Keith Foulke wasn’t shy during his playing career about describing baseball as boring, a sport that failed to capture his attention except when he was on the mound. That makes his second career seem like an improbable development, yet there was Foulke, sitting in the dugout of the Double A Portland Sea Dogs during an eventual rainout in Manchester, N.H., beaming about his current gig.
“Ten years ago I would have never imagined me doing this,” Foulke said. “I never watched baseball for maybe three or four years [after retiring in 2008]. Then it slowly started to kick in that I kind of missed it.”
Foulke recognized that not only did he miss the game, but he had a chance to make an impact in an oft-neglected part of the team. Minor league coaching staffs are thin; they feature pitching coaches in the dugout but there aren’t experienced coaches to sit with relievers in the bullpen to help them understand game situations.
“Nobody sits with them,” said Foulke.
The Red Sox hired him for the 2016 season as a player development consultant who would connect for perhaps a handful of days a month with upper-level affiliates. But his profile has expanded steadily.
Foulke was with Portland on the third stop of a three-team, 11-day swing that had him with High A Salem for four days, Triple A Pawtucket for three days, and then with Portland for four days. The 44-year-old, a former All-Star and the pitcher who recorded the final out of the Red Sox’ championship in 2004, is now working with relievers throughout the organization.
He spends games sitting in the bullpen, talking through situations with young relievers, and helping them to get a better grasp of their roles and responsibilities. It’s a responsibility he relishes to the point that he’s constantly watching minor league games remotely when not with affiliates.
“If I’m home for two-and-a-half, three weeks, it’s ‘Ahh — I miss it,’” said Foulke. “Just working with some of the kids around the neighborhood I really figured out that I enjoy working with and trying to help spread pitching and my beliefs of pitching. . . . When we sit in the bullpen we talk a lot of strategy and a lot of philosophy and mind-set, and when different situations arise in the game we’ll talk about that. It doesn’t matter if it’s holding on runners or pitching inside to power hitters when the game is on the line, how to go in and out, up and down. I kind of question a lot of their beliefs now to see if they’re on the right track or not.”
Foulke rejoined the organization at a time when the Red Sox were reconsidering their approach to reliever development. In the past, the team had waited to convert projected big leaguers such as Alex Wilson from the rotation to the bullpen before Double A or even Triple A.
More recently, however, the team has been more aggressive in shifting pitchers’ roles early in their Double A careers or even while they’re in A-ball in the search for more efficient development paths to the big leagues. Rather than constantly working to expand arsenals in the upper levels, the team is now more inclined to take pitchers who might have two to three weapons and let them focus more narrowly on developing the pitches that they’re most likely to use in the big leagues. That commitment reflects recognition of the growing value of relievers in the game and the expectation that bullpens will feature an assembly line of arms with overpowering stuff.
“Would I have been able to cut it?” wondered Foulke. “These arms and how these guys throw, it’s off the charts. . . . I don’t think we have a guy in the bullpen now that doesn’t throw 95.”
The Sox have already seen homegrown reliever Ben Taylor fly through the minors less than two years after being drafted. Jamie Callahan, currently in Triple A Pawtucket after forging a 1.38 ERA with 20 strikeouts and no walks in Portland to start the year, was converted to the bullpen last year in High A Salem, a move that has put him on a fast track. Righthander Ty Buttrey, who struggled as a starter in Double A last year, has emerged as a potential impact relief prospect in Portland, combining a mid- to high-90s fastball with a wipeout changeup en route to a 2.29 ERA with 27 strikeouts and nine walks in 19⅔ innings.
“We’ve moved guys sooner into those roles. I think that’s the big thing. . . . Let’s take them where we feel they’re going to profile out the best in the big leagues,” said Red Sox pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel. “In the past we would never have taken a Callahan in low A ball and put him into the bullpen. We just felt like that’s where he was going to have more success. I think in his case his mindset became more aggressive.”
Foulke is trying to help others do just that.
“What Foulke is doing is really special. He’s hard on me but that’s a good thing. I need that. I need someone to kick me in the butt when I’m moping around a little bit. He’s not going to let anyone slack. He’s on everyone’s case hammering details in 24/7,” said Buttrey. “Him and I talked a lot last year and I was obviously new to the pen. I think he kind of took me under his wing. . . . He’s played the game for a long time and has a lot of experience so anything I can pick up from him is beneficial.”
The dish on Devers
Yankees top prospect Gleyber Torres, 20, moved last week from Double A Trenton to Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Will the Red Sox’ top prospect soon join him in the International League?
Rafael Devers, also 20, entered Thursday hitting .300/.365/.514 with seven homers for Double A Portland. Like Torres, he is prompting conversations about a potential move to Triple A sooner than might have been anticipated entering the year due to his performance both at the plate and at third base.
If Devers sustains his strong performance in the coming weeks, a move up to Pawtucket as soon as June isn’t out of the question — perhaps following a similar timetable to the one Xander Bogaerts navigated as a 20-year-old in 2013, when he went from Portland to Pawtucket on June 13.
“When is the time [for a promotion]? What does he need to continue to work on?” Portland manager Carlos Febles contemplated. “I think the whole package, the whole game overall. He’s performing well on both ends. He just needs to continue to play, get a little more experience. That’s about it. The guy is playing lights-out defense.”
Johnson eyes next shot
Lefthander Brian Johnson has pitched well in Pawtucket since earning his first big league win against the Blue Jays last month. In his last four starts, he’s averaged more than seven innings per outing with a 2.79 ERA, showing command of a four-pitch mix in a way that has made him reliable, putting him in position as the leading candidate for a start against the Mariners on Saturday.
Johnson suggested that getting his first big league win — one in which he struggled early before navigating through five innings while allowing four runs — will work to his benefit whenever he gets another opportunity.
“I don’t know if easier is the right word. You get more comfortable,” said Johnson. “Confidence is the biggest thing. You get that feeling that you belong. You’re not an outcast. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
While Johnson’s fastball has been a relatively modest 87-90 miles per hour, he’s been able to keep opponents off balance thanks to his willingness to avoid predictable pitch sequences and his overall pitch-to-pitch execution and command.
“I just think it’s his overall focus and mound presence. Watching where he is now compared to last year, it’s night and day,” said PawSox manager Kevin Boles.
Waiting is hardest part
Shortstop C.J. Chatham, the Red Sox’ 2016 second-round pick, made his 2017 debut with Single A Greenville on May 19 after missing a month and a half due to a hamstring injury. However, in his first game, he experienced a recurrence of soreness in the hamstring and landed back on the disabled list as a precautionary measure. Chatham, 2016 fourth-rounder Bobby Dalbec (wrist), and 2016 first-rounder Jason Groome (lat strain) are all on the disabled list, though Groome is now throwing live batting practice against hitters in the team’s extended spring training facility.