John Farrell stepped out of the front office and into the dugout last season, and the results were nothing less than impressive. The Indians‘ Director of Player Development from 2001-2006, Farrell took over as Boston’s pitching coach in 2007, and under his tutelage the Red Sox led the American League in several pitching categories, including ERA and BAA. Originally drafted by the Indians in 1984, Farrell spent parts of eight seasons as a big league pitcher, compiling a record of 36-46. David talked to Farrell about the art of pitching, the importance of a handshake, and why Ron Karkovice had his number.
John Farrell: In some cases, possibly, but I don’t think it is. From a pitch-execution standpoint, the ability to throw your fastball on both sides of the plate is the single most important key, particularly for a starting pitcher. What I try to ingrain in pitchers’ minds is that even though it’s the same pitch–a fastball–it’s clearly two different pitches when it’s thrown on either side of the plate with consistency. I think that even the best hitters at the major league-level can’t protect, or be looking for, a pitch on both sides; they have to either zone in on a ball on the outside half of the strike zone or a ball in on them. And the ability to throw a secondary pitch–some sort of breaking ball or a variation of a change-up–is important. It’s one of the tools to begin that inner game, that chess match. I think that, ultimately, if a pitcher can avoid being predictable he’s got the ability to effectively retire hitters with two pitches. But to me, the biggest thing is location.
DL: Early last season, Baseball Prospectus wrote about Jonathan Papelbon‘s arm-slot, and you disputed the accuracy of what was written. Can you readdress that?
JF: Some thought existed that there might be a potential injury because his arm-slot appeared to be lower, from a higher three-quarters slot to more of a three-quarters slot. But what was affecting that wasn’t lack of strength, or a pre-existing injury, it was his lead-arm that created more of a side-to-side movement, or as we term it, east-to-west rather than north and south. An adjustment was made with his lead arm that created a little more of the north-south action, which raised his arm-slot back up to his natural high three-quarters slot and allowed his fastball to regain the “life” up in the zone–the swing-and-miss that he’s been noted for throughout his career.
DL: Mechanically, what do all good pitchers do the same?
JF: There are some basic principles within a given delivery. Certainly, getting to a gathering point, or a balance point, over the rubber is the single most important aspect of a delivery. There’s also their stride direction, and ultimately their follow-through. Those are the three basic elements, or tenets, within a delivery that a pitcher has to repeat with some consistency in order to establish a consistent release-point and ultimately command the baseball.
DL: Were there any pitchers on the Red Sox staff this year whose deliveries were maybe less than ideal, but worked anyway?
JF: If you look at a pitcher’s delivery, it is customary to that given pitcher. Manny Delcarmen may do some things differently than Josh Beckett or Daisuke Matsuzaka. But the important thing from a coach’s standpoint is to work within the natural movements of the given pitcher’s body. One of the things that might get overlooked at times is the timing within the delivery. At times, pitchers can fall into a bad habit of trying to get their velocity, or their power, too early in their delivery. What that causes is a pitcher to rush, or drift past his balance-point; he gets spread out and ultimately loses leverage to the flight of the baseball. It doesn’t allow himself to gather, to get his arm up, and to deliver the ball on a downward plane.
DL: Is that consistency something that can be taught?
JF: I definitely think it can be taught. It’s a matter of relaxing the mind, and this is where the mental side of the game comes into play. I think that if you look at any given pitcher, there are three domains that filter in. You’ve got the mental side of the game, the physical side of the game–which is his individual strength and conditioning–and then the fundamental side is his executing of his delivery. If a pitcher is overaggressive, or too tense, then his body is not going to work fluidly. It is critical for a pitcher to have a routine or process that enables him to keep his emotions in check. Emotional control will allow the natural movements in his delivery to happen with more fluidity. With that, the natural timing of one’s delivery will take over.
DL: You’ve said that the biggest thing for any young pitcher is to have the ability to slow things down. Can that ability make or break a pitcher?
JF: I think that the inability to do that can limit the role of a given pitcher. In other words, when key situations in a game arise–and this could be for a late-inning reliever or for a starting pitcher who has to work his way through a lineup two or three times–there are going to be times where the game situation dictates a higher level of focus and concentration. The pitcher has to have a process in which he can maintain an “inner-peace” or re-center himself mentally, in order to allow for some relaxation so that he can execute his delivery and ultimately execute the pitch.
DL: Going back to mechanics, can you give us a scouting report on Hideki Okajima, focusing on his delivery?
JL: When you look at Hideki, there are some very traditional approaches to his delivery, yet the way he finishes, and his head-placement, is to me one of the most unique deliveries in the game of baseball. One would say that if the head isn’t stable, then the fastball command is going to be erratic. He is probably the extreme when it comes to his head-placement at the point of release and his ability to command a baseball. His fastball command would be considered above average, if not well above average, but when you look at that delivery it is not only unique, but one that you probably wouldn’t want to teach anyone. But it works for him. So there is his fastball command, and his breaking ball was sharp enough at times to put hitters away. But the biggest thing that evolved with him was his ability to throw that split-finger, which was a variation of his change-up; that became a true weapon for him.
DL: Hitting coaches have said that you can tell a lot about a hitter by simply shaking his hand, and that you can tell a lot by watching someone hit in the cage. Do those opinions apply in any way to pitchers?
JF: The handshake, I think, is a time-tested and very traditional method used by some scouts. You can get a feel for not only hand-size, but also hand and forearm strength, with a handshake. For pitchers to effectively throw breaking balls, I think they have to have hand strength to execute those pitches. Those pitchers who maybe have lacked overall hand strength in the past, they’ve gone to a put-away, or strikeout pitch, by the use of a split-finger or a forkball–a pitch where you don’t have to manipulate your hand in what would be considered a more unnatural way. It takes tremendous strength to turn your hand inward to create spin on a breaking ball at the high rate of speed that your arm is traveling. So yes, there are some analogies to the handshake and the ability of a pitcher to consistently throw a quality breaking pitch. As far as watching a pitcher in the bullpen, I think that every evaluator has a checklist that he would walk through, whether that’s for a hitter or for a pitcher. You’ll get a feel for his delivery, a feel for the timing of that delivery, how his hands separate; does he create downhill angle to leverage the ball through the bottom of the strike zone consistently? And I think that the arm slot, or the arm action, that a given pitcher demonstrates is going to give you some insights into the type of pitches he is most naturally able to throw.
DL: Evaluating players was one of your primary responsibilities in Cleveland. How much is that expertise utilized in your current role?
JF: Probably on every single pitch that’s thrown, whether it’s in a game situation or in a bullpen session. The discipline that an evaluator develops–and I think that evaluation is a discipline that can be learned–yes, there are insights I can rely on from my personal experiences when I’m watching a pitcher throw a baseball. There’s that checklist that you can develop, through repetition, conversation, and your own research, so that every time I watch a pitcher perform I’m walking it through my mind continually. From there, I’m ultimately writing notes and providing feedback.
DL: Does that go beyond the Red Sox organization to include pitchers on other teams?
JF: I think you always make mental notes of guys who really stand out across the field. And sometimes when the physical talents they demonstrate–and their performances–don’t align, or the expectation of those results aren’t there all the time, then you start to dig a little bit deeper as you’re viewing that pitcher, asking “What could possibly change?” or “What minor adjustment might be made for this pitcher to become not only average, but an above-average performer?” if that pitcher were ever to be acquired.
DL: Are you ever approached for your opinion on a pitcher who might be available via a trade?
JF: Those types of conversations do take place. That’s the nature of our business. Theo and most front office members are always looking to improve a club. When we’re talking about a given pitcher, is there something that is being missed, is there a way for this pitcher to improve? It goes back to projecting, like “What could this pitcher adjust?” or “What are your views on this pitcher remaining healthy over time?” Those are some of the more intriguing and fun conversations you’ll have. Not that you’re dreaming on a guy, but you’re breaking him down and sharing opinions on what he shows at a given time.
DL: When you joined the organization, your knowledge of the Red Sox pitching staff was that of an outsider. Did anything surprise you this season?
JF: I wouldn’t say that it was any of the individual pitchers–it was more about the role. I was coming out of a front office, and dealing with a broader perspective. It had been more of a global view, because I was dealing with six teams, 160 players, and 40 staff members. Now I was taking that view, and that scope, and narrowing it down to a more refined look at a group of 12 to 15 pitchers. The overall volume of information and hours spent didn’t change, but a different approach was required because of the role of a pitching coach here.
DL: Looking at pitcher usage, Javier Lopez was utilized primarily as a situational lefty this past season, despite the fact that he had a reverse split. What was the thought-process behind how he was used?
JF: Because he’s a left-handed side-armer, the first thought is to think that he’s going to have a better chance to attack left-handed hitters. We used him in that role probably more than we did as a multiple-outs, or multiple-innings, type of reliever, but as the season evolved it became clear that he had an ability to attack right-handed hitters because he was so good with his change-up and because of the feel he had for his slider that he threw back-door to right-handers. He became more effective against right-handers, and thus the reverse splits. Now, to me, this was kind of a one-year aberration, because when you go back in time and look at his ability to attack left-handers, this was the first year in his career that he did have the reverse splits. Going forward we’ve got to make some adjustments for him to have more consistent success against quality left-handed hitters.
JF: He was a very valuable pitcher who pitched extremely well for us. He had an ability to focus and to not allow some of the distractions that this environment can sometimes cause to adversely affect a pitcher. He was very calm and composed; he had an above-average change-up, and he had absolutely no fear of contact by a hitter. He had no fear of throwing strikes.
DL: How important is velocity?
JF: Good question. I think velocity is important, just from a timing aspect in that a hitter has to adjust, particularly if the pitcher has an ability throw secondary pitches for strikes. But more important than velocity is the deception in the delivery and the overall ability to have consistent location with your fastball. To me, if you were to prioritize those three elements, it’s location, deception and then velocity. Velocity might be the third of those three components.
DL: During your playing career you were on the same pitching staff with Doug Jones. What did you learn watching him?
JF: This goes back to how important velocity is. Doug Jones proved that velocity isn’t the most important thing. He had an ability to throw pitches softer, or slower, when a hitter’s aggressive was greater–he knew how to disrupt timing. His ability to get hitters out without velocity was a real eye-opening example, in real time, because my approach was more fastball and power-oriented. It was very revealing to watch a pitcher go about it in a very opposite way, and yet in many ways be more successful. He was a living example that a pitcher’s job is to disrupt the rhythm and timing of a hitter, and that it can be done with velocity readings that are below-average by major league standards.
DL: Ron Karkovice was a .221 lifetime hitter, yet he was 4-for-6 with three home runs against John Farrell. Why?
JF: Boy, you’re going to the dark side there! But yes, he had a lot of success against me. His strength was hitting fastballs inside, and my strength as a pitcher was fastballs on that side of the plate as well. It just so happened that there were a couple of situations where the bases were loaded, and he hit a couple of grand slams off of me on pitches that I thought were my strength, yet his strength won out.
DL: Most pitching coaches stress that a pitcher should prioritize his strengths over trying to exploit a hitter’s weaknesses. Where do you stand on that opinion?
JF: One of the defining elements of a pitcher being successful is his own personal awareness. Is he aware of what his personal strengths and limitations are? That is a developmental path that you’re continually trying to educate an individual pitcher on, by giving him objective feedback, and sometimes those conversations are hard to have. But it is critical that a pitcher knows what his strengths and limitations are. Part of a pitcher’s strengths can be to pitch to a scouting report. If a pitcher has the mental capacity to be able to process some of that information and to apply it in key situations, then yes, he is exploiting a hitter’s weakness. If that individual pitcher demonstrates that he has a difficult time retaining that information, or processing it while the game is going on, then he is better equipped to remain and pitch to his own strengths. That’s maybe a convoluted answer, but yes, we want to stay with a pitcher’s strengths. And if that pitcher can command the ball on both sides of the plate, then you have more of a chance to exploit those weaknesses.
DL: You often hear pitchers talking about how the ball comes out of their hand. What does that really mean?
JF: What takes place in a pitcher’s delivery–his ability to create some deception or some looseness or some whip to the arm that ultimately creates a tighter spin or tighter rotation–is hard to quantify. The same type of pitches, particularly a fastball, can have very different action, life, and look very different from one pitcher to the next. Deception is somewhat of an elusive component of a pitcher’s delivery. The reaction of a hitter, because of some movements in that pitcher’s delivery–this is what we mean when we’re talking about deception and having swing-and-miss ability with his fastball. What is the exact reason? I think that’s a constant chase–to identify, and scout, and bring into our system, that natural ability of a pitcher to generate a different action on the flight of a baseball.