Whither the Pen?

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }

monster, originally uploaded by sogrady.

As I told the Fire Brand audience on Friday, my primary concern in the playoffs – assuming we’re lucky enough to make it there, of course – is not the offense, our performances against Sonnanstine aside. Nor the starting pitching, today’s average start from Lester and his high innings total aside.

No, it’s the bullpen. Both the men in front of Papelbon, as well as the closer himself. Less so Papelbon, of course, but even he has been mortal of late. It’s my belief that he’ll get things straightened out in time. And if he doesn’t, we won’t be around long enough to suffer much.

The question is who’s going to eat the innings in front of him. Maybe you get seven to eight consistently from Beckett and Lester, but it would be foolish to expect that from Matsuzaka, loathe as he is to pitch to contact. Meaning that some combination of Masterson, Lopez, MDC, and Oki (please, not Timlin) is going to have to get some very big outs. Think Texeira, as the Wild Card is our most probable entry.

Can they do that? I have my doubts. You know what I think of MDC, and Masterson’s may be showing signs of fatigue, as Fire Brand’s Ryne Crabb writes. But just to present an opposing viewpoint, here’s Inside Edge’s scouting report (ESPN subscribers only, sorry):

Two right-handers have stepped up to fill the void in front of Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima. Justin Masterson (a second-round pick out of San Diego State in 2006) and Manny Delcarmen (a second-round pick out of a Boston high school in 2000) have provided the Red Sox with solid middle- and late-inning relief over the past few months. Since converting to relief full-time on July 23, Masterson has held hitters from both sides of the plate in check, while continuing to generate ground balls by the bushel (all stats through Thursday):

Masterson as a reliever
Miss pct. of swings Well-hit avg. Ground ball pct.
Masterson 25.8 .212 58.1
League average 19.9 .224 44.5

Delcarmen has also been at his best lately, holding opponents to a paltry .176 well-hit average overall since the All-Star break. His first-half ERA was 4.54; since the break it’s 2.10. Delcarmen has improved his performance by bearing down when behind in the count and limiting the number of baserunners that score:

BAA — behind in count Pct. of runners scoring
Pre All-Star .385 40
Post All-Star .059 32
League avg. .343 36

Delcarmen has also been very efficient, having retired the side in order in 58 percent of his complete innings pitched since the All-Star break, compared to 31 percent before.

If Delcarmen and Masterson can both step up entering the playoffs and bridge the game to Papelbon, we’ve got as good a shot as anyone. If they falter, however, it could be a short postseason. We’re not likely to sustain our regular season offensive production against the pitching we’re likely to face, so run prevention will be at a premium.

An effective bullpen would be an excellent start in that regard.