How much do the Red Sox value their manager, John Farrell?
At the end of 2012 they were willing to exchange their recently-acquired starting Shortstop Mike Aviles with the Toronto Blue Jays for the coach; and so far this season, the gamble has been garnering stellar dividends.
Already, on April 21st, the Red Sox have accomplished a few notable things. With their 4-3, come-from-behind victory on Saturday against the Kansas City Royals they extended their current winning streak to seven games – their longest since they took nine in a row in 2011. After taking a pair of series from Cleveland and Tampa Bay, Boston had won six consecutive in April, much like they did last year. The difference being that this year, it was to get to 11-4, whereas a year previous, it was an improvement on their 4-10 open to get to even.
Though April is mile one of the marathon that is the baseball schedule, the Red Sox are exhibiting signs of promise. Even after dropping both ends of their Sunday double-header, the Sox are still tied for the third-best record in the Majors.
Those hopeful indicators can be attributed the revival of the pitching staff in Boston.
In years previous, the Boston mentality was that if the opposing team tagged Sox pitching for eight runs, the offense would just hope to score nine. When Red Sox ownership realized last year that their lineup would not have the same “pop” as years previous, they knew strategically adjustments were necessary.
That’s where Farrell entered stage right. If they couldn’t out-slug teams, they would turn to the mound for support. Farrell, known as the pitching guru that could revive careers and nurture young talent, excited the Sox fan-base for other reasons than his expertise with hurlers.
Boston’s favorite thing about Farrell was that his name wasn’t Bobby Valentine.
So far, the two who have benefitted most from Farrell’s presence are the same two who are most responsible for their winning streak – Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester.
The re-emergence of the duo has spearheaded Boston’s early push.
Certainly, their performance is a direct reversal from a year ago when Lester specifically had the worst year of his professional career.
“It’s hard for me to walk around this clubhouse and look guys in the eye right now. I’m not pitching well. I’m not doing my job.” That was Jon Lester after he gave up seven runs in four innings against the Rays last season.
In a stark juxtaposition, Lester this season has been nothing less than dominant. He is 3-0 in four starts with a 1.72 ERA and has a new-found control, averaging just over one free pass over nine innings – a career low. He is using the fastball more to set-up his devastating curve. He also is pitching the best with runners on in his career, leaving roughly 80 percent of men who reach…there on the bases paths, stranding them and preventing runs.
With pitchers reclaiming dominance after the steroids-era play and the hacking, homerun-or-nothing approach at the plate, strikeouts have become the main tool to a pitchers success.
Bucholz has obliged, striking out 8.7 batters per nine – a career high. He also has thrown more fastballs this year, 43.8% a year ago compared to 52.2% this season, and seen the value of mixing in cutters and curveballs. He has had to do so because of his fastballs falling velocity; Bucholz is beginning to pitch like a crafty veteran – at only 29 years old. His batting average against plummeted 80 points and is already 4-0 in his first four starts – good for a first-place tie for wins in the league. He also leads the Big Leagues with a 0.90 ERA. Staying healthy and his self-proclaimed ritual of washing his Johnny Damon-esque hair between have been large factors in his improvement.
The largest factors in both aces improvement? John Farrell. The manager’s guiding hand and adamant attitude on getting ahead in the count and finishing hitters off early.
Dustin Pedroia, the team’s second baseman and second longest tenured member, says, “It’s not that guys fear him, but I think they respect him so much that forces them to believe in what he wants us to do. It’s very helpful.”
The biggest contribution by the pitching pair has been their ability to eat innings. On Saturday, Bucholz went eight innings only giving up two runs, which allowed Farrell to rest his bullpen and use only his closer, Andrew Bailey, to capture the win. Deep starts by starters early in the season allows for conservation of the ‘pen for later in the season when their need increases and reduces injury risk and overuse.
A breakout by one of the Sox starters could have been attributed to diligent off-season workouts, but two?
There is no such thing as coincidence. There is such a thing as coaching.