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Thursday, May 20, 2004
Chairman of the committee

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

A year ago, the Boston Red Sox front office could have been forgiven for trying to add the bullpen phone to the "Do Not Call'' list. Whenever it rang, and for whomever it rang, bad things inevitably followed -- blown leads and sagging confidence among them.

Twelve months later, it's all very different. The personnel has changed, and so has the philosophy. Most obviously, so have the results.

Keith Foulke
Keith Foulke is 8-for-8 in save situations.

A year after the Boston bullpen nearly short-circuited the team's playoff hopes and made the "closer-by-committee'' approach seem like the worst idea since New Coke, the Red Sox pen is the best in the American League.

Even after Tuesday's win, which saw two garbage-time runs scored in a one-sided win against Tampa Bay, the Sox's relief ERA is the lowest in the league at 2.80. For an incredible stretch in April, Sox relievers strung together a stretch of 32 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings.

The four bullpen mainstays -- setup men Mike Timlin, Scott Williamson and Alan Embree and closer Keith Foulke -- have combined to retire 65 percent of first hitters. The trio of Embree, Foulke and Timlin have allowed just five of 25 inherited runners to score.

Foulke, signed to a four-year deal in the offseason with the intention of providing the late-inning order that was so hard to find last season, has converted all eight of his save opportunities and has yielded exactly one earned run this season, while holding hitters to a .135 batting average.

Improved? Immeasurably so.

"I guess the easiest way to put it is, we were probably among the league's worst last year,'' said general manager Theo Epstein, "and this year, we're among the best.''

That's illustrated on the stat sheet, where the Sox relievers rank at the top of nearly every significant category. But it's also evident in other, more subtle ways.

"There's a different feeling surrounding the pen,'' Epstein said. "There's a lot of confidence, a sense of order. They're walking around with the sense of purpose down there. Last year, it was a little frantic. One failure led to another and there wasn't any security.''

Now ... And Then
A comparison between the Red Sox's bullpen stats through 40 games this season and in 2003:
  2004 2003
IP 112.1 131.0
W-L 7-4 10-5
SV 10 10
BLSV 2 5
ER 35 72
HR 6 16
BB 52 46
SO 91 92
ERA 2.80 4.92
BAA .197 .280

Epstein and his associates were mercilessly criticized for daring to upend tradition and try the committee approach. The idea -- in which the staff's best relievers would be utilized by situation rather than convention -- wasn't wrong, but the personnel was.

In hindsight, the plan last year was doomed right from the start. When the Sox bullpen imploded on Opening Night -- and blew another lead the next night before the team claimed a win in extra innings -- the die was cast. Poor performance led to uncertainty, and eventually, a restructuring.

Much of the credit goes to Foulke, whose eight saves don't rank him among the leaders but whose impact can't necessarily be measured on the stat sheet alone.

Foulke gives the Sox an elite closer, one capable of both multiple innings and working three consecutive days. Moreover, Foulke isn't restricted for the ninth-inning with a one-, two- or three-run lead. Manager Terry Francona, who, as the Oakland A's bench coach, got to know Foulke last season, hasn't hesitated to bring him into tie games or even games in which the Sox trail.

That versatility -- and a willingness to pitch more often and earlier than most closers prefer -- is what made Foulke so attractive to the Sox last winter.

"I guess you can say we decided to take a compromise (between the conventional bullpen approach and the committee model),'' Epstein said. "And it's the most practical one possible -- using Foulke aggressively in the eighth inning and in some tie games.''

Foulke has superb command -- five walks so far in 22-plus innings -- and frequently gets ahead of hitters. That efficiency limits his workload and enables more frequent use. And his changeup not only provides him with two out-pitches, but allows for contrast and improves his fastball. Finally, there's his delivery -- Foulke is a "dart-thrower,'' as though carefully taking aim in the split-second before release -- which causes deception for the hitter.

He was worth the investment because of his history: he's never allowed batters to hit better than .225; he's never had an ERA higher than 2.97 and never failed to make at least 65 appearances over the last five years. In the American League, only Mariano Rivera and Troy Percival have converted a higher percentage of save chances, and even then, only marginally so.

"It's really hard to find, in any pitcher, a track record of five years of consistent relief performance with no chink in the armor,'' said Epstein.

If Foulke is the reliable, final link in the bullpen chain-of-command, pitching coach Dave Wallace cites Embree and Timlin as "the cornerstones of it all. They can do a lot of things.''

Mike Timlin
Timlin

Timlin is the workhorse sinkerball specialist who serves as a second coach in the bullpen, according to Wallace, "making sure guys focus on the right thing.''

Embree provides a rare power arm from the left side -- in contrast to the surfeit of southpaw junk dealers on most staffs -- and is capable of closing games, as is Williamson, who had 21 saves last July before being obtained from Cincinnati.

A deep and experienced setup staff is the exclusive province of big-budget teams. When small-market teams have to cut financial corners, they often do so in the bullpen, making do with young pitchers and/or inexpensive journeymen.

By contrast, several of the Sox's setup crew earn more than closers on other more cost-conscious clubs.

The depth provides Francona with innumerable options.

"On a given night, he can game-plan different ways to get a victory,'' Epstein said.

Naturally, the improved bullpen has had a reverse ripple effect on the starting rotation.

"Last year,'' recalled Epstein "I think (the starters) felt they had to get through seven innings if not eight. That can change the way you pitch. It puts more pressure on them, obviously. They start to pitch away from contact in certain situations. This year, the rotation is really confident. In their minds they know if they can get to the bullpen with the lead, we'll be OK. They're going deeper in games, are more relaxed and they're pitching to their strengths. It just creates a sense of security.''

Among bullpen members, order has been restored. They know, for the most part, when and how they'll be used.

"Regardless of our profession,'' Wallace says, "I think we all want to know what's expected of us. Conceptually, (the committee approach) might have worked. But realistically, we're dealing with human beings here.''

Epstein continues to adhere to the belief that there's a better way, and that last year was a failure of execution more than a bad idea.

"As an industry, we're still far from optimum when it comes to bullpen usage,'' he said. "But there's no doubt that as an organization, we can learn from our mistakes and there's something to be said for the value of roles.''

To say nothing of the value of slamming the door with a one-run lead.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.