Just last week, we talked about the impact Wilson Ramos could have on the Tampa Bay Rays after finally being activated off the disabled list. After missing the first half of the season with a flexor strain, Brad Boxberger finally made his 2017 debut on Friday. After activating Boxberger, Rays manager Kevin Cash said himself he wasn’t quite sure what to expect from him. How could he be? Boxberger missed the first three months of the season, after injuries limited him to just 27 appearances in in 2016. He had an ugly 4.81 ERA and a 5.53 FIP in those games. If he can return to his prior All-Star form, though, he could be exactly what the Rays need.
Brad Boxberger will Help Fix the Rays Bullpen
Boxberger broke into the big leagues with the San Diego Padres in 2012. He made 42 total appearances as a Padre before being acquired by the Rays in a seven-player trade after the 2013 season. In 2014, his first season as a Ray, Boxberger was a revelation. In 64.2 innings over 63 appearances, Boxberger had a 2.37 ERA and 2.84 FIP. He had 104 strikeouts, good for a whopping 14.47 per nine innings.
His strong performance earned himself a chance to be Tampa Bay’s closer in 2015. Boxberger went on to lead the American League with 41 saves and was named an All-Star. However, after posting a 3.25 ERA and a 3.86 FIP prior to the break, Boxberger struggled in the second half, posting a 4.33 ERA and a 4.80 FIP. Boxberger ended up suffering 10 losses in 2015, most among all MLB relievers.
While most people acknowledge that wins and losses aren’t good ways to evaluate pitchers, to receive a loss as a closer likely means you entered late in the game with your team leading or tied, and allowed the other team to take the lead or win. For Rays fans, seeing their All-Star closer head back to the dugout from the mound as the opponent celebrated a walk-off victory became an all-too-familiar sight. The comfort Rays fans had felt when Boxberger entered games was quickly disappearing.
Boxberger’s hopes for a bounce-back 2016 campaign were set back by an oblique injury in Spring Training. Boxberger began the year on the disabled list and didn’t make his season debut until May 31. That debut, against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium, was ugly in many ways. Boxberger gave up two earned runs on two hits, including a home run, and a walk. After just 16 pitches and two outs, Boxberger was removed from the game after re-aggravating his oblique. Boxberger didn’t return until July 31. Yet, as alluded to earlier (4.81 ERA, 5.53 FIP in 27 appearances), 2016 was a struggle for him even after putting the injuries behind him.
After a disappointing finish to 2015 and a lost 2016, any hopes of a return to form by Boxberger in 2017 were quickly dashed by another injury in Spring Training. The flexor strain saw him spend the first 80 games of the season on the DL. But, while hopes of the old Boxberger ever returning may have been beginning to fade, he looked like he was back in his season debut. He entered the game in the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Rays trailing the Baltimore Orioles 3-2 at Camden Yards. Boxberger struck out the side in order, getting Ruben Tejada, Joey Rickard, and Seth Smith on just 13 total pitches.
It’s just one outing, and he didn’t exactly face a murderer’s row of hitters, but Boxberger really did look tremendous. His fastball hit 95 miles per hour, while his changeup dropped all the way to 79. Boxberger holding the game there ended up being really important, too. The Rays tied the game in the ninth inning before winning 6-4 in the 10th.
Will The Real Brad Boxberger Please Stand Up?
It’s no secret that Tampa Bay’s bullpen has been a concern. Its 4.32 ERA is tied with Baltimore’s for 10th in the American League. They’ve struggled to find relievers they could rely on outside of Alex Colome, and even Colome, who took over the closer’s role while Boxberger struggled with his health and performance, has struggled lately. Colome has been scored on in five of his last seven appearances, including each of his last four. Even in one of the two games he wasn’t scored on, he just narrowly avoided disaster. Entering the top of the ninth with a 5-4 lead against the Oakland Athletics on June 11, Colome loaded the bases with one out before getting a pop up and a strikeout to save the day. His ERA on the season is up to 3.72, which doesn’t exactly scream “shutdown closer”.
With Colome’s recent performance, the Rays haven’t really had anyone in their bullpen they could confidently throw in a high-leverage situation. However, assuming Colome isn’t broken and this is just a slump, if Boxberger can continue to look like his 2014/early 2015 self like he did on Friday, there may be hope yet for Tampa Bay’s beleaguered bullpen.