MLB notes: Red Sox new pitching infrastructure generating impressive early returns

Must Read

Over the past few years the Red Sox pitching hasn’t been good enough. Arms at the big league level consistently underperformed, and the club’s minor league pitching pipeline seemed to have slowed to a trickle.

This past offseason the club made a concerted effort to fix all of that, and so far the early returns have been promising.

At the big league level and in the minors, the Red Sox have seen significant improvement from their pitchers. The club’s starting rotation has unexpectedly posted numbers that rank among not only the best in MLB this year, but among the best in club history through the first two months.

On top of that, the Red Sox have seen several younger arms take significant steps forward. Some of those pitchers are now playing crucial roles in Boston, while others have raised their stock in the minors, earning early promotions and putting themselves in position to possibly factor into the big league equation in the near future.

“It’s been good. It started in the offseason, continued into spring training and so far we’ve been throwing great,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Friday. “Obviously it’s a different philosophy, different personnel running that area, but same (pitchers), and you’ve got to give credit to them too.”

So, what’s changed? Since last season ended the Red Sox have gone to great lengths implementing a new pitching infrastructure, essentially a series of systems and philosophies used at all levels of the organization designed to help get the most out of every arm.

Craig Breslow was hired as chief baseball officer in large part thanks to his success implementing such a system with the Chicago Cubs, and new pitching coach Andrew Bailey and director of pitching Justin Willard were brought in to help execute that vision. Bailey sets the tone in the big leagues, and Willard bounces between Fenway Park and each minor league affiliate to make sure the messages and lessons being taught are consistent across the organization.

“It’s always a work in progress, we’re always going to have to fine tune everything at every level, but, yeah, it’s definitely playing out the way I thought it would play out,” Willard said. “Especially with this group between (Breslow) and (Bailey) and the coaches that are here now and the coaches in our system, it’s been great so far.”

‘Nasty stuff in the zone’

If you want to distill the Red Sox new pitching philosophy down to a single mantra, it would be “throw nasty stuff in the zone.”

Whether it’s in scouting reports, pitcher’s meetings or in conversations around the diamond, you’re bound to hear that phrase at some point before long. Essentially, pitchers are encouraged to throw their best pitches more often, to attack the strike zone and to strive to be the best version of themselves — rather than being forced into a one-size-fits-all approach that may not be appropriate for everyone.

That approach has paid dramatic and immediate dividends in the big leagues.

Entering the weekend, the Red Sox pitching staff ranked second in MLB with a 3.07 ERA, and the starting pitchers ranked third with a 2.85 mark. Tanner Houck and Kutter Crawford in particular have pitched like aces, and Houck ranks second in ERA (1.94), third in walks and hits per inning pitched (0.954) and fifth in innings pitched (65) among qualifying American League starters.

Red Sox pitcher Tanner Houck throws a pitch to a Chicago Cubs batter during an April 28 game at Fenway Park. (Chris Christo/Boston Herald)

After previously struggling to stay healthy or to pitch deep into games, Houck and Crawford have become veritable workhorses who can be counted on to take the mound every five days and deliver. Brayan Bello and Nick Pivetta have also pitched well despite missing time due to injury, and Cooper Criswell has come out of nowhere to emerge as a reliable No. 5 starter.

“Everybody was asking for this guy and that guy, all the way to the end. All the way until (Jordan) Montgomery signed with Arizona, it was, ‘they need pitching, they need pitching, they need pitching,’ ” Cora said. “They worked hard to change the narrative and so far, it’s still early, we’ve done an outstanding job.”

Meanwhile, the Red Sox bullpen is arguably as talented and deep as it’s been since the 2018 playoffs.

As of this writing seven of the club’s eight relievers boasted sub-four ERAs, with the lone exception being bulk man Chase Anderson. Veterans Kenley Jansen (3.24, 8 saves) and Chris Martin (3.26) have had a couple of uncharacteristically sloppy outings but otherwise have been effective, and the other five are all younger guys with limited MLB track records who have seized their opportunities.

Brennan Bernardino, last season’s breakout star, surprisingly started this season in Triple-A and has made that decision look more foolish with each passing day. The left-hander leads the team with a 0.86 ERA and has posted scoreless outings in 16 of his 19 appearances.

Justin Slaten, a Rule 5 pick who had only ever pitched five games above Double-A prior to this season, has followed in Garrett Whitlock’s footsteps as a dominant multi-inning weapon, posting a 3.12 ERA over 26 innings.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Justin Slaten pumps his fist after the Red Sox turned a double play against the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning of a game on Thursday, April 11 in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Boston Red Sox pitcher Justin Slaten pumps his fist after the Red Sox turned a double play against the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning of a game on Thursday, April 11 in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Greg Weissert (2.21) and Zack Kelly (1.98) each boast overpowering stuff and have enjoyed good results in their first full seasons as big league regulars, and left-hander Cam Booser has risen from obscurity to emerge as one of the coolest stories in the majors this year.

Diamond in the rough

Beyond simply maximizing the club’s MLB talent, the other primary goal of the pitching infrastructure is to help elevate less heralded arms into potential big league contributors. You’d be hard pressed to find a less heralded candidate than Booser.

Booser had been dealt every bad hand imaginable along his baseball journey. He battled numerous severe injuries throughout high school and college, served a 50-game suspension for marijuana as a minor leaguer and retired from baseball in 2017, spending the next two and a half years working as a carpenter. After making a comeback in 2020 he toiled for various independent and semi-pro teams before earning another minor league shot. He signed with the Red Sox in 2023, but he was hardly a standout in his first season with the Worcester Red Sox, posting a 4.99 ERA in 48 games.

Still, Booser embraced the new approach enthusiastically when spring training came around, and though he didn’t make the team out of camp, he still left a strong impression on the staff.

“I honestly want to give Cam all the credit in the world, I was in that meeting when he got optioned down to the minor leagues and we sat there with him and he’s like, ‘Nope I know what I need to do, I know the plan you have for me and I’m going to go balls to the wall and see what comes of it,’ ” Willard said. “That was the best player plan meeting I’ve ever been a part of.”

What happened next was borderline miraculous. Coming out of the gate Booser was utterly dominant, striking out 15 batters with one walk through his first four appearances for Worcester. He was so good the Red Sox immediately called his number, promoting the left-hander to the big leagues as a 31-year-old rookie. Since then he’s proven up to the task, posting a 3.71 ERA with 20 strikeouts through his first 15 MLB appearances.

Booser said he’s benefitted from the new pitching infrastructure, which he’s seen up close in both the minors and majors this season.

“Something that’s really helped me is using my off-speed pitches more, trying not to be so reliant on the fastball, which got me in trouble last year at the start of Triple-A. I had a really rough April and it was due to throwing too many fastballs and not really reading hitters and all that,” Booser said. “This year I think it’s great, it’s about letting each guy throw to their own strengths, and our thing is keeping the main thing the main thing and that’s just throwing nasty stuff in the zone.”

His emergence has been particularly gratifying for the front office, and an example of what’s possible when everyone is on the same page.

“Seeing Cam go out there and succeed and fill up the zone the way he has this year, with a backdrop of not just how he performed last year but really how his career had gone to that point, it’s really great,” said assistant general manager Paul Toboni, one of the front office’s leaders in scouting and player development. “Cam’s been a model player in terms of how he’s gone about his work and the care to which he’s approached his skill development but also how he’s taken care of his body and really made himself available since the time he’s been here.”

More help coming

Though the Red Sox still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to accumulating minor league pitching talent, the farm system is already in a much better place.

Last winter’s Alex Verdugo trade brought in three talented young arms, including Weissert, Triple-A starter Richard Fitts and 6-foot-8 prospect Nicholas Judice. Slaten and (currently injured) right-handed reliever Isaiah Campbell were both acquired in separate offseason trades, and Criswell was scooped up in free agency for just $1 million.

The depth has reached a point where someone like Josh Winckowski, who posted a 2.88 ERA over 84.1 innings last year and who had a 3.33 ERA over 24.1 innings to start this year, is stuck in Triple-A.

Booser also isn’t the only career minor leaguer who has realized significant gains. Right-hander Ryan Zeferjahn was promoted to Triple-A Worcester a few weeks back after a dominant start in Double-A Portland. Earlier this week, 21-year-old righty Luis Perales, the club’s No. 2 pitching prospect, was called up to Portland after laying waste to the High-A competition with 46 strikeouts in 26.1 innings. Righty Zach Penrod, who was playing independent ball this time last year, is also moving up to Worcester after striking out 53 over 35.1 innings in Portland, according to a Red Sox source.

Willard said the success being enjoyed by the big leaguers and by some of those breakout stars in the minors has helped prompt more buy-in from others.

“When you have success at the big league level like we’re having now implementing this new system, it does trickle down and you get a little more buy in,” Willard said. “Like, ‘these guys know what they’re talking about.’ ”

The Red Sox hope this early momentum is only the beginning, and that after decades of struggling to create a cutting edge pitching program, they might finally be on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Latest News

Daily horoscope for June 22, 2024

Moon Alert: There are no restrictions to shopping or important decisions today. The Moon is in Sagittarius. Happy Birthday for...

More Articles Like This