FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The bullpen sessions that are a staple of spring training can seem monotonous. But for John Farrell, they represent an opportunity.
The Red Sox pitching coach, now in his fourth season overseeing the Boston staff, can use this time to work with his pitchers to develop approaches meant to help address any areas in which they might have struggled last year or over a longer period of time. For all pitchers in spring training, Farrell said, the chief goal is a basic one: Prepare for the season. Nothing is more important than the simple act of spring repetitions to build arm strength, regain touch and feel of pitches and thus be in a position to execute when the curtain actually lifts on the regular season.
But a pitching coach is by nature a teacher who is always trying to find ways for his pupils to improve. And so, with each pitcher this spring, Farrell has areas of emphasis that he's hoping his staff members can refine as part of an effort to become even more successful.
Here is a pitcher-by-pitcher primer to what Farrell hopes to see from several members of the Red Sox pitching staff:
Josh Beckett (17-6, 3.86)
Key numbers: Went 2-2 with a 7.22 ERA in April, 12-2 with a 2.17 ERA from May 1 thru Aug. 12, 3-2 with a 6.02 ERA from Aug. 13 thru Oct. 3
Farrell said that one simple element proved pivotal in determining the difference between Beckett's struggles at the beginning and end of the season and his dominant stretch during the middle of the year. That key thus represents the key area of emphasis for Beckett in spring training.
"The one thing we want to do is hammer home maintaining leverage of his fastball down in the zone. And I know that can be very simple, but with him, because of how fluid his delivery is and how he gets his whole body into it, he has a tendency to elevate fastballs that don’t have that same downhill plane," said Farrell. "When he’s commanding the bottom of the strike zone, his curveball is coming out of the same slot, it’s not recognized by the hitter, his changeup has the appropriate action. His [goal] is very simple: maintain a downhill angle. Yeah, there are some mechanical things that will affect that, but that’s the main thing."
Jon Lester (15-8, 3.41)
Key numbers: Fell behind to a 1-0 count more often (385 times) than he went to 0-1 count (371).
Opposing hitters after 1-0 count: .269/.359/.415/.774
Opposing hitters after 0-1 count: .206/.243/.297/.540
Farrell said that Lester is simply working on refinement, with the following goals:
"Increasing first pitch strike percentage. Increase the use and effectiveness of his changeup and fastball to his arm side."
The changeup would help Lester with right-handers (.237/.299/.350/.649), though he actually proved more vulnerable against left-handed hitters (.257/.306/.411/.717) in 2009. That explains the interest in using the fastball in with greater comfort to left-handers.
Jon Lackey (11-8, 3.83)
For Lackey and the other newcomers to the Red Sox pitching staff, the most important thing is familiarization. Farrell wants to get an understanding of how his new pitchers so that he can find out how best to help them on the execution of their pitches going forward. And so, Farrell's priority during the spring with Lackey will be to gather information that can be useful come the regular season.
"What we do know so far is that he’s very competitive with a straightforward approach to pitching. Loves to compete," said Farrell. "But [the goal] is more getting to see him in game action and then get the feedback from him about what he’s feeling to be that other set of eyes."
Daisuke Matsuzaka (4-6, 5.76) and Tim Wakefield (11-5, 4.58)
Key numbers: Matsuzaka and Wakefield were available to make a combined 33 starts in 2009, after making 59 in 2008
Injuries and poor conditioning prevented Matsuzaka from being effective until last September. Wakefield, meanwhile, had an All-Star first half before a bulging disc kept him sidelined for most of the second half. As such, leaving Fort Myers in good health is the clear priority.
"[Health] is the first and more important [goal]," said Farrell. "With both, it’s re-establishing their strengths as pitchers. We know what those are, but health certainly allows that to play out."
Farrell did not that Matsuzaka's return to the mound in September was highly encouraging. The 29-year-old was 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA, and perhaps more importantly, he seemed willing to attack with his fastball rather than nibbling with that and other pitches.
"The four or five starts he made," said Farrell, "there was a little bit more of a willingness to attack the strike zone, which was an indication, I believe, of him feeling better physically [and saying], 'Okay, I’ve got a weapon in my fastball that I can use to attack and set up all my other stuff.'"
Clay Buchholz (7-4, 4.21)
Farrell said that there was "nothing real specific" that Buchholz is looking to accomplish this spring. Interestingly, however, last spring's key project -- the incorporation of the two-seam fastball -- was so successful that the team wants to make sure that Buchholz does not stray too far from the use of the pitch that the sinker was meant to complement.
"We want to be sure that, while his two-seam fastball has become such a weapon, to use a four-seamer enough to gain arm strength and know that the two-seamer is going to work right off of that," said Farrell. "And then, [the second goal is to] continue to gain comfort in his own game awareness. That’s game experience, getting yourself into jams and getting out of [them]."
Jonathan Papelbon (1-1, 1.85, 38 saves)
Yes, as Jonathan Papelbon suggested, there is a need to find the feel for his split-finger fastball again. Yet Farrell made clear that the issue is not simply one of finding the feel for the pitch. Rather, he would like to see Papelbon drop the split for a strike, rather than simply using it as a chase pitch to put away opposing hitters.
"The book on him is pretty clear. Go get that fastball," said Farrell. "[The spring project is] being able to throw the split for a higher strike percentage to force the opposition to respect it, rather than seeing some different spin out of his hand and spit on it, knowing it’s not a fastball. Every report says all the other stuff is not a strike. It’s incorporating a little more of a pitch mix. I’m not saying we’ll go from ‘X’ percentage of a split to 10 times that, but the ones we do throw, we’ll throw it for strikes more often rather than a swing-and-miss one where you bury it."
Hideki Okajima (6-0, 3.39)
Key numbers: Right-handers hit .309/.386/.520/.906 against Okajima, while lefties had a line of .167/.217/.250/.467
In 2007, Okajima's numbers against right-handers were even better than those against lefties thanks to the devastating changeup that he featured. In 2008 and 2009, he's been vulnerable to right-handers, to the point where the lineup (rather than the stage of the game) is increasingly dictating the point at which he is used. Thus, though Farrell did not want to go into specifics, he made clear that the left-hander's goal is to become more of an equal-opportunity producer of outs.
Okajima's goal is thus "a little more strategy, a little more thought to attacking righties," said Farrell. "The last three years, he’s been such a dominant pitcher against lefties. In each of the past two years, we’ve seen right-handers handle him a little better, so there’s a need to attack right-handed hitters better. How we do that has yet to be determined."
Daniel Bard (2-2, 3.65)
Key numbers: Right-handers hit .200/.265/.280/.545 against Bard, while lefties hit .263/.379/.488/.866 against him
Bard's fastball and slider were both tremendous weapons against right-handers, but left-handers hit him hard. Accordingly, the team would like to see Bard develop his changeup as a means of neutralizing left-handers.
"Incorporate his changeup a little bit more, continue to refine his delivery," Farrell said. "I still see him, as dominant as he can be, as still a work in progress."
Manny Delcarmen (5-2, 4.73)
Key numbers: From 8/19/08 thru 7/28/09, Delcarmen's 1.49 ERA was lowest in the majors. From 7/28/09 thru the end of last year, his 8.59 mark was worst in the majors.
When Manny Delcarmen is effective, he is as valuable as set-up pitcher in the Red Sox bullpen. He gives the team an option to shut down left-handed hitters and to go multiple innings. In a sense, he is like duct tape in the middle innings,
"He, to me, is the biggest key of the camp," said Farrell. "Here’s someone who, for two and a half years, was probably one of the top five middle relievers in baseball. We’ve got to get back to that power base that allows that stuff to play to its potential.
"He’s a versatile pitcher and a very good one. He allows the back end to fall in line without being overused, or having to be brought in to finish out the seventh inning, and then say, ‘OK, how are we going to get through the eighth and the ninth,’" Farrell explained. "He lengthens out our bullpen. He has the ability to attack right-handers and left-handers equally because of the very good changeup. His ability to throw in. His strength is the glove side of the plate, so he’s got that ability to attack lefties. Depending on the makeup of our bullpen, he’s somewhat our second left-hander. He’s got the ability to finish out an inning and pitch the next. He can go multiple innings, he can strike a guy out and shut the inning down.
"[The focus is on getting] him back to a strong power base in his delivery. Use the fastball to his arm side of the plate a little more in to righties."
Ramon Ramirez (7-4, 2.84)
Key numbers: .220/.308/.315/.623 against right-handers, .244/.342/.452/.794 against lefties
There are, of course, two Ramon Ramirezes in Red Sox camp. Ramon S. Ramirez was with the team in 2009, and proved an impressive power option at times. Ramon A. Ramirez is a newcomer who has great minor-league numbers against righties. Farrell distinguished between the two by uniform number.
Farrell discussed "56" -- holdover Ramon S. Ramirez -- who proved an effective option in the early season against lefties, but eventually became vulnerable to them.
"When his changeup is down where it’s got to be, many times left-handed hitters are good low-ball hitters. So it’s refining his approach against lefties and getting ahead of them a little bit more consistently," said Farrell.
Farrell suggested that Ramirez will work on attacking left-handed hitters, and a need to throw more first-pitch strikes (after on 0-1 count, opponents hit .183 with a .550 OPS against him; after a 1-0 count, opponents hit .264 with an .824 OPS).