Silver linings: despite losses, Eduardo Rodriguez still helping Red Sox win in September

Eduardo Rodriguez hasn’t earned a win in his last 9 starts, going back to mid-July. In that time, he’s had a good share of tough-luck losses and no decisions, none worse than September 4 against Oakland. Spinning a no-hitter through 7 and 2/3 innings, he finished having thrown 8 innings of shutout ball, the best start of his career. However, the Red Sox gave him exactly zero runs of support that day. This, the day after the Red Sox had scored 11 runs against the same team, and 16 the day before that. They would go on to lose 1-0.

And yet, it was not all for naught, because Rodriguez and the rest of the Red Sox starters strung together one excellent start after another to start September. By going deep into games, fewer innings were required of the relievers. By limiting runs allowed to at most 2 through the first seven games of September, the starters usually left the game with a big lead, allowing the Red Sox to pick and choose which relievers to use based on who was most rested, or who needed confidence-boosting. Some additional rest was already expected for the bullpen once rosters expanded September 1, but combined with the help from the starters, it was a perfect recipe for turning an overworked bullpen into a very well rested one.

The dividends from this rest were reaped Sunday night, as the bullpen was called on to take over at the start of the 4th inning of a close game against a potent offense and division rival in a tight pennant race. And they came through.

Let’s look at the numbers to see if they back all this up.

First, here are the performances of the Red Sox starters through the first 8 games of September:

First 8 starts of September 2016
Date Starting pitcher IP H R ER
9/2/2016 David Price 7 4 2 2
9/3/2016 Rick Porcello 7 4 2 2
9/4/2016 Eduardo Rodriguez 8 1 0 0
9/5/2016 Drew Pomeranz 5.2 6 2 2
9/6/2016 Clay Buchholz 6.2 8 1 1
9/7/2016 David Price 7 6 2 2
9/9/2016 Rick Porcello 7 6 2 2
9/10/2016 Eduardo Rodriguez 6 4 3 2

Indeed, on the whole they went quite deep into games, and allowed very few runs.  This allowed the Red Sox to use the bullpen as a whole much less:

Per game usage averages
IP (starters) IP (relievers) Pitches (rel.)
August 6.30 2.49 44.3
Sept (thru 9/10) 6.79 1.83 28.6

The bullpen as a whole threw about 1/3 fewer pitches per game through the first part of September versus their August average.  That’s a big reduction in workload.  Factor in the expanded rosters, allowing three additional relievers to be used in early September (Koji Uehara, Joe Kelly, and Robby Scott), and the usage per reliever went down.  Here are the number of appearances made per team game played in the month for each reliever.  Only pitchers making relief appearances in both months are included.

Appearances per team game though Sept 10
Aug App/G Sep App/G
Brad Ziegler 0.367 0.250
Craig Kimbrel 0.367 0.250
Fernando Abad 0.400 0.250
Heath Hembree 0.100 0.125
Junichi Tazawa 0.333 0.125
Matt Barnes 0.433 0.250
Robbie Ross 0.400 0.125

Except for Heath Hembree, who hadn’t been used much in August, the frequecy with which each reliever was called upon dropped by a third or more, for everybody.  Rest for the weary!

Better yet, thanks to improved performances by these relievers, they became more pitch-efficient.  With the exception of Brad Ziegler, the number of pitches thrown per game played by the team (not per game the pitcher participated in) dropped for each pitcher to between one sixth and one third of their previous August numbers.  That’s a lot of rest!

Pitches per team game though Sept 10
Aug Pit/G Sep Pit/G
Brad Ziegler 5.73 4.00
Craig Kimbrel 6.87 1.25
Fernando Abad 6.27 1.88
Heath Hembree 1.77 0.63
Junichi Tazawa 6.47 1.88
Matt Barnes 7.13 2.25
Robbie Ross 6.47 1.13

The performances got better, too.  Per batter faced, the frequency of undesirable results went down, and the frequency of desirable results went up:

Results per batter faced by relievers
August 22.1% 11.2% 24.8% 2.7%
Sept (thru 9/10) 18.6% 3.4% 33.9% 0.0%

Most importantly, the relievers’ overall earned run average went from poor to perfect:

Relievers’ ERA
August 4.70
Sept (thru 9/10) 0.00

Obviously, Sunday’s game threw off these low usage numbers. But that wasn’t such a bad thing, when you realize that none of these “previously overused” relievers had been called on more than twice over the previous 10 days.  They’ll need to pitch occasionally, and pitch in some pressure situations occasionally, to stay sharp.  With Uehara and Kelly back and throwing well, the Red Sox bullpen is suddenly looking like a strength.

The one thing remaining that the Red Sox have lacked is late-inning offense, especially in close games.  If they can turn that around, they’ll have all facets of their game working well.  That will make for an easy September, and an easy September will allow them to set themselves up to perform well in the playoffs.