The key to the Boston Red Sox pitching staff turning things around next season is attacking the strike zone with quality pitches.
Pitching was an obvious weakness for the Boston Red Sox this season. Roster construction can take some of the blame while other factors were out of their control, including a starting rotation ravaged by injuries. In order to bounce back next year, it’s going to take more than new additions and better health. The pitching staff needs a change in philosophy.
The Red Sox plan on placing an emphasis on their pitchers attacking the strike zone. The idea is to pitch near the heart of the plate early in counts to get ahead rather than nibble around the edges to risk falling behind.
"“There’s no 2-0 fastball I’m trying to get over. Even an 0-0 fastball. Even a 3-0 fastball. You’ll be asking for a new ball,” said Barnes. “We’re trying to make things look like a strike and not be a strike which is incredibly hard to do.“There’s no such thing as a get-me-over-breaking ball. There’s no such thing as a get-ahead fastball. Everything you throw has to be almost 100 percent or it has to be a kill pitch. You can’t risk throwing something not lazy in the zone but a quality pitch in the zone.”"
Pitchers can’t routinely fall behind in counts because they can no longer rely on stealing a strike from batters willing to take pitches. Whether it’s juiced baseballs or the launch angle movement, hitters are swatting balls out of the park at a record pace. Pitchers need to make every throw a quality pitch or big league hitters will make them pay.
Barnes admits that this aggressive mentality is a drastically different approach from what this pitching staff used this year and it shows in the numbers.
Red Sox pitchers ranked second in the majors with a 9.99 K/9, per FanGraphs. They generated a ton of strikeouts by getting batters to chase pitches outside the zone. Their Swinging-Strike percentage of 11.6 was ninth-best in the majors.
The Red Sox developed a habit of pitching out of the zone a bit too much in pursuit of those strikeouts. Only 40.5% of their pitches were thrown in the strike zone, the sixth-lowest rate in the majors. The downside of pitching out of the zone this frequently is that hitters will learn to lay off those pitches, which explains why Red Sox pitchers had the fourth-highest walk rate at 3.70 BB/9.
No team threw more balls than the Red Sox this year. When you don’t throw strikes, you’re bound to fall behind in the count to give the hitter an advantage.
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Barnes is a perfect example. He led the majors among pitchers with 40+ innings pitched with a 15.4 K/9 this season. Unfortunately, that elite strikeout rate was offset by a career-high 5.3 BB/9 and a 1.1 HR/9 that was his highest since he was a rookie. Barnes produced a decent 3.78 ERA that was only slightly higher than the previous year but he crumbled often enough in key situations to create the perception that he significantly regressed.
The Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers each rank top-six in the majors in strikeout rate and they had the three lowest walk rates. What do those teams have in common? They are in the postseason. The Red Sox were sixth with a 3.04 K/BB ratio in 2018 when they won a franchise-record 108 games and the World Series. If they want to return to the playoff stage then they’ll need to improve their strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Avoiding free passes doesn’t mean every pitch needs to be a fastball thrown right down the middle of the plate. They still need to mix up their pitches, change the batter’s eye level and work both sides of the plate. Pitchers can try to entice batters to chase pitches outside the zone but it’s more effective as a weapon to put hitters away rather than starting with that to get ahead in the count.
Boston’s pitching staff is loaded with talent arms capable of generating swings-and-misses inside the strike zone. They need to trust their stuff by attacking the zone and expanding toward the edges once they get ahead rather than nibbling the corners hoping for the call to go their way early in counts. Red Sox pitchers didn’t perform to their capabilities this year but a change in approach could go a long way toward getting back on track.