The Monday Baseball Column: A new pitching coach's plan

Rob Bradford
November 25, 2019 - 9:38 am
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It is a worthwhile exercise to take note of Dave Bush’s existence.

He is, after all, the most noteworthy Red Sox’ acquisition this offseason to date.

While the 40-year-old has been in the organization for more than three years, what he represents now is something next-level. Bush is the man responsible for siphoning the most out of the group — the pitchers — which head into 2020 most likely carrying the key to the Red Sox’ lot in life. He is a unique kind of pitching coach in a unique sort of situation.

There are the three starting pitchers — Chris Sale, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi — who head into the new seasons with a boatload of questions regarding health and performance while taking up $80 million of the team’s payroll. Determining how the Red Sox are going to fill Rick Porcello’s spot in the rotation is a thing. The bullpen showed promise, but not enough to absolutely classify it as a certainty. And then there is the depth, or lack of it.

Welcome to the Red Sox’ pitching staff, Mr. Bush.

Speaking with the man who was taken two spots in front of Jon Lester in the 2002 MLB Draft it is clear what the Red Sox saw in him when identifying the nine-year big league veteran as Dana LeVangie’s replacement. He had the experience of living life as a major league pitcher (taking no-hitters past the seventh inning three times). The Pennsylvania native traveled the world to experience all sorts of languages and levels with MLB International. He worked hand in hand in the analytics side of pitching with the Red Sox since joining the organization late in 2016. And he has even shown a heavy interest in the mental side of the equation since majoring in psychology at Wake Forest, diving into he merits of big-league performance-coaching before most.

In a new world of pitching, this is your new kind of pitching coach:

HOW HAS THE JOB OF PITCHING COACH CHANGED SINCE YOU PLAYED?

One of the bigger advancements recently is pitching and hitting is inter-departmental. It’s not just the pitching coach that knows what’s going on. We have trainers and strength coaches that have knowledge in different areas. We have analysts with information we can use. We track and measure so many more things that we used to. Part of my job as pitching coach is being able to work with each one of these different departments, each one of the people who do that work. And then with all that information do something I can make something useable for the pitchers themselves. So a lot of it is just figuring out which information I want, which things we have had in the past, things we utilized too much or not enough last year or the year before and just trying to put together the best situation to help guys be as successful as they can be.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM YOUR FORMER PITCHING COACHES ABOUT THE JOB?

I had a number of pitching coaches throughout the major leagues and minor leagues. There were some that were great and some that weren’t great for me. The ones I liked in the past is the information we have now is verifying stuff they taught me back then. We didn’t necessarily have a way to prove it. I kind of learned what worked and what didn’t for me. I’m finding a lot of the concepts that really made sense for me 10, 12 years or ago or more still hold true today. We just have a much better way of being sure of that. Instead of having trial or error over a long period of time we can get to that point a lot more quickly.

WHAT HAS CHANGED IN TERMS OF HOW WE VIEW PITCHING?

For me when I pitched I was kind of a lower arm slot. My ball moved a lot. Didn’t necessarily sink and probably had a little more rise than I realize. The era I pitched almost everybody was trying to throw down and away fastballs or trying to get the ball going down or get weak contact on the ground. I had success in other parts of the zone with different kind of pitches but didn’t necessarily know why. If I could evaluate myself now with the information we have I probably would have suggested a different style of pitching than I did at that time. But that’s what everybody did and that was the prevailing style in the industry. I like to think now there may be some guys that pitch that way and there are some guys that is a very effective style, but there are other guys that have different styles. We individualize the approach a lot more these days.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST ADVANCEMENT OVER THE LAST YEAR IN TERMS OF ANALYZING PITCHING?

We’re trying to link up the body movements with pitch quality. When I first started working with the Red Sox, it was still early on in the Trackman phase where we were trying to put together the database that we wanted. Now that is prevalent everywhere. There are high school kids that have access to Trackman information. Rapsodo has made that usable on daily basis. But now we’re moving more toward biomechanics and different measurements of the body. It’s an area we’re still exploring. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go. There’s a lot of curiosity with hitters. Hitters are catching up to pitchers because hitters are paying a lot more attention to their bodies and how they move and hitters are becoming much more efficient with their movements and that is creating more disciplined hitters. Guys are less apt to chase out of the zone because they are keenly aware of how their bodies are moving. It may or may not match up with traditional pitching mechanics. In some cases this may reinforce things we have been teaching for a long time. In other cases, it may teach us something new or different that we overlooked or wasn’t sure about.

TALK ABOUT THE CHALLENGE OF HAVING TO DEAL WITH SO MANY DIFFERENT PERSONALITIES ON A PITCHING STAFF

It’s one of the things I like most about it, quite honestly. My college degree is in psychology. It’s something I enjoy. I like working with people. It’s entertainment and it’s sports but it’s a people business, too. Coaches and players have their own personalities and their own backgrounds. We’re all trying to get to the same place. I spent a number of years coaching overseas and had a similar experiencing, working with kids with totally different backgrounds but I was trying to teach them the same thing. On the field, between the lines the game is still the same. But outside of those lines is when we have to connect with one another one way or another. It doesn’t matter what kind of background you have or your education level or your language or anything else. It’s about having guys be the best pitchers they can be. I enjoy the joy and the challenge of getting to know guys. I think it’s pretty cool there are guys all over the years playing baseball and I enjoy that challenge.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE MENTAL SIDE OF PITCHING?

I ended up being a psych major because I liked it. When I first started playing in the big leagues it didn’t exist. We didn’t have sports psychologist, performance coaches or anything like that. And even when we first started hiring those guys it was off-putting to a lot of the players. They didn’t trust the sports psychologist. They didn’t think they had the players’ best interest in mind. It’s something I appreciated back then even though it wasn’t popular. As I’ve seen that department grow throughout sports I’ve been glad to see how important that is. Training the mind and the mental skills are just as important as physical skills. I think it has taken an appropriate part of the game. It’s an important part of helping guys dealing with what is a really difficult job. It’s one of the things we have access to that is going to make guys better.

WHEN DID YOU START THINKING ABOUT THIS CAREER PATH?

When I stopped playing I had no interest of getting back into it. I needed a break from the game a little bit, from the stress of competing and performing. I took the year off and found I missed some aspects of the game that had gotten lost for me. The last couple of years I was so focused on trying to keep up that I lost parts of the game I enjoyed as a kid and as a player. So I started getting back into it on a casual level and not really knowing what I wanted to do and found I enjoyed the people aspect of it, enjoyed working with players and I had more satisfaction of seeing guys get better. I had my chance and I was content with my career as a player and that gave me a lot of peace of mind trying to help other players achieve whatever they could.

HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN THE ANALYTICS SIDE OF PITCHING?

I played just long enough for this kind of stuff to start creeping into the game. But even at that point, I didn’t know what it all meant. Where it really made sense for me was when I started having access to the information and it matched up of things that I already knew and figured out as a player. When I first started working with the Red Sox and kind of got exposed to the Trackman information, working with Brian Bannister. He told me what it meant and what it looked like and gave me the freedom to explore on my own. There was just a little bit of information on me from the very end of my career and I saw the things that worked for me as a pitcher, the things that didn’t, the reasons I had trouble throwing fastballs down and away all the time, I now had information that made sense for me. I was like, ‘Wow, I get it now!’ I started to piece together looking at myself things that worked and didn’t and then I was able to look at other guys. Here’s what you’re doing, here’s what working and here’s what are not. 

HOW DO YOU VIEW THIS CURRENT RED SOX PITCHING STAFF?

The time I spent with the big league team last year was important in helping me reassess where the major league game is right now. Just as the talent and information has increased every year. It’s a better game and a more talented game than when I finished playing. So it was important for me to catch up and make sure I fully understood what guys can do nowadays and what the expectations are. Guys throw harder now than they used to, the strike zone is a little bit smaller, the ball carries differently, there is a lot more information for hitters and pitchers, defenses shift so much more than when I played. It was important to make sure I was caught up on what is out there and what guys can do now and what the expectations re for today’s players.

WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO SPRING TRAINING?

I think it’s going to settle into a fairly routine and standard spring training. There is going to be plenty of build-up. Barring injuries there is going to be plenty of time to get all the innings they need. Exactly what that is, we’ll see. But there won’t be any limitations on time. That spring training issue is a challenge for all teams that go through the postseason. It’s not just the number of innings you throw in spring training but it’s also the organizational depth you have. Some organizations have better depth and more flexibility early in the season, so they don’t necessarily need guys to be built up as much. It’s been well-documented that we don’t have a ton of depth right now. It’s something that may get better in the offseason or it may not. Either way, I’ll be prepared for it and I’ll have our guys prepared to be ready to go when the regular season starts.

WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY ON KEEPING PITCHERS FRESH FOR THE ENTIRE SEASON?

I don’t like the saving bullets terms just because I don’t like the connotations that come with it. I think there is a responsible way to prepare guys for 162 or more games. Sometimes it means backing off at certain times of the year, sometimes it means pushing harder. … You’re talking 162 games like it or not and you’re going to need guys all the way through. I don’t like the saving bullet term but I do think there is a responsible and smart development where we can get guys prepared to pitch a full season.

THE RICH HILL QUESTION

Numerous blogs and news outlets have put two and two together when guessing where free-agent pitcher Rich Hill might end up. He is from Massachusetts, still lives in the area and has a history with the Red Sox. The Sox also have a need for a pitcher possessing the talent and upside Hill can deliver on a short-term contract. So the majority of the projections have the 39-year-old landing with his hometown team.

That may be the case. But the timeline for the scenario is most likely a bit different than most anticipated.

According to a major league source, Hill underwent Primary Revision surgery in late October and likely won't be able to compete until June with the possibility of pushing the timetable until after the All-Star break. 

While the path represents a setback for the lefty -- who continued to thrive with the Dodgers in 2019 before succumbing to a flexor strain in mid-June (returning for a couple of regular-season appearances and postseason outing) -- it potentially does pave the way for an interesting scenario. For a contending team, the surgically-repaired version of Hill should offer an intriguing option heading into the season's second half.

The worries of the wear and tear of a full season won't be in play, but the potential that Hill displayed throughout his last four years (39-19, 3.00 ERA, 517 strikeouts, 141 walks in 437 1/3 innings) might just present the pitcher as the right guy at the right time for some contending club.

WHY IS EVERYONE CARING ABOUT CATCHERS?

At this writing, two of the three biggest free-agent signings have gone toward catchers. Yasmani Grandal reeled in a four-year, $73 million deal from the White Sox while the Braves gave Travis d'Arnaud $16 million over two years. It's not an accident.

In this day and age of distributing information, catchers have become the connective tissue for many teams.

"If you look back at some really, really good teams, and we can go back to Jason Varitek, he was computing this on his own in his own instinctual way. Then you fast forward to the '13 championship, we had Jarrod Saltalamacchia and David Ross. Same thing. They were doing this on their own because of their experience, because of the information and gathering and getting on a daily basis they were computing every single situation in their head," Arizona manager Torey Lovullo recently said on the Bradfo Sho podcast. 

"I love catchers. I've developed a strong bond with catchers. I run the game through the catchers. I put a lot on the catchers. And if they can't handle that we need to find the next guy. Here in the Arizona we have had some really, really, really strong candidates that have helped us win some baseball games."

As far as the Red Sox' catching situation goes, the plan to lock up Christian Vazquez seems like an under-the-radar important move for the cost-conscious organization. Vazquez would have been going into his final year of arbitration-eligibility this offseason, but instead is signed through 2021 with a $7 million team option for 2022. He will make $4.2 million this coming season and $6.25 million in his final guaranteed year.

WHERE THE JOSH BECKETT HALL OF FAME CONVERSATION TURNED

So I remember the moment I interviewed Josh Beckett about the possibility of becoming a Hall of Famer. It was Aug. 25, 2011, one day after he allowed one run over six innings to the Rangers in Texas. It seemed like a plausible notion at that time.

At the age of 31, he was 124-79 in the regular season with a 3.81 ERA, having also owned seven postseason wins with a 3.07 ERA in the playoffs. There was also no signs he was slowing down, with that outing in Arlington moving his 2011 ERA to 2.43 over 25 starts.

Considering age and production, it wasn't an absurd notion. Now that he is officially eligible the idea seems a long way away.

But from that interview until his last outing in 2014 Beckett would go just 15-27 with a 4.21 ERA (although there was a no-hitter in that final season). There also wasn't another postseason appearance.

Compare Beckett with some recent Hall of Fame pitchers through their Age 31 seasons and you can see why it should have been a conversation. Roy Halladay was 131-66 with a 3.52 ERA without a single postseason appearance. Randy Johnson had a record of 99-64 with a 3.52 ERA with two postseason wins. Mike Mussina's ERA was 3.53 with a record of 147-81, having also won a pair of playoff games. And Jack Morris finished the season he turned 31 sitting with a 144-94 mark and 3.57 ERA and three postseason victories.

SOME OTHER THOUGHTS ...

- If you're having a hard time getting your head around why Noah Song would prioritize serving with the military as much if not more than continuing his professional baseball career it's worth your while to revisit the story of Stephen Reich. Reich was one of the best pitchers ever to perform for a military academy, starring on the mound for Army. After dominating as a Connecticut high school pitcher he chose West Point over professional baseball, knowing that there would be a likely delay after his collegiate career if pro ball was still an option. After appearing in two minor-league games with Baltimore's Single-A affiliate three years after his graduation from Army, Reich went back into active duty. He would posthumously be awarded the Purple Heart 10 years later after being shot down while trying to rescue the Navy SEAL team in the 2005 mission featured in the movie "Lone Survivor."

- The Winter Meetings kick off in two weeks. They are in San Diego. Memories from the last time this thing was at this location: 1. The Red Sox getting beat out for the services of Jon Lester; 2. The Red Sox getting beat out for the services of Andrew Miller; 3. Sitting along the walkway to Starbucks from the hotel is the easiest way to track down executives/agents in the history of any Winter Meetings. (One executive recently advised a player looking for work to not worry about setting meetings with teams but prioritize finding a good bench on that path.)

- Mookie Betts retweeted a couple of tweets from the Red Sox' account!!!!

- This is a lot of heart surgeries for a lot of children ...