The Red Sox will not hire another John Farrell.
Put simply, there are few, if any, people in Major League Baseball with the diversity of skills and job experiences that the former pitching coach of the Red Sox (newly minted as the manager of the Blue Jays) possesses. His resume was far-reaching: major league pitcher, college pitching coach, head of player development with additional front-office responsibilities as an assistant GM …
Those experiences — along with his leadership skills and approach to the job — made Farrell a critical member of the Red Sox organization. He was valued not just by manager Terry Francona but also by the front office, allowing Farrell to impact the organization broadly.
Perhaps the best illustration of Farrell’s significance to the Sox is Jon Lester. When the Sox were considering a trade proposal that would have sent the left-hander to Minnesota for multi-Cy Young winner Johan Santana, Farrell’s many talents helped to influence a decision that resulted in the Sox retaining a homegrown ace. To wit:
— Farrell had the evaluation skills to view Lester as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, despite the fact that the southpaw had yet to show clearly such potential as a major leaguer while enduring and then recovering from cancer.
— His commitment to detail led him to track down one of the few people in the game capable of offering insight into what could be expected from Lester going forward. Farrell contacted Scott Radinsky, one of his minor league pitching coaches in Cleveland and a pitcher whose career had been interrupted but not derailed by cancer, to gain insight into Lester’s comeback. (For more on that, click here.)
— He commanded the respect of the organization in stating in no uncertain terms that the Sox should keep Lester. That reflected his outstanding communication skills that made him a rare pitching coach who could communicate freely and effectively not just with players, but also with field staff, medical personnel and front office members.
— After the Sox retained Lester, Farrell worked closely with Lester to help the pitcher harness his considerable potential. The two worked to find the necessary pitch mix to allow Lester to attack both sides of the plate with an array of pitches. They also focused on Lester’s mental approach to the game.
While Lester deserves most of the credit for his emergence, Farrell was unquestionably a part of bringing the young All-Star to the point where he is in the game today: One of the game’s best pitchers.
That work with Lester reflected Farrell’s belief that coaching should be tailored to the individual, rather than a suggestion that a pitching coach should follow some simple template to elicit productivity from a staff.
The notion was further borne out in a number of other fashions, whether the work he did with Curt Schilling in 2007 to assist the veteran’s transition from power pitcher to a finesse guy, his collaboration with Josh Beckett to unlock a formula for success in 2007 (after a disappointing ’06 season) and perhaps most notably, in his efforts to study the Japanese language and culture in hopes of helping with the transition of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Moreover, Farrell played a pivotal role in helping the Sox to establish a holistic pitching program that accounted for mechanical, medical/physical and psychological factors. The Sox under Farrell created a culture of routine that was driven by a forward-looking interest in getting pitchers to be healthy and productive.
Did Farrell’s approach always produce obvious successes? Of course not. The Sox’ team ERA went from first in the AL in Farrell’s first year (2007) to fourth in ’08, seventh in ’09 and ninth this past season. Some pitchers witnessed disappointing results, including John Smoltz and Brad Penny in 2009, and Josh Beckett, John Lackey and a host of relievers in 2010.
But part of what made Farrell good at his job was the fact that the inability to glean results from such pitchers would weigh on him. He would engage in fairly exhaustive preparation and study in hopes of figuring out what had gone wrong. And so, even as the pitching staff struggled under the weight of injuries and underperformances, the Sox remained convinced that Farrell was not just good but great at his job.
“I would say every person he’s come into contact with, [he’s impacted],” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “He had a very calming effect and made me feel a lot more confident in what I was doing. The fact that he was there, like a pillar, for four years, I feel really lucky. I knew he woudn’t be here forever, but having him here for whatever time, I think we all felt was worth it.”
So, where does his departure leave the Sox? The team makes no secret of the fact that there is not a candidate precisely in the mold of Farrell to pursue. That being said, the team is progressing in its search for his successor.
According to a baseball source, to date, the Sox have interviewed multiple candidates from outside the organization. Of those, the most impressive has been Curt Young, who spent the last seven seasons as the pitching coach of the A’s before informing Oakland on Sunday that he would not be returning in 2011. The Sox, according to the source, interviewed Young on Monday.
Later this week, the Sox will interview two internal candidates: Mike Cather, who spent 2010 as a major league advance scout after having spent the previous four years as a minor league pitching coach in the organization, and Ralph Treuel, who has been the organization’s minor league pitching coordinator for the last four years, and who has been with the Sox since 1996.
Here is a closer look at each of the three, who represent the current known candidates:
Young has spent most of his baseball life with the A’s, having been drafted by Oakland in 1981 and spending 23 years in the Athletics organization. He pitched in the majors in parts of 11 seasons from 1983-93.
Young spent four years as a minor league pitching coach before getting promoted after the 2004 season to take over the major league pitching staff. He enjoyed an excellent track record of success with the A’s. In six of his seven seasons as Oakland’s pitching coach, Young’s staffs ranked in the top four in the American League. In 2010, A’s starters had a 3.47 ERA, the lowest by an AL team since 1990.
Just as Farrell did with the Sox, Young received high marks from Oakland pitchers for his preparation, excellent communication and ability to tailor his instruction to each member of his staff.
The business model of the A’s forces them to lean heavily on young pitchers, and Young has been described as a key component of the organization’s success in positioning young pitchers to excel at the big league level. Justin Duscherer, Dan Haren, Andrew Bailey and Trevor Cahill all developed into All-Stars under Young. Meanwhile, the A’s feature a raft of talented young pitchers – Brett Anderson, Vin Mazzaro, Gio Gonzalez – who have thrived in the last couple seasons.
Certainly, some of the credit should go to the ballpark (the Oakland Coliseum is renowned as one of the great pitcher’s parks in the sport) and to the typically anemic offenses of the AL West. Even so, Young is highly regarded throughout the game, and it would appear that his interview with the Sox did nothing to detract from that status
Cather was the pitching coach with High-A Wilmington in 2006 and then in Double-A Portland from 2007-09. In those four seasons, he worked with almost all of the top Red Sox pitching prospects to pass through the system: Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront, Justin Masterson, Michael Bowden, Junichi Tazawa and others.
Cather, who enjoyed a brief major league career in the late-‘90s with the Braves, receives raves for his ability to communicate with pitchers not just about their mechanics but also about their mental approach. Two success stories stand out as his greatest successes to date.
After the 2007 season, following a miserable professional debut that had many wondering whether he would be a complete bust of a first-round pick, Bard was sent with Cather to the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League. It was Cather who helped Bard rediscover the mechanics and mentality to put him on the path to dominance in the majors.
An excerpt from this story about Bard’s recover from near-disaster:
“The guy is 6-5, 6-6. He’s probably throwing the ball 52, 53 feet,” Cather said. “He was cutting himself off and making himself a 5-foot-8 pitcher. Keeping his head on line was probably the biggest key for him. The longer he stayed on line, the better he stayed behind the ball.”
The two tried to forge a course to rediscover the pitcher’s natural throwing motion. Cather would long-toss with Bard, forcing the pitcher to employ the simplest mechanics while winging the ball across immense distances.
Cather recalled “three-hopping” the ball back to Bard as the pitcher would nudge to ever greater distances, typically peaking around 250 feet. The mechanics came naturally. Bard would square his shoulders rather than pulling down, and the ball would take off as if guided by a zipwire.
A trust between the two had been created. Cather and Bard both were convinced that the pitcher was on the way to finding the mechanics that could once again make him successful. Suddenly, the idea that he had disappeared from the prospect landscape was forgotten.
And so, Cather encouraged Bard not just to remain satisfied with what he was doing, but to test the limits of what he could do.
“I had a discussion about the freedom of not caring. Everything is so important in this game that we sometimes let it take control over us. We can’t,” said Cather. “I wanted him to test the red line. I knew he backed off, and was 93-95, which is funny that he was 93-95 after backing off. He was aiming the ball.
“The progress had gone so well in Hawaii that it was time to challenge him. Pick your batter, two outs, nobody on, and just blow somebody up. Just go. And if you walk him, OK, you can always go back and make an adjustment.”
Bard went into a game and unleashed the ball as he hadn’t done all year. Pushed to throw with his full velocity, his arm found its natural release point in a lower arm slot.
He fired bullets, reaching 95, 96, 97 mph. He overwhelmed his opponents in that inning.
Then, during the 2008 regular season, Buchholz was demoted from the majors to Double-A in part so that he could rekindle his working relationship with Cather, who had coached him in both 2006 and ’07. The two continued working together in the Arizona Fall League, where Buchholz suggested in this story that he received a career-changing piece of advice.
Pitching mostly against players with far less professional experience, and certainly far less minor league success, Buchholz dominated out of the gate in the AFL. Cather, his pitching coach in Arizona, posed a simple question: What was at the root of the success?
“I said, ‘I know I can get these guys out. My problem is in the big leagues. I can’t get those guys out,’ ” Buchholz recalled. “He said, ‘Why don’t you think that same way?’ That’s sort of where it turned for me. … The rest is history.”
Cather spent the past year as a big league advance scout, something that both he and the organization felt was in his best interest in hopes of familiarizing himself with big league hitters and the major league setting.
Cather is highly regarded, and multiple sources believe that he will become a big league pitching coach one day. At the same time, there are questions about whether his relatively limited experience would position him to assume his first job as a big league pitching coach in 2011 in Boston.
As the Red Sox’ minor league pitching coordinator for the last four years, Treuel has overseen the pitching program in the farm system. He works with all of the organization’s young pitchers, and so it would take him little time to familiarize himself with the Sox staff.
The successes of players such as Bard and Buchholz are a reflection not just on Treuel, but also on the minor league system that he has helped to cultivate. Moreover, because the Sox have their pitchers at the minor and major league levels follow essentially the same programs, the learning curve for Treuel would be fairly flat at the major league level.
Treuel has a wealth of experience as a pitching coach. As a roving pitching instructor for the Tigers in the mid-1980s, he pegged a young John Smoltz as a future top-of-the-rotation starter.
He spent a year as a big league pitching coach with the Tigers in 1995 before coming to the Sox in 1996. Over the past 15 seasons, in addition to his recent service as the pitching coordinator, Treuel also served briefly as the Sox’ big league pitching coach (in Sept. 2001) and as a big league bullpen coach in 2006, the year that Jonathan Papelbon enjoyed his sensational burst onto the scene as a closer.
One recent prospect whose development bears Treuel’s imprint is Felix Doubront. Treuel had long been bullish on the young left-hander’s potential. Even so, earlier this year, there were questions about whether Doubront could develop the breaking ball to elevate his status from back-of-the-rotation/spot starter to a potential mid-rotation presence.
After Doubront won his big league debut in June, he was sent back to the minors. Treuel worked extensively with Doubront in Pawtucket to refine his curveball. In the span of a couple weeks’ worth of side sessions, the pair identified a grip that clicked.
Doubront returned to the majors in early July against Tampa Bay, where he unveiled the curve that he’d worked on with Treuel. Suddenly, members of the Sox organization were stunned to see that Doubront did not just have a usable curveball, but instead a potential swing-and-miss weapon that elevated his prospect status.