How the Red Sox game-plan to know what’s coming from opposing relievers
The scene played out repeatedly during the regular season.
In the Red Sox dugout, an opponent’s pitching change would set in motion a controlled whirl of activity. As the reliever made his trek from the bullpen to the mound, a Red Sox hitter or two would huddle with hitting coach Tim Hyers or assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett, sometimes both, to examine an iPad and an information packet.
On many occasions, the brief conferences leading into an at-bat against a reliever produced late-inning success for the Red Sox — Mitch Moreland greeting Oakland’s Emilio Pagan by jumping on a first-pitch slider for a grand slam April 21, for instance, or Rafael Devers looking for a pitch middle-in from Jose Alvarez of the Angels June 27 and driving it to center for a go-ahead double, or Brock Holt turning on a first-pitch inside fastball from Philadelphia’s Tommy Hunter for a pinch-hit homer Aug. 14.
“There are so many sleepless nights when you toss and turn because you feel like you gave the hitter some information that didn’t work out in their favor,” said Hyers. “And there are times when the line is right and you feel like you nudged or gave them good information to help them be successful. That’s what you strive for every day.”
As the Sox enter the playoffs, their game planning for opposing relievers will play a pivotal role in determining how far they advance. While the increased use of relievers in October has been explored ad nauseam, the corresponding challenge faced by opposing hitters against a series of new pitchers is equally significant.
For the Red Sox, this is a time of intense study of the late-inning arms the Athletics or Yankees will feature in the Division Series.
“We have those four days off,’’ said Hyers. “They can sit, watch the relievers a little more, spend more time with them and go through the games. They can spend more time to see if there are some tendencies they can pick up.”
The planning process that funnels into those final few dugout reminders is fascinatingly far-reaching, in terms of both the time commitment and the number of people who distill weeks, months, or even a year of information into a few bullet points.
Video coordinator Billy Broadbent has been helping the Red Sox search for advantages in the batter/pitcher confrontation for more than two decades. How does the current inventory of information compare with what was available when he was hired by the Red Sox in 1997?
“It’s like comparing turn-of-the-century catcher’s gear to catcher’s gear now,” Broadbent said.
The video information is so valuable that the Red Sox pulled advance scout Steve Langone off the road this year to stay with the team to discuss what he had seen prior to a series and those adjustments he would see during a series in person.
Langone, the advance scouting manager, and advance scouting assistant J.T. Watkins were responsible for reviewing the video that Broadbent organized to start assembling a report.
The jobs are a grind, hours spent in windowless regions of a clubhouse or at night in hotel rooms poring over hours of footage as well as detailed reports from the analytics department in search of any edge — whether a pitcher tips a breaking ball, a hitter’s tendency to chase a specific pitch in a specific count, any tells by a pitcher regarding whether he’ll throw to first or to the plate, opportunities to take an extra base against an outfielder . . .
For Langone and Watkins, that can mean some nights of very little sleep.
Langone typically handled opposing starters (about 60-75 minutes of video review for each pitcher) while Watkins broke down relievers (about 45-60 minutes per pitcher). On the night before a series finale, Hyers likewise would engage in his own video review, investing roughly 30 minutes in looking at each reliever the Sox might face in the next series.
There’s a basic, timeless level involved in the breakdown of a pitcher: What does he throw? What does each pitch do? What is the usage of each pitch against righties and lefties?
Once those elements are identified, the game plan assumes greater specificity in concert with heat maps and data from the analytics department. Among the elements considered:
■ What’s the count-by-count breakdown of a pitcher’s usage of each offering?
■ In what part of the zone (or outside of the zone) does a reliever have success with a pitch and where does it get hit?
■ How do pitch usage and location change with runners on?
■ How do a pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses align with those of a particular player? (Example: “He’ll try to get J.D. Martinez to chase a first-pitch breaking ball down and away, then, if ahead, will attack with fastballs in off the plate.”)
■ Is there spin data that suggests that the way a pitch looks might be different from what it does? If a pitcher has a fastball with a high spin rate, should a batter adjust his sights one or two ball diameters above where he thinks it’s heading? Is there any important information about a pitcher’s release point or extension toward the plate that will play visual tricks?
Some of those elements are different from what the Sox used in the past — particularly the data-driven advanced scouting process. With Martinez and Hyers (who came from the analytically driven Dodgers), the way that Sox hitters think about opposing pitchers underwent an adjustment this year.
“I just remember knowing what kind of pitches he had, what he liked to use in counts,” said Mookie Betts. “Now I kind of look at what I want to hit. You just have to try to pick a zone where you’re going to be more successful. I look at where he gives up his hits or where people do damage. I think I can have more success that way.”
Before the end of the final game of a series, Langone and Watkins will have a report on the next opponent ready. Hyers and Barkett will review the report, make notes through the morning, then meet with Langone and Watkins for roughly half an hour early on the day of the first game of the next series.
That same day, the entire coaching staff will convene for roughly 20 minutes. With all coaching staff members in alignment, the group is ready for the advance meeting with players.
“The first day is always a little bit crazy,” said Langone. “Once that game starts, you almost feel like you need a nap.”
But naps aren’t a luxury available to Langone and Watkins, who start prepping for the next opponent almost as soon as one series starts.
In the dugout
At the initiative of Martinez, Red Sox players have taken to having daily meetings to break down opposing starters. They look at video of relievers prior to a series, but a midgame pitching change sets in motion another flurry of activity.
As soon as an opposing reliever gets up in the bullpen, conversations in the dugout begin: What does he like to throw, and where does he like to throw those pitches?
Sometimes there are several minutes to anticipate a mid-inning pitching change and establish a game plan for attacking the new reliever. Sometimes conversations will take place in a batting cage behind the dugout, where Barkett is often throwing to players (chiefly reserves, but Martinez and sometimes Betts also will take in-game swings).
In some parks such as Yankee Stadium, where the video advance room is right behind the visitors dugout, players might drift back to look at a number of pitches with Watkins.
In other instances, such as a pitching change at the start of an inning, right after a player comes off the field, the window might be more compressed. In those instances, or in ballparks where Watkins’s station is far from the dugout, the players will review video of relievers on iPads in the dugout.
The use of iPads in the dugout during games was approved by Major League Baseball entering the 2016 season, although they cannot be used to access the Internet. Before a game, Broadbent must upload a representative number of pitches by every potential reliever against both righties and lefties for Red Sox players to watch.
“My job is to make sure they’re prepared, to make sure they don’t go up there and say, ‘I didn’t know about that,’ ” said Broadbent. “The dynamic is very fast-paced. Even though people think our game is slow, it goes at a pretty quick pace in the dugout and on the field.
“When you’ve got a pitching change, people are trying to get ready. You want to make sure they have the most amount of information possible in the smallest amount of time.”
Players who use the iPad for a visual gauge of pitch movement might review five or six pitches.
While it is possible to highlight multiple tendencies for every count in roughly 30 seconds or less leading up to a plate appearance, Hyers and Barkett will try to identify one or two simple keys to leave as a last reminder. As pervasive as information is in the game, it’s hard to stare down a combination of 95-100 m.p.h. fastballs and power breaking balls while also accounting for count-by-count variables.
“You study for a test, you get a whole bunch of crap in your mind, all of a sudden you can’t get that information,” said Barkett. “But somebody might say something to you that locks you in, and you say, ‘I’ve got it now.’
“Our job is to be translators, to take all this data and say, ‘Here’s what you’ve got. Here’s the green zone. Here’s the red zone.’ We have to be good translators.”
More often than not, in a 108-54 season, the Red Sox have proven capable of doing the sort of damage against bullpens that could prove pivotal in October. In their first look at an opposing reliever, the Sox hit a collective .266 with a .346 OBP and .785 OPS — all the best marks in the American League.
Given that the Sox posted a remarkable .938 OPS (easily the best in the majors) in their third time through the order against an opposing starter, chances are good that the leaguewide proclivity to go to the bullpen early in playoff games will be even more pronounced against Boston.
The Red Sox believe there are wins to be had in the information being funneled to their players.
“I tell them all the time, I say, ‘This is why we won a game,’ ” Martinez said. “It’s little things they pick up on that other people don’t.”