Red Sox pitchers working on their gloves
FORT MYERS, Fla.—New Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine has spent much of spring training stressing to his pitchers the importance of fielding their positions.
He wants it in their heads at all times.
So, two of the six television screens in the new clubhouse have been dedicated to baseball highlights, including defensive plays by pitchers, from fielding bunts, ground balls, and comebackers, to holding runners on at first. And Jim Kaat, one of the best fielding pitchers in the modern era, was a guest in camp earlier this week.
"I'd like to have our pitching defense improve," Valentine said in an understatement. "We were last in a lot of categories. We weren't really good at a lot of stuff other than pitching the ball. Hopefully, we can improve on that. Might win a game or two."
His pitchers have paid attention.
"Well, they made it a big point to bring that up," right-hander Clay Buchholz said. "Last year, we were pretty much the bottom of every category. I think defense wins championships, because if you don't have the guys behind you making great plays and you not being able to field your position, that's giving away runners and giving away runs when you don't have to.
"It's a big key to our success this year."
Being successful without a strong defense will be difficult. Especially with some question marks at the back of the rotation and the bottom of the lineup.
"I think it's pretty tough," right-hander Daniel Bard said. "You don't want to have shortcomings on defense that you have to make up for with great pitching or great hitting. We do have those two things, (but) defense is the easiest thing to improve on as a baseball player.
"So, there's no reason not to work on it."
One of Valentine's biggest targets is on the basepaths. He would like to see his pitchers do a better job controlling the running game.
"Statistically, it would be fair to say, we were the worst in our division, 14th in baseball and eighth in the American League," Valentine said. "It depends on how you determine that."
He's not too far off. Red Sox pitchers allowed 156 stolen bases last season, more than any other team. Their caught-stealing percentage (24) was tied for fourth-worst in baseball.
Valentine mentioned two of his left-handers -- reliever Franklin Morales and starter Jon Lester -- as being somewhat adept at holding runners. They had four pickoffs each.
But against right-hander Josh Beckett, opposing base stealers were 31 of 34, despite his 83 throws over to first base. Valentine, though, won't single anyone out. Rather, he would like to see his staff, as a whole, improve.
"I would say it could be worked on," he said. "It's part of this program, spring training."
It better be, especially considering the division competition. American League East rival Tampa Bay led the AL with 155 stolen bases last season, while Toronto was sixth (131).
"There are a couple of other teams who can advance 90 (feet)," he said. "I'm all with guys (who say), `Hey, you don't get any points for getting to second. I'm getting the hitter out.' I get that."
Still, it'd be nice to stop them in their tracks every now and again.
"It's a big part of the game, especially with all the fast guys on teams nowadays," Buchholz said. "They're going to steal their bags, but if you can keep them close, they might not get a good enough jump to go first to third, rather than just letting them take second base.
"So, there's a lot of small things in the game that you can do to hold the runners. And we've got to perfect those."
The Boston philosophy in recent seasons has been to focus on the batter. The Red Sox often chose to forego the slide step for some pitchers who could become distracted by a runner at first base, which could result in diminished concentration or diminished quality of pitches.
The idea, Valentine said, is not to let that happen.
"I don't like anything, including a divided concentration, that would limit or minimize in any way the pitchers' ability to get the hitter out," Valentine said. "Most biomechanical studies say that if you pitch out of the stretch quickly and correctly, your stuff will not be diminished.
"Part of the whole program is that you will vary your look to the plate. But never diminish your stuff."
Kaat won 16 Gold Gloves in his 25-year career.
"I think he just brought some of his wisdom," Valentine said. "The guy had 283 wins and Hall of Fame credentials. I'm sure any time a pitcher can talk to a pitcher with those kind of kind of credentials, it's a good thing. I'm glad that he was here. Honored."
Kaat is a neighbor of new Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure, and viewed the Boston collapse last year from afar.
"I watched the demise last September," Kaat said, "and I thought, `Maybe they could use some old-school, simplified ideas to go along with all the modern technology that they have available.'"
He talked to Red Sox pitchers Monday, emphasizing the "mental part of pitching -- trust yourself, throw strikes. Things that worked for me."
Kaat is a three-time All-Star, who won the World Series in 1982 with the Cardinals.
"I'm honored that they wanted me to come over here and share," Kaat said. "As former players, we appreciate being able to share the things that guys before us helped with, and maybe we can pass on something that can help them."