On a back field, Red Sox pitching past, present, and future all met
FORT MYERS, Fla. — On one hand, spring training is an exercise in monotony, a setting where practice and repetition create a foundation for the season in an environment where there are no games with intrinsic meaning. Yet in the quiet of the back fields, fascinating dynamics are on display, offering a rare window into the culture of an organization.
On March 5, one moment in time offered a revealing picture of the past, present, and future of Red Sox pitching, and the connections between those baseball generations. On Field 2, a live batting practice session of two simulated innings thrown by Rick Porcello, with perhaps just a couple dozen passersby in attendance, presented a snapshot of a pitching culture.
On the road
Near the Red Sox clubhouse, as Luis Tiant prepared to drive a golf cart to watch Porcello, he noticed two people heading to the same destination. He exhorted Chris Sale and David Price to jump in his vehicle, a 475-win confluence of pitchers who among them have 14 top-six finishes in Cy Young voting. The 78-year-old Tiant, who parked next to the dugout and watched Porcello from behind the wheel, takes considerable pleasure in the opportunity to remain connected to the current members of the Red Sox.
“The only thing I know, more than anything, is playing baseball,” Tiant said. “This is my life.
“I like to be with the players. They’re like my family. Most of them, I treat them like my kids, maybe like I’m a grandfather.”
“I want to see them get to the big leagues as soon as they can. You try to help them the most you can. They’re all good kids. They’re respectful. That’s important. I enjoy working for them, working with them, and try to help them as much as I can.”
At second base
On the infield where Porcello is pitching, close to second base, Pedro Martinez joined Darwinzon Hernandez to watch and discuss the live batting practice session. Martinez, whose pro career started with minimal expectations, appreciates the rapid rise from obscurity by Hernandez, a lefthander who signed with the Sox out of Venezuela for $7,500 during the summer of 2013.
“This is very unique,” Martinez said. “It’s such a great scene for the kids to understand that there was the same situation for us. I don’t know if they can reflect on that, but we were all once where they are today.”
“The ones in the present can actually react to us. We were there, too. We understand what’s going on. We have been in this situation. It’s got to be somewhat refreshing for all of them to understand that the past, present, and future are all together there.”
For Hernandez, having the 2016 Cy Young winner on the mound and a three-time Cy Young winner alongside him offered an almost bottomless well of learning opportunities. He and Martinez reflected on the purpose behind each of Porcello’s pitches, even in live batting practice.
“It makes me really happy to come here and be on this team, one of my favorite teams, and also to be around these guys,” Hernandez said through translator Daveson Perez. “I almost feel like they’ve helped me too much.”
“When I walk out the door, I feel really excited and really motivated to keep working hard and take what they teach me and use it, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to help this team in the future.”
Behind the mound
Behind the L-screen at the back of the mound, Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi sat on the grass, looking almost like picnickers. Yet there was purpose to the vantage point, particularly for Rodriguez.
Porcello became disenchanted with his changeup as last season progressed. A pitch that had been extremely effective through the end of June (a .208 average and .359 slugging mark against, results that convinced him to use it on about one of every eight pitches) became a liability, with opponents hitting .286 with a .571 slugging mark against the offering from July through the end of the season.
This year, Porcello has sought Rodriguez’s input on a new, two-seam grip on the pitch — something that delighted Rodriguez, considering that he has spent the better part of his first four big league seasons taking instruction rather than offering it.
“He’s got a great changup,” Porcello said of Rodriguez. “He was really excited he taught me something, because all of us are usually trying to keep him in line.”
In this case, sitting behind Porcello allowed Rodriguez to see the righthander’s finger placement on the ball. Rodriguez exuded pride — both for Porcello and for his own opportunity to teach — in discussing what he saw.
“Everybody here, all the five starters, every time we throw a bullpen, we’re all out there,” he said. “We’re helping each other. If we see something, we go out there and say, ‘We see this.’ And we listen to each other.
“I watch [Porcello’s] bullpens and everything. It’s going really good. I’m the guy who was always asking the questions. Now he asked me a question. It’s pretty fun right now.”
Now batting . . .
Three young Red Sox players — 21-year-old Marino Campana and a pair of 19-year-olds who were in high school a year ago before being drafted, Nick Decker and Brandon Howlett — were charged with the task of taking hacks against Porcello.
Campana was the most advanced of the group, having spent 2018 in Single A Greenville. Decker and Howlett spent 2018 playing short-season ball in their pro debuts; though they are among the Red Sox’ top 20 prospects, both are years from the big leagues. They’d never seen a pitcher with Porcello’s tools and command.
None made solid contact. None minded.
“He’s carving me up,” Howlett said. “But it was cool getting to see the sequences and the atmosphere. After we got done, me and Decker were walking back from the field just like, ‘Well, back to reality.’ It was cool. It was definitely a blessing.”
Behind the cage
To the side of the batting cage, former Sox teammates Derek Lowe (a Fort Myers resident) and Jason Varitek (now a special assistant) took stock both of Porcello and the environment. They were particularly struck by the fact that all Red Sox rotation members make a point of attending the throwing sessions of their peers.
“The biggest thing that stands out there is the collective support of each other,” Varitek said. “Derek and I were talking about it. It’s just really cool to see. They all support each other, like, ‘Let’s go to Field 6 to watch this guy.’ It’s a pretty valuable thing.”
Sale and Price, having been dropped off by Tiant, stood in a huddle of pitchers. The group included relievers Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and Brandon Workman, along with Triple A righthander Mike Shawaryn.
To Workman, the social elements of the setting took a back seat to the educational ones.
“Watching Rick, who’s just a professional, getting to watch him go about his work, there isn’t a pitcher in the world who can’t learn something watching Rick,” Workman said. “I think that’s why everyone is out there.”
Yet there was also awareness on the part of the others involved that there was something more at play.
“Pedro’s got three [Cy Youngs],” Barnes said. “He’s one of the greatest of all time. Derek Lowe was phenomenal to watch; true sinkerballer, one of the best in the game.
“You’re sitting there with your teammates, guys who have been there, done that, have accolades, trophies all over the place. It’s fun.
“It kind of shows you the unity of this team, what the guys are willing to do coming back and trying to help us. And we’re all trying to learn from the guys who have been there and have a lot more experience than us.”
Perhaps none could learn more than Shawaryn, the one man in the group who has yet to pitch in the big leagues. In his first big league camp, he understood that the exposure to those conversations represented something extraordinary.
“I’m able to watch what [Porcello] is able to do,” he said. “And then I’m also standing with Sale, Price, Barnes, Workman. It’s really cool.
“To have that experience, be in their company, hear them talk shop . . . I’m very fortunate to be able to be here, be where I’m at right now, fortunate to watch this whole pitching staff go about their business.”
“I’m there trying to just soak everything up. It’s definitely really cool, but it’s part of who we are. It’s awesome to be a part of it.”
Sale, meanwhile, appreciated his place in the middle of the pitching generations — mindful of how he has benefited and continues to benefit from those who came before him.
“I think [the environment] just shows a lot about how the culture of what this place is, what it means to us, what it meant to them, and what it’s going to mean to those guys,” he said. “It just shows the character of the organization.”
On the mound
Porcello was so eager to throw to hitters — the first time he’d done so since the World Series — that he had trouble sleeping the night before. His love of competition has endeared him to former Red Sox pitchers (he’s drawn both considerable insight and amusement from Lowe over the last two years), while his work ethic and professionalism have made him a paragon for current and future Red Sox pitchers to model.
That Porcello could stand amid a confluence of those groups on Field 2 on a quiet, gray Tuesday morning suggested something that was remarkable precisely because, for so many Red Sox pitchers of so many different ages, it was home.
“It’s pretty unique,” Porcello said. “We talk about us being a family, and we talk about it with the 25 guys in the clubhouse, but it’s the entire organization. That’s a great example of it right there. Everybody is happy to be here and wants to be here.”