Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Does Kelly Shoppach Deserve the Credit for Boston’s Success Against the Rays?

I’m writing a piece on Kelly Shoppach today.  I know I said I would write about the remaining four bullpen pitchers in short order, but this topic dawned upon me yesterday, and I feel the need to expand on it for 1,500 words or so.  Since the remaining four bullpen guys are already down to three, I need to get cracking on that column as well.  I know you’re all quivering in anticipation.  Here goes:

Let’s forget about the Red Sox’ 1-0 loss on Patriots Day for a moment, and really, any professional baseball game that starts at 11am and forces big leaguers to get out of bed and to the ballpark near the time they are usually going to bed after a night out at the Foxy Lady (am I right, Mo?) should be considered an anomaly and cannot be included in any trending discussions, okay?

Now that we have that out of the way, I want to discuss the wild success of the Red Sox over the weekend against the Tampa Bay Rays.  Specifically, I want to elaborate on what I believe may be a behind-the-scenes reason for said success.  Kelly Shoppach.  And not just for his “I need to slide, oh crap I’m way short, I need to dive, I just caught a cleat, and I just ate second base” slide either. 

            Quick aside: I posted on this blog that the Rays’ B.J. Upton smashed a pie into Carlos Pena’s face during a post-game interview after Pena had hit a grand slam, and that this is the type of fun light-hearted stuff that healthy clubhouses do.  I bemoaned the fact the Sox players never seem to do such fun stuff.  Well, the way a lot of Sox players gave Shop crap for his slide reminded me of such tomfoolery and made me think that maybe this Sox team can gel into a healthy-functioning unit.  Another point in Shop’s corner.  Back to the article...

No, I’m talking about the fact that Shoppach played for the Rays for the last two years, and may have had some insider information that he was able to pass on to his teammates before the four game set…er, three game series (we’re forgetting about the Patriots Day game remember?).  Think about it – who knows a pitching staff full of young pitchers better than a backup catcher whose job it is to catch bullpen sessions, notice tip offs in the delivery (more on this below), coach pitchers on their approach to hitters, and generally help develop who these young pitchers are?  Who knows more than a guy who sits in on every meeting with the pitchers and other catchers with coaches and scouts as they prepare their approach for two straight seasons? 

We’ve seen the New England Patriots use this approach by hiring Josh McDaniels the week before slaughtering the Broncos in the playoffs, and now I believe we’ve seen a similar tactic taken by the Red Sox.  I say kudos to them – the Rays have had our (I use ‘our’ like I’m on the team…I know) number for a couple of years now.  In fact, the Sox were 30-42 heading into 2012 against the Rays since 2008, without a winning record in any season series in four years.  So I like the fact they might have been thinking a bonus in signing Shoppach is to get some insider info on a team who has had their number.  Now you may be thinking this is all wild speculation and over-analyzed blowhardness, and you might be right.  But two specific trends caught my eye this weekend that led me to believe Shoppach was coaching the Sox on how to approach the Rays. 

Because let’s face it, despite the Rays being the media’s darling (talk about having his balls washed – Joe Maddon is adored so much by every baseball writer nationwide that he must never have to change his whitey-tighties) the only way the Rays are making the playoffs this season or winning the AL East is if their young and fairly unproven pitching staff is excellent.  They can juggle lineups and employ “innovative” defensive shifts all they want – if their starters aren’t stellar, then they are an average MLB team.  Knowing this, I can imagine Shoppach coaching his new Sox teammates in the pre-series strategy meeting (major league teams have these right?  Please tell me they do) on how to approach each of the three young starters they faced over the weekend – Price, Hellickson, and Moore. 

The first trend I noticed was the Sox’ propensity to take a ton of pitches from Price and Hellickson to inflate their pitch counts.  This resulted in their early departures from the game (Price after only three innings!) and the Red Sox feasted on the Rays’ bullpen (13 runs in the 8th innings alone of Friday and Saturday’s games).  Now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “running up pitch counts to get to bullpens is the oldest baseball strategy in the book you dope”.  And you’d be right.  But if it is that easy, then why has David Price pitched at least 4 innings in every one of his major league starts except for three, all in his rookie season of 2009?  Why had Jeremy Hellickson pitched into the sixth inning in every career major league start but three before Saturday?  Clearly, these two guys are used to going late into games.  Perhaps is was a little “Shop Talk” (I’m so proud of this, I should trademark it before NESN makes it a bit, although if Jenny D wants it, she can have it) from their old backup catcher that allowed the Red Sox to understand the best approach to these guys.  Both young pitchers have a tendency to throw strike one and then nibble.  Perhaps most players know this and try to hit that strike one, knowing it might be the best pitch to hit they get.  The Sox seemed to be content with letting that first pitch go and then let the next couple nibblers go as well.  Again, isn’t it safe to assume that Shoppach played a part in these young pitchers adopting this approach in the first place the last two years?  Wouldn’t it then make sense that Shop would be able to pass this along to his new teammates?  I say yes.

The second trend to support my thesis of this diatribe is our approach to Matt Moore on Sunday.  The Red Sox saw the ball so well against Moore and were so disciplined in their approach that only two Sox players even attempted to swing at a breaking ball all game long.  Every single other time a breaking ball came their way, they let it go.  The Sox did not have a swinging strike at a slider all game long.  The result was six runs, four walks, and a Red Sox win.  In fact, the Red Sox did such an outstanding job at identifying Moore’s slider that Joe Maddon (balls freshly washed) hinted after the game that he thought the Sox might have been stealing signs, in this article:

The Rays were so concerned that they went back and closely watched the film to see if they could notice Moore tipping off his slider before he threw it, in this article here:

Turns out, the Rays could find no indication at all that Moore was tipping pitches, leaving them befuddled as to the reason the Red Sox could so easily lay off every slider, and befuddled as to how the Sox knew that was a great approach to employ against the young lefty.  How about this for a reason – we employ your backup catcher from last season!  We employ the man who was there to catch and tutor the young Moore when he first cracked into the MLB.  We employ the man who might know a couple things about Moore that not many other players do – maybe Shop knows that Moore doesn’t like to spot his slider for strikes, or maybe he knows a tip that Moore is going to throw a slider that Jim Hickey couldn’t find on the film.  To me, this is a better explanation for the Red Sox’ success against Moore than they just randomly planned on not swinging against sliders, and they were able to pick up every one right out of his hand.

Catcher is a unique position in baseball.  Behind the scenes, catchers have a great deal of knowledge about pitching staffs.  I believe catchers can be a source of information on how to approach pitchers they have worked with, and I for one believe that Shoppach did just that prior to the Sox/Rays weekend series.  Do you disagree?  Do you believe I’m a deluded blowhard?  Let’s discuss it in the comments section below.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting theories. I like the comparison of signing players to get information a la the Pats in the NFL. I tend to think that there is something to the stealing of the signs. Is it possible that they changed some signs prior to Monday's game? (I know I'm supposed to forget about that one) The fact that they got shutout after the Rays appeared to catch on makes me a little suspicious that the Sox were stealing some signs.