Why the Red Sox seem to be throwing few fastballs early in the season

Through one turn in the rotation in Seattle and Oakland, Boston Red Sox starters have been excellent. They’ve struck out 37 batters and issued just one walk.

Nick Pivetta and Kutter Crawford pitched consecutive six-inning starts, a feat the Red Sox didn’t accomplish last season from a pair of starters until May 2-3.

They also used far fewer fastballs than usual.

On Monday, over six scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts against the Oakland Athletics, Tanner Houck didn’t throw one four-seamer in a 9-0 win.

Part of it in the first series against the Mariners was a game plan that focused on throwing more off-speed pitches to a team that ranked fifth in baseball last season in slugging percentage against four-seamers and two-seamers.

But another part of it is an overall philosophy: Pitch diversity matters.

Red Sox pitching coach Andrew Bailey identified early on in his tenure with the Red Sox that his new pitching group might be relying too heavily on fastball usage when many of his pitchers had valuable weapons they weren’t deploying as often or in the right spots. He identified that as one way to get more out of his existing group.

“The history of baseball suggests that fastballs in general have the most damage attached to them,” Bailey said. “So, looking at some fastball rates from last year, there’s some low-hanging fruit there and leveraging our weapons that generate weak contact and swing-and-miss more often.”

Red Sox starters like Pivetta and Crawford have elite fastballs while Houck relies heavily on his two-seamer. Velocity is king in the league these days, but as clubs are searching for the elusive edge, adapting a more complex game plan is key. It’s not so much about ditching four-seamers and two-seamers altogether, but deploying them more judiciously.

“When you look at damage on fastballs around the league in general, of course, we have certain guys on our team that can leverage their fastball a little bit more,” Bailey said. “But it’s really just leveraging your strengths and knowing your identity as a pitcher and what makes you an outlier relative to the rest of the population of pitchers, particularly right-handed pitchers that can throw multiple pitches.”

In that vein, on Sunday, Garrett Whitlock’s game plan called for a heavy dose of sweepers, changeups and sliders against the Mariners. But by that point in the weekend, Seattle had seen so much off-speed stuff from Red Sox starters, that they were hunting those types of pitches. Whitlock and catcher Reese McGuire recognized the Mariners’ approach and shifted to Whitlock’s sinker.

“Every pitch we make in a game is a bet,” Bailey said over the weekend. “You’re trying to drive a positive outcome. Off-speed pitches generally reduce damage and generate more swing and miss. So every pitch we throw is a business decision. Every pitch we throw is a bet that we’re betting on decreasing damage and reducing contact. So most times, you want to leverage your best off-speed weapons, understanding that you know there is room to use your fastballs when needed.”

Game plans will change by opponent, of course, and even batter to batter within games. The Athletics ranked 29th in the league last year in slugging against four-seamers and two-seamers. With that in mind, outside of Houck, there may be more of those pitches mixed into the game plans compared to the Mariners series.

These are all things that were studied and implemented in previous years, but pitchers this season — at least in the early going of spring training and at the start of the regular season — seem to have a greater understanding and ownership of their plans. Throughout the spring, several pitchers complimented the structure of Bailey’s Run Prevention Unit with the amount of information given to them. It was a digestible plan and easy to follow. Most importantly it allows them to remember the info once they’re in game action where the pitch clock is counting down and there might be pressure from runners on base.

“It gives you a little bit more of a concrete plan,” Pivetta said this spring. “(Bailey) gives you the right amount of information and it’s very structured about how they give it to you so that you’re not getting bogged down by everything because that can get overwhelming as a player.”

In the first series of the season, the Red Sox threw the fewest four-seamers of any team in the league. It was a noticeable enough strategy to keep an eye on when considering how the team is pitching differently this season overall.

Before arriving in Boston, Bailey served as pitching coach in San Francisco from 2020-23 and his Giants teams often had low fastball usage. Last year, the Giants threw the fewest four-seamers and two-seamers in the league, accounting for 42.6 percent of their pitch mix. Meanwhile, the Red Sox ranked 17th throwing four-seamers and two-seamers 47.7 percent of the time.

Red Sox starter Nick Pivetta threw more sweepers (28) than four-seamers (24) while holding the Mariners to one run on three hits and no walks in six innings on Friday in Seattle. (Stephen Brashear / USA Today)

In a league where hitters are often sitting on fastballs, it makes sense to offer something different. It’s why when Bailey arrived in Boston he noted he wouldn’t be making wholesale changes, but trying to look at things differently. In Bailey’s mind, limiting fastball usage, or relying less on it in general, makes the pitch that much more effective when thrown in the right sequence.

“We speak a lot about the fastball in general being a jab and equating that to boxing,” he said. “If you’re going 12 rounds or eight rounds, you’re not going to win by throwing jabs the whole time. The damage is done by throwing your haymakers in your best sequences. Jabs need to be located supremely to do any damage. So when you look at that through a baseball lens, it’s knowing where and when to use your fastballs and leveraging your best off-speed weapons to do the most damage against the hitter.

“I think the history of baseball suggests that when you’re in disadvantaged counts, your best strike pitch is a fastball from an ability standpoint and I don’t think that’s true,” he added. “I think pitchers are able to leverage off-speed weapons, if not similarly or slightly above, with some certain pitch types and depending on feel and all that, that can be a learned skill. So as long as strike-throwing is in line and our process stats are in line, our ability to leverage our best pitches in and around the zone is vital to the success of our pitching staff.”

While the outcome in the first series was a split of the four games, it was through no fault of the starting group, which posted a 1.64 ERA over 22 innings, each starter throwing at least five innings. Houck continued the dominance in Oakland, albeit against a struggling team compared to the Mariners.

Overly inflating the importance of one series is never wise. But early in the season, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture and considering how a group of starters that had several question marks all offseason, at the very least have looked strong.

Bailey, understandably, wasn’t ready to read too much into the first turn through the rotation, but he was encouraged by the processes his starters have put in place.

“I’m really proud of the way that the guys are attacking the zone and being aggressive,” he said. “Moving past the usage thing, I think our guys, in terms of our conversations, they know what they need to do and I just like seeing them have success in big moments. So, sure, the early signs are great. We want to stay steadfast and accountable. At some point in time, there will be for each individual, there’ll be times of (struggle) like, ‘OK, we’re going to need to trust the process.’”

So far the process seems to be putting the Red Sox in a better position.

(Top photo of Garrett Whitlock: Steven Bisig / USA Today)

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