In a sense, the momentous task facing Bob McClure began even before he was named the Red Sox pitching coach on in late-December, just days before Christmas.
Shortly after the Royals fired McClure as their pitching coach after the 2011 season, the Red Sox hired him to assist them in both their player development and scouting departments. In the latter capacity, he took part in evaluations of the minor league free agents whom the Sox signed to compete for the last two spots in their major league starting rotation.
But then, in late-December, the team hired McClure to be the pitching coach, identifying him as the right person to take charge of a pitching staff that had played a central role in the team’s year-ending meltdown and that now faces a fascinating challenge in rounding out its rotation through a competition that will feature a number of players who were recent castoffs of other organizations.
And so it was that during the holidays, McClure’s task began in earnest. His iPad was loaded with video of the various pitchers who will be competing for the fourth and fifth starters’ spots in the Red Sox rotation, and McClure began the process of reviewing video and meeting with some of his new pitchers in person.
Now, though new to the Red Sox, with the start of spring training McClure is back in his element, spending his days on the side of bullpen mounds and working with his new pitching staff.
His responsibilities, of course, extend well beyond just evaluating the pitchers who are competing for spots at the back of the rotation. Nonetheless, in some ways, that is the most challenging and perhaps even the most significant part of his work this spring, given that the decisions made about the back of the rotation will in turn shape the bullpen and the structure of the organization’s minor league pitching depth as well.
How will the decision be made?
“Those guys fighting for that fourth and fifth spot, they’ve got to bring they’re A-game every day that they’re pitching,” said McClure. “Normally, if they get a good enough chance, which we’re going to try to take a good look at everyone, normally guys eliminate themselves, either from a starting role into a relieving role or moving on, through stuff.
“Not so much did he have a bad spring training, but was he able to follow the glove, hit his spots, how was his stuff, how does it compare to this guy’s stuff? Those are kind of the ways you base [the decision].”
Among the eight pitchers competing for rotation spots, McClure has had a chance at this point to see all but two (Alfredo Aceves, who arrived in Red Sox camp on Monday, and Ross Ohlendorf, who is being held back by the medical staff after signing a minor league deal last week) throw bullpen sessions.
And so, with Red Sox pitchers and catchers scheduled to conduct their first official workout of the spring on Tuesday, McClure offered his initial observations of the competitors for the back of the rotation:
Status: 40-man roster, 3 options remaining
2011: 2-9, 3.33 ERA, 70 games, 0 starts, 73 IP, 74 strikeouts, 24 walks, 0.959 WHIP, .179 batting average against
Bard flew to meet with McClure near the pitching coach’s home on the East Coast of Florida last month. The intended focus of the visit was to begin the process of having Bard pitch out of the windup, something he hadn’t done since early in the 2008 season in Single-A Greenville.
That said, McClure believes strongly that foot position and alignment are huge elements in creating a clean delivery that removes wasted motion and hence allows a pitcher to sustain a starter’s workload without fatiguing.
“With Daniel, he was off line,” said McClure. “You can do it in relief because you’re only throwing 20 pitches, 30 on a bad day. So you won’t tire out and you can still kind of fix it, but if you’re going to throw 100, pitch seven, eight, nine innings, you’ve got to be in position where it’s the easiest to do that. We just worked a little bit on alignment. With Bard, it wasn’t much. It was getting his back foot square to where he was going to throw it, because it was pointed in the direction of going closed.”
Unsurprisingly, given his stuff, makeup and success, Bard has made extremely favorable impressions on McClure. He has already cleaned up his alignment, to the point where McClure -- who compared Bard’s ability to generate velocity without requiring substantial drive off the mound with that of Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Don Sutton -- is convinced that the right-hander has a delivery that can work as a starter.
“Can a guy repeat this type of delivery? Daniel’s is very simple. My guess is yes,” said McClure. “Whether he can start, I don’t know. It’s a whole different gig. But can he repeat what he’s doing 100 times, 120 times, 130 times? I believe he can.
“It’s a very simple, simple delivery. At first look, can he repeat his delivery where he can get the ball down there where he wants to throw it? I would think he can because his delivery is so simple.”
McClure also praised Bard’s changeup, calling it “hard (87-91 mph) but very good,” and suggesting that the pitch came naturally to him while creating deception.
While there is plenty that the Sox like about Bard, McClure also acknowledged that workload would be a concern for him. The right-hander has never thrown as many as 80 innings in a professional season, and the Sox’ pitching coach is mindful of the idea that the right-hander’s workload would have to be built carefully if he is moved to the rotation.
“If Daniel’s in the rotation, I think that at some point you still have to keep an eye on him. How long ago did he pitch 100 innings? You’re not going to go out and let a guy like that pitch 220 innings,” said McClure. “I think we’ve seen enough of the studies where, if a guy is 30, 40, 50 innings over [his innings total of the previous year], that’s enough, and if they go 70, 80 innings over what they did prior to, you usually see a downside the next year, or it might be the following year.”
Status: 40-man roster, out of options
2011: Majors 6-3, 5.54, 17 games, 12 starts, 65 innings, 50 strikeouts, 41 walks, 1.815 WHIP, .302 batting average against; Minors 3-3, 2.47, 13 games, 12 starts, 65 2/3 innings, 61 strikeouts, 35 walks, 1.173 WHIP, .181 batting average against
Bard required a small change in the alignment of his delivery. Andrew Miller did not.
Instead, though McClure is trying to steer clear of altering what Miller does with his upper body, the left-hander -- who is a dramatic cross-body thrower, contributing to his struggles with command and consistency throughout his career -- is doing more far-reaching work with his lower body than Bard.
“I think Andrew can be a starter,” said McClure. “But I don’t believe he can be a starter stepping two feet across his body. I don’t think you can repeat and command a baseball by being that off line, then having to redirect as the ball is coming out of your hand. I just don’t think you can do that. I don’t know anybody that’s accurate that steps that far across his body.
“When Andrew’s pitched,” McClure continued, “have you seen consistency where he’s missed by just six, eight, 10 inches? Have you seen five quality starts in a row where they got hits to get him out of there, or was it base on balls, pitching behind the count?
“That’s what him and I are going through right now. The more you’re on line, the easier it is to repeat. The reason you’re not on line is you get on your toe and push yourself that way, so we’re going to the exact cause first – what’s causing it? He seems to understand. [In a Sunday bullpen session] he did well at it – very well. Just blew me away. He was maybe this far across his body – a footstep, maybe, which is a big improvement. It’s not easy to do.”
Miller has been getting plenty of early attention from McClure and manager Bobby Valentine. The 26-year-old left-hander, like Bard, met with McClure in January to lay the foundation for the season. The Sox are mindful of the fact that Miller has spent his career in something of a spin cycle of advice from different pitching coaches, each of whom has sought to tweak how he throws in different ways. That being the case, McClure is focusing almost solely on conversations about footwork and direction to the plate, and letting the left-hander do what feels natural in his throwing motion.
Because he is out of options, this will be a pivotal spring for Miller and the Red Sox to see if he can unlock the dazzling potential that goes with being 6-foot-7 and throwing in the mid-90s with a well-above average array of pitches.
“We want this guy on our team. This guy could be a very, very valuable guy on our team,” said McClure. “But in order to do it and be consistent, there’s just one little thing he needs to do. I’m just hoping as we go that he realizes how important that is.”
Status: 40-man roster, out of options
2011: Majors 0-0, 6.10, 11 games, 0 starts, 6 strikeouts, 8 walks, 1.935 WHIP, .316 batting average against; Minors 3-5, 3.96, 20 games, 18 starts, 77 1/3 innings, 74 strikeouts, 26 walks, 1.228 WHIP, .234 batting average against
Two initial impressions of Felix Doubront stood out for McClure when he watched the 24-year-old throw off a mound for the first time. First, he can follow a catcher’s glove effectively. Secondly, he’s an injury risk.
The second observation was particularly significant. A year ago, Doubront arrived in spring training with the expectation that he would be an important part of the Red Sox pitching staff, either as a starter or reliever. But he developed forearm stiffness in camp that represented the first of many injuries he suffered in 2011 and that ultimately prevented him from being a factor for the Sox.
Already this spring, McClure identified an issue that he believes represented a long-term health risk for Doubront.
“Most guys who bang their heel (on their landing foot) hard -- some guys will bang it soft and they’re alright; Maddux did it; he hit his heel for his landing foot, but he was very soft on his landing foot -- Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, there’s about 20 of them that hit [the mound hard on their heel with their landing foot], which causes [the elbow/forearm] to get underneath, every one of them has blown out,” said McClure. “I thought Verlander was going to, but someone fixed him. Someone’s changed him. He’s flat now. … I was watching him the last couple years and he’s landing much softer and a little flatter.
“Doubront lands this way (smacks palm against hand) a little bit, which causes [stress in his elbow] and he’s going to get hurt, I think,” said McClure. “Your alignment and landing are really, really important.”
McClure is working with Doubront on some muscle memory drills in order to soften how he lands on his right heel in his delivery.
Status: 40-man roster, 1 option remaining
2011: Majors 10-2, 2.61 ERA, 55 games, 4 starts, 114 innings, 80 strikeouts, 42 walks, 1.105 WHIP, .204 batting average against; Minors 0-1, 5.62 ERA, 2 games, 2 starts, 8 innings, 6 strikeouts, 4 walks, 1.250 WHIP, .240 batting average against
Aceves arrived in Red Sox camp on Monday morning, and so McClure had yet to see him throw a bullpen as of his analysis of the candidates for the rotation.
Status: Minor league contract
2011: Majors 3-10, 6.03 ERA, 18 games, 17 starts, 97 innings, 48 strikeouts, 37 walks, 1.691 WHIP, .326 batting average against; Minors 1-1, 5.65 ERA, 5 games, 5 starts, 28 2/3 innings, 18 strikeouts, 5 walks, 1.186 WHIP, .264 batting average against
McClure’s presence played a significant role in Cook’s decision to sign with the Sox. Cook raves that McClure, who was his pitching coach in two different levels of the minor leagues while in the Rockies system, was the person who taught him how to pitch effectively to contact with his sinker.
“He never molded any pitcher into the same type of pitcher. He looked at guys’ individual abilities and really helped them figure out what was going to work best with them,” said Cook. “For me, it was my sinker, pitching to contact and learning to go for strikeouts when you needed them, but if you didn’t need them, get the hitter out of the box in four pitches or less.”
McClure recalls Cook as a pitcher whose delivery in the minor leagues was flawless, and who had the unusual ability to build velocity over the entirety of his outing, to the point where he would work his way up from the low-90s in the early innings to the mid-90s in the middle innings, peaking around 96-97 mph in the sixth and seventh innings.
However, after he enjoyed significant success with the Rockies from 2004-09, Cook struggled over the last two seasons. Amidst a series of injuries, the pitcher developed a bit of a mechanical glitch.
“He got hurt and came out from the injury, when he was starting forward he was doing what Robb Nen used to do. Robb Nen would go forward, tap his foot and go,” said McClure. “He pitched OK doing it but I think it led to other problems.”
Nen’s career ended because of shoulder woes, and Cook likewise encountered shoulder issues in recent years. The Rockies were aware of the problem. Both former Rockies front office man Marcel Lachemann (whom McClure describes as one of his chief mentors as a pitching coach) and pitching coach Bob Apodaca worked with Cook to restore his delivery to its clean, direct lines to the plate.
“Right now, [the foot tap is] gone,” said McClure. “That’s good, because it’s one less issue to deal with. He’d never done that before.”
Cook threw a bullpen session on Tuesday and he is healthy this spring. That said, because of his past shoulder issues that evidently emerged from rushing his build-up towards the season, Cook’s pitching and innings progression will be behind that of other pitchers competing for rotation spots this spring.
“Aaron Cook has had shoulder issues in the past where, when he’s come back, he’s come back too soon and he’s done a step forward and two back. We’re trying to prevent that from happening again. We’re trying to get him so he can cruise on through,” said Sox manager Bobby Valentine. “He’s not hurt. He’s just trying to learn from the past.”
Status: Minor league contract
2011: 0-0, 4.15 ERA, 9 games, 0 starts, 8 2/3 innings, 9 strikeouts, 5 walks, 1.385 WHIP, .226 batting average against
Prior to his redirection into the role of pitching coach, McClure was part of the scouting effort with Padilla, seeing a pitcher who was throwing up to 94 mph in games with an impressive array of secondary pitches. McClure also saw him throw a bullpen session in Fort Myers prior to the team’s signing of the right-hander.
Padilla made it back to Fort Myers on Sunday, and his initial bullpen session made a formidable impression.
“That was outstanding -- I mean real good,” said McClure. “Very eye-opening. Not only was the stuff good, but he hardly ever missed the glove.”
Status: Minor league contract
2011: Minors 2-1, 2.75 ERA, 7 games, 7 starts, 36 innings, 28 strikeouts, 6 walks, 1.056 WHIP, .235 batting average against
McClure had not seen Silva -- who was released by the Yankees last July -- throw since 2009, when his Royals team hit around the right-handed sinkerballer when he was with the Mariners. Both the pitching coach and other team officials were pleasantly surprised by the stuff that they saw from the veteran when he threw a bullpen session in Fort Myers in December.
“It was really clean, really crisp,” McClure said of the bullpen session. “His arm is healthier. His stuff is better. When we saw him do his ‘pen, his stuff was good. It’s better than I remember seeing him start when he was with Seattle or maybe when he was in Minnesota. The stuff was a click up. He pitched a lot of innings for quite a few years. It could have been arm weariness, injury, but he looks pretty healthy. So I was impressed with the health and how it was coming out of his hand.”
Status: Minor league contract, 1 minor league option left
2011: Majors 1-1, 8.15 ERA, 9 games, 9 starts, 38 2/3 innings, 27 strikeouts, 15 walks, 1.940 WHIP, .364 batting average against; Minors 1-1, 3.65 ERA, 7 games, 7 starts, 37 innings, 21 strikeouts, 10 walks, 1.270 WHIP, .261 batting average against
Like Cook, Ohlendorf is being held behind the other pitchers in his progression at the start of the spring based on the recommendations of the team’s medical staff. Though Ohlendorf pronounced himself to be healthier than he had been in recent years when he arrived in camp, the fact that he, like Cook, has encountered shoulder problems in the last two years has the Sox taking a more deliberate approach as they prepare him for the season.