To understand what the Red Sox pitching staff has become, and why the team entering 2019 appears to feel comfortable with the possibility that it can build rather than buy the back end of the bullpen, it makes sense to remember what it was: a disaster.
For the years 2014 and ’15, the Red Sox’ combined ERA of 4.17 was sixth-worst in the majors and fourth-worst in the American League. In 2015 in particular, the he’s-(not)-the-ace rotation fell flat on its face, with four players acquired in a six-month span — Joe Kelly, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Rick Porcello — falling flat on their faces for sizable stretches of what turned out to be a last-place finish.
Over the last three years, the script has flipped. In a period of increased offense around the game from 2016-18, the Red Sox knocked down their ERA to 3.83, sixth-best in the majors and third-best in the AL over a three-year span in which they won the AL East each season.
Obviously, elite acquisitions have a lot to do with that improvement. The team spent heavily in dollars (David Price), prospects (Chris Sale), or both (Craig Kimbrel) to turn a struggling pitching staff into a championship-caliber one.
Yet the drastic improvement in results goes beyond those headline pitchers. Over the last three years, the Red Sox have helped pitchers improve at the big league level. They’ve developed their pitching infrastructure — both how they scout and work with pitchers — to get more out of their inventory of arms, part of the reason why they were able to add the finishing pieces to a championship team last year, and part of the reason why they feel they are well-positioned moving forward, regardless of the final shape of their staff.
“We feel like we’re in a good place. I feel like we’ve come a long way in the last couple years,” said assistant GM Brian O’Halloran. “It’s systemic.
“Pitching is a constant adjustment. I think our guys, our coaches, are positioned well. They have the expertise to figure out how to get the most out of guys.”
Evidence? Over the last three years, the Sox have:
■ taken stars and helped them get better, as has been the case with Sale, who has a 2.56 ERA and 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings with the Red Sox, improvements from his 3.00 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine with the White Sox;
■ molded Ryan Brasier from an obscure, fastball-dominant international journeyman into a late-innings option who unbalanced hitters with a well-distributed three-pitch mix;
■ found the right mix to turn Matt Barnes — a promising prospect who had yet to realize his potential — into a late-innings weapon.
■ helped an established late-innings presence, Brad Ziegler, after a trade in 2016 to record a 1.52 ERA and easily the highest strikeout rate (9.4 per nine innings) of his career.
■ and helped Addison Reed, after a midseason trade in 2017, hold hitters to a career-low .168 average.
While some players have faltered (Carson Smith, Tyler Thornburg, the 2018 version of Drew Pomeranz, prospect Henry Owens), for the most part, there’s been a pattern of improvement among healthy Red Sox big league pitchers. The most notable example of how the team’s pitching infrastructure has helped unlock ever greater impact from its arms may have been the most recent one.
A lot to work with
Last July, the Red Sox landed Nathan Eovaldi in a deal with the Rays, an organization renowned for maximizing the talents of its pitchers. Yet in just three months, he showed improvement during the regular season (a 3.33 ERA) and dominance in October (1.61 ERA in 22⅓ innings) that made him one of the most sought-after pitchers in the market before he returned to Boston on a four-year, $68 million contract.
“I felt like I improved a lot,” Eovaldi said. “Coming off Tommy John surgery, it’s like you have a chance to redevelop how you pitch. I had some highs and lows with the Rays. When I was traded to the Red Sox, we were able to get on that right page and those last two months I was throwing the ball really well.”
Eovaldi offered a window into how the Red Sox’ culture of pitcher development has changed — how the analytics team collaborates with the coaching staff (particularly pitching coach Dana LeVangie and VP of pitching development and assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister) and then ultimately with the pitcher.
In mid-July, the Red Sox met to discuss trade priorities. LeVangie, who had been a pro scout before several years as a major league advance scout, is a valued voice in those conversations about pitchers, as is Bannister. Both share the interest of the analytics department in seeing not just what a pitcher has been, but what he might become.
Pitchers represent still-moldable balls of clay rather than fully formed objects. When it became clear that Jacob deGrom wasn’t on the table as an option, LeVangie and other members of the organization identified Eovaldi as a prime target, not just for what he’d been doing in his return from Tommy John but also for what they believed he might be able to do with some small tweaks to his delivery and plan of attack.
“Nate fit the profile for how we could maximize our season and give us a chance to win a World Series,” said LeVangie. “He was a guy I felt like there was more in the tank for what he’d been leading up to that.
“When Nate came to us, Nate’s fastball was probably not a good swing-and-miss option. It wasn’t his best pitch. We tried to put all that information together. What does that mean? Does it mean Nathan can’t throw a fastball?”
Of course not. Eovaldi could easily summon 98-100-mile-per-hour velocity and throw it consistently for strikes. But even with elite velocity, a number of the righthander’s pitches ended up in the middle of the strike zone, where they were vulnerable to homers.
After a bit more than a month with the Sox, Eovaldi — long praised for his coachability — was eager to listen to the suggestions of the coaching staff. LeVangie suggested moving from the middle of the rubber to the first-base side, where his cutter more easily swept to the edge of the plate and off of it as opposed to staying over the middle.
Bannister suggested incorporating a bit more rock-and-fire, back-to-front movement in his delivery to become less rotational and to improve his extension on pitches, which permitted him to elevate his fastball. The Sox encouraged Eovaldi to make greater use of his curveball, dropping it at the bottom of the strike zone and below it to create vertical separation in his pitches.
In September and October, Eovaldi did all of that. The righthander deserves enormous credit for his ability to make a number of changes in short order — with spectacular results.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF EOVALDI
After a poor start against the White Sox on Aug. 31, Nathan Eovaldi implemented a number of changes, including a move from the middle of the rubber to the first-base side (with a corresponding change in his release point of roughly 5-6 inches), while also pitching to different locations. All of his pitches became significantly more effective — and significantly less vulnerable to homers — after the change.
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“Before we make any transaction, everybody collaborates on creating more upside for this player,” said Bannister. “You get it from the analysts upstairs, I’ll make my list of potential tweaks, Dana and [bullpen coach] Craig Bjornson will put out what they would do, and that is all out there and everybody is aware of it before we even make a transaction.
“And then even when you get the player, you start rearranging the pieces a little bit and trying to fulfill some of those player development goals, but you’ve also got to figure out what the player is capable of, what’s comfortable for him, what ultimately works and what doesn’t.
“But we rarely make a transaction where we’re just hoping to get the player as is and just let him do his thing. There’s always a player development layer on top of it with everybody involved.”
Eovaldi provided the latest evidence of how adjustments can be worth wins to the team and millions to the pitcher. He’s also evidence of how the pitching culture around the team has changed. Players are curious about data-driven ideas, and so data and information are now readily available when they ask questions.
In the big leagues, Bannister is in uniform and in the clubhouse as well as on the field to talk with pitchers before games. In the minors, pitching analyst Dave Bush does the same while visiting different Sox affiliates.
To create immediacy in those conversations, with Bush and Bannister able to answer player questions in seconds rather than minutes or hours, the team (led by analyst Spencer Bingol) developed the Pitching Evaluation Development Research Optimization (PEDRO) system — yes, it’s an homage to Pedro Martinez — to make its pitching database available via mobile phone. That database, in turn, allows casual, steady conversations about pitcher mechanics, location, sequencing, and plans of attack that are informed by numbers and easily visualized data.
“I’m big on culture,” said Bannister. “The more people that speak the language of everyone in the organization, the better off the organization is. That’s been a big part of the last four years.”
It is a significant part of the team’s planning for next year. At a time when the bullpen is still being formed, part of the Red Sox’ comfort in waiting for the right market conditions on relievers comes from the success they’ve had working with numerous pitchers in recent years.
The Red Sox believe they have some flexibility to consider looking beyond pedigree in order to find late-innings impact from pitchers who may not have the track record of Kimbrel or David Robertson but who, with a few subtle tweaks, may be able to help offset the loss of Kimbrel and Kelly.
That’s not to say the Sox won’t add a high-profile reliever if the terms are right. But the past three years have convinced them that they have more options than might have been the case a few years ago.
“You can’t create physical talent out of thin air,” said Bannister. “The pitcher or the player has to have the physical talent to start with. You’re always limited by that. If you can’t acquire that, you’re not going to create it.
“As I’ve been here for four years, the discussions have become more creative and more diverse as far as coming up with solutions for roster needs. That’s exciting.”