Everybody knows the Red Sox pitching has been awful this season. After all, the team has a collective 5.05 ERA, second only to the altitude-challenged Rockies for worst in the Majors. Such a lack of execution is very concerning. But, on a more nuanced level, the Red Sox also seem to be struggling with game-planning and strategic approach. Essentially, they just need to be more economical all around.
In many respects, Joe Kelly is the poster child for the Red Sox’ pitching inefficiency. His most recent outing, against the Blue Jays in Toronto, was a microcosm of what has, thus far, been a very disappointing season. Erratic and frustrated, Kelly walked 7 batters and required 113 pitches to get through 5.2 innings. Similarly, against the Yankees five days earlier, he threw 97 pitches in a shortened, 4.2 inning effort.
Such inefficiency is highly unsustainable. When a starter requires 18 pitches, on average, to complete an inning, he isn’t going to stay around for long. Accordingly, the bullpen is forced to work more, which, in turn, presents its own problems of fatigue down the stretch.
Unfortunately, Joe is still a thrower, rather than a pitcher. Yes, he’s finally using his secondary stuff more this season, but, oftentimes, it’s more out of courtesy. At this point, Major League hitters are still content to let his breaking ball pass and, instead, sit on the fastball. As we know, even at 97 or 98 mph, hitters at this level will eventually time any heater if it’s not complimented by an adequate change of pace. Kelly has discovered that the hard way this year.
However, his results at least seem partly skewed by poor game-planning on the part of Red Sox coaches. In a general sense, Boston pitchers seem to lack a clear understanding as to the approach they’re supposed to be taking in games. We’ve seen starters shaking off their battery mate with more regularity this season, and also frequently getting crossed-up. Similarly, alarm bells rang when, during his 7-walk meltdown in Canada, Kelly lost at least two hitters on wild, 3-2 breaking balls. Obviously, a pitcher must vary his patterns, but you would expect Kelly to go with his best pitch in those situations. The fact that he didn’t perhaps illustrates some of the confusion and lack of guidance emanating from the Red Sox camp.
Of course, pitching coach Juan Nieves was fired amid such suggestions last week. Now, Carl Willis, his replacement, will be tasked with giving the Red Sox pitchers a more coherent frame of reference, and a clearer underlining strategy, when they take to the hill.
A major part of that will also be the continued development of catcher Blake Swihart into a competent pitch-caller and framer. The statistics may not suggest so, but watching Blake regularly, I believe he’s yet to adapt defensively. He’s struggled to get the borderline calls in favor of his pitcher and, as I mentioned earlier, has been crossed-up on more than one occasion. Of course, the guy is only 23 and barely a week into his Major League career. But, if the Sox want to solve their pitching conundrum, Swihart is going to have to learn fast.
Eventually, something has got to give. Either the Red Sox need to simply acquire more efficient pitchers with better command, or they need to put greater emphasis on the improvement of game-planning. Preferably, they would do both. But, whatever they choose, they must do so fast, before time runs out.