In 2012, the Boston Red Sox had exactly one pitcher finish inside the bottom 50 of major league baseball in a statistic called ‘Swing Rate Against,’ (tracked by Baseball Prospectus) which is the percentage of the time opposing hitters swing against a certain pitcher. Last year, the John Farrell-managed Blue Jays had five pitchers finish among the 50 lowest Swing Rates Against.
This year, without John Farrell, the Blue Jays currently have two pitchers in the bottom 50 in Swing Rate Against, and after adding him, the Red Sox have four pitchers in the bottom 20. Usually, a manager doesn’t have that much of an impact on the way already-established guys pitch, but Farrell is clearly a pitching-centric manager, and a swing that huge cannot solely be attributed to coincidence. So, what’s changed about the way the Red Sox pitchers are pitching this year?
Having a low swing rate itself doesn’t necessarily correlate to success. Pitchers can put up good stats with high or low swing rates—Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez and Matt Harvey are all in the top 10 highest Swing Rates Against so far this year. So, what specifically has changed about Ryan Dempster, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, and Felix Doubront to garner this lower Swing Rate Against, as well as make them improve as pitchers? Let’s go one by one and see how each has changed their pitching approach this season.
Clay Buchholz: Buchholz has shown the starkest improvement among the Red Sox starters this year, which was mirrored by him also having the starkest contrast in his Swing Rate Against the last two seasons. In 2012, Buchholz posted a 44.55 percent Swing Rate Against, good for 113th in baseball, whereas this year he has a 38.14 percent mark, good for 13th in the league.
That change can be largely attributed to a shift in Buchholz’s pitching style and control—in 2012, the Sox starter managed to land only 52.1 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, and this year he’s upped that number all the way to 66.8 percent. That has led to hitters chasing less against him, but on the other hand, also to way fewer hitter-friendly counts, allowing Buchholz to remain ahead of the hitter in most at bats against him. I think Buchholz’s newfound control is legitimate, and I have him in my top 25 starters the rest of the way.
Jon Lester: The biggest change for Lester this year has been the efficacy of his fastball. In his prime, Lester’s best pitch was his cutter, but as of last year (and continuing into this year) the pitch has been below average for him. The meat of Lester’s arsenal is his fastball/cutter combination, and if those two things can’t play off each other, he won’t have success.
That being said, this year, even if the cutter isn’t back to its old tricks, it is setting up his four seam fastball really nicely. This is leading the pitch to a Fangraphs pitch value of 5.3 so far this year, good for 12th among starters in the majors. Lester is utilizing both his four-seamer and cutter more than in 2012, using the two pitches 61 percent of the time (then) versus 69 percent of the time (now). Even if the cutter hasn’t shown efficacy itself, it has helped his fastball regain its former value. The more he uses both, the more comfortable he’ll be.
Ryan Dempster: Dempster already garnered very few swings-against coming into this year, with a 38.60 percent Swing Rate Against in 2012. That’s nothing compared to his 32.13 percent rate this year, good for lowest in the major leagues. Farrell has really shifted the way Dempster has used his arsenal, as he went from a mostly sinkers guy, throwing his fastball only 18 percent of the time in 2012, to a mostly fourseam fastballs guy, using it 41 percent of the time this season.
Not only is he using the fourseamer more, though, Dempster is also locating the pitch significantly better, largely by just not leaving it up as much. In 2012, he left his fastball in the upper part of the zone or higher 34.5 percent of the time, and so far in 2013 that number has dropped down to 25.5 percent despite using the pitch much more often. This improved command and greater utilization of the fastball has contributed to Dempster’s career-high strikeout rate and, while I don’t think he will stay at that 11.51 K/9 number, I do think he will finish the season above 9.0 K/9 for the first time in his career.
Felix Doubront: Doubront is the only pitcher on this list who is a true “buy low” right now. The biggest shift in Doubront’s pitching style makes the fact that he is garnering way less swings this year make a lot of sense: last year, 19.2 percent of his pitches were in the ‘middle plane’ of the strike zone (neither outside the zone nor on the inner or outer third). This season, only 15.7 percent of his pitches are in the middle plane and in the strike zone.
Focusing his attention on the inner and outer planes of the plate has led Doubront to elevate his walk rate, but as he works out the kinks and works on his control, he should be able to get that walk rate back down into the 4.0 BB/9 range. Right now, Doubront’s BABIP of .397 is the third highest in major league baseball, and that should lead savvy owners to be able to acquire him for a fraction of his value. Doubront has serious strikeout upside, and I’d project him for a 3.50-3.75 ERA the rest of the way with some solid positive regression.
Overall, the moral to the Red Sox story is that John Farrell isn’t the type of manager who has one, overarching theory that he applies to all of his pitchers; rather, he is the type of manager that takes each pitcher case by case and figures out the best strategy to maximize their specific talents. Going forward, any pitcher that goes to the Sox should be treated with the leeway we used to associate with Dave Duncan and still associate with Don Cooper—Farrell just has a way of figuring out how to make these guys pitch their best.