Brad Boxberger entered the season with high expectations as a late-inning reliever for the Tampa Bay Rays. He certainly met them to begin the year, pitching to a 1.10 ERA in his first 18 appearances and overcoming a few rough patches to make the All-Star team. However, the wheels have come off as his meltdowns have become too commonplace and winnable games have slipped away from the Rays. He has gone from a great reliever to just a decent one, and we are still trying to figure out what happened.
In today’s Tampa Bay Times, Rays beat writer Marc Topkin took an in-depth look at how the Rays are using Boxberger out of the bullpen. The article is based on an expansive interview with Boxberger in which the Rays pitcher blames his recent problems on overuse and improper utilization as a pitcher who has been a full-time closer in everything but name. He has a good point, but the problems seem to go deeper than just Boxberger and reflect on a number of curious decisions made by Kevin Cash and Matt Silverman over the course of the season.
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The first questionable decision was to drastically limit the innings the starters threw no matter the game situation. Rays starters were limited in many cases to 70-80 pitches a game and were pulled quite a few times before they had chances to qualify for wins. This, of course, did not sit well with the starters nor the relievers, and a couple of pitchers made public their dissatisfaction with the policy. Even the reason for the decision was strange, with Cash stating that he did not want the starters to face opposing hitters for a third time. If starting pitchers cannot deal with hitters three times, one should question why they are in the rotation at all. At any rate, pulling starters early has often lead to using four or five relievers in a game.
The second questionable decision came when the Rays traded veteran setup man Kevin Jepsen to Minnesota for an A-ball pitcher and a Rookie ball one. Prior to the deal, the Rays were poised to have a bullpen of Boxberger, Jake McGee, Jepsen, Xavier Cedeno, Steve Geltz, Brandon Gomes, and Alex Colome. That amounted to a very formidable bullpen. However, with Jepsen gone and McGee on the DL again, the team was suddenly seriously lacking late-inning relievers. Jepsen was no savior–although he has pitched better since going to the Twins–but the more quality pitchers you have, the easier it is to keep pressure off whoever is struggling.
Both of these choices led to more innings and more pressure on Boxberger. He does not mind the high-tension closing assignments or the innings connected to them. He doesn’t like closer-by-committee, but understands that may be the best course of action when McGee is healthy. What he doesn’t like is being called upon in the seventh inning or in a tie game on the road. So far this season, Boxberger has been used twice in the seventh inning and eight times in tie games away from the Trop. All of that may have contributed to his four loses and four blown saves in his last fifteen games and the Rays’ failure to gain ground in the Wild Card race.
Overall, the season has been a mixed bag for Boxberger. He has 34 saves, currently second in the American league, but he also has ten loses and six blown saves. Boxberger told Topkin that if he would have been used like a real closer on a regular team, he probably wouldn’t have been put in half of those situations. There are a lot of stats that we can quote with Boxberger–Robbie Knopf has talked about him quite a bit–but on the most basic level, Boxberger has a 2.68 ERA in save situations and a 6.68 ERA at all other times. He has been uncomfortable when used outside the usual parameters of a closer.
Certainly many of the Tampa Bay Rays’ problems stem from a questionable offense which has put tremendous pressure on the pitching staff. However, you have to question some of the Rays’ strategy and roster moves and it is especially disconcerting to see players openly criticize management in the press. It may be well-founded, but it never would have happened under Joe Maddon. Kevin Cash has twenty games to get this situation under control or it may well spill into the offseason and that’s not good.