The spring is a time for hope. The games don't count, poor performances can be waived away as not mattering, and productive ones can be clung to as proof of a player's progress. We're just days in to there being spring training games, but already the internet is overflowing with Red Sox articles about positive changes for players who want to keep the struggles of the past in the past.
Felix Doubront is one such player. He showed up to spring training in 2011 out of shape, and quickly developed a sore elbow. He dealt with forearm inflammation, a groin strain, and a thigh strain last year, all of which kept him from starting for the Red Sox when they needed him. This year, though, things have been different from the start. Doubront and new pitching coach Bob McClure have discussed a way to keep him healthier, and possibly more productive, simply by changing how he lands with his foot while pitching.
"They're getting to release the ball, then the toe comes down, but they kind of get underneath the ball and it puts a lot of stress on your elbow and shoulder. So I'm trying to get [Doubront] to be more accurate and healthier if he can just land flat."
Doubront has had plenty of little injuries in his career -- the aforementioned 2011 problems, a lower leg strain in 2009, a strained pectoral in 2010 -- so it's not hard to imagine a light bulb when off in his head when McClure mentioned the health benefits of landing flat instead of on his heel.
Doubront has had his development slowed by these injuries, but there is upside here still. He has the stuff to miss bats when his command shows up to play, but the problem is that he doesn't always have that command. He's left-handed, though, and sometimes it takes awhile for that to sort itself out for southpaws. McClure thinks landing on his toes will make him more accurate as well as healthier, so maybe this is the boost Doubront needs to lock up the fifth-starter spot. After all, he's out of options, and until he had health issues, was considered the first line of defense for the rotation in 2011.
If not the rotation, there will be room for him in the bullpen if he stays healthy and throws well with his slightly-tweaked mechanics. It's early yet, but 15 of his 20 pitches went for strikes this weekend, so keep an eye on his accuracy if you're wondering what his chances to win a job are.
Daisuke Matsuzaka isn't fighting for a job yet. But he is working hard to come back from Tommy John surgery, and expects to return in June according to Nick Cafardo. Given he underwent surgery on June 10, 2011, that's an impressive pace.
Dice-K is already using his secondary pitches in bullpen sessions, though, so, barring a setback, it looks like he is coming along fast in his recovery. Matsuzaka wouldn't necessarily be with the Red Sox in June, as he would need time against live hitters in the minors, but it would be good for the Red Sox to know before the July 31 trade deadline whether or not Matsuzaka is capable of contributing to this year's team.
He's driven us all crazy before, but he's also been an average starter multiple times in his career. That's not a bad thing to have just lying around on the 40-man. A possible relief role hasn't been mentioned, most likely due to Dice-K's lengthy warm-up sessions, but one wonders if the Red Sox can condition him for that now that he's undergone surgery and is working back. There are reasons to believe he would be an effective reliever, at least statistically, should the Red Sox not be in the market for a starter when he returns.
Felix Doubront wasn't the only lefty with no options remaining to pitch this weekend. Andrew Miller also got a shot, tossing two no-hit innings with three punch outs, and, most importantly, just one walk. Miller was inconsistent with the Red Sox last summer, occasionally looking difficult to hit thanks to his excellent stuff, but more often than not looking like he had no concept of what the strike zone was or why he would want to be near it with his pitches. For this reason, it's going to be tough to get excited about Miller until he has consistently shown he deserves that emotional response.
McClure, like he did with Doubront, has talked to Miller about changing one small thing in his mechanics. Miller is used to this sort of thing, given he has had pitching coach after pitching coach work with him between his stints in the minors, majors, and with different teams since coming up. But McClure isn't trying to change what he does with his throwing motion -- he just wants him to stop throwing across his body:
"It's very hard to repeat," McClure said of Miller's mechanics. "I've seen a lot of starters in my life. If you're [throwing] two feet across your body, I've never seen anybody pitch for very long as a starter."
McClure and Miller are focusing on getting that left foot better aligned with the mound, so that the pitcher can repeat that delivery and spot his pitches on a more consistent basis.
Miller is attempting to stop that, and has looked good in his limited time this spring while doing so. It's the first week of March, though, so let's not guarantee that contract of his just yet. Let's remember the 26 strikeouts against three walks over 25-1/3 innings at Pawtucket last summer, before he was called up to the majors, a stretch attributed to new pre-game preparation.
There's always something to fix with Miller, because there has always been something wrong -- the whispers have always been that it's been an unwillingness of Miller's to stick with an aggressive approach mixed with the confusion of having a half-dozen pitching coaches telling him what to change about himself. McClure seems to not-so-subtly hint as much: "...in order to do it and be consistent, there's just one little thing he needs to do. I'm just hoping as we go that he realizes how important that is."
McClure could be the one who figured out the final piece of the puzzle that lets Miller finally reach the potential a 6-foot-7 left-hander with plus velocity has, but it will take more than a couple of innings for us to know for sure. Like Doubront again, though, there's just so much here that would be positive if it only breaks right, so there's nothing but upside in trying to fix him this spring.