Red Sox must stop grading Chris Sale, postseason starters on a curve

Tomase: It’s time for Red Sox to expect more from their starters originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

I blame Trevor Bauer.

If the mercurial right-hander (who’s now facing much more serious legal problems in L.A. due to accusations of sexual assault) doesn’t slice his pinky repairing a drone before Game 2 of the 2016 American League Championship Series, then maybe Indians manager Terry Francona doesn’t embark on a postseason strategy that has altered baseball and warped our expectations of what an effective October start even looks like.

Baseball already had been trending toward the devaluing of postseason starters anyway, but the 2016 Indians turbocharged it. They reached Game 7 of a classic World Series vs. the Cubs despite fielding only two healthy starters throughout the playoffs — Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin.

For the rest of the playoffs, Francona was left to make it up as he went along. He summoned relief ace Andrew Miller 10 times in 15 games, and Miller, who had only pitched in the sixth inning once in 71 regular-season appearances, ended up entering in the fifth three times and the sixth twice. Closer Cody Allen also made 10 appearances, going multiple innings six times and not allowing a run. Setup man Bryan Shaw pitched 11 times before finally wearing out and taking the loss in Game 7.

Lou Merloni thinks a ball boy cost the Red Sox a run in Game 1

That series illustrated what a manager could do by throwing conventional wisdom in the trash. Whereas once skippers lined up their ace to throw Games 1, 4, and 7 on short rest, Francona showed that a deep bullpen used aggressively could produce better results than watching a starter struggle.

Combined with irrefutable evidence via the analytics revolution that pitchers see diminished results the third time through an order, and a new postseason paradigm was born.

In this world, managers only need three innings, as long as his bullpen arms are properly aligned in support. And that bring us to Alex Cora’s 2021 Red Sox.

Red Sox starters have only recorded one out in the sixth inning this postseason, and it came in the wild card game, when Nathan Eovaldi was lifted after 5.1 innings vs. the Yankees. They’ve otherwise struggled through starts of 1.2 innings by Eduardo Rodriguez and now 2.2 innings from Chris Sale.

The latter came in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday and was being treated as some sort of heroic event. Cora and Sale sounded giddy about the seven-time All-Star’s ability to retire eight batters and leave the bullpen in a position of needing to record 19 outs, which ultimately proved just a couple too many.

“Yeah, I’d still like to get a little deeper,” Sale told reporters in Houston. “Give my guys out there in the bullpen a little bit more of a rest, but at the end of the day, you’re just looking for close games at this stage of the game. The postseason, any time you can keep it close and do your job — I heard Dugie (Alex Verdugo) say the other day A.C.’s playing chess while the others are playing checkers. I’m just a piece to his chess game, so whatever he needs me to do, that’s what I’m there for.”

The bullpen’s burden

Average innings per game pitched by Red Sox’ bullpen (postseason)

5.9

Variation

Single

In an alternate reality, Sale wouldn’t have been anywhere near Games 1 or 2. Eovaldi would’ve started the opener, followed by Nick Pivetta in Saturday afternoon’s Game 2. But the Red Sox need Pivetta to be available for bulk innings out of the bullpen a la Game 3 of the ALDS, when his four shutout frames allowed the Red Sox to outlast the Rays in 13 innings.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to see Pivetta start and pitch that effectively from the jump. The other way almost forces teams to anticipate a bad start and then hope to save it with a perfect bullpen. As Friday’s Game 1 loss showed, that’s a lot to ask of seven relievers.

Adam Ottavino, Josh Taylor, Ryan Brasier, and Martin Perez did the job. But Tanner Houck (home run), Hansel Robles (home run), and Hirokazu Sawamura (one run, should’ve been more) did not, and the Red Sox let a winnable game slip away.

Even if you’re sympathetic to Cora’s plight — his starters beyond Eovaldi have been wildly inconsistent and he’s trying to make the bullpen work without All-Star closer Matt Barnes or even injured setup man Garrett Richards — it’s OK to take a step back and wonder exactly what kind of curve we’re grading starters on that a perennial Cy Young contender can go 2.2 innings and it’s cause for celebration.

How we got here is a story about analytics, load management, and prizing stuff over command, among many other factors.

But I can’t help but wish that Bauer had left his drone repairs for November.

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