tend to be a day any relief pitcher needs to pitch more than one inning. But even comparing the Red Sox to the Yankees, another team that doesn't often need pitchers to do mop-up work, reveals a tendency to spread the workload out:

(For the sake of simplicity, a "long relief appearance" will be defined as a relief appearance lasting three innings or more. All statistics from Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index tool.)

Average American League team: 16.5
Yankees long relief appearances: 16
Red Sox long relief appearances: 6

Average American League team: 14.1
Red Sox long relief appearances: 9
Yankees long relief appearances: 9

Average American League team: 15.1
Yankees long relief appearances: 13
Red Sox long relief appearances: 8

Average American League team: 14.4
Yankees long relief appearances: 10
Red Sox long relief appearances: 3

Yankees long relief appearances: 13
Average American League team: 11.8
Red Sox long relief appearances: 3

Yankees long relief appearances: 19
Average American League team: 12.7
Red Sox long relief appearances: 5

In other words, Francona has asked a relief pitcher to go three or more innings less often in the last three years combined (11) than the average American League team did last season alone (12.7).

Even when he has a starting pitcher who doesn't eat up innings -- and Red Sox starters have failed to get out of the fifth inning at least 20 times in each of the last four seasons -- Francona has shown a tendency to use his relief pitchers in short stints rather than ask one or two guys to finish out the game.

Francona asked his relievers to get more than three outs in an appearance 162 times in 2005. That even was with a team whose starting pitchers averaged 6.2 innings per start, better than its starters have fared in any season since. A year later, that number had tumbled all the way down to 100. It hasn't been back above 125 yet.

Masterson, the quintessential long reliever, made only two relief appearances last season of three innings or longer:
* He relieved the injured Daisuke Matsuzaka in Oakland just a couple of weeks removed from spring training, pitching four full innings;
* He relieved Matsuzaka again in the starter's first game back from the disabled list, pitching three full innings.

That's it. Masterson made 25 relief appearances for the Red Sox before he was traded for Victor Martinez. Only two of those lasted three innings or more, and both of those were directly related to the health of Matsuzaka. Everything else was in short stints.

When a line drive knocked Jon Lester out of a game at Yankee Stadium in late September, Hunter Jones and Michael Bowden only pitched a combined 3 1/3 innings of relief before giving way to Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez. Bowden, don't forget, had spent the entire season as a starting pitcher -- but Francona only asked him to pitch 2 1/3 innings before he called for Delcarmen.

This isn't meant as a criticism. Francona certainly has earned the benefit of the doubt in his handling of his bullpen.

This simply is meant as a little perspective on what Bonser realistically is going to bring to the table for the Red Sox. The former Minnesota starter will have to earn a roster spot based on what he can do in one- or two-inning stints. His ability to eat up innings out of the bullpen might be a useful skill -- but it's not going to be put to much use in Boston.

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