Boston starters easing into spring

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
4:55
PM ET
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Leave it to the Red Sox to search for a cure for the hangover.

No, not that kind of hangover.

We’re talking about the dreaded World Series hangover, the kind that afflicts teams that play deep into October and pitchers who obliterate their career highs in innings pitched in a quest to ride on a parade float. Or in this case, a duck boat.

Anyone who doesn't think those October hangovers are real can give the 2012-13 Giants rotation a call. Then again, it doesn’t matter if the rest of the planet thinks those hangovers are real because the Red Sox think they’re real. So they have taken steps to let their starting pitchers ease into the spring instead of roaring right into Fort Myers as if October had never happened.

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJon Lester tossed three scoreless innings in Monday's spring debut.
Jon Lester just made his first start of the spring on Monday, in his team’s 12th game of the spring. Clay Buchholz debuted the day before. On Tuesday, it was John Lackey’s turn to finally get into a game. Jake Peavy will etch his name into Grapefruit League annals Thursday, although he had some fishhook complications to account for some of this delay.

And the plan is for all of these men to make just four spring starts instead of the usual five, or even six.

None of this is a coincidence. None of this just worked out this way. It’s merely the Red Sox doing what they can to allow men who bore a heavy workload last fall to recover as best they can before the marathon begins again in a few weeks.

“It’s only one [missed] start,” said manager John Farrell on Tuesday, before his team’s split-squad game against the Orioles in Sarasota. “There’s been a lot made of it. But we’re not shortcutting their foundation. We’re just taking a different approach of a little bit less intensity early rather than jumping a guy right into the early part of the game schedule.”

Instead of a two-inning start on Feb. 26 or in the first week of March, the Red Sox tried to create opportunities for their starters to build up their arms and their pitch counts without the intensity of actual games, allowing them to throw simulated games instead, in more controlled environments.

“Inevitably, a pitcher goes out there [in spring training] and his reference point is last year’s midseason form,” Farrell said. “So this way it’s a chance for those guys to go out there and get their deliveries right and build pitch counts in a more controlled setting. And that’s why we’ve seen Buchholz come out and throw his three innings the other day [in his first start], and Lester yesterday, because they’ve been able to do enough work to get themselves physically in good shape, but to build that up in a less pressurized setting.”

But this approach didn’t just begin when those four pitchers arrived in spring training. It actually goes back to last winter, when the Red Sox mapped out offseason throwing programs and pushed everyone’s start date back three weeks.

“I view pitchers just like thoroughbred race horses,” the manager said. “You know, after a racing season, they turn them out on the farm and just let them naturally rebuild. Whether it’s right, wrong or indifferent, that’s my thought and opinion. You have to give them time to naturally recover.

“So if that pushes the calendar back a little bit, you adjust at the outset and then just gradually build up. The volume of throws isn’t going to change. Maybe just gradually a little bit of increase in intensity.”

All pitchers, of course, are creatures of habit and routine. Doing it this way means new habits and new routines. So “sure,” Farrell said, “they all have questions.”

“But they all recognize, too, that they [logged a heavy workload],” he said. “Lester threw the most innings of his career last year [248, counting the postseason]. John Lackey, after a year missed with Tommy John [surgery], he’s up over 200 innings [to 215 1/3], and that’s a year-to-year big jump. So we just felt like [the best way to do this was to] include them in the process, explain what our situation is and, yeah, it’s a little bit of an adjustment on their part. But ultimately, they see the reasons for it and buy in.”

This may not seem like revolutionary stuff, but it’s important stuff, because no one on the outside, Farrell said, can appreciate the grind October has become, now that it’s four grueling weeks long.

“I don’t know if you can,” the manager said, “until you actually go through it.”

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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