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John Farrell impacting the Red Sox rotation

Coming into this season, there were some heavy expectations for John Farrell and Juan Nieves to improve a rotation in shambles. A month into 2013, are there any concrete examples of this?


Join me on a trip to the not-too-distant past, all the way back to December 2, 2011. On this day in Boston, the now-infamous Bobby Valentine was introduced as the new manager of the Red Sox. He was taking over a team which was coming off a historic collapse that was clouded by controversy, and was given the task of changing the culture of the clubhouse. When the announcement was made, the fan-reaction was mixed. There were some who were happy with the change of pace, while a large numbers of others felt Bobby V's personality wouldn't mix well with this club. In the end, we all know how that move ended up.

Fast-forwarding to this season, Valentine's replacement was met with much less chagrin. John Farrell was a familiar face, and one who had already been a part of success in this city. Furthermore, he's had that success with many pitchers already on the roster, and that group just so happened to be the one who needed the biggest improvement from 2012. So, when it was announced Farrell would be coming to town, people were happy, and heaped a mound of expectations on him to make this pitching staff look like the core that it used to be. In addition to Farrell, the coaching staff now also boasts Juan Nieves, who has received virtually only positive reception since coming on as the pitching coach. A month into the season, the Red Sox have had some of the best pitching numbers in all of baseball.

As I was perusing the internet the other day, I came across this article from Jeff Sullivan, in which he focused solely on the improvements made by Ryan Dempster this season, specifically regarding his uptick in strikeouts. In it, Sullivan mentioned that many pitchers on the Red Sox have seen a shift in their horizontal release point, but didn't delve into more specifics. It sparked my curiosity, so I thought I'd look into the trend a bit more.

This type of change was something that showed up very early in the season, and proved to include pitchers beyond just the major-league roster. In spring training, Allen Webster was shifted to the middle of the rubber in a move that was explained by Juan Nieves in this Alex Speier article:

"A lot of two-seamer guys, they're either in the middle of the rubber, or on the first base side of the rubber. Webby was way on the right side, so you see him chasing right-handers a lot because he's so far away. So when you move him over it gives him an easier plane to throw his sinker," said Nieves. "Instead of sitting on the third-base side trying to throw a sinker, you place him in the middle and the sinker plays a little more on top of the plate and you can run balls into righties. He can sink it away from a lefty. He can actually front-door a lefty or back-door a righty at a different angle."

Getting better production from the rotation was clearly a priority for the 2013 season, and it seems like adjusting pitchers' position on the rubber has been a possible solution. Starting with Dempster, he has shifted more towards the middle of the rubber this year, as Sullivan pointed out.

On the chart above, which tracks the horizontal release points year-by-year for Dempster, 0 represents the middle of the rubber, while the positive numbers are towards first base, while negatives are towards third. As you can see, Dempster's shift has been a stark change over the past two seasons.

This chart shows the release points for Clay Buchholz, the pitcher who has been inarguably the best on the staff in the first month of the season. Now, it seems as if this trend started later in the year last season, but Nieves and Farrell clearly supported the move, as it's stayed constant to start this year.

Interestingly enough, another improved arm, Jon Lester, was the only starter who didn't have a noticeable change in his release point. Of course, it's impossible to know this without being around the team on a consistent basis, but it's possible that Lester was too comfortable in his delivery to make the change, and the coaching staff agreed to keep him on his normal space on the rubber to start his delivery.

Looking now at the final two-thirds of the rotation, Felix Doubront has seen a pretty drastic change in his horizontal release point. During much of 2012, his release point was far in the direction of first base, but he has recently centered himself much more. In John Lackey's case, the difference isn't quite so clear. This season, his release point has been all over to place, and it's tough to tell exactly where he wants to be. Judging by the trends shown by the rest of the staff, one could assume he'd like to see his delivery start more closely to the middle of the rubber.

By all accounts, Farrell and Nieves are both wonderful minds in the world of pitching, and it has shown thus far this year. The Red Sox starting pitchers find themselves amongst the best rotations in the game, and some of the credit has to go to the new coaches. It is worth pointing out the rotation's improvement in Zone-percentage, whiff-rate and K-rate over last season, all of which support Nieves' quote above. Perhaps I'm reading too much into the release point charts, but the trend seems real enough to support the narrative regarding Farrell and Nieves coming into this season, and that says nothing of the other minor changes made to individual pitcher's mechanics.

The overwhelming majority of the people held high expectations for the new coaching staff and hoped for improved pitching. The results leave no doubts that the pitching has been better so far, and the extra data available to us shows that the coaching staff could be a big reason for that.

*All release point charts are courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

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