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The Red Sox Need To Fix The Way They Fix Pitchers

Identifying players is one thing, developing them is another

Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Pitching development is sweeping the nation. Every off-season, you hear about a pitcher who went to Driveline and added velocity or a new pitch. The Rays have almost every pitcher on the roster add a changeup to find that next level. The Dodgers are big on the sweeper. Because there are so many elements to pitching (velocity, movement, arsenal, sequencing, etc), there’s always something that can be tweaked. The Red Sox, in recent years, have had some trouble unlocking that.

When the Red Sox brought in Chaim Bloom, the narrative was that the Red Sox were becoming the Rays. Bloom was brought in to go shopping in the bargain bin and keep the payroll down. There are some moves that support that story and others that contradict it. Whether or not you agree with that is a debate for another day.

Pitching is the one area in particular that the Red Sox haven’t spent real money on. They’ve primarily addressed pitching in the trade market and by signing cheap arms. Unfortunately, they haven’t had a ton of success with that M.O.

While it may seem like Bloom is scraping the bottom of the barrel, you can actually see the rationale for many of the moves if you look in the right place. As the always-astute Red Sox Stats said, while the stuff is there, unlocking it on the field hasn’t always happened. Here’s a look at a few of the pitching moves the team has made, why they might’ve worked, and what went wrong.

Nick Pivetta

We’ll start with the man who spurred the above tweet: Nick Pivetta. The team acquired Pivetta during the COVID-shortened 2020 season; he went on to throw ten innings and allow just two runs. At the time of the acquisition, the righty had a career 5.50 ERA in just under 400 innings — a fairly large resume.

Why It Made Sense

It’s important to remember they only traded two relievers for Pivetta and a prospect, he was never meant to be an ace. At the time of the transaction, Pivetta had a K-BB% of roughly 16%. While not the end-all-be-all of pitching statistics, K-BB% is typically a fairly solid predictor of future performance. 16% isn’t an astounding number by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s strong enough for a potential three or four in the rotation.

One statistic alone isn’t enough to justify a trade, but there were some other signs as well. In 2019, Pivetta threw his fastball 50% of the time with some really poor results (.348 BAA, .612 xSLG). The fastball did, however, return a 22.5% whiff rate and has some really solid vertical movement. His go-to secondary pitch was his curveball which also had some bad results, but a 31.4% whiff rate.

Why it Didn’t Work

How do you fix a pitcher whose two primary offerings get crushed, but also generate a ton of swings and misses? The logical explanation would be to switch up the pitch mix. Maybe add a cutter, a sinker, or even a get-me-over slider that can steal strikes early in counts and allow the curveball and fastball to be put-away pitches. That didn’t happen though, instead, the pitch mix over time looked like this:

From 2020 on, almost nothing has changed, and Pivetta has barely improved, if he has at all. “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got” -Henry Ford.

Hansel Robles

Hansel Robles is a little less relevant because he’s no longer with the team, but he was a key member of the 2021 bullpen after he was acquired at the deadline for minor league pitcher Alex Scherff.

Why It Made Sense

There’s plenty of evidence pointing to why it might’ve worked, mainly that for a time, it did work. He didn’t allow a single run in his final 15 regular season appearances in 2021 after a rocky start to his Red Sox tenure.

At the time of the acquisition, Robles was primarily a fastball/changeup pitcher, mixing in a slider as a third offering. The fastball could get up to 100 MPH with decent ride, and while the changeup didn’t have insane movement, the spin axis was nearly identical to the fastball, making it a perfect tunnel.

Why it Didn’t Work

Robles didn’t necessarily need fixing. He wasn’t a superstar, but he had been a successful closer in the past and handled the eighth inning for the Red Sox nicely down the stretch in 2021. For some reason, the Red Sox tried to fix him. In 2022, Robles stopped using his changeup as frequently and made his slider his secondary pitch. Neither his slider nor changeup changed dramatically in terms of movement, but for some reason, he opted to use the slider 33% of the time, up about 20% despite not having much success with the pitch. Against righties, Robles dropped his fastball and changeup usage and threw almost 50% sliders. Right-handed hitters’ OPS against Robles jumped from .701 in 2021 to .864 in 2022. Whose idea it was to throw more sliders is impossible to say, but it may have sent Robles into an earlier-than-intended retirement.

Richard Bleier

Boston Red Sox v San Diego Padres Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Bleier was acquired from the Marlins in exchange for an already-DFA’d Matt Barnes this off-season. The 36-year-old has had some success in his career, posting a 3.16 ERA in 122 innings over two and a half seasons with the Marlins. Not an elite reliever by any stretch of the imagination, but a steady lefty out of the pen.

Why It Made Sense

In 2020 and 2021, Bleier had ground ball rates over 68%. He never blew you away, but throughout his career, he’s done a great job of limiting hard contact and getting ground ball outs. His sinker in particular was pounded into the ground over and over again; the average launch angle on batted balls was -12 degrees.

Why it Hasn’t Worked

It’s hard to get to the bottom of Bleier’s struggles this season. It might be a case of father time catching up with Bleier as he’s lost a tick or two on his fastball, but that likely doesn’t explain all of his decline. Outside of the loss of velocity, Bleier is throwing his sinker less and less. He’s decreased the usage each of the past two years, from 61.6% down to 42.4%. Perhaps he just doesn’t have the feel for the pitch anymore, but he’s throwing as many strikes as ever.

The more drastic change Bleier made is to tweak his slider. He’s altered the shape, getting more horizontal movement while losing some vertical movement, making it more sweeper-ish. The new slider hasn’t been very successful; it has a 25% whiff rate. For reference, his 2022 rate was over 40%. On top of that, Bleier added a splitter, throwing it sparingly throughout the early part of the season. The splitter doesn’t mirror any of his other pitches and doesn’t have great movement, so it’s a puzzling addition. Regardless, his new pitch mix hasn’t been working, which may be another coaching failure.

There have been plenty of other additions to the pitching staff over the last few years. Some have worked, others have not. This whole piece isn’t meant to be a defense of Chaim Bloom, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff. Identifying pitchers with quality stuff is one thing, but optimizing the usage of that stuff and improving on it is equally as important. Pitcher development and coaching have been an area of weakness over the past few seasons, and need to improve to capitalize on acquisitions.

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