Resurrected Red Sox Season: Marcus Walden, Bullpen Savior

The Boston Red Sox started the 2019 season abysmally, dropping eight of their first 11 games, all on the road. Avoiding dreary April weather in Boston seemed like a positive at first, but turned into a nightmare by the end of the trip. The World Series hangover was palpable. March isn’t time for real baseball games, but the losses suddenly piled up. I checked the upcoming weeks’ opponents for a possible break even (.500 record) date. As many expected, they’ve jumped back into the AL East race with a 14–5 mark over the last three weeks.

The once-surging Tampa Bay Rays lost scorching starter Tyler Glasnow to forearm tightness (due back in mid-to-late June) and impressive rookie outfielder Austin Meadows to a thumb ailment. Ace Blake Snell missed a few starts as well. Meanwhile, the Yankees have somehow patched together a winning team despite an impossible array of injuries to everyday players and starting pitchers. As of May 16th, the Yankees hold a one-game edge on Tampa and 4.5 game lead on Boston. We’re not yet close to the halfway mark of the season, but nearly 50 games in, we’ve had a significant enough sample to look more closely at the numbers.

The entire Red Sox rotation stumbled out of the gate (likely a direct result of last October’s use and March’s intentional under-use — Cora’s mandate that pitchers take it easy in Spring Training in order to preserve durability).

The bullpen was a source of anxiety for many Sox fans in March, with the absences of stalwart closer Craig Kimbrel and the inimitable, yet volatile, Joe Kelly. Kimbrel remains available, and more appetizing to teams once the MLB draft takes place in a few weeks due to FA draft-pick-compensation rules. Kelly signed with the Dodgers, though the Sox brass must feel they dodged a bullet by letting him go (17 IP, 24 hits, 15 ER). Today, Boston’s bullpen ranks 7th in ERA at 3.67, and 4th in batting average allowed (.216).

Marcus Walden: Red Sox Bullpen Savior

The biggest surprise (this year’s Ryan Brasier, while last year’s version of Brasier is getting harder to find) is Marcus Walden. The 30 year-old rookie who nearly stopped playing professional baseball four years ago, has allowed only 18 base-runners in 26 dominant innings (1.37 ERA, 0.68 WHIP). Walden has described learning his “spiked slider” (thrown 42% of the time) in part from Kimbrel. Walden’s meandering path to the major league mound included a brief stint in which the Blue Jays called him up for five days and never sent him into a game. Echoes of “Moonlight Graham” in Field of Dreams. Hard not to love the story.

Last weekend’s series with Houston figured to be a barometer of sorts. The Red Sox were nearly swept. On Friday night, Sox starter Rick Porcello threw one of his best starts of the year, but Cora left him in to pitch the 8th and he gave up a 2-run homer, George Springer’s 17th of the young season. Gerrit Cole pitched around a few doubles, leaving after 5 scoreless and the vaunted Astros bullpen finished the Sox off. On Saturday, Houston torched the Sox for 5 runs in the first off spot-starter Hector Velazquez. Rookie Corbin Martin pitched well enough and suddenly, Sunday’s matinee felt like a game Boston desperately needed. With a rejuvenated Chris Sale on the mound for Boston, the Sox were headed to Toronto and then Houston for three more.

After climbing back to .500, Boston couldn’t stomach getting swept at home against a likely October opponent and still think of themselves as having course-corrected for the year.

Michael Chavis, Lineup Savior

Down 3–1 in the 5th inning, rookie Michael Chavis (.981 OPS) belted his 9th homer in 98 at-bats, narrowing the margin to 3–2. Chavis would be 5th in the AL in OPS if he had enough ABs to qualify.

Mookie Betts followed with a double, and raced home as Xander Bogaerts’ pop-up managed to find its way just beyond the reach of Astros’ fill-in second baseman Yuli Gurriel. With Jose Altuve on the shelf, the Red Sox caught a break to even the score at 3. Sale loaded the bases in the top of the 6th, before leaving with one out. Enter: Marcus Walden, bullpen savior. Throwing 5 sliders out of his 6 pitches to Jake Marisnick, Walden eventually induced a double-play grounder and the Sox kept the score tied. After the Red Sox went 1–2–3 in their half of the 6th, Walden came back for the 7th, retiring Tony Kemp, walking Alex Bregman, then getting another double-play ball to keep the re-energized Michael Brantley (.940 OPS) off the bases. These are known as “high-leverage” situations, and Walden has been finding himself in them frequently. The Sox went on to score the go-ahead run in the bottom of the 7th. Chavis started the rally again, and crossed the plate after Bogaerts’ laser double.

Red Sox 4, Astros 3. Six more Astros outs and the sweep was averted.

Bullpens need at least a couple of highly reliable guys (3 or 4 for the best teams) to get the biggest outs of a typical game. Starters are something of an endangered species, with 5 innings now considered a solid outing. Analytics shows the third-time through the order to be a danger zone for most starters, so managers understandably don’t take the risk these days. Harder to deal with the media when you’ve left a starter in and he’s imploded than when your bullpen move doesn’t work out.

With Kimbrel absent, and Brasier struggling, Alex Cora has turned to Matt Barnes as expected. What Red Sox fans probably didn’t foresee in March was a 30 year-old who’d pitched more games in the Independent Atlantic League than the majors becoming their secret bullpen weapon. Thank you, Marcus, for keeping the season afloat. For those that value advanced metrics, a pitcher’s win total doesn’t mean much of anything, as an AL pitcher has zero control over his team’s ability to score runs. Chris Sale has 1 win on the season, despite limiting opponents to two earned runs or fewer in 6 of his 10 starts. Who has 6 of Boston’s 25 wins? Marcus Walden, of course.

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