BOSTON — First impressions are probably more vital to starting pitchers than anyone else.
A reliever is usually asked to pitch in a low-leverage situation when he makes his major league debut. A hitter is just one of nine. Starters have a spotlight normally, and that’s no different on Day 1.
But the effect is further magnified on a contender. Fairly or not, a spot start on win-now team can flip a switch: make it easier for the manager to turn to you again, or vice versa. It’s just one game, and it shouldn’t be that way in such a random sport. Yet, that’s the reality when every game is meaningful and every choice a manager makes is scrutinized.
Jalen Beeks’ debut wasn’t a catastrophe, even if his five-run first inning was. The Sox have a clear vision of what they want the lefty to work on when he gets back to Triple-A Pawtucket: his pitch mix. The lefty was optioned after the Sox lost 7-2 on Thursday night to the Tigers, with Beeks lasting four innings and allowing six runs. He threw 88 pitches, 60 of them fastballs per BrooksBaseball.net.
“A lot of fastballs over the heart of the plate early,” manager Alex Cora said. “After that, he settled down and he started mixing up his breaking ball and his changeup. He started elevating, and it wasn’t the start that he wanted or we wanted from him.
“After that first inning, he kept going, he kept attacking and he made some adjustments so we’re proud of the way he competed today.”
Consider a hypothetical: it’s August. The Sox have choices in the rotation. The safe move in terms of public reception for Cora may be to lean on a more known quantity. Hector Velazquez or Brian Johnson, if they happen to be stretched out, for example. (Who knows what the landscape looks like then?)
Cora, thus far, seems to march to his own drum. But he’s not immune to public perception, so how he’ll handle Beeks going forward will be interesting. Does he turn to him immediately when the Sox next need a starter?
Sometimes, need and scheduling trumps all. If Beeks is fresh and on his turn, he may be the guy no matter what. Still, Beeks will need to show continued success at Pawtucket to make his return viable. Not in numbers so much as in approach.
“We’re going to map out a plan, and there’s going to be some adjustments as far as his pitch usage at that level,” Cora said. “Regardless of the results, it’s very important for him to use the breaking ball, and from there, he can use the fastball up. He’s been very successful down there in Triple-A with strikeouts and he’s been dominant.
“At the same time, there’s another level and he needs to [reach] that. [Pitching coach Dana LeVangie] will talk to [Pawtucket pitching coach Kevin Walker] and they’ll make a plan and he’s going to start doing that."
Beeks was told after the game he was optioned back to the minors.
“We just told him that sometimes, it doesn’t matter the results,” Cora said. “You go down there and you start making adjustments as far as what we want you to do, and he’ll be fine.”
Blake Swihart, by the way, isn’t to blame for Beeks’ outing. A different catcher might have encouraged slightly different usage, but a pitcher that relies on deception simply wasn’t deceiving the opposition on Friday.
Beeks will be back. He’s not throwing 86 mph. He sits in the low-90s and can dial it up to the mid-90s. He's viable as a big leaguer.
What will be worth watching, though, is just how soon Beeks makes it back — particularly if the opponent is someone more impressive than the middling Tigers.
"I think spin rate and his fastball will play at this level, but you have to mix it up,” Cora said. “You have to slow them down a little bit so the fastball plays up in the zone.”