The End of a 6.54 Era: A Eulogy for Tyler Thornburg’s Time in Boston

Today, we Red Sox fans rejoice, for the sun has finally risen over the distant, dark horizon, and now vibrant light illuminates us with the promise of good bullpen fortune. Today, we Red Sox fans celebrate that no longer will a roster spot be given to a reliever who surrendered 31 runs in 42.2 innings with the team, but instead that spot may be given to someone we have never heard of, and will likely be just as bad – but perhaps, perhaps, perhaps might become a savior. Today, we Red Sox fans parade around the streets of Boston in pure ecstasy, for today, Tyler Thornburg has been released.

It’s such a strange feeling, almost as if a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. Things between Thornburg and Boston just never seemed to click, for whatever reason. I couldn’t tell you why, because it isn’t really anybody’s fault. Who could have foreseen the disaster the trade for him turned out to be? Not us fans, not Dave Dombrowski, and surely not Thornburg himself. Perhaps it is only God who really knows the answer; all I know is that I will never again be torturously forced to watch Tyler Thornburg pitch in a Boston Red Sox uniform. 

Please, please, I implore you: do not mistake this article as simply another “Good Riddance!” piece designed to mock Thornburg for his unfortunate suckage. Instead, I wish to celebrate him, for while the time us Sox fans shared with him was certainly tumultuous, he gave us everything he had. That might not have been enough for a box score or a baseball reference page to remember him fondly, but it is enough for me, for there is no pride in spewing bitter words about a ghost. And it is true that, once someone falls, the bad is forgotten while only the best of times live on in our memories – and, more importantly, in our hearts. 

So, to the Red Sox fans ready to move forward; to the Brewers fans joining us here to reminisce about Thornburg’s better days; and to all baseball fans whose teams roster their own versions of Tyler Thornburg, and are now looking to Boston’s example as a beacon of hope that someday soon, they, too, will be released; I welcome you. We will take this journey together, and what a wild one it has been. Let us look back and examine a timeline of each and every one of Tyler Thornburg’s best moments in Boston.

December 6, 2016 – The Red Sox acquire Tyler Thornburg in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers

Travis Shaw wasn’t particularly good in 2016 (88 wRC+, 1.3 WAR), but for some reason, he captured my imagination like very few young Red Sox players had done before. In 2007, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury burst onto the scene, electrifying me with their laser shows and unreal speed, respectively, as Boston won the World Series. In 2013, Xander Bogaerts debuted late in the season, and played a crucial role in yet another Red Sox championship, and in 2015, Mookie Betts brought with him the promise of a future superstar. 

I don’t know how or why Travis Shaw was able to enter such rarified air in my mind, but he did it all the same. Perhaps it was how he beat out Pablo Sandoval for the starting third base job in Spring Training. Perhaps it was his hot start to the 2016 season (Shaw hit .314 with two homers over 24 games in April, and then .275 with five homers in 28 games in May). Or perhaps it was how good he looked in a baseball uniform (his legs truly go on for days). Regardless, I loved Travis shaw despite his faults.

Then, it all came crashing down around me. On just the second day of the Winter Meetings, Dave Dombrowski shipped Shaw and a few prospects to the Milwaukee Brewers for Thornburg, who was coming off of an incredible 2016 campaign – a 2.15 ERA, 13 saves, and 90 strikeouts in just 67 innings. At the time, while heartbreaking to me, it seemed like a reasonable trade for an elite 8th-inning arm to pair with Craig Kimbrel

Instead, Shaw turned in back-to-back 30 homer campaigns for the Brewers (although he has struggled immensely in 2019), Mauricio Dubon blossomed into a very good prospect, and Tyler Thornburg couldn’t adjust to Boston’s offseason throwing program. He ended up having thoracic outlet surgery, and…

2017 – Thornburg misses the entire 2017 season

There’s an old Dr. Seuss quote that I often think about when I feel like the world is moving too quickly: “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment, until it becomes a memory.” I can’t help but have that quote come to mind when I look back on Tyler Thornburg’s 2017 season with the Red Sox.

I am really good at graphic design.

Boston won 93 games that year, and a second consecutive division title. While they were ultimately bested by the eventual champion Houston Astros in the ALDS, it was still a memorable season. At the time, if you’d have asked me, I surely would have said that I wished we had had Tyler Thornburg on the team, for he might have made a difference. Now, though, with the knowledge of what Thornburg would become, and how his time in Boston would end, the words of Dr. Seuss ring through my mind: 2017 is now a memory, and I am able to recognize just how valuable it was that Tyler Thornburg did not play. 

The Red Sox were able to hold off the young New York Yankees in 2017, winning the division by a narrow two game margin. That was thanks in large part to Thornburg’s contribution, as he put up a 0.0 WAR – his best during his Red Sox tenure. Had he pitched, and pitched like he ended up pitching in 2018 and 2019, he would have been worth negative WAR, and perhaps that division championship banner would have belonged to the Yankees. 

From there, it’s just a jump down the rabbit hole. Instead of facing the Astros, the Red Sox would have faced the Twins in the Wild Card Game, and after winning (because they definitely would have), the Indians in the ALDS. Maybe we beat the Indians, maybe we don’t, but regardless, Thornburg pitching in 2017 would have changed everything: the Dodgers would have won the World Series. Rafael Devers would be on the Pirates now. The Mariners still wouldn’t make the playoffs. 

So, yeah, I’d say it was pretty valuable to Boston that Thornburg didn’t play in 2017. Now that it is a distant memory, I can fully realize and come to terms with that; I am at peace. Also (and perhaps most importantly), I went to Game 4 of the ALDS, and got to see Rafael Devers hit an inside-the-park homer, and it was incredible. While I left Fenway disheartened, I ended up meeting the girl I would date for the next two years that very same night, so in a way, Tyler Thornburg is responsible for me getting laid. 

August 9, 2018 – Thornburg tosses a scoreless inning

Now, we skip ahead, and land on an August day well into Thornburg’s first (semi)healthy season with the Sox. Things weren’t going well at all for him – he carried a 5.91 ERA through his first 12 games coming into this matchup – but for one night, he proved himself, and was the undisputed star of the show. 

Let’s set the stage: entering the bottom of the eighth, the 51-62 Toronto Blue Jays lead the 81-34 Boston Red Sox by a score of 8-4 at the Rogers Centre. Out to the mound trotted Tyler Thornburg, desperately hoping to keep it a four-run game. It was like something out of a movie, too impossibly romantic for even Hollywood to produce. How could a moment like this come from anything other than an Oscar-winning script? 

My heart was pounding. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but I did know that, regardless of whether it was good or bad for the Red Sox, it would be something I wouldn’t forget for the rest of my life. Long story short? Thornburg delivered a performance for the history books. Teoscar Hernández? Struck out looking. Russell Martin? Struck out SWINGING. That’s right – Thornburg got somebody to swing…and miss. Aledmys Díaz and Kevin Pillar followed with back-to-back singles, but Thornburg allowed those on purpose – what’s a scene like this without some drama sprinkled in? Díaz stole third base to turn the tension up to 11 with Curtis Granderson, a notorious rival of Thornburg’s (they went to kindergarten together), up to bat.

Whoosh! Ball one. Whoosh! Fouled away, and we’re once again dead even with a 1-1 count. These two are so perfectly matched, it’s anyone’s guess who comes out on top. Ball two, then a foul for strike two – what a game of cat and mouse! Finally, ball three, and it’s filled up at 3-2. It couldn’t have been any other way, really. It had to come down to this pitch, with these two young superstars at the pique of their powers, facing off in a game that would decide the pennant. Thornburg pitched, and…OH MY GOD! HE STRUCK OUT THE SIDE (if you don’t count the singles)! TYLER THORNBURG HAS DONE IT, FOLKS! HE’S TOSSED A SCORELESS INNING, AND SURRENDERED ONLY TWO (2) HITS! NOT ONLY THAT, BUT HE STRUCK OUT THREE BATTERS! INCREDIBLE! HISTORY! HISTORY! HISTORY IN TORONTO!

I had never seen anything like it, but I knew in those moments that, someday, I would tell my grandchildren, and my great grandchildren, and my great-great grandchildren (I am going to be cryogenically frozen and brought back to life) about this game, and the night that Tyler Thornburg pitched a scoreless inning. It is one of my fondest baseball memories. 

The Blue Jays ultimately prevailed 8-5, but despite the loss, it was still one of my favorite nights from Boston’s historic 2018 season. Other, lesser fans might remember this game as the one where Mookie Betts hit for the cycle, which was fine, I suppose. But all the cycles in the world couldn’t have distracted me from the beauty of Mr. Tyler Michael Thornburg, and one of his best outings in Boston. 

Mookie Betts hits for the cycle. I couldn’t find any highlights of Tyler Thornburg from this game. Thanks for nothing, baseball theater.

October 28, 2018 – The Boston Red Sox win the World Series

This is easily my favorite Tyler Thornburg memory. After all, how could his contributions to the greatest team of our lifetime be forgotten? 

The Red Sox bullpen was highly criticized entering the postseason; critics feared that Dave Dombrowski had neglected to add a reliable reliever, which would ultimately do in this 108-juggernaut. It was the same fatal flaw that ultimately spelled the demise for several power-packed Detroit Tigers teams in the early 2010’s who never could quite reach the mountaintop. 

Instead, the Sox bullpen came to life in the postseason. They were lights out for much of October, and a big reason the team won the World Series. For his part, Thornburg put up some of the best numbers of his entire career in that magical run to glory: 0 earned runs, a 0.00 ERA, 0 walks, 0 hits, and, best of all, 0 games played. They even let him on the field! What a treat! 

It’s time to play “Spot Tyler Thornburg!” He’s in there, I promise, celebrating the World Championship he was almost single-handedly responsible for.

July 9, 2019 – Thornburg refuses a Minor League assignment

With that, our story reaches its final stages. Thornburg once again struggled to stay effective or healthy in 2019. After surrendering 16 runs in just 18.2 innings, he was placed on the injured list on May 23 with a right hip inpingement. After finishing his rehab assignment, the Red Sox attempted to send Thornburg to the minors for some more work, but he refused. Less than 24 hours later, he was released, and his time in Boston officially came to an end. I had not wept such tears of joy since I saw Toy Story 4 in theaters, alone and surrounded by middle school girls. 

So, we’ve reached the end. What a journey it’s been, though! We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve screamed at our television sets in anger as Thornburg blew another game, only to have our upstairs neighbor call the police on us for a noise complaint, but then the officer shows up, and they’re also a Red Sox fan, so they join you in your fit of rage against Tyler Thornburg.

One last thing – I truly don’t hold any ill will toward Thornburg, and I only wish him the best going forward in his career. It might not seem that way, because all I’ve done is ridicule him. I care about this game a lot, and it was frustrating to have things work out the way they did, but I’m certain it was a thousand times more infuriating for Thornburg himself. There’s one final memory I’d like to share. 

July 6, 2018 – Thornburg makes his Red Sox debut

During Thornburg’s long 2017 hibernation, which continued well into the 2018 season, I often wondered if he was even real, or just some glitch in the Matrix who popped into existence in 2016, and disappeared off the face of the Earth afterwards. (Aliens?) It was like he was some mythical creature that we constantly heard updates about, but never quite got to see. The anticipation only grew with each passing day. Boston had surrendered what we by then knew was a hefty package for Thornburg, and fans were desperate to see the result. 

I remember when Thornburg came off of the D.L., and how excited I was to finally see him pitch. The Sox bullpen had been struggling (I specifically remember a three game series against the Yankees in New York in early May where we blew leads on consecutive nights for losses, and blew a 4-0 lead in the final game of the series), and I was so hopeful that Thornburg might be the answer. Looking back, though, there was no way that he could have been, through no real fault of his own, and that makes me sad.

He had become a martyr, I think. He missed so much time, and the bullpen struggled so much, that Thornburg became sort of a hero of prophecy. We didn’t need to add another reliever via trade because Tyler Thornburg was almost healthy, and surely he’d return to his form from nearly two years ago and save the team. It’s ironic really; each day he missed, fans grew more desperate to have him around, and expectations grew higher and higher, and yet, each game he missed, the likelihood of him living up to those expectation shrunk. It was a catch 22. 

In another camp, there were plenty of people who seemed to want Thornburg to fail. They blamed him for Milwaukee fleecing us in the trade, and they blamed him for his trouble with injuries, acting as if he had chosen to sit out. Anything short of perfection would have been all the validation these fans needed to prove that Thornburg was washed up, and an enemy to the Red Sox.

And sure enough, Thornburg’s debut disappointed (or, for those rooting against him, it went perfectly). He surrendered a run, and then another in his second outing, and then three more in his fifth one. Things continued to spiral from there, and before long, it was clear that he wasn’t the answer. The Red Sox were making history in spite of him, not because he miraculously turned the bullpen around. But for a few brief moments on July 6, 2018, as I watched Tyler Thornburg warming in the bullpen for the first time as a member of the Red Sox, I could imagine that he would excel. I could imagine that he would be who he was in 2016, who he traded for, and he would silence all the critics. 

That was the last time I was excited to watch Tyler Thornburg pitch. 

Dakota Lovins

Dakota is a sophomore in college, and one day he wants to be a baseball announcer. He is 6'5'' with size 17 shoes, a fan of the Boston Red Sox, and he is afraid of moths. Last year he finished in 5th place out of 10 in his fantasy baseball league. Follow him on twitter @kotalov16.

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