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How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 17, 2009 08:11 AM

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Poking the air with his right index finger as if he were dotting a blackboard with a piece of chalk, Jason Varitek sat in front of his locker recently and marked the four corners of the major league strike zone. Within that same box routinely superimposed on television during most any game broadcast, Red Sox pitchers and their catcher attempt to execute their daily strategy.

Even in such a relatively small space, there are countless options.

"There are different ways you can go,’’ said Varitek, who will be behind the plate tonight when the Sox open the second half of the season at Toronto. "Take [Mike] Timlin: he could four-seam away, sink away, and cut away, so he’s created this.’’

Now, as if chopping the side of one hand with the other, Varitek formed an 'X’ to mark one corner of the plate.

"One [pitch] goes beneath the barrel [of the bat], one goes over the barrel and one goes across the barrel,’’ Varitek continued. "That’s basically three varieties of one pitch -- a fastball.’’

This is the game Varitek plays on a nightly basis, the variables being the opponent, his batterymate, and the effectiveness of any particular pitch at any given moment. There is almost always something to work with. Along with the man standing on the mound, Varitek’s job is to devise a strategy and execute it through information obtained from variety of sources -- scouts, coaches, pitchers, his own experiences -- a smaller-scale challenge akin to a football coach devising a weekly game plan.

Through the All-Star break this year, for those who believe in such things, Varitek has a catcher’s ERA of 3.80 -- the ERA of Red Sox pitchers when he is behind the plate -- a number that is the best in the American League among though who have caught at least 50 games. (By contrast, the catcher’s ERA of George Kottaras is more than a full run higher, 4.89, though he works almost exclusively with Tim Wakefield.) That number is not a commentary on Varitek so much as it a reflection of the harmony that generally exists between Red Sox pitchers and their starting catcher, a man widely regarded throughout baseball as one of the best in the game when it comes to handling a pitching staff.

It’s one thing to have the necessary artillery to get hitters out. It’s another to use it properly.

Varitek shook his head when asked if he had a general philosophy on pitching: "There’s no one way to get people out because every [pitcher] is good at something.’’

Or, more precisely, something different.

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How Lester got his groove back
Let’s start with Jon Lester, who, beginning on April 29 of last season, has blossomed into one of the truly elite power lefthanders in the game. During that span, Lester is 23-10 with a 3.23 ERA, which ranks behind only CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, and Cliff Lee among qualifying lefties in the major leagues. Other than Lester, only Lee (22-12) has spent all of that time in the American League, where the presence of the designated hitter makes the challenge of pitching more difficult.

For the most part, Lester operates with five pitches -- a changeup, curveball, and fastball, the latter of which can come in the form of a two-seamer, four-seamer, or cutter, all of which move differently. In Lester’s case, because he is lefthanded, the two-seamer breaks in on a lefthanded batter, the cutter breaks in on a righthanded batter, and the four-seamer crosses the plate in what is closest to a straight line (but with the greatest velocity).

Generally speaking, Lester’s bread-and-butter pitch is the cutter, a pitch he can throw in the low 90s and with sharp, aggressive movement in on righthanded batters. With that pitch alone, he can make righties extremely defensive. (For hitters, hard inside pitches are often the most uncomfortable.) Lester's problems earlier this season came when he was unable to control the inside of the plate against lefties, which is to say he had trouble throwing, with velocity and movement, to the first base side (or, in his case, arm side) of the plate.

"A lot of pitchers get comfortable on one side of the plate,’’ said Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who might also have used Timlin as an example. "Maybe a righty can throw arm side to a lefthanded hitter because [the plate] is open. Maybe a righty can’t throw inside to a righty because he’s afraid he might hit him or leave it out over the middle of the plate.

"Lester’s the one who, when he’s commanding both sides -- a hitter can’t just section off one part of the plate. It’s hard for them to know what’s coming.’’

In Lester’s first 10 starts this year, while the pitcher was going 3-5 with a 6.07 ERA, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell "basically’’ attributed the pitcher’s problems to command of the two-seam fastball on the arm side of the plate (in this case, again, down and in to lefties). To that point in the season, lefthanded batters were hitting .300 against Lester with a whopping .614 slugging percentage, .965 OPS, and six home runs. In 2008, he allowed just three home runs to lefthanded batters all year.

Since that time, in eight games, lefties have hit .234 against Lester with a .255 slugging percentage, .530 OPS and zero homers. During that span, he is 5-1 with a 1.48 ERA, the only loss being a 2-1, rain-shortened five-inning affair against the Florida Marlins.

The day Lester reclaimed the arm side of the plate was the day his season changed.

'X' marks the spot
For any pitcher, the ultimate goal is to attack both sides of the plate from different points of entry -- inside out, outside in -- a skill that produces the same 'X’ that Varitek made with his hands. When Pedro Martinez was in his prime with the Red Sox, armed with an array of crisp pitches that could move in all directions, he could carve up home plate, against righties and lefties, as if he were serving pumpkin pie.

Hitters couldn’t focus on the outer half of the plate because Martinez would beat them in. And they couldn’t focus on the inner half of the plate because Martinez could pierce them away.

Of course, with regard to operating with sheer precision and movement on both sides of the plate, one name among recent pitchers stands out above all others.

"Maddux,’’ said Francona, referring to future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, the four-time Cy Young Award winner who could manipulate the ball as if guiding it with a joystick. "He could throw that one right there [two-seamer inside] and he could live away. When we came [to Atlanta] with Philadelphia, we would marvel at the way they would set their defense. They’d play the off-field outfielder almost on the line.’’

And so, as Maddux wore out the outside corner, opponents hit one weak opposite-field fly after the next.

Of course, Maddux, who won 355 games in his 23-year career, is an exception. For most pitchers, commanding both sides of the plate is far more difficult -- and it can take years (or infinity) to master. Remember the comeback two-seamer that Derek Lowe utilized to strike out Terrence Long for the final out in Game 5 of the 2003 AL Division Series between the Red Sox and Oakland A’s? A year earlier, while suffering through a miserable year as the Boston closer, Lowe could not make that pitch consistently. The result was a tumultuous season that eventually led to Lowe’s resurrection as a starter -- and one that made him a far better pitcher, too.

By the time the Oakland series ended, Lowe had used the pitch against a succession of Oakland lefthanded batters, striking out both Long and the lefthanded-hitting Adam Melhuse on called third strikes with the game, series, and season on the line.

"That was as clutch as you can possibly be,’’ Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said of Lowe at the time. "I don't know how many pitchers in the game have the guts to make those pitches.’’

Said Varitek, "That strike three pitch was the best pitch he's ever made.’’

To Melhuse or to Long?

"Both of them,’’ Varitek said.

This brings us to righthander Justin Masterson, the talented young pitcher who, stylistically, is the best comparison to Lowe among those currently on the Boston roster. Like Lowe, Masterson is a sinkerballer who relies largely on the movement of his two-seamer (or sinker) to produce groundouts. Like Lowe early in his career, he has trouble on the inner half of the plate against lefties (in this case, Masterson’s glove side). Sometimes, Masterson’s two-seamer tails back over the plate, where it gets pounded. Sometimes, it doesn’t tail enough and misses the plate. Masterson is thus left to combat lefties with a slider that darts down and in, albeit at a lesser velocity, but his overall inability to deal with lefties is an ongoing issue.

So far this year, lefties are batting .317 with an .864 OPS against Masterson, helping to explain why he has seemingly taken a step back in his development. He is still learning. He is still just 24 years old. Current Red Sox officials, in particular, have demonstrated great patience with their young pitchers, from Lester to Masterson and beyond, largely because the strike zone, as small as it seems, takes years to master.

After all, most pitchers struggle early in their careers. Even Maddux, who was 8-18 with an ERA over 5.00 in his first two big league seasons.

Strategy plus execution will equal success for Buchholz tonight
Tonight, when the Sox open the season half in Toronto, they will do so behind wonderboy Clay Buchholz, a unique talent by all accounts. Though last year’s rookie season produced an unsightly 2-9 record and 6.75 ERA, many agree that the 24-year-old Buchholz has the potential of a front-end major league starter. This year, at Triple A Pawtucket, the righthanded Buchholz is 7-2 with a 2.36 ERA. Lefthanded batters have hit .241 against him, righthanders a miniscule .142 with 54 strikeouts, just 9 walks and 27 hits.

Though Buchholz had difficulty with hitters of all kinds last season, lefties gave him particular trouble, which of course is not unusual for a righthanded pitcher. Because Buchholz’s repertoire of pitches includes a changeup that moves down and away from lefties -- this is a pitch he has great confidence in -- his success tonight may well reside on his "glove’’ side -- the inner part of the plate against lefties. Buchholz throws a curveball and slider to augment his changeup, along with a two-seam fastball (largely to the arm side) and a four-seam fastball (largely to the glove side). Once the game starts, it will be Varitek’s job to determine the youngster’s best plan of attack based on which pitches are working and which ones are not, Buchholz’s job to execute the pitches and engage in any give-and-take.

Together, armed with countless options, the pitcher and catcher of the Red Sox must negotiate their way through the imaginary box hovering over home plate.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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