Gammons: How the Red Sox starting rotation has carried the load so far this season
By Peter Gammons May 19, 2021 9
We may well have never seen pitching like this, not even in the last year of the 15-inch mound and the historic seasons of Bob Gibson and Luis Tiant. Days after Corbin Burnes set a record by starting the season striking out 58 batters before his first walk, Gerrit Cole surpassed him on Monday by striking out 61 before his first walk. Jacob deGrom has an 0.68 ERA with 65 strikeouts, seven walks and three earned runs allowed in six starts, and when the Ides of May rolled around the offense was so strained that somewhere George Brett is suggesting that this is The Season of Mario Mendoza.
But in the spring weeks, the season has been like sailing off Maine’s Machias Seal Island, in fog that hides the exposed shoals and rocks and islets between the Gulf of Maine and Canada’s Bay of Fundy. The Padres and Dodgers were picked by many to be two of the five best teams this season, and last weekend between them had 19 pitchers on the injured list. The Rays, who spent the winter planning how they’d employ their deep warehouse of talented young pitchers in a season 2.7 times longer than last year’s, had 10 on the IL. Two of the expected top five college pitchers in the July draft — and maybe more — have had their seasons and eventual careers changed by Tommy John surgery.
“I think everyone is trying to figure out where we’re going and how to get there over the long season,” says Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush, a man who lives in Maine and thus knows plenty about fog. Last weekend, the Red Sox starters had pitched at least to the sixth inning in 32 of their first 40 games and had thrown 59.8 percent of the team’s innings, which held the bullpen in place. That also means that Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards and Nick Pivetta were all on pace to throw more innings than they’ve compiled in years, while Eduardo Rodríguez is on a pace to go from no innings in 2020 to somewhere north of 150 in a season he began sidelined with a post-spring training tired arm.
“By the time we get to August, depth of starters is going to be a major part of how everyone runs after Labor Day,” Dave Roberts had predicted, long before his Dodgers lost Dustin May and several relievers. I polled 10 pitching coaches on the number of starters necessary to get to the postseason, and the virtually unanimous over-under was 10.
DeGrom has already had two stints on the sidelines, and Mets people realize that if he’s going to go out there throwing pedal-to-the-metal 100-plus mph every start and be great in October, he may have to take an occasional rest stop, the way the Red Sox would try to give Pedro Martínez extra time around the All-Star Game. “I think every organization is carefully monitoring how their young pitchers and starting depth in the minors get (used),” says Bush.”We’re going to need them in August and later in the season. Most of them have limited innings histories, so we have to make certain they’re strong, healthy and able to pitch as well as they can.”
“In other words,” says one American League general manager, “no one is going to want a young pitcher starting the season in the minors to be up over 75 or 80 innings come the first of August. This is the season of critical time and health management.” By then the shoals, rocks and islets will be visible, and the fuel lines in Vinalhaven long.
When Alex Cora was rehired as the Red Sox manager, he and Chaim Bloom talked about the linkage, totality and culture that goes into successful a organization. Before Cora had to step down before the 2020 season because of the Houston Astros cheating scandal, he had made it clear that he wanted Jason Varitek on the Red Sox staff, for his mind, presence and game preparation skills. The intent was to bring together the players, coaches, analytics department and scouting, building an understanding based on respect and a common goal: to win.
“The more communication there is on every level, the better. It goes from the top down. There can be a full group association in which everyone respects, ‘What do you think?’ and spends the time to develop relationships,” Varitek said.
Cora played with Varitek, and knows he was perhaps the single most respected person on the 2004 and 2007 champions. He, like some of history’s great catchers — Johnny Bench, Yadier Molina, Brad Ausmus, Ted Simmons — understood that that position demands a certain selflessness, and has a primary goal of creating conviction in the pitchers. It’s actually fun these days to listen to Varitek talk about the growth and emergence of Christian Vázquez, his improvement as a receiver, and most importantly, his relationship with pitchers.
Then Bush and Kevin Walker work with the pitchers. By the time they reached the fourth game of last weekend’s series with the Angels, Red Sox starters had pitched a minimum of five innings in 33 of their 41 games. When they shut out the Angels in the 41st game, their starters had gone six innings in five straight games. In 2020, their starters were 13-22, with a 5.34 ERA; this season they have a 4.00 ERA, and, perhaps most important, their starters had thrown 60 percent of the team’s innings; last season, that number was 46.9 percent.
“Only the Yankees can maintain their bullpen all season,” says an AL East GM. “They are the best, they are the deepest. Everyone else has to protect their relievers with their starters throwing innings.”
Through Sunday, the White Sox (62.5 percent), A’s (62), Indians (61) and Red Sox (60) were the only starting staffs that had thrown a higher percentage of their teams’ innings than the Yankees (59). The Padres’ (50) starters have the lowest percentage, which is something to watch come August, followed by the Blue Jays (52) and Rays (52). We’ve come to wonder if the Rays have a secret lab underneath The Dome where they create relief pitchers.
The winningest Red Sox pitcher in 2019 was Rodríguez, who, because of heart-related complications from COVID-19, was forced to sit out the entire 2020 season. Martín Pérez and Eovaldi were the only starters to throw as many as 45 innings. Chris Sale had undergone Tommy John surgery at the end of March and was not going to be available until the second half of the 2021 season.
Bloom had acquired Pivetta from the Phillies, along with pitcher Connor Seabold, for Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree at the trade deadline, and Pivetta had come to Boston in September for two strong starts. Former first-round draft choice Tanner Houck moved in from the alternate site and made three strong starts.
But part of Bloom’s long-term job was to get the Red Sox under the luxury tax trigger, reset their tax obligations, restore their place in the draft order and their pool money levels for domestic and international signings. Eovaldi, who had actually made considerable progress in 2020, was already signed at $17 million. Pérez was re-signed for $5 million, and Garrett Richards — who hadn’t thrown more than 100 innings since 2015 — was signed for $10 million. Rodríguez re-signed at $8.3 million. The projected five-man rotation was to make $41 million, or just $5 million more than Cole is earning in his second year of a 10-year free agency deal with the Yankees.
When he works with pitchers, “There are no set schedules,” Bush explained. “It depends on the individual, the last game, the next opponent. Everything depends on the pitcher himself.” Varitek, on his role in game preparation of all things that fall under the run prevention file, repeats, “never forget — it’s all about the player.”
Bush studies the condensed video each game, “to make sure what I thought I saw from the bench happened.” He and a pitcher will discuss the pitcher’s thoughts, what he saw, how he felt, what he took from the performance. “Then,” says Bush, “we begin processing for the next start.”
On a side day, they concentrate on the quality of each pitch, the curveball spin, the fastball command. There are no black-and-white innings or pitch count formulas. “Every inning can be different, it can be 35 pitches, then seven, then 30,” says Bush. “The stress level is always different. How a pitcher feels that particular game is important. All the pitches are important. Hitters can’t hit everything, so that approach is extremely important.”
When Eovaldi was traded to Boston in 2018, he was essentially a fastball-cutter pitcher whose velocity could touch 100 mph. He maintains his velocity and uses his four-seamer 43 percent of the time, but this season he has used his curveball 19.4 percent of the time and reduced the cutter to 13.5 percent, slider to 12.3 percent and split to 11 percent. The curveball has been very effective in slowing hitters down, laying them back for the 97-100 mph fastball. The split gives them a look at the bottom of the zone. One opposing team’s scout says, “He’s clearly worked really hard to make himself a very different pitcher.”
The emphasis from Bush and the pitching staff is that the work is a partnership. Richards’ first two starts were messy. On April 21, he walked six in 4 2/3 innings. Bush and Richards talked out his delivery. “There was too much going on,” Richards says. They went to a shortened delivery that prevented him from drifting towards the first-base side, and worked on being more direct to the plate. “Garrett has three well-above-average pitches,” Bush says, and in a recent stretch of four starts totaling 25 innings and six earned runs, he threw his curveball for strikes to slow hitters off his 95.6 mph fastball as well as his slider.
When Pivetta came over from the Phillies, he was, as one Philadelphia official says, “badly in need of a start over.” It began at Boston’s alternate site. The first things Pivetta was asked were, “What do you want to be? What do you think you are as a pitcher?” He has focused on the top and the bottom of the strike zone. He had early-season issues with fastball command and getting ahead of hitters, but in 10 starts in a Boston uniform dating back to September, he is 7-0, with a 2.91 ERA, and the club was 9-1 in those starts.
“He’s working hard on trying to build that trust of how it plays and where it plays and why it does,” says Varitek, who coordinates the pitcher-catcher-analytics-defenders meetings. “It hasn’t been easy for him. He’s getting more and more confident with it.”
Pivetta struggled in Philadelphia, as the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier noted, with throwing up in the zone. From the time he arrived at the alternate site last August, Pivetta was told to pitch the way he wanted to pitch, and he now is building confidence in pitching up and down; interestingly, his best analytical success has been at the top of the zone, perhaps a testament to his re-established self-confidence. “Pitchers,” says Varitek, “are human.”
Rodríguez had to delay his first 2021 start while building back his velocity, but has thrown a mix depending on the opponent: changeup/four-seamer, cutter, sinker, slider. “E-Rod will probably evolve as the season progresses because he’s got all those pitches, he has confidence in them and he works to each game and its situations,” says Bush. Dating back to 2018, the Red Sox are 54-12 in his starts. Cora had a significant role in his development into a 19-game winner in 2019, a season in which he got his team to the eighth inning nine times.
Thus far, Rodríguez has thrown his changeup 27.7 percent of the time, his four-seamer 27.9 percent. In 2017, prior to Cora’s arrival, he threw his fastball 61.2 percent of the time; in 2019, he threw it 38.9 percent of the time. “Pitchers adapt,” says Bush. Indeed. Pérez threw 58.7 percent fastballs in 2017, 42.3 percent in 2019 and 30 percent this season, when one combines two- and four-seamers.
This is the trend throughout the game, because as much as this might be a summit season in terms of pitching, hitters are beginning to retrain themselves to hit pitches up in the zone. For instance, in the April game in which Pivetta got the win against deGrom, both Xander Bogaerts and Vázquez got up on 100 mph fastballs, hit a double and single and produced the game’s only run. Through May 12, Clayton Kershaw had thrown 62.8 percent breaking balls, Shane Bieber 57.1 percent, Joe Musgrove 48.8 percent, Jameson Taillon 47.9 percent.
Check out the fastball usage of two of history’s best left-handers, Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner:
Then, watching the John Means and Wade Miley no-hitters, one club executive said, “the number of hitters who swung over their changeups was ridiculous. I believe what’s happening is that so many hitters are so hung up on launch angle that the changeups and splits are becoming dominant pitches.” Indeed, thanks to MLB’s Mike Petriello and Baseball Savant, we learn that in 2019, 2020 and 2021, usage of changeups and splits have set ascending records.
With Pivetta, the Red Sox also received Seabold, whose best pitch is a dead-fish changeup that runs down and away from left-handed batters, similar to the one Juan Marichal threw in 1974 at the end of his career. “If Seabold comes up or the last six or eight weeks, he may be really good because major league hitters won’t have experienced that pitch and they have games where there’s a lot of swinging over it,” said a Red Sox executive who travels with the team.
When Boston’s Worcester Triple-A team opened its season at home May 11, Seabold and Houck were on the disabled list. It was reported that after spring training, each had experienced minor arm soreness, though it was not expected to be serious. But Boston is going to need at least three more starters come the two-month stretch drive. One could be Sale, but there seems to be no speculation yet about when he might come back. Between a neck issue, COVID and another unidentified issue, he has barely started throwing off a mound. “We don’t know when he could be back,” says one club official. “We hope he will be able to return, and can help either as a starter or even in a piggyback role.” Many with the team hope he will throw his changeup, which in 2018 had his highest swing-and-miss rate, but Sale is so focused and competitive that no one knows what he’ll throw.
The question has been raised as to whether it’s possible the club is trying to avoid running up Houck’s and Seabold’s innings in the minors when the team will probably need them in the majors. “The 2021 innings are one of the biggest question marks in baseball this season,” says an AL West general manager. “Frankly, I’m scared to even think about what some of the matchups may be come late August. Teams can talk about young power arms they can bring up, but a lot of these young pitchers didn’t pitch in competitive games in 2021. A lot of them have never thrown 100 innings, much less 162.”
In the meantime, while the Yankee bullpen has among the game’s best, Bush, Varitek and the Red Sox are working through theirs. Getting Matt Barnes more direct to the plate and concentrating on his four-seamer has made him the American League saves leader since last Aug. 21. Barnes has struck out nearly 50 percent of the batters he’s faced. His four-seam spin rate is the highest in the game.
“It isn’t easy to find times when relievers can work on things and make adjustments,” says Bush, who was a renowned closer at Wake Forest and Chatham before becoming a starter in the Toronto organization. “We try. They do a lot of throwing with one another to experiment, but every night there’s usually a chance they might have to pitch.”
Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock has been a very successful long man in his first season above Double A, and in another year he could be a starter possibility. Adam Ottavino has been the most frequent eighth-inning setup man, but Cora seems ready to use Japanese split master Hirokazu Sawamura in that role. They’re trying to get hard-throwing lefties Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor to throw strikes. Then there’s Phillips Valdez, a 29-year-old waiver claim hitters can’t figure out. He throws 65 percent changeups, which dive enough so that in the first six weeks of the season he had one of the lowest exit velocities in the league, had allowed but one extra-base hit and, according to Baseball Savant, not one barrel. “When we were in Baltimore, he’s cruising along throwing a 92 mph sinker and that changeup, and all of a sudden he starts throwing sliders. No one knew he had one. It actually works compared to the changeup,” said the Red Sox executive.
Phillips Valdez. John Means. Clayton Kershaw. Gerrit Cole. Jacob deGrom. It is fair to believe that perhaps the biggest reason that this is the greatest era of pitching is how pitchers learn and study and evolve, and as we get into the eighth week of the season, we know that the last teams standing come November will be those teams whose pitchers turn, turn, turn themselves into whole staffs better than they were on the Ides of May.