Theo Epstein is determined to upgrade his bullpen this offseason after a season that saw the Red Sox’ unit finish with the fourth-worst WAR in the league. The attempted seduction of Mariano Rivera and successful tempting of Bobby Jenks may draw more headlines, but the signing of Dan Wheeler is another solid addition to a bullpen that appears formidable on paper.
Wheeler spent the past three and a half seasons with the Rays, so the Sox have intimate knowledge of how disruptive he can be when properly used. He turned 33 on December 10 and works off his high-80s fastball. Wheeler throws a slider, curve, and freshly minted splitter, with the curve being especially effective at drawing empty swings. Wheeler’s arsenal is particularly dangerous towards right-handed batters as he’s struck out 112 right-handed batters (roughly 24%) while walking 29 – or a walk for every four or so strikeouts – since the 2008 season. Wheeler’s 2010 represents his worst against righties since 2007 and yet he still managed to hold them to a slash line of .222/.287/.400.
Home runs are the issue with Wheeler as he does his damage through the air (career 36.1% groundball rate) and over the last four seasons has failed to manage a home run per flyball ratio under 10%. Moving from the relatively pitcher-friendly confines of Tropicana Field to Fenway Park may cause his raw slash-line to ascend, but one positive aspect of Wheeler’s outs-by-air approach is the reduction of non-home run hits. Wheeler’s batting average on balls in play the last few seasons has topped out at .243 with consecutive seasons of .202 and .203.
Wheeler was used against same-handed batters at the second-highest rate in the majors amongst qualified pitchers behind only Randy Choate (coincidentally a former teammate) which should tell you just what Joe Maddon and the Rays felt about his ability to beat left-handed hitters. Their lack of faith was driven by Wheeler’s career .275/.341/.491 line against. For more proof that Wheeler’s stuff does not play up to lefties consider that he’s given up only three additional homers to righties in 450-plus additional plate appearances.
All of this comes to Boston for $3 million in 2011 with an option for the 2012 season (also valued at $3 million) that vests with 65 appearances – a total Wheeler has reached in each of the last six season except 2010 (and he still made 64 appearances then). In what has become a crazy free-agent market for relief pitchers, credit Epstein for not becoming myopic and handing out three- or four-year pacts to upgrade an abysmal relief corps with Jenks and Wheeler.
More complete pitchers like Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard may look on superciliously as Wheeler makes his stuff work against righties, but he’s someone who can thrive as the third- or fourth-best reliever in a bullpen. That’s not the sexiest of upsides, but it fits what Boston needs to perfection.