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April 30, 2013
There's Something About Farrell
One of the biggest stories of the first month of the 2013 season has been the incredible turnaround of the Boston Red Sox. The team went from a near-lock for the postseason in September of 2011 to the victims of one of history's greatest collapses, and the disaster carried over to 2012. The Sox were a .500 team in April of last season, and were still three games over at the end of June. However, Boston would go 28-56 over the rest of the campaign, winning just one-third of their remaining games in a brutal crash that was catalyzed by bad blood in the clubhouse and the fire sale of August 25th, in which the Red Sox flipped a quarter-billion dollars worth of contracts in a salary-dump that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles.
General Manager Ben Cherington made a splash in free agency, signing a handful of players to revamp the roster, but the general outlook for this season was bleak. Preseason predictions by the BP staff placed Boston fourth in the AL East this year, but the team and the city have become a symbol for triumph in the wake of tragedy. Going into play on Tuesday, the Sox have the best record in the game at 18-7, and their run differential of +40 also leads the majors.
The Red Sox owe a lot of those wins to their pitching. New manager John Farrell seems to have successfully resurrected a staff that ranked 12th out of 14 AL teams in ERA last season. Farrell, who was Boston’s pitching coach from 2007-10, was pried away from the Blue Jays despite being under contract, as the Sox were determined to help their existing stable of pitchers—some of whom had come up under Farrell—return to peak form. The team added Ryan Dempster to the rotation in the offseason, but the main focus for Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves was to fix established starters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
The enormous discrepancy in K's and homers leaps off the page, and this season's strikeout-to-walk ratio is three times what it was at this time last year. Clearly something has changed, and given Farrell's familiarity with his motion, it shouldn’t be surprising that Buchholz’ improvements are rooted in mechanics.
I covered Buchholz last season, as he was emerging from the doldrums of his horrific start to the year. The article focused on arm slots, and Buchholz was selected due to spine-tilt that artificially raised his arm slot to the detriment of his posture. He had carried the poor posture tag for years, and the inconsistency of his spine-tilt flashed grades ranging from 35 to 55 depending on the day and/or pitch in question. Fast-forward to 2013, and Buchholz has been able to stabilize his delivery to improve posture, the ripple effect of which includes a deeper and more consistent release point.
Mechanics Report Cards
The lowest grade on his report card was balance, thanks to a drop-n-drive delivery that wreaked havoc on his pitch repetition, but the right-hander has reined in the technique to minimize the “drop” aspect. Buchholz was also imbalanced into release point last season, falling off to the first-base side due to exaggerated spine-tilt and an inefficient pattern of momentum. Watch the pitch from 2012: Buchholz had a tendency to fall off to the first-base side after release point, as his rotational energy pulled him off course.
Buchholz has improved his momentum since last season, and though his sheer speed down the mound has always been plus, the 2013 model is more fluid with his delivery and more efficient with the linear components of momentum. This season, he is directing all of his energy toward the target, as indicated by where he goes after release point—his forward momentum is such that Buchholz finishes with an extra burst toward the plate.
The improvement in momentum is mostly apparent in the phases just before foot strike. Buchholz has pretty much the same pace into max leg lift, and he may have even been quicker with his gear change last season, but his steady increase of momentum maximizes his power just as the foot hits the ground. Buchholz then efficiently transfers that energy into the rotational phases, and he has had an easier time repeating the stronger pace to the plate.
So there you have it. Minimize the drop-n-drive, ramp up the momentum, improve the posture and... voila! You have a pitcher with a deeper release point that he can repeat more effectively. And that, my friends, is how you trump PECOTA.
Comparing the current iteration of Buchholz's delivery to the last time that Farrell was in charge of the youngster's development reveals some of the impact that a coach can have on player performance. Buchholz had his best season in 2010, during Farrell's last year as Boston pitching coach, and Buchholz’s delivery at that time was superior to what was on display last season. His momentum was not as quick, but he did a better job of directing that momentum on a linear path to the target. Although Buchholz still had the drop-n-drive, his overall balance was more stable than the delivery of 2012. Farrell's reunion with Buchholz has yielded even more impressive results, and one can almost see the progression as if 2011-12 never happened.
The stats indicate lower rates of both walks and strikeouts in 2012, but what fueled his sudden spike in ERA was a hit rate that jumped above a hit-per-inning for the first time in his career. After a multi-year run of decline since Farrell departed after 2010, Lester has enjoyed an excellent start to 2013—his K rate still falls short of peak, but the mechanical indicators provide optimism that he has turned the corner.
Nothing about Lester’s delivery was painfully out of whack in 2012, as his basic grades for efficiency were reasonably strong, but he lacked the fluid consistency of timing and sequencing that had distinguished his delivery in the past. His motion appeared to drag to the point of being sluggish, and it looked as if he was laboring through every pitch. Lester’s walk rate hid his struggles with pitch command; his tendency to miss by just a few inches resulted in a lot of hard-hit baseballs. His delivery has taken a step forward this season, and in the above GIF he also received the benefit of a friendly frame from batterymate Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
The momentum grade for 2012 was hurt by Lester's inconsistency, which further harmed his grade for repetition. Momentum and timing into foot strike are two of the most important indicators of pitch command, and a pitcher who is slower to the plate has a greater window for his timing to fall off track. The speed of Lester's delivery has only slightly improved, but the consistency of his timing has taking a huge step forward along with the fluidity of his motion from leg lift to foot strike.
I timed Lester at 0.1 seconds faster with his delivery this season as opposed to last, and the combination of stronger momentum and fluid timing has acted to extend his distance at release point. A longer stride as well as a correspondingly high frequency of well-timed pitches have allowed him to reach full extension at release point. Lester has also improved his balance since last season, as a previous tendency to lag with the head during the second phase of momentum has since been corrected.
Lester was able to improve three grades on his report card with a single tweak to his mechanics, as the more fluid rhythm of 2013 has raised his scores for momentum, release distance, and most importantly, repetition. I might be beating a dead horse, but I will continue to echo the mantra that repetition of mechanical timing is the single most important aspect of pitching, and that it influences all of the other grades on the report card. When a pitcher has a bad day, it is most often due to his inability to repeat mechanical timing, as there are merely hundredths of a second that separate a perfectly executed pitch from one that falls right into the hitter's wheelhouse. Consistent timing has guided Lester and Buchholz to a combined record of 9-0 with a collective 1.69 ERA over 69.3 innings this season, helping them to rediscover the skills of their youth.
Based on the early evidence from this season, it would appear that John Farrell has already had a tremendous impact on the Red Sox. His familiarity with the staff as well as his vast knowledge of pitching have paid immediate dividends to the Boston hurlers, and I’m impressed by the ties that bind the performance gains of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester. The apparent emphasis on consistent timing through greater momentum paints an optimistic picture of their immediate future, and a focus on finding each pitcher's ideal pace has produced a fluid transition from first movement into foot strike, creating deliveries that are as pleasing to the eye as they are efficient.
Special thanks to Ben Lindbergh for suggesting such an interesting homework assignment.