Red Sox

Red Sox' young stars have different paths to improvement

Red Sox' young stars have different paths to improvement

Last names bonded by alliteration have made it easy to lot Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi together.

The rebound of a Red Sox offense that had a brownout in 2017 requires not only the success of J.D. Martinez, but improvement among at least some of those four. How they get there, however, will vary. 

A particularly strong 2016 set up that group for a letdown in 2017. A linear climb became the expectation, their excellent numbers from '16 an unfair measuring stick.

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“Every year is different. The pitchers aren’t getting worse, you know, they’re getting better,” Bogaerts said. “There’s not a lot of guys throwing lower 90s on a consistent basis, there’s a lot of guys throwing harder. The bullpen is throwing harder. It’s not like the pitching is getting worse. 

“The [2016 season] was probably one of the best years we’ve had, I would say, even in the [team's offensive] history, it’s pretty much right up there. We had a lot of guys playing great baseball. And last year was a bit different. But we still scored runs.”

Being better in 2018 will mean different focuses for the Killer B’s.

SLUMP RECOGNITION

Early in camp, Benintendi noted he wanted more consistency. Players have said that forever. For-ever. So what does it mean? As sweet as his swing may be, he can't collect a hit daily. There’s a limit on what anyone can do.

“Last year, I went through several like 0-for-20s it felt like,” Benintendi said. “It’ll jump on you quick. You get four or five at-bats a night and you don’t get a hit for four games and you’re 0-for-20, and it jumps on you like that. I want to kind of recognize that sooner, and maybe tweak something here or there. Something small, nothing big, just to kind of maybe avoid those kinds of longer slumps. I think last year, it was like every other month was terrible. I think if I can just do a little better here or there, it’s just going to make it overall [better] numbers-wise, help the team win.”

Benintendi hit .333 in April. What followed: .204 in May, .295 in June, .222 in July, .333 in August and .238 in the final month. His worst stretch was 0-for-26 in seven straight hitless games in May. He was 2-for-25 for seven games in July, 1-for-21 in a five-game run in September.

Those will happen occasionally. But Benintendi was also in his first major league season, dealing with the adjustments for the first time. That's reason alone to think he can be better.

Bradley is now entering his sixth year, and streaky is a label that's stuck with him. He drew as many walks in May as he did in July and August combined. 

“I don’t like to feed into that so-called streaky thing,” Bradley said earlier in camp. “Obviously, the game is about making adjustments and I want to be able to do that better on the fly.”

ASSERTIVENESS?

At the start of camp, Betts talked about the clubhouse not having enough fun in 2017. They have the power to shape their worlds, their bubbles. Maybe more than anything in 2018, they need to tap into their own will, their own ideas. To assert themselves, be it in action or in words.

Those may not be publicly visible expressions. They likely won’t be, in fact.

Benintendi, Bradley and Betts can appear reserved publicly when they’re not dancing in the outfield. Don’t expect that to change. 

“I mean I think he has it in him,” Brock Holt said of Benintendi. “But that’s kind of just who he is. … He’s not shy really around me or the guys anymore, but new people he meets, he’s pretty quiet. You’ll see it. Just who he is. Just how he grew up, and you know, I say, don’t change who you are. ‘Cause you’re Andrew Benintendi. Everybody wants a piece of Andrew Benintendi.”

If there is a shell to come out of for any of these guys, that’s one thing. But a personality type is not going to change. At most, it evolves with time, not overnight.

“I just kind of want to be me,” Betts said. “However the future goes, it goes. Right now I just want to be me. I'm going to be someone who smiles and brings joy to the locker room and to the field. Kind of everywhere. So I don't want to try and be something I'm not.”

Nor should anyone want him to be.

“I don’t try to look at myself as any particular, veteran or rookie or anything like that,” said Bradley, the oldest of the bunch, nearing his 28th birthday in April. “I just like to consider myself someone who leads by example. I let other people decide. I know that I go about my business the right way and I think people look at that and they respect that and I think.

“I’ve always heard when someone looks at you, they shouldn’t be able to tell whether you’re winning or losing. You should always win with class and if you lose you show respect. And that’s what I’ve tried to live by, so. Everybody says, you know, you never smile, this and that. You never do this and that, you never get too excited. 

“There’s so many highs and lows in life. In general. You just got to be able to put things in perspective and ride it out. Because those highs can get really high and those lows can get really low. So you don’t wanna try to waiver too much.”

Patience is a quality Bradley says he has gained a greater appreciation for as a young father.

Another form of assertiveness: speaking up when hurt, knowing when it’s time to pull the plug. Knowing yourself. That’s not only on the player, but a lot does fall to the player. 

“I just should not have played, and I did, and that’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I made,” said Bogaerts, who had a bad hand for much of 2017. “I just don’t like being on the bench. I try to do my best, I try to stay healthy. I try to perform my best. I mean, I can’t control that I’m going to get hit with a ball, regardless of where. 

“That’s in the past, I’m over it. You just try to move on, learn about yourself.”

MECHANICS

There are plain old mechanical things to tune. Bogaerts, for example, is trying to hit the ball in the air more often and to take better routes to grounders.

“A lot of talk about hit the ball into the air, not a lot of ground balls, ground balls are outs,” Bogaerts said.

Is this a launch angle conversation with new hitting coach Tim Myers?

“Not too extreme,” Bogaerts said. “Some guys are way extreme. It works with some guys. … Just try to listen and be open-minded about it.”

Manager Alex Cora has been working directly with Bogaerts on his fielding. Sometimes he goes straight to the ball when he'd be better off squaring himself to it.

At the plate, Bogaerts is an interesting case, because he can hit for power and average. He’s done both. Finding out what is closer to the norm for him — and for all of these guys — is a great hook to the 2018 Sox season. Is Betts' 2017 or 2016 performance closer to the "real" Betts?

Whatever their norms might be, these are individualized paths that are joint in the same lineup, and often the same conversation.

"I like to do a lot of everything,” Bogaerts said. “I like to run, I like to hit, I like to do everything. The years I’ve won two Silver Sluggers, I’ve won it different ways. I won one hitting a lot of base hits [in 2015, with seven home runs] and the other one I did off like power and like RBIs [in 2016, with 21 home runs]. … I don’t even think either way is bad."

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Granderson's 10th-inning homer lifts Blue Jays over Red Sox, 4-3

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Granderson's 10th-inning homer lifts Blue Jays over Red Sox, 4-3

TORONTO -- With one big throw, and an even bigger swing, Curtis Granderson gave a somber city reason to smile.

Granderson threw out the potential go-ahead run at the plate in the top of the ninth inning, then hit a walk-off homer in the 10th 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.

It was the first game for the Blue Jays following Monday's deadly van attack in Toronto that killed 10 people and injured 14.

"The city's hurting," left-hander J.A. Happ said. "This was a meaningful win."

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

Granderon's his third home run of the season came on a 2-0 pitch from Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel (0-1), a towering solo blast off the facing of the third deck in right field. Granderson went 3 for 5 with three RBIs.

"Trying to just do anything I can to help the team win," said Granderson, who entered 0 for 5 with three strikeouts in his career against Kimbrel.

Kimbrel allowed his first earned run of the season and suffered his first blown save since Aug. 1, 2017, against Cleveland. The loss was Kimbrel's first since Oct. 1, 2016, against Toronto.

"You fall behind anybody, it's no good," Kimbrel said. "I threw a ball in there to get back in the count and it was game over."

Tyler Clippard (3-0) worked a scoreless 10th for the win as Toronto snapped a seven-game home losing streak against the Red Sox.

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.

"It's a big game for us," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "If you don't win that one, that's a kick in the teeth."

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.

"You have to challenge Granderson," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. "You've been challenging Granderson for more than five years. He made a perfect throw and threw him out."

Happ struck out a season-high 10 over seven innings. He 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.

"Those two guys, that was a pitching clinic," Cora said. "Happ was tremendous."

Porcello extended his scoreless innings streak to 14 by pitching around a one-out walk in the first but couldn't escape the second. One run scored on Kevin Pillar's fielder's choice, and Granderson added 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.

Boston finished with a season-worst 14 strikeouts. The Red Sox have fanned 10 or more times in three straight.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Red Sox: SS Xander Bogaerts (left ankle) went 2 for 3 with an RBI in a six-inning stint with Triple-A Pawtucket, and remains on track to rejoin the Red Sox on Friday.

Blue Jays: 3B Josh Donaldson (right shoulder) could begin a minor league rehab assignment later this week, Gibbons said.

TORONTO STRONG

Before the game, the Blue Jays honored the victims of Monday's deadly attack and some of the first responders who rushed to the scene. Players from both teams stood in front of the dugouts as four Toronto police officers and two paramedics stood between second base and the pitcher's mound and were introduced to cheering fans. Following a video message and a moment of silence, a group of high school students sang the national anthems.

Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada greeted the first responders as they left the field

A blue banner reading "(hash)TORONTOSTRONG" was hung from the second deck in center field, and similar signs were hung on the wall behind home plate. The same message was also printed in white on the back of the mound.

CATCH OF THE DAY

Two-time Gold Glove winner Mookie Betts made a diving, backhanded catch to retire Teoscar Hernandez in the fifth.

UP NEXT

Red Sox: LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (2-0, 3.45) is 1-3 with a 5.67 ERA in eight career games against Toronto.

Blue Jays: RHP Aaron Sanchez (1-2, 3.86) will face his fourth AL East opponent in five starts when he takes the mound Wednesday. Sanchez has faced New York twice and Baltimore once.

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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.

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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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