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What the Foulke Has Gone So Wrong With The Red Sox Bullpen

By Christopher Bettinger

There is a certain feeling you get when you watch a movie lacking that classic storybook ending — movies like “American History X,”  “Seven,” and even “Casablanca.” Just when things seem like they might work out, everything ends up in shambles, with a stomach-churning ending.

And when the credits start rolling, you can’t but help think about how it all went wrong and what could have been. It’s mid-season for Major League Baseball, the Sox are in the midst of a tight pennant race, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein is starting to see the credits roll on the most gut-wrenching show in Boston … the Red Sox bullpen.

When spring training started in Fort Myers back in March, Theo Epstein, along with the rest of Red Sox Nation, thought, with good reason, that the bullpen was in good shape for the 2005 campaign. The perfect cast was in place, and the names looked impressive on paper. We had our fire-ballers in Embree and the newly-acquired Matt Mantei from Arizona. We had our new long-inning man (Halama), lefty specialist (Myers), set-up man (Timlin), and most importantly, a bona fide closer in Keith Foulke. But as we all learned from the 2004 ALCS, games aren’t played on paper.

Since the All-Star break, the Red Sox bullpen has been among the worst in the American League. With the exception of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Red Sox relief pitching is last in the American League in the following statistics:

Red Sox Bullpen Stats Since The All-Star Break, July 11
WHIP Walks/Hits Per Inning 1.52
BAA Opponents Batting Average 0.287
OBP On-Base Percentage 0.361
ERA Earned Run Average 5.54

The question is why the bullpen is performing so poorly. Four of the six relief pitchers have drastically underperformed compared to their career averages. The individual ERA’s of Halama, Embree, and Mantei in the 2005 season are at least 1.40 runs above their career averages.

Mantei has lost command of the strike zone and has allowed almost one walk per inning pitched, which can be traced back to an injury that requires season-ending surgery. Embree has lost the ability to spot his fastball, and has given up more home runs and walks prior to the All-Star break this season than in the entire 2004 campaign. Halama’s inflated ERA can be attributed to his inability to perform in the clutch by allowing opponent batters to amass a 1.076 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) with runners in scoring position. This is probably because he is used as a long reliever (read: mop-up pitcher) during blowout games or when the starter for that day has struggled immensely.

But by far the biggest disappointment this season has been Keith “Meatball” Foulke. Like Embree, Foulke has been struggling with his control. Foulke is on pace to give up more than twice the number of home runs, while his walks per nine IP have jumped from 1.6 to 3.5 and his strikeouts per nine IP have dropped from 6.7 last season to 8.6.

The reason for Keith Foulke’s struggles in the first half of the season was also simple: he was injured. Despite this, Foulke continued to pitch even as the velocity on his fastball dropped significantly. Batters were becoming more patient, going deeper into counts, and were sitting on his blazing 86-mile per hour fastball, ready to pound one into the bleachers. Foulke has given up more first-pitch home runs and doubles than any other count throughout his career. However during the 2005 season, he has given up no first pitch home runs, while over half of his gopher balls have come on 0-2 or 1-1 counts.

Furthermore, Foulke’s insistence on pitching, even with his personal injury, cost the Sox as many as four games in the first half of the season. His ineptitude on the mound has both angered and frustrated the fans, team, and management, prompting the dawn of the “Schilling-for-closer” era. While complex clubhouse issues and seemingly endless politics are involved in this decision, only time will tell if this experiment pays long-term dividends. But all that matters is that Foulke won’t be the closer until August or September, and one of the Red Sox pitchers will have to step up and play an unfamiliar role. Whoever takes over the lead role in the farce of the Red Sox bullpen, let’s hope the script in the second half of the season calls for a fairy-tale ending like the 2004 post-season, not a tragedy like the first half of 2005.