As much as won’t-get-fooled-again skepticism hovers over the Red Sox pitching rotation behind David Price, it’s hard to ignore the many ways in which the atmosphere surrounding the group has changed.
A year ago, there was no established ace. The catching core underwent significant and then seismic on-the-fly change with the injuries to Christian Vazquez and then Ryan Hanigan. The defense authored regular acts of betrayal that produced ballooning ERAs.
On the cusp of 2016, the view appears somewhat different. The Sox have Price. A four-deep core of catchers (Blake Swihart, Hanigan, Vazquez, and Sandy Leon) is familiar with the nuances of the starters. The defense appears considerably improved, particularly with an outfield group that promises to keep the lawn clean.
There is one additional, more easily overlooked, element that could prove a difference-maker for the pitching staff. Pitching coach Carl Willis, hired in the wake of Juan Nieves’s firing last May, returns, ready to continue the collaborations that started to show promise by the end of 2015.
The opportunity for Willis to return as a familiar and reassuring presence to a group that underperformed last year is noteworthy. After all, the 55-year-old had a hand in one of the most significant turnarounds of the last decade.
In 2007, Cliff Lee’s promising upward trajectory took a nosedive, the 28-year-old going 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA and he was left off the postseason roster of an Indians team that lost to the Red Sox in the ALCS. He went to visit Willis that winter in North Carolina to define a path back to his pitching strengths.
The next season, Lee won the AL Cy Young, going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA. The lefthander suggested that the offseason session with Willis, when the two played catch on a high school field, deserved a share of the credit for his turnaround.
“You see what [pitchers] can do so well — well above average, what their strength is,” Willis said. “They realize that as well. But sometimes we see it before they do, what they can do in addition to make their strength even better. You see guys, at times they’re struggling, and you know they’re better.
“You’ve got to find a way to guide them toward something that’s generally very simple. When you start talking about developing a new pitch, that gets more [complicated]. But if it’s how you’re using your changeup in certain counts, using the other side of the plate, when to elevate — you’re not going to ask a guy to elevate a baseball if you know he physically can’t. It’s getting them to buy into, ‘I can do something else to make the strength play even more.’ ”
It worked with Lee, based on a notion as simple as the idea he needed to attack both sides of the plate with his fastball instead of living just on the glove side. A simple alteration achieved huge results.
Lee was the second of three pitchers who won a Cy Young award under Willis, joining CC Sabathia with the Indians and Felix Hernandez in Seattle. The fact that Willis has collaborated with pitchers at the top of their professions in multiple organizations gave him credibility, both with the Sox when they hired him and with the pitching staff he inherited on the fly.
“[Coaching a Cy Young winner] wasn’t just because he was in one place and benefited from an era,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “It was done repeatedly.”
Still, credibility alone did not eliminate the transition by Willis to a new organization and an entirely new group of pitchers.
“I think it’s kind of what you would expect when he first got there,” Rick Porcello said. “I wasn’t familiar with him and he wasn’t familiar with me.”
“Quite frankly, up until May 9, I wasn’t paying any attention to what the Red Sox were doing,” acknowledged Willis, who’d been a minor league pitching coach in the Indians system. “Obviously, it’s difficult. It’s not ideal. Spring training is so important.”
A conversation with David Price, Brian Bannister, Alex Speier, and Peter Abraham:
Yet Willis didn’t have the luxury of that time of year in 2015, and so he had to sit back and start getting to know his staff. By his own admission, he was hesitant in his early conversations with the pitchers, wanting to get to know the individuals before he started suggesting alterations.
“I didn’t feel like Day 2, I could say, ‘Hey, what the heck are you doing?’ ” Willis said.
Yet over time, the relationships and familiarity with the strengths of the pitchers — based both on what he was seeing in 2015 and what he’d observed first-hand and in video of his pitchers prior to 2014 — permitted the conversations to evolve. By the time the second half arrived, Willis was in a position to go to work.
“I would say after the All-Star break, it was, ‘OK, this is his staff,’ ” said Farrell.
That fact is intriguing given the dramatic transformation that occurred down the stretch.
With Porcello, there was agreement about the need to re-establish the two-seam fastball as a primary weapon and scaling back the reliance on the four-seam fastball up in the zone that had resulted in increased swings and misses but also a drastic rise in the pitcher’s home run yield.
For Joe Kelly, the changes occurred as a sequence. First, Willis saw that Kelly had a different arm slot and release point for different pitches. Secondly, Kelly seemed reliant on his velocity, using his two- and four-seam fastballs for a combined 70 percent of his offerings through early August.
“Everyone tells me, ‘This is an electric fastball.’ The thing that stood out to me was, ‘Wow — the slider, the curveball . . . He has three other legitimate major league weapons that for me are above-average major league pitches,’ ” Willis said of Kelly. “First it was the delivery, then if we get the delivery right, the pitch usage. Once he solidified his delivery and got to that point, he started to mix his pitches more. He had better trust of being able to command those pitches.
“My feeling’s always been, while I think the biggest factor in his success at the end of the year was the pitch distribution, I think his fastball command throughout that period improved significantly as well. Even though he throws 98, you still have to command it. But using those other pitches allows more of a margin for error.”
In the case of both Kelly and Porcello, it required time in the minors for the conversations and the game plan to take — Porcello while rehabbing from a DL stint for a triceps injury, Kelly following a demotion when his struggles became extreme. Nonetheless, ultimately, both pitchers were able to make their necessary adjustments down the stretch, in a way that created a sense of possibility for 2016.
Kelly started throwing his two- and four-seam fastball just 56 percent of the time, significantly increasing the use of his slider (11 to 21 percent) and changeup (9 to 16 percent). That altered mix, with improved mechanics that created the deception that had been lacking earlier in the year, set the stage for a run from Aug. 7 through Sept. 9 in which Kelly was 7-0 with a 1.85 ERA.
Porcello recast his four-seam fastball as almost a secondary offering, instead relying on his sinking two-seam fastball as his primary tool to elicit groundballs and quick outs. He closed the year with an eight-start run in which he had a 3.14 ERA with a strikeout an inning while averaging more than seven innings per start, at a time when the uncertain early dynamics of the relationship between the pitching coach and his staff had given way to a more free flowing and actionable exchange of ideas.
“As I threw more and he watched me, just from being around each other, we developed a relationship,” Porcello said. “He started to see maybe some of the things I do well or hadn’t been doing well, then go from there. At the end of the season, we had built a relationship, got on the same page with my thought process on the mound and his thought process for me.”
The primary credit for the success of the pitchers down the stretch, of course, belongs to the pitchers themselves. Nonetheless, it is evident this spring that the relationship between Willis and his staff is now at a point where the conversations about possible adjustments to maximize each pitcher’s strengths are more natural, more comfortable — in a way the Sox hope will benefit their performance this coming year.
“I’m glad we’ve gotten beyond that. This is more normal. I was able to make some inroads last year with building those relationships,” Willis said. “Everybody is here for the same reason. That’s to allow these guys to get in the best possible place they can be in, to realize their potential, and be part of a championship organization in Boston. That’s what we’re trying to do.”