Red Sox

Drellich: Fister on path to revival with Red Sox

Drellich: Fister on path to revival with Red Sox

BOSTON — When Rick Porcello was in Detroit, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander were not the pitchers he modeled himself after. They throw too hard to mimic.

Doug Fister, the veteran righty whose career is on a path to revival with the Red Sox, was easy to bounce ideas off.

“We’re both sinker ballers,” Porcello said. “I felt like at that time, I was kind of plateauing as far as what I was able to do on the mound. I could get a ground ball. There were other parts of my game that were missing. I was having a lot of trouble generating strikeouts. We all know how important that is, especially with runners on base. Just overall kind of identity on how I was going to form a game plan and attack hitters. 

“It wasn’t necessarily a lack of weapons, it was just, it wasn’t really setting things up properly, and all that sort of stuff. And he came over [to Detroit], and just watching him for the couple of years that he was there, and the amount of success that he had — not to mention that he’s a great dude and works hard and he’s an easy guy to like and admire in that regard. … He seemed to always have a good feel for pitching to contact at the right times, and then trying to generate the swing and miss at the right time.”

The pupil's grown up. Fister speaks fondly of what Porcello’s been able to accomplish since they were last teammates.

“He’s really come into himself, and obviously that showed last year,” Fister said. “I’m proud of him for doing what he did. He’s continually battling this year, and making the adjustments that need to be made. And he’s definitely progressed in knowing what he does, and doing it well.”

To begin this year, their positions in the game were almost reversed. Porcello had great success and was the reigning American League Cy Young winner. Fister, meanwhile, was trying to find his way. Porcello then struggled early on. But, up until his last start — which was so bad, he joked that Mitch Moreland should have been the starting pitcher — Porcello had a 3.47 ERA in a nine-start span dating to the start of July.

Porcello said when the Sox signed Fister, there was no doubt in his mind Fister still had the ability to throw a one-hitter, as he did in Cleveland last week.

But there was reason to be skeptical. Fister, now 34, had a 4.48 ERA from 2015-16. He had a 3.11 ERA from 2011-14, all but the last of those years in Detroit.

“Watching his bullpens and even the games that he’s pitched earlier this year, his stuff is there, everything’s there,” Porcello said.

Fister has been gaining strength as the year goes. He has a 3.41 ERA in his last five starts with 30 strikeouts and 10 walks in 34 1/3 innings. He’s been more reliable of late than Eduardo Rodriguez.

Even though Fister wasn’t good enough for the Angels earlier this year, he said he did not worry his career could be over.

“It’s not a worry,” Fister said in between his most recent starts. “I’m very — I don’t want to say content, but if my career stopped right now at this point, today, you know I can hang my hat on knowing I've done everything I could to have a successful career.

“Maybe there’s some people out there that wanted to, needed to see it or I needed to prove it to somebody. But, I have always felt that I still had what it takes to be a starter and I still feel that. You know, I’ll feel that ’til the day I hang up my cleats. Even if I’m in the bullpen. Either way, it’s fine. I’ve got have it in my heart that I know I can go out and get a big league hitter out at any point.”

He’s also got to have the ability on the mound, too. And to that end, Red Sox assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister has seen defined change.

“It’s been amazing how much he’s accomplished since he got here,” Bannister said. “He got off to a late start with the Angels, didn’t get a full spring training like everybody else. So he was already kind of behind the 8-ball, and then when we acquired him, his sinker wasn’t — the depth on it wasn’t at the point it was in years past. The curveball wasn’t up to par for him. And so, he was trying to pitch a little more straight on, a little less like a traditional sinker baller like a Mike Leake or a Trevor Cahill. 

“He likes to step across his body. He was always known for getting really big extension, but he’s also dealt with some physical issues in past years. So I think the strategy was to shift him over on the rubber. He’s now pitching from the first base side to alleviate some of that torque and angle [which] can affect him physically, but then, also get the sinker back.”

The idea to move on the rubber came from bullpen coach Dana LeVangie. As Bannister put it, sinker ballers can be “cross-striders.” And they risk lower back and hip problems because it’s not as natural to throw across one’s body.

LeVangie wasn’t focusing on health as much as he was thinking, from a catcher’s perspective, how Fister could regain movement. The benefits happened to go hand in hand. 

“He was having trouble trying to get the ball down,” LeVangie said. “So I said I thought about moving over, and guys typically who throw sinkers at some point make an adjustment to move over on the rubber. Making it easier to command the ball glove side of their body, and throw the ball down hill.”

The Red Sox were in Tampa Bay when LeVangie made the suggestion.

“I started thinking about Derek Lowe, adjustments he made, and I just felt like maybe the time was right,” LeVangie said. “He went out threw a bullpen that day. He was really happy.”

Bannister noted that the fielding independent pitching statistics show that Fister’s low ERA wasn’t a fluke. He also noted that he’s knocked two inches off the rise on his sinker — movement that looks like the 2011 version.

Whether it keeps up is to be seen, but there's reason to think Doug Fister could look a little more like the Doug Fister who taught Rick Porcello so much in Detroit.

“Working on the sinker depth, working on getting the curve ball spin right and then you know kind of just reacting to how the league is this year,” Bannister said. “It’s been harder on sinker ballers in general, just because guys are going all or nothing with their approach. So he has been working on different strategies to kind of evolve himself in how he mixes and how he attacks the zone, and now kind of the final thing is working on getting some depth on the changeup like he had in years past. 

“It’s been impressive to watch him work, to watch him try and pitch competitively while also making all these adjustments, because he went in a very different direction last year in Houston. And unwinding that, while also trying to get back to some of his strengths — while also trying to add something new — it’s been fun to watch him, and it’s really good to see him have success. Because he’s a pitcher who was extremely successful at one point, who is still very talented, has an athleticism and a range of motion you don’t usually see in a 6-foot-8 guy. And so there’s a lot of talent there, a lot of things to work with, and he’s put in the time.”

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Red Sox lose to Blue Jays in 10th on walk-off homer, 4-3

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Red Sox lose to Blue Jays in 10th on walk-off homer, 4-3

TORONTO - Curtis Granderson hit a walk-off homer in the 10th inning to give the Toronto Blue Jays a 4-3 win over Boston on Tuesday night and hand the Red Sox their season-worst third straight defeat.

Boston (17-5) still owns the best record in the majors.

Granderson's third home run of the season came off Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel (0-1), a towering solo blast off the facing of the third deck in right field. He went 3 for 5 with three RBIs.

Tyler Clippard (3-0) worked a scoreless 10th for the win.

Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was handed a 3-1 lead in the ninth but allowed the Red Sox to tie it, his first blown save in seven chances.

Hanley Ramirez singled to begin the ninth, went to third on a one-out hit by Rafael Devers and scored on Eduardo Nunez's single to right. It was the first run off Osuna this season.

Jackie Bradley Jr. struck out and Nunez stole second before Christian Vazquez walked to load the bases for Brock Holt, who scored Devers with an RBI single to left. Left fielder Granderson threw out Nunez at the plate to prevent Boston from taking the lead.

Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ struck out a season-high 10 over seven innings. Happ walked none and allowed four hits and one run in his longest outing of the season.

Boston's Rick Porcello allowed three runs and three hits in seven innings. Porcello walked three, two more than he'd walked in his previous four starts combined, and struck out a season-high nine, including five straight in the third and fourth.

Porcello extended his scoreless innings streak to 14 by pitching around a one-out walk in the first but couldn't escape the second. The Blue Jays put runners at the corners with none out before Kevin Pillar opened the scoring with a fielder's choice grounder, with Steve Pearce coming home ahead of the throw by third baseman Devers.

Three batters later, Granderson hit a two-run single that bounced off Devers' glove and rolled into shallow left field.

Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and is 0 for 11 with eight strikeouts over his past three games.

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Dana LeVangie's Red Sox pitchers dominating with individualized approach

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AP Photo

Dana LeVangie's Red Sox pitchers dominating with individualized approach

As Red Sox hitters swing earlier in counts, there doesn’t appear to be a comparable, broad change in philosophy on the pitching side. Their arms are doing just fine with personalized alterations (which, to be fair, have always been in place for hitters too). 

In his first year as pitching coach, Dana LeVangie presides over a staff that carried the third-best ERA in the majors entering Tuesday, 2.75.

DRELLICH: Still a lot we don't know about Cora

Rick Porcello’s throwing his changeup from a lowered arm slot while commanding both his sinker and his four-seam fastball better than last year, to great effect. 

Heath Hembree is throwing his slider lower than he has before, per BrooksBaseball.net's figures, and he’s getting more whiffs per swing on it than he has before, 43.75 percent. LeVangie noted that sliders with depth may be more effective than those with stronger lateral movement. 

Eduardo Rodriguez is healthy and he gained a much better feel for his changeup ahead of his most recent start. The list goes on.

“We just hammer in on guys attacking to their strengths and dominating to their strengths and dominating each pitch they throw,” said LeVangie, who was born in Brockton and has spent all 28 years of his pro baseball career with the Red Sox. “Everyone’s going to have failure at times, and we’re not going to panic because a guy doesn’t have success one day. We feel like every guy out in that bullpen has the ability to get outs, even later in the game. We trust. We trust guys. And that’s what it’s all about.”

Some Sox velocities have been down to begin the year, but LeVangie indicated no alarm. Chris Sale is sitting at 93 mph this season, although that includes one start in weather Sale said was the worst he had pitched in. He averaged 95 mph in April 2017, and he sat at 95 in his most recent start.

“I think he sees the big picture,” LeVangie said of Sale. “That he can still compete in April, not showing 97 consistently, and maybe that lasts to the end of the season.

“He controls his throwing program really well. He’s not a big thrower in bullpens. … Doesn’t overthrow. Takes days off, days after he pitches. Goes about it the right way.”

Craig Kimbrel, who missed most of spring training, never had a month averaging below 98 mph in 2017 and sits at 96 mph now. Not that it’s hurt his effectiveness: he hasn’t allowed an earned run and has 10 strikeouts in eight innings.

"Yeah I mean, I think you can look at a lot of our guys, you know velocities might be down a little bit,” LeVangie said when asked about David Price, who’s sitting at 93 mph, down a full tick. “But you know, maybe a month or two from now, when they start getting into [summer], things will increase. Craig’s velocity is down. I mean, in a matter of month or so it’s going to be back where it needs to be. David’s just in a really good spot right now.”

Elevated from bullpen coach to pitching coach as the Sox transitioned from John Farrell to Alex Cora, LeVangie said he does all the same things that he used to. The 48-year-old’s placement during the game is naturally different, and he’s generally communicating a little more with the starters than he had before — more often in group settings rather than one on one.

Both he and Cora are filling their respective roles for the first time in the majors. Their frequency of communication in-game, a matter of preference where there’s no right or wrong choice, is better described as intermittent than nonstop.

“It’s leading up to a guy’s pitch count,” LeVangie said, “the match-ups that we feel are best. And we sort of go over it beforehand so we’re not caught off guard heading into it.”

As a staff holdover, LeVangie is better positioned than most to explain the difference for the 17-4 Sox compared to a year ago. As a group, the 2018 Sox have at times looked unstoppable. A focus on the players not as a unit, but as individuals — from everything from mechanics to long-term goals — seems a driving force behind what amounts to a group effort.

“Most everyone pulling in the same direction. Most everybody’s rooting for one another to have success,” LeVangie said. “There’s a lot of talk in the dugout during the game. There’s a lot of communication during, before, about individuals, and not just team. And there’s just a lot of guys buying in and we got a really good team.”

It’s unrealistic for everything to always be about the team and not the individual. Take Drew Pomeranz, for example. Cora and LeVangie both noted the importance of Pomeranz being extra careful returning from injury as an impending free agent. As important as Pomeranz is to the 2018 Sox, this season will have a ripple effect on the rest of his career earnings.

“It comes with patience,” LeVangie said of Pomeranz’s continued ability to return from forearm injuries. “Because Drew likes to compete and it was really important that, as a group, we talked about the patience that he needs to make sure that he’s going about this the right way. I mean, it’s his career. 

“Yeah, his success for us is really important. But also going into free agency, he’s got to go about this the right way. Him going about having patience and making sure he goes through the whole process was the right approach.”

It was the staff’s choice to be cautious and pull another lefty, Price, who had a circulation issue on a cold night against the Yankees. He couldn’t grip the ball. Theoretically, they could have forced Price to stay out there and eat innings, but that wouldn’t have been smart for anyone. 

The numbness Price felt is not something the Sox can definitively prevent in the future.

“That’s a hit or miss, because it doesn’t happen all the time. And it’s happened only twice,” LeVangie said. “Once in Detroit, once here. So it’s something that doesn’t come all the time, but you just never know. Our training staff does a tremendous job with every one of those guys. But they’re constantly communicating with those guys during the game, keeping ‘em hot, as hot as possible. Heat packs, rub downs during the game. Constant.”

One other example of the individual’s needs showing up? Kimbrel’s usage. Not using him in the eighth inning (and just the eighth inning) is in part an appeal to the importance of other relievers.

“Me personally, getting four outs, yeah,” LeVangie said when asked if Kimbrel could come in for the eighth. “To lead off the eighth? I want to believe and trust that our eighth-inning guys, our seventh-inning guys, can get those guys out. Because the longer we can trust those guys, it pays off big time down the stretch. Because we can’t win this thing by one guy. And I’m not sure how many relievers pitched in the eighth inning last year with Craig’s [stuff], who he is. Not too many. And it usually only happens maybe September or October when it does happen."

The eighth inning does present a different challenge than the ninth, LeVangie said.

“What’s the panic of the hitter in the eighth inning to the ninth inning? The eighth inning could be tougher," LeVangie said. "Those last three outs, guys have the willingness to expand the strike zone a little bit more because it’s on the line. The game’s not on the line at times in the eighth inning. The zone’s become a little bit more [tight] because they know they have a chance in the ninth. Koji [Uehara outside the ninth] had a tough time. Guys who live outside the strike zone, it’s a little bit tougher because they have three more outs to get.”

Kimbrel is so dominant, though, it’s hard to imagine him struggling because of an inning. Consider one other point, though: he’s on track to be one of the greatest of all-time. 

The righty is four saves shy of 300 for his career, with a 91.1 percent success rate (296 of 325 opportunities). Amongst pitchers with at least 300-plus saves, that mark would be tops. Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan own the highest save percentage at the moment, at 89.1.

BASEBALL SHOW PODCAST: How should Red Sox be using Craig Kimbrel?

The Red Sox are paying attention to what matters to the individual. Like Pomeranz, Kimbrel is a free agent after the season. And saves matter to him.

"Oh yeah, no question, no question,” LeVangie said. “Craig wants to win a World Series, but he also wants to get in the Hall of Fame. And he’s going to get in the Hall of Fame. We just need to win a World Series for him."

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