Column: The Red Sox and their bullpen

Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel works against the Atlanta Braves in the ninth inning of a game on Monday, Sept. 3 in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel works against the Atlanta Braves in the ninth inning of a game on Monday, Sept. 3 in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

In an episode of his “Revisionist History” podcast, Malcolm Gladwell, the celebrity author and thought provocateur, explains a notion of “weak link” versus “strong link.” The brief synopsis is that in any given scenario the most important factor is the strength or quality of an entity based on their ability to contribute or harm an effort. The most cited example is basketball; a “strong link” sport where one individual (e.g. LeBron James) makes the most substantial of differences and can completely exert their influence in an outsized way. The counter, or “weak link,” is that the strength of your least valuable link is what controls an outcome. Gladwell cites soccer, where your 11th man’s quality can make or break you, and it is harder for one player to seize control.

You may not universally accept this concept. I personally see some fallibility in the example of soccer, but there is some aspect of validity to it. In different contexts which members of an enterprise matter most can shift depending on the nature of the endeavor.

I would contend that baseball trends toward weak link. You can find a narrative wherever you want, but it says something about how greats like Ted Williams, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout are all without World Series. While the Kansas City Royals, who went to back-to-back Fall Classics recently, were the epitome of well-rounded and foundationally strong.

The AL East leading Boston Red Sox are also pretty well rounded. They have a deep lineup, are solid defensively and have a couple aces up their sleeve. Yes, David Price has been an ace this season. But as any Sox fan will tell you, the back of the bullpen is a glaring weak link. If you’ve been watching, you know it’s a weak link that has been broken time and time again this year (and the past couple years).

Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, you name em’, they’ve struggled. This isn’t new info. Fans and media alike clamored for Dave Dombrowski to acquire backend help around the trade deadline, but he declined. Now, as the “Felger and Mazz” radio show loves to epouse, teams are simply spinning “The Wheel of Gutless Bums” against the Sox. Barnes, Ryan Brasier, even the typically strong Craig Kimbrel have yakked in meaningful late game settings. It’s even more concerning,considering the Red Sox have played a myriad of good teams lately.

As I saw someone say on Twitter, if baseball games ended after six innings, the Red Sox would be golden. A strong bullpen is important. With Chris Sale’s health possibly dubious, and a track record of postseason failure from Price, on top of a decent but not great Rick Porcello, it would seem even more integral to a World Series run.

Mookie Betts and JD Martinez can continue to smash, the defense can keep making plays, Alex Cora can even maintain his strong approach, but if the bullpen continues to be weak, teams are going to target it and smash right through it. The AL is hyper competitive at the top; it’s going to be the team with the strongest weakness who holds firm.


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.