Bradford: You might have no idea how much little things are about to matter

Rob Bradford
October 03, 2018 - 7:12 am

USA Today Sports

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The Red Sox are a very, very talented team. That's a huge reason they landed with 108 wins. But that was the regular season. This is different.

"Playoffs, it’s really not talent," said former Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes. "It’s who has a better report and who knows how to apply it, which is why it’s so fun to watch."

This is the reality all of these postseason teams are currently sliding into. And it isn't difficult to find some not-so-subtle reminders as to what Gomes is talking about.

"David Ortiz hit a pretty big home run that flipped Torii (Hunter) over the wall that we might have had something on him, along with others, including the St. Louis guys (in the 2013 World Series)," remembered Gomes.

What the former outfielder was referencing, of course, was the Game 2, game-tying grand slam by Ortiz in the 2013 American League Championship Series against the Tigers. As it turned out, according to multiple sources, the Red Sox actually had a pretty good idea when Tigers pitcher Joaquin Benoit was going to throw his changeup, the kind of offering the Sox slugger blasted for one of the biggest homers in team history.

It's actually a scouting report they had on Benoit for some time. It was just a piece of the puzzle that helped make up that World Series run. ("We didn’t have too much on their starters. But we had their bullpen guys. It benefitted us," Gomes added.)

Now, everyone associated with that Red Sox team asked about the subject were quick to point out that Ortiz was a hitter who typically didn't like using such information, as is the case with many major league hitters. Some went so far as saying the slugger never used pitch-tipping info. Still, the moment offers a powerful lesson. These are the kind of things that are of the utmost importance this time of year, more than most realize.

"It was interesting to me that if you’re going to go appetizer, dinner and dessert, Major League Baseball is 162 games of an appetizer then the next, the playoffs, is the main course. The dessert is not even on the field. It’s the parade," Gomes said. "That being said it’s 162 games piled into one report. Granted guys change this or change that. But it starts to get pretty advanced. You look for tips. You flat-out look for tips."

"Talent is still important but there are things throughout the season there are tendencies," added Red Sox manager Alex Cora. "The one that comes to mind is Lorenzo Cain scoring from first on the ball down the line when (Jose) Bautista threw to second instead of throwing the ball to the cut-off guy against Kansas City (in 2015). I read about it and they were prepared for that one. Any ball hit down the line with men at first during the season Bautista was throwing to second. Stuff like that will come into play. It’s just a matter of finding it. You have to dig into videos. We can talk about sabermetrics and analytics and everything and all the information that comes from there, but that’s old-school scouting.

"Right now there are teams that have been following us for over a month. That’s the difference for all the scouting on video because that’s the way the game is going, you still have your advance scout picking things up and their tendencies. This guy, his lead is a little bigger when he is going run. Or this coach is in his ear when they’re going to steal. Stuff like that. We want to find every possible edge that we can take advantage of. It goes from outfielder’s arms, trying to expose them, trying to find things from the dugout, getting signs, pitchers tipping pitches, the percentages of pitches in counts. Every possible thing you can get, you try and take advantage of it."

Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie used to be that guy whose primary job it was to find such things, serving as the Red Sox' advance scout up until his move to bullpen coach. It was a job he held from 2006-12, including the 2007 World Series adventure which included more than a few of the kind of moments we're talking about. For instance: Jonathan Papelbon picking off Matt Holliday in Game 2 of the World Series (which LeVangie credits his co-advance scout Todd Claus for zeroing in on).

"In postseason everyone’s preparation is so much more advanced," he said. "That’s probably why we see starters not lasting as long because they put so much preparation into studying how to maybe hunt certain pitches, locations. It’s just harder to have so much more success because of all that is put into it. That’s probably why bullpens have become a little more successful in the postseason because every inning in changing so it’s tougher to lock in on that. But we’ve done a great job getting to the postseason in putting in the amount of effort, time, all the people involved and looking at everything."

The examples of how the little things win out over talent in the postseason aren't difficult to uncover.

Cora is known throughout baseball as one of the best in the business in identifying pitch-tipping, a talent some pointed to when it appeared the Astros were identifying Yu Darvish's offerings in last season's World Series. ("It’s an art. You can sit down and teach someone how to do it and they still can’t do it," Gomes points out.) But that is just part of what we're talking about.

Take, for instance, Gomes' Game 4 home run against the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series. The three-run blast came on Seth Maness' fifth fastball of the at-bat. But it wasn't the kind of pitch that meant the difference, it was where the offering was thrown.

"He was very stubborn," the righty hitter remembered of Maness. "How he started a hitter is how he finished a hitter, regardless how many times it took to finish. Normally it’s the other way around. They will show fastball in, curveball and then they will finish you away. Or they will establish away to come back in. A situation like that I had to log each pitch in my head, having to go back to Pitch 1 and how he started me. Once I got to two strikes I knew he was going to pound that location.

"Say you have a three-pitch pitcher, say fastball, changeup, slider. There’s a time the pitcher will do something and will eliminate one pitch. So if you have a guessing game you have a 33 percent chance of guessing right. But he does something with his hand, his glove, his elbow, his knee, his tongue, his mouth, that turns him into a two-pitch pitcher."

And the postseason intricacies aren't just something for the hitters.

"It becomes paramount not only because you’re playing against the best talent, but you’re playing against the smartest hitters, too," noted Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello. "You’re going to find the offenses in the postseason have five or six guys that are quality hitters, veteran hitters who are smart and can pick up on tips and pick up on patterns. It makes those little things that much more important. For us, too. We can’t pick up on if a hitter is tipping but we can pick up on if a hitter is trying to sit on a pitch, ambush something and do damage. If you have good fastball hitters who all of a sudden are taking fastballs early in the count or in advantage counts you start thinking this guy might try to be ambushing a slider and try to get it all on that one pitch. That stuff becomes a huge deal in the postseason because it only takes one swing to completely change the game. You have to be on top of everything and do whatever you can to prevent that from happening."

As LeVangie points out, the wave of information dwarfs what the Red Sox were dealing with even just five years ago. But it's not just the shifts, analytics and video which are going to be making the differences. The art of the in-person scouting report -- coming from both the stands and the dugouts -- is perhaps more important in October than any other month.

The game is about to change. It always does this time of year.

"There are just so many things," the Red Sox pitching coach said with a smile.

Yes, just ask Joaquin Benoit.

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