There is not a hint of sarcasm in the title of this piece, Red Sox fans, and those of you that assumed there was should be ashamed of yourselves. Obviously the bar has been raised quite a bit here in the past 15 years, but that is no excuse to completely disavow all the good that this GM has done for us. And I’m not even talking about the star position players and starting pitchers he has acquired. I’m talking about his bullpen acquisitions … that’s right, his bullpen acquisitions … which were undeniably the foremost reason that the Red Sox have four World Series championships this century instead of three.
Now I know what you’re thinking.
Everyone in the Red Sox farm system has appeared in relief for the big league team this year, and most of them have done their jobs no better than David Price’s publicist has done his.
Tyler Thornburg does not have a team.
Carson Smith does not have a team … or anything in his sack. https://www.masslive.com/redsox/2018/05/carson_smith_boston_red_sox_i.html.
Craig Kimbrel is a Cub.
Joe Kelly is a Dodger.
Ryan Brasier is a minor leaguer, and probably gave up two home runs in the time it took me to write this sentence.
Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman, two very good relief pitchers, have each thrown no less than a billion innings this year.
These are the names that we Sox fans think of when we ponder Dave Dombrowski’s performance at creating bullpens.
But allow me to refresh your memories with a few other names.
Joaquin Benoit. Jose Veras. Al Albuquerque. Drew Smyly. Phil Coke
Once again, I know what you’re thinking.
None of these irrelevant bags of mediocrity have ever played for the Red Sox. And you’re right to think that. But they all have one crucial thing in common.
They were all relievers on the postseason roster of the 2013 Detroit Tigers.
This is the bullpen that Dave Dombrowski put together to support what was possibly the best postseason starting four since those Braves teams of the 1990s.
Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90 ERA, 240 Ks, Cy Young Award winner).
Justin Verlander (13-12, 3.46 ERA, 217 Ks in a “down year”).
Anibal Sanchez (14-8, 2.57 ERA, 202 Ks).
Doug Fister (14-9, 3.67 ERA, 159 Ks)
This was a lock down rotation the likes of which is rarely seen. And Dombrowski backed them up with a bullpen full of whatever. As this team cut a swath through the American League en route to a guaranteed playoff berth, the trade deadline deal that Dombrowski made to shore up the pen was to acquire Jose Veras from the Astros.
This Tigers team was designed to dominate offenses for six innings while slugging through the opposition with the likes of Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, etc. Nobody even mentioned their bullpen much, because all of their relief pitchers were completely unmentionable. None of them were good. None of them were bad. They were all just there. The idea must have been to score so many runs while the starting pitchers gave up none that they’d be too far ahead at the end of games for the bullpen to blow them. That strategy can serve a team pretty well in the regular season if all goes well. And it served them particularly well that year.
Going into the 2013 ALCS, it was obviously Scherzer and Verlander that terrified Red Sox fans. Then when former Boston castoff Anibal Sanchez threw 6 no-hit innings while striking out 12 en route to a 1-0 Tigers win in Game 1, most of us were pissing ourselves and just waiting for the hammer to drop in Game 2 when Scherzer took the hill.
And it did drop. For seven innings.
Scherzer carved up the Red Sox, striking out 13 guys before handing it over to the bullpen with a 5-1 lead. If the Tigers bullpen could have recorded six outs before giving up four runs, Detroit would’ve won two straight in Fenway Park to open the ALCS and bring the series back to Detroit for the death knell.
Four different Tigers pitched in the bottom of the eighth. And this happened.
The tide had turned and the Red Sox’ season was saved thanks to the Tigers having absolutely nothing of note in the bullpen.
Justin Verlander lost a 1-0 duel to John Lackey in Game 3, and despite three sensational starting performances to start the series, the Tigers found themselves down two games to one.
In Game 6, with Boston up 3-2 in the series and Detroit looking to ride Scherzer’s nastiness to a seventh game, he took a 2-1 lead into the seventh inning. Then Jonny Gomes doubled and Xander Bogaerts walked as Jim Leyland sucked down three Winstons in the tunnel outside the Tigers’ dugout. Leyland had no choice but to give Scherzer the hook after 110 pitches, and he sealed his team’s fate by doing so.
Did you notice that grand slam was hit on an 0-2 pitch? Where have I seen that before?
Oh yeah, that’s right.
The American League Cy Young Award winner pitched in 2 games in the 2013 ALCS. In one game he left leading 5-1 and in the other he left leading 2-1. Less than ten minutes after he left each game, his bullpen had given up a grand slam to lose the lead.
Think about that for a minute. The sheer impossibility of it all. In the documentary that will inevitably be made about Max Scherzer’s career after he has retired, at some point Joe Buck or Matt Vasgersian will have to shift awkwardly in their seat and ask him about the 2013 ALCS. I gotta feel like his comments about that series will be brief.
“We felt like we were the better team. They were tough though. I had to grind out there for every out. We did have the lead in both those games, but of course they were able to hit grand slams each time and we couldn’t hold on.”
There have only been ten grand slams hit in the history of the ALCS (half of which were hit by the Red Sox in the past fifteen years). TEN!!!
And a Dave Dombrowski bullpen managed to give up two of them in a matter of six days.
When Dombrowski was named the Red Sox General Manager, the first thing I thought of was the 2013 ALCS and the fact that he was no more interested in improving the bullpen of that Tigers team than I was. He had a reputation of building bad bullpens. Soon after coming aboard in Boston, he signed Craig Kimbrel. After that he apparently figured that, since he had a closer, he now had a bullpen.
In 2018, during the best season the Boston Red Sox have ever had, their bullpen was their biggest need. It consisted of Kimbrel and a bunch of right handed whatevers that each threw mid-90s fastballs with a curveball. The trade deadline move that he made to address his pitching staff was adding Nathan Eovaldi, a guy meant to start in place of an ailing Chris Sale and maybe occasionally pitch in relief. Then Eduardo Rodriguez became afflicted with injuries and a bout of really sucking at pitching, and Eovaldi found himself in Boston’s starting rotation. So the Red Sox went into the postseason with the same whatever bullpen that had been their weakest link all year.
It took a revolutionary strategy to have the starting pitchers also act as set up men to overcome Dombrowski’s lack of interest in strengthening the bullpen to win the 2018 World Series. Eovaldi was a big part of that, but you can’t honestly tell me that the plan when acquiring him was for him to both start and pitch in relief in the playoffs. Alex Cora gets most of the praise when it comes to this strategy. But even if Dombrowski was involved in deciding on this approach once the playoffs began, the fact is that it was a desperation move forced upon them due to not having enough decent bullpen arms. Which means he once again did not address the same critical weakness that had plagued his teams repeatedly in the past.
The guys in their bullpen sucked so bad that the manager decided he’d rather use a guy that threw 90+ pitches two nights ago than use any of those assholes, except for Kimbrel, when it really mattered. And then Kimbrel ended up sucking all throughout the playoffs anyway.
So why does Dave Dombrowski see so little incentive in acquiring established good relief pitchers? Maybe he feels that relief pitchers are so up and down from year to year that they are not worth a significant investment. Maybe he feels that the curveball is back en vogue and he wants to be seen as the first guy that really got behind filling up your bullpen with guys that huck the yacker. Maybe he just spends so much on starting pitchers and hitters that he just runs out of money before he has a chance to find any good relievers.
I personally feel that he thinks the odds are in your favor as long as you have a guy throwing 95 mph. Your chances of getting a guy out if you can throw that hard should be at least 75-80%. Of course that disregards the simple fact that some guys are clutch and some guys are chokers.
Whatever the reason, the 2019 Red Sox are the latest chapter in Dave Dombrowski’s legacy of building 2/3s of a winning team year after year. Right now it’s Barnes, Workman, and a bunch of shit in the bullpen. And since this is Boston, and since Barnes and Workman are the only guys with any talent, Cora has had no choice but to use them night after night and completely wear them out. I don’t blame Cora for this at all. The team started out the season horribly, and with the yearlong success of the Yankees and the Rays they have been in a desperate position since day one. What choice does he have?
This is what I always respected most about Joe Torre (aside from blasting all those Yankee players in his book). Talk about a guy that just kept going to the well. He would use Rivera for the seventh and eighth and then Wetteland for the ninth for five straight games and not give a shit. Jeff Nelson, Ramiro Mendoza, Paul Quantrill, Scott Procter, Luis Vizcaino … these guys would pitch every night till their arms fell off. Then the clubbies would wrap them up in a carpet, toss them in a dumpster, and Cashman would go find another one. Cora has nobody else to pitch late in the game, and he’s the one that takes the hit in the media if he puts in some schmuck that coughs it up. So why not keep going to the well? If anybody gets hurt, his ass is covered. He didn’t acquire the relievers. He just did the best he could with what he had.
So here we are, one year after winning 119 games, doing battle to try and win a wild card spot while the Yankees tear the rest of the league a new asshole with mediocre starting pitchers and a diesel bullpen. If not for Alex Cora thinking way out of the box last year, Dombrowski would probably be on the hot seat right now. With the largest payroll in the major leagues, there is no excuse for being short-handed in any facet of the game. Let alone the same facet that you’ve always been short on throughout your entire career.
Much like Claude Julian’s dump and chase philosophy, Dombrowski’s lack of emphasis on the bullpen is out of touch and perilously close to costing the Red Sox their 2019 season. As that blithering idiot Yogi Berra said, probably right after licking a rosin bag, “it’s getting late early around here.”
Luckily, Dave, we’ll always have 2013. That will be the one year that those of us in Boston will always be able to look back on with reverence and say, “we got that one because of Dave Dombrowski’s bullpen!”
Oh, by the way, Dave. Do you know who won the 2013 ALCS MVP Award?