The Monday Baseball Column: How Red Sox pitchers are preparing for the unpredictable

Rob Bradford
March 30, 2020 - 9:53 am
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If all had gone as planned, Dave Bush’s Saturday would have been occupied helping guide Martin Perez through his first start at Rogers Centre. Instead Bush spent the afternoon on a field near his Maine home giving baseball lessons to an entirely different demographic — the Red Sox pitching coach's three children, ages 12, 10 and eight.

Such is life for Bush. Best-laid plans and all of that.

“It’s challenging, man,” he told WEEI.com regarding the coronavirus-induced curveball sent the world of baseball and the world as a whole. “It’s a level of stuff I had not prepared for, nor did anyone else, players included. It’s tough on everyone involved in the game right now, and everyone outside the game. There are a lot of things we were not prepared for. We’re just trying to take advantage of this time and get something out of it so when we do get a chance to play again we can move forward as quickly as possible.”

Bush, like everyone else, is trying to figure out how to manage this out-of-nowhere about-face.

Along with living his new life of seclusion with his wife, daughter and two sons, the 40-year-old, first-year big-league coach has attempted to manage his job’s expectations. 

But there is no formula for this. It’s a reality Bush and the rest of the Red Sox decision-makers have come to grips with.

The pitchers have to get ready. But for when? For what?

“We’ve definitely given them some guidance. We have heard some rough timelines from MLB publicly. I know it has been floated that there could possibly be an early June start and I don’t know if any of that will be true or not at this point, but we’re using that as a guideline right now to make sure that guys are ready if and when we do get to start up again,” Bush noted. 

“Everyone’s circumstances are a little bit different right now. Some guys have access to throwing partners and space. Other people don’t. I have given general guidelines to the group but also working individually with the guys to make sure whatever the circumstance they can get enough work in to be ready.”

Bush, and everyone else in Major League Baseball, understand that any dates mentioned regarding a return are — to be kind — fluid. But Bush and his pitchers have to live with a “what if” mentality, just in case. So that’s exactly the approach they are taking.

“You definitely want to be over-prepared but also try not to overdue it because if the season starts late and goes longer into the fall there is always the risk of guys doing too much now and trying to make it through an extended season,” he said. “We are balancing it on both ends. They are dialing back a little bit now compared to where they were when they left spring training. Trying not to overdue right now, but also making sure they are at a point where they can ramp up and get prepared quickly if they get that chance.”

When we last saw the Red Sox pitchers they were eyeing the finish line after executing the typical spring training dance of easing into a baseball season. 
 
By the time that last Grapefruit League game was played the Red Sox’ pitchers had totaled 181 innings, sixth-most in baseball. Their top two starters (with Chris Sale not in the picture), Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi, were cruising, with Rodriguez coming off a March 11 gem against the Rays in which he didn’t allow a run over four innings while striking out 10.

The day before that Colten Brewer went 2 2/3 innings to seemingly cement his path to become part of the Sox’ opener strategy. And the night prior in North Port, Fla. Ryan Weber most likely locked up the No. 4 starter spot with four more scoreless innings against the Braves.

In multiple corners of the clubhouse, the momentum heading to what was supposed to be Opening Day was real. Now, in many ways, it’s figuring out what returning to Square One might look like.

“We have talked to them about monitoring their effort levels and the number of throws they’re making because they will have to rework all the formulas that go into the workload we planned for spring training,” Bush said. “We will have to adjust that and alter it a little bit. That requires feedback from the players.

“There is a lot of work a lot of guys did over the four or five weeks we were in Florida to get themselves ready for the season. Some guys had taken a big step forward. For those guys I encouraged them to maintain where they are right now to keep the progress that they made. Whatever their throwing program looks like it’s about maintaining a certain level of fitness so they can pick it back up when they need to without overdoing it right now.”

The preparation while away from team activities are one thing, deciphering a strategy once back is something else entirely. As former Red Sox pitcher Aaron Sele told WEEI.com last week when reflecting on the 2 1/2 weeks players had to get ready during a delayed 1995 season, “The biggest key MLB has to worry about is obviously the safety of its fans and its workers. But the players? I would suggest a longer version than probably what they’re going to have. Obviously, you don’t need all of spring training, but you need consistency of when it is going to start."

Bush and his colleagues have a guideline for a spring training reboot. But until a timeline is set in stone, the pitching coach weaves in and out of family commitments with calls, texts, emails and other methods of communication to plan such things as the best ways to integrate the new wave of analytics with his pitching staff.

There is plenty of time to plan. For what remains anyone's guess.

"I’ve heard three weeks floated out there," Bush said. "I have no idea if that is accurate or not. But that is significantly shorter than we would have had the first time around. If that is the case guys need to show up further along than they ordinarily would. That’s part of what I talk to guys about right now. If spring training is as short as three weeks then they need to show up basically at the level that would have been prior to Opening Day in the first spring training. It’s a tricky balance. When guys show up in early February we have a series of bullpens and then live BPs and then we work into game action. We’ll have to skip over some of that early stuff so they have to do some it on their own for whenever they show up. There is definitely a higher level of communication and monitoring with that kind of stuff because they will have to do more of the work on their own than they typically would have done in the wintertime.

"I think we had all settled into a good rhythm. We had gotten through the bulk of the build-up. The starters were going to be on five-inning outings coming up. So a lot of the prep work and build-up we had worked on all winter, we were through a lot of it. To that extent, we’ll have to take a step back and do that again on a smaller scale."

REMEMBERING WHAT A TWO-MONTH SEASON LOOKS LIKE

What this baseball season looks like is anyone's guess. But to suggest the best-case scenario is some sort of two-or-so-month sprint to the postseason is a very real possibility.

If that ends up being the case, there might actually be a rare example to draw from in this tidal wave of uncertainty. For that we can thank what happened in 1981.

In that season Major League Baseball decided there were ostensibly going be two seasons, one before the players' strike and one after.

"You’re just so happy. So psyched. All I know is that I didn’t feel ready," said former Red Sox Dennis Eckersley when recounting his range of emotions upon returning following what would be the loss of 38 percent of the season. "I recall feeling not all that great. Looking back it had the feeling that every game meant something because it gave everybody a fresh start. To be honest, I was just thinking about my arm. I wasn’t thinking about my team I was thinking about my arm and how I was going to do this. But I was ecstatic to playing again."

What happened was this: After the strike -- which lasted from June 12 until July 31 -- the owners voted to allow whichever teams were leading their respective divisions prior to the work stoppage to automatically clinch a postseason berth. Baseball would then return for a second season, kicking off with the All-Star Game on Aug. 9, with teams getting a clean slate when it came to making a run at winning the division.

The Red Sox, for instance, finished just 1 1/2 games out of a playoff berth thanks to a 29-23 record in the second half after heading into the strike in fourth-place.

So, what lessons can be learned from the kind of sprint of a season 1981 represented?

Jeff Katz, former mayor Cooperstown and author of the book, "Split Season: 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the Strike that Saved Baseball," offers an educated take.

"The short second half of 1981 ended up with some good baseball, with many teams, good and bad, within striking distance of the second-half division crown," Katz recalled via email. "Though the split season setup took the air out of full-season pennant races, it allowed lowly teams like the Mets, Mariners and Blue Jays to print playoff tickets in September. (The Jays, full-year, were 36-65).

"In the absence of a first half to compare it to, a 2020 short-season could work, though it’ll always feel like tainted to everyone but the ultimate winners. The 1981 Dodgers don’t feel their World Series win is anything less for the strike-shortened year. There is the real risk, with a short schedule and two Wild Cards, to end up with sub .500 teams in the playoffs. If it was up to me, I would eliminate that second Wild Card this year. Extra playoffs with a truncated schedule would be a huge mistake and look bad."

Another piece of the puzzle that shouldn't be overlooked? As much as players do their darnedest to prepare on their own for the upcoming season, not knowing actual starting dates is an issue. It's a reality Eckersley came to know in a season he turned in relatively the same numbers before and after the strike.

"It just seemed like it took forever and it was hard to keep an edge," he said. "How do you keep an edge? You play catch? After a month it was like, ‘Shoot!’ The biggest thing is to keep your arm somewhat in shape. As a starting pitcher that’s difficult to do."

One of the biggest differences this time around will be the appetite to see the players play. In 1981, attendance dropped in 17 of the 24 cities and, as Katz points out, television ratings for the division series were so weak that NBC didn't advocate for the extra tier of playoffs to continue. The  League Championship Series ratings were much lower than 1980, as were the three showcase World Series games even though it was New York against Los Angeles.

This time? It's not a gigantic leap of faith to suggest fans will be starved for the sight of baseball (and any sport, really).

"My guess is when this season resumes, if it does, the pent up desire for baseball that was taken away, not by labor strife but by, let’s call it, an “Act of God,” will not be accompanied by negative feelings," Katz points out.

THE LAST ACQUISITION

Another bizarre timeline the Red Sox recently encountered involved a player who might actually be making the major league roster.

Two weeks before Yairo Munoz ultimately signed his minor league deal with the Sox his name was surfaced in the team's front office. The Red Sox executives saw word pop up on social media that Munoz -- a talented utility player who had spent the better part of the last two seasons in the major leagues with the Cardinals -- left camp and headed to back to his native Dominican Republic without approval from St. Louis.

While Munoz did have a hamstring issue, he also was disgruntled when it came to his perceived role with the Cardinal. So Red Sox assistant general manager Eddie Romero, who was already in the Dominican Republic, made a call to Munoz's agent Hector Fayentt.

The Red Sox were already familiar with Munoz, who had already played six different positions in the majors, having scouted the now-25-year-old as a skinny teenager who projected solely as a light-hitting second baseman. No offer was made back then, but one was going to be presented this time around.

Munoz is perceived as a good fit for what the Red Sox potentially need, with Tzu-Wei Lin, Marco Hernandez and Rule 5 draftee Jonathan Arauz all vying for a super-utility spot. Going off of Munoz's production with the Cardinals, he would seem to have a step up, a notion the Red Sox realized when starting to pursue the righty hitter.

The problem was that not only were other teams getting in on the action, but the Red Sox knew that there was going to be a moment Major League Baseball would be shutting down all transactions. As it turned out that moment ended up coming just two days after the Sox' agreed with Munoz on a minor-league deal.

Adding to the unconventional nature of the aquistion was because of MLB's shutdown there still has been no face-to-face meeting or physical. But based off prior scouting and conversations the Red Sox were comfortable in not only Munoz's on-field abilities but his makeup, which was part of the equation after he left Cards camp without a warning.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF JOE KELLY'S FASTBALL

In all the years Joe Kelly pitched for the Red Sox one of the more baffling elements of his game was why his 100 mph fastball didn't seem to act like a 100 mph fastball.

A big part of the explanation came from the fact that he really didn't have much of a spin rate on his four-seamers, ranking in the 22nd percentile last season.

Well, he thinks he finally found the solution.

Appearing on the Bradfo Sho podcast, Kelly explained that this past offseason the Dodgers finally identified that the pitcher had been throwing his fastball with one finger instead of two. This, of course, was limiting the spin on every pitch.

An adjustment was leading into spring training and judging by the Dodgers' measurements before baseball's shutdown they seem to be on to something.

Kelly explains ...