Red Sox pitchers counting on being ahead in the count

FORT MYERS, Fla. — On paper, even once Chris Sale joins the rotation after starting the season on the injured list, the Red Sox appear one starting pitcher short.

But more than who's pitching needs to be shored up for the Sox to move up from the middle-of-the-pack finish of a season ago.

How they pitched got them into trouble as well. They had the look of a team trying too hard to stay away from hitters' hot zones. A staff full of hard throwers with sharp breaking pitches should pitch more to their strengths and less to batter weaknesses than was the case with the 2019 Red Sox.

A look at last year's team pitching stats backs that up. The Sox ranked second in the American League in strikeouts, close behind the Astros, and led the league in walks.

* It's weird that you lead in walks and you lead in strikeouts,” Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke said. * Those are two weird things.”

A weird combo that leads to an inescapable conclusion: * It tells me that we're in deep counts all the time,” Roenicke said.

That's what happens when a pitcher shrinks his target and doesn't have enough confidence that he can challenge hitters with his best stuff, even if that happens to match up with the hitters' hot zones.

A catcher's wristband, which contains notes on each hitter, doesn't hold all the answers to pitching. If overused, it leads to defensive pitching. Too much information can be a bad thing if used the wrong way.

* I think for sure it can,” Roenicke said. * If a guy doesn't hit up-and-in well and the first pitch you're trying to go up-and-in, up-and-in is probably the hardest pitch there is to throw for a strike. So you're probably going Ball 1. Now you're setting up, ‘OK, it's 1-0, so I don't want to throw one necessarily for a good strike because he's going to be ready for it, so now you're trying to paint again and you're trying to make a pitch on a corner and you miss and it's 2-0.”

For a pitcher, a 2-0 count is like a teenager being out past midnight: A lot of things can happen, most of them bad.

* So it kind of snowballs, vs. saying, ‘We're attacking down and away,' which is usually a spot a pitcher can hit pretty good,” Roenicke said.

If Sox pitchers believe in themselves more and don't let hitters dictate their approaches, that will translate to fewer walks, less frequent home run counts, lower pitch counts, fewer injuries, a more rested bullpen and quicker games. The Red Sox averaged 3 hours, 25 minutes per game last season, 15 minutes longer than the average Major League game.

Eduardo Rodriguez, and especially Sale (2.1 walks per nine innings in his career), aren't guilty of giving hitters too much credit and don't run up high walk totals. That gives Roenicke and pitching coach Dave Bush the luxury of pointing to them as examples of the benefits of throwing strikes in discussions with other starters and hard-throwing relievers.

Less nibbling and more challenging enabled Rodriguez to go deeper into games to become a 19-game winner last season.

* I think it's important not to try to be too perfect on the first couple of pitches if you're going after these hitters. Batting average on 0-0 counts is very low,” Roenicke said. * It's under .200. So if you're always behind in the count where it's really favorable for the pitcher, then why are we getting too picky? Are we trying to go to the scouting report so perfectly that we're always behind on the count?”

Too often last season the answer to that was yes.

* We've talked to these guys quite a bit already this spring about trying to get ahead, trying to get in the zone so that we're ahead, we've got the advantage,” Roenicke said. * Now we can start pitching off of the plate, instead of pitching off the plate to begin with, hoping guys chase. It's a recipe for getting yourself in trouble if you want to do it that way.”

If you notice Javier Vazquez is not looking at his wristband notes as often, take it as a good sign.