BRADENTON, Fla. — It’s not a new concept. Other managers and pitching coaches of past Red Sox teams have emphasized pace and tempo to their hurlers.
But it appears Sox manager John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves are getting their point across this spring.
In fact, if you had to pick out one area of this camp that has stuck out, it’s the starting pitching.
Exactly what the Sox had in mind.
“Overall it’s been consistent,” Farrell said. “Individual guys have taken the adjustments they’ve worked on and taken them into the games and that has been encouraging.
“There’s been some reverting back at times to old habits. [But] with each successive appearance, they’re starting to solidify those changes, which is why we’ve seen the consistency.”
The Sox rank first in the majors in ERA this spring (3.54), first in opponent average (.241), and first in opponent OPS (.667). They also rank fourth in the majors with 175 strikeouts, second among American League teams to the Tigers’ 182.
“We’ve tried to get back to a basic formula,” Farrell said. “Attack the zone, throw more strikes. Work quick. Dictate the tone or tempo of the game. Guys are realizing if they’re in control it takes away the downtime where other thoughts might creep in. The defense likes it, and umpires have made some candid comments.”
Clay Buchholz, who was a notoriously slow worker, has begun to pick up the pace. He had amassed 9⅓ scoreless innings before Neil Walker launched a leadoff homer in the second inning of Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Pirates here. But Buchholz, pitching in windy conditions, allowed just one hit over five innings, walking two and striking out four. As Boston’s No. 2 starter, he’s pitched like an ace. No. 1 starter Jon Lester was perfect in six innings the previous day.
“He threw quite a few changeups and curveballs and maintained a very good rhythm and tempo to the game,” Farrell said of Buchholz. “Another solid outing for him.”
There’s no doubt Lester, Buchholz, and Felix Doubront, three of the slowest in the majors last year between pitches, have bought into what Farrell and Nieves are preaching. Nieves, who was the assistant pitching coach under Don Cooper with the White Sox, has continued what he has always believed — working quickly disrupts the hitter.
“Clay is getting results to reinforce the thought,” Farrell said. “It allows him to use change of speeds more effectively with quicker tempo and keep the game a little more in his control. He’s doing it in a way that looks comfortable and natural as well.”
Farrell said emphasizing tempo is something he started when he was pitching coach with the Red Sox. He said he knew that Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon were notoriously slow workers, and while it worked for them, “I noticed the other guys were picking up those traits.”
Those are traits that make pitching coaches cringe.
“I was seeing guys from across the field,” said Farrell, who managed the Blue Jays the last two seasons.
“I saw the pace being established. The more you keep a pace going, it keeps the hitter on the defensive. When you have more of a time span between pitches, it’s tougher to repeat the feel of pitches.
“These guys are good athletes and use athleticism to their advantage, and a good way to do that is getting the hitter on the defensive.”
Buchholz said when he used to get in trouble he would revert to taking his time. He said he was overthinking, and “it probably caused me more harm than good. Now I get the ball and throw it and eliminate the overthinking. I think that’s really helped me.”
The pitchers have taken cues from Ryan Dempster, the veteran who works quickly. He has talked to the other pitchers about establishing a brisk but comfortable pace. John Lackey also works quickly.
The other benefit to a pitcher working fast is that the defense is far more alert. The infielders don’t like having to stand around.
And hitters hate the fast pace.
“As hitters, we don’t like to be rushed,” Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “We go through our routine and if that’s disrupted it can throw us off.
“When you don’t have time to do all the things you do before you step back in there, it can send you for a loop. When a pitcher can do that to a hitter he has the advantage.
“Working quickly seems to be working great for Clay. I think it’s working great for Jon.”
Farrell is right.
Pitchers who work quickly are confident in what they’re doing. When you take time, it means you’re tentative about something. A pitcher may feel he doesn’t have great stuff that day and wants every pitch to be perfect. That’s when they tend to overthrow or miss spots or lose command. There’s a nervous feeling that sets in, and the longer between pitches, the more the buildup to the next pitch.
It makes perfect sense. Why pitchers get so out of whack with it is the great unknown. It’s driven managers and pitching coaches crazy. They mention it to their pitchers and it usually goes in one ear and out the other. Pitchers can be stubborn. They also don’t want their routine disrupted. But because the Sox staff had such a horrible season last year, the pitchers were open for anything.
And it seems like Farrell’s and Nieves’s message is being heard.
Of course, it has to carry into the regular season, and that’s where the tension sets in. Will Lester and Buchholz pitch quickly in the heat of the battle? When there are men on base at Yankee Stadium? That’s the next step.
But so far the message is being heard.
The staff is buying into it, and that may explain why the Sox starting rotation may be the best one in spring training right now.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.