How Do You Spell “Relief”?

Tyler Thornburg’s awkward adjustment to the American League seems to follow a theme: relief pitchers the Red Sox recruited from the National League falling short of expectations. Among these I include Mark Melancon, Brad Ziegler and even Craig Kimbrel.

About Thornburg, blogger Ian Browne reports that, “after a couple of shaky outings early in the Grapefruit League season, the Red Sox shut him down so he could build more arm strength and work on some mechanical adjustments.”   The Red Sox sent Travis Shaw to the Milwaukee Brewers to get a bonafide set-up man, who had worked out of the Brewer bullpen for an 8-5 record and ERA of 2.15 in 2016. And maybe all will be well.

But there is some deja vu about Mark Melancon who came to the Red Sox in 2012 after a banner year with Houston, then in the National League. Melancon was bombed in Spring Training, yet retained with the parent club in the early part of the season with woeful results. He was sent back to  Triple A, where his performance hardly improved.  A look at his line in 2011 and 2012 tells the tale of two teams.

2011 26 HOU NL 8 4 .667 2.78 71 0 47 0 0 20 74.1
2012 27 BOS AL 0 2 .000 6.20 41 0 17 0 0 1 45.0

He was traded to Pittsburg in 2013, where he had a revival and become their closer. A free agent over the winter, he was signed by the San Francisco Giants, who have a pretty strong bullpen already.

The Red Sox travailed with Melancon for a year  and Thornburg has only pitched 1.1 innings, so the comparison may be hasty, but no one expects Thornburg to be ready to anchor the bullpen in April.

Then there was the more recent case of Brad Ziegler, the side-arming National League closer, who came from the Arizona Diamondbacks at mid-season. Ziegler was not really disappointing, but proved less effective against batters from the left side of the plate. He blew a few games in dramatic fashion, leaving him with as many losses as saves. The Sox decided not to pick up his contract after the 2016 season and filled his place with Thornburg. The stats don’t tell the whole story, but the Sox’ lack of confidence in Ziegler is what inspired the Thornburg trade.

2016 36 ARI NL 2 3 .400 2.82 36 0 30 0 0 18 38.1
2016 36 BOS AL 2 4 .333 1.52 33 0 12 0 0 4 29.2

The case of Craig Kimbrel is probably the least similar to Thornburg, but he clearly had adjustment problems in the early part of his first season with the Red Sox. Following a sterling six-year career in the National League, his walks per  9 innings were a career-high 5.1, his SO/W ratio a career low (2.77), his ERA a career high (3.40) and his won-loss record 2-6.  Certainly not an unqualified success.

What can we gather from this spotty record of relievers transplanting to Fenway Park from National Leagues bullpens?  Is the American League that much harder for relief pitchers from the National League? Are the Red Sox catchers lacking skill in handling relief pitchers?  Are the Red Sox pitching coaches and even John Farrell, himself, lacking the professional wisdom to help these pitchers adjust? Or could there be a different problem with each relief pitcher acquired from a National League team?

The grooming of Joe Kelly for the bullpen answers some of these questions about catchers and coaching staff. Kelly seems to have made the complete transition from starter to reliever and National League to American League, although it has taken three years. Of course Kelly has been considered one of the best natural talents in the back of the rotation and the bullpen, since he landed in Boston. Still he needed refinement and apparently found it here.

We can only watch the evolution of Kimbrel and the revival of Thornburg for clues to the coaching and catching expertise. But now our eyes are narrowed and our expectations measured, as we wonder how the Red Sox spell “relief.”



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