With less than a week to Opening Day, the Red Sox have a Brandon Workman problem.
The soon-to-be-32-year-old closer has struggled to get outs each time he’s pitched in intrasquad games since the Red Sox started the scrimmages.
Friday night, Workman gave up a three-run blast to Michael Chavis, one of the few Red Sox hitters who had been struggling at the plate.
“That’s the hard part,” said manager Ron Roenicke. “I was really happy that Chavis got on track, but I wish it was against somebody different than Workman.”
Is this a code red? A code yellow? Or is there nothing to see here, given pitchers are in an unusual sprint to get ready for the season?
A code yellow is probably the best way to put it. There are a few ways to look at this.
There’s the view from Workman’s perspective as he looks at a 60-game season as his final chance to earn a nice contract in free agency this winter. There’s the view from the Red Sox’ perspective, as they wonder if Workman can be relied upon as the closer. And there’s the view from the fan’s perspective, as they should start looking around to other names in the Sox’ bullpen given Workman’s struggles have been ongoing.
The pitch quality hasn’t been too concerning. He’s missing his spots frequently, yes. But the curveball that made him so dominant last year still has bite. It’s still a weapon. The fastball still has life.
The pitches are just all over the place. This is fairly common for guys in spring training.
“His stuff is fine,” Roenicke said. “I talked to (pitching coach Dave Bush) about it. We thought his stuff was good. He’s just missing a location. It’s coming out nice. Locations aren’t very good and our hitters are not missing anything. But the velocity is there. He threw some nice curveballs.
“He got two strikeouts on that ball in the dirt and that’s where he needs to be. We’ll just keep plugging along and hopefully he will find that command in the next couple of outings and he will be back to the guy he is.”
But the reality is, he might not be.
The season Workman had in 2019 was not only remarkably impressive — it’s one of just 18 seasons in the last 10 years in which a reliever had thrown at least 50 innings with an ERA under 2.00 and a strikeout rate over 13 per nine innings — it was out-of-left-field.
Workman had been just an average pitcher before that, struggling on his way back from Tommy John surgery and trying to find velocity that kept him off Alex Cora’s radar during his first spring training with the Red Sox.
When a reliever has his first great season at age 31, it’s a tad alarming. Is this an outlier, or a new normal?
Over the past three seasons, there have been 12 instances of a relief throwing 50 innings with an ERA under 2.00 and a strikeout rate over 13-per-nine. Six times, the reliever had an ERA over 4.00 either the season before or season after the remarkable one. Nine times, the reliever had an ERA over 3.00 in an adjacent season. Consistent dominance out of relief is one of the rarest feats in baseball. To expect Workman to dominate again in 2021 is simply shortsighted.
The problem for him is that a bad season in 2020, even amidst the unusual circumstances, won’t help his case for a nice contract.
But as far as the Red Sox are concerned, there are bigger fish to fry.
There are only two positions that new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom upgraded relentlessly since he took over last October: catching and relief pitching.
On the catching front, he signed Kevin Plawecki and Jonathan Lucroy to join Christian Vazquez behind the plate. He also traded for catching prospect Connor Wong.
On the reliever front, there are too many names to print. Bloom has been collecting them for months.
It’s arguably the streakiest position in baseball. Bad relievers can get in the zone for a month or two, and good relievers can pitch like garbage for just as long. Matt Barnes and Craig Kimbrel have been as good as anyone in baseball for months at a time, and as bad as anyone for similar stretches.
This happens regularly.
With 30-man rosters and dozens of arms to sort through, the Red Sox probably won’t feel the loss of Workman too heavily if he’s still not right by Friday. Let him get phased in as a middle reliever before earning back his closer role.
The Red Sox aren’t expected to be in too many close games with their monster offense and no-name starting rotation. There should be plenty of blowouts both ways.
If anything, Workman’s struggles would only make him more affordable if the Sox wanted to keep him long-term.
It’s not ideal, but it’s a problem not to stress over just yet.