Bradford: How the Red Sox are learning from their 2017 mistake

Rob Bradford
June 25, 2018 - 9:40 am

USA Today Sports

The day John Farrell was let go by the Red Sox, I was talking to one pitcher, asking him about where he thought things might go.

"I'll tell you the one guy they have to keep," he said, "Dana LeVangie."

The proclamation was a bit surprising considering of all the pieces of this puzzle the bullpen coach was the one being identified as the priority. But the pitcher went on to explain how LeVangie had actually been the go-to guy for most of the hurlers, earning their respect with knowledge, approach and work ethic. And, sure enough, a few weeks later it was LeVangie who was the guy they kept, promoting the 48-year-old to pitching coach.

From the outside looking in, it is always tough to analyze the effectiveness of coaches. Judging by the team's pitching statistics and wins, LeVangie seems to be doing pretty well. But, to be honest, I would probably have said the same thing about any of his predecessors, including Juan Nieves, a guy who was fired just more than a month into the 2015 season after leading the Sox to the second-best team ERA in the American League two seasons before.

The lesson is that evidence is hard to come by when it comes to this stuff. But this time around I've got some for you.

LeVangie was the straw that stirred the drink when it came to insisting the Red Sox starting pitchers had to play for the long-term, needing to avoid the kind of end-of-season fade Chris Sale endured in 2017. The plan was hatched in spring training, surfaced for the first time when taking out David Price after 78 pitches in his first start, and punctuated once again Sunday afternoon in Sale's seven innings of shutout ball.

After the Red Sox' 5-0 win one term was thrown around by all the participants. Alex Cora. Sale. It was matter-of-factly defined as "The Plan." And it is something that LeVangie talks about with the kind of passion and insistence that you don't normally find emanating from any coach at any time.

"I kind of felt that way the last few years, being a part of this stuff. I brought it up before. We have to protect these guys," LeVangie said. "Sometimes you might hear feedback like, ‘Well, we have to get there first.’ Well, hey man, we’re a good team. We’re going to get there. If we do this right we’re going to get there in the right way. I just felt like last year we got there and we were limping in. We were riding our guys down the stretch. We were playing a playoff team we getting ready to face and we were using all our horses and showing our guns. We already made it. What are we worried about? We made the playoffs. The goal is, we’re getting there so we’re not going to panic over one loss or one week."

Sale is obviously the poster boy for the experiment, as was evidenced once again in his latest start.

Most of the lefty's numbers are almost identical to his output after 17 starts a year ago ...

2017: 11-3, 2.61 ERA, 166 strkeouts, 22 walks, .197 batting average against.

2018: 7-4, 2.56 ERA, 153 strikeouts, 28 walks, .153 batting average against.

But then there are these items ...

2017: 120 2/3 innings, 1,853 pitches.

2018: 109 innings, 1,715 pitches.

"I asked Alex (Cora) in the seventh, I said, ‘You don’t give a (expletive) about complete games do you?’ He said, ‘No, not at all.’ He said, ‘Does he?’ I said, ‘No, this is what he committed to this year,’" LeVangie said. "We’re trying to reach a goal at the end of the year, trying to keep these guys fresh. We understand they have a responsibility to protect the bullpen, so we do have to balance it out."

Watching Sale blow 100 mph on his final pitch Sunday, it would be easy to say this is all going to work out perfectly. But we don't know. That answer won't come until August, September and October. There is evidence, however, that "The Plan" has been at least been bought into and is in full swing.

Here is what we have from the Red Sox starting pitchers after 79 games, both last season and this one:

2017: 467 1/3 innings, 7,859 pitches, 4.37 ERA .266 batting average against,  51 games of 100 pitches or more. (They ended the season at 99.5 pitches per game, the most in the majors.)

2018: 459 innings, 7,550 pitches, 3.73 ERA, .234 batting average against, 33 games of 100 pitches or more, 95.6 pitches per game. (As a quick aside, Tampa Bay's starters have averaged a historically low 73.4 pitches per game thanks to their the implementation of a bullpen game every five starts.)

The entire strategy may just be the way baseball is going, with only the Astros' starters averaging 100 pitches per game this season. But, as the Red Sox discovered a year ago, when you're in the reactionary world of a pennant race, with veteran starting pitchers who take pride in consistently hitting the century mark, it can often be easier said than done.

So far, they are doing.

"You just don’t ask because they are going to tell you they want to stay," LeVangie said regarding the implementation of the plan. "If you’re trying to accomplish something, take it out of their hands. If you went up to one of those guys during the game and asked them if they were good, they would all say, ‘Yup. I’m going back out.’ It’s better just to say you’re not going. We have another plan.

"I think those guys see it. The whole starting staff appreciates it. It’s not just about today, tomorrow, but their career, too. Trying to extend their career while having our success. Just going about it the right way."

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