Heading into the 2015 season, New England wondered who was going to be the Red Sox’ ace. As April has turned into May, Sox starter after Sox starter performed significantly below expectations. In an effort to turn things around, the Boston Red Sox hired Carl Willis as their pitching coach. Rick Rowand and Brandon Magee look at Willis’ impact on his previous teams.
On Saturday, May 9th, the Boston Red Sox hired Carl Willis as their pitching coach. Carl Blake Willis replaced Juan Nieves who was relieved of his duties on Thursday. The Sox pitching staff currently sports the second highest ERA in MLB at 4.97. Only the Colorado Rockies have a higher ERA at 5.47. The Red Sox starters currently have the highest ERA (5.64) in all of MLB.
Like many pitching coaches, Willis had a rather undistinguished career as a MLB pitcher. He played for four teams from 1984 until 1995. He appeared in a total of 267 games between the Tigers in 1984, the Reds from 1984 through 1986, the White Sox in 1988 and the Twins from 1991 through 1995. He earned a World Series ring with the Twins in 1991. Willis worked mainly out of the bullpen, starting only 2 games in 1984. He finished his career with a record of 22-16 with 13 saves and an ERA 4.25.
Prior to his hiring, Willis had been working as the pitching coach for the Columbus Clippers, the AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. He had previously worked within the Indians minor league system starting in 1997 as a pitching coach for the Watertown Indians through 2002 when he was the pitching coach at AAA Buffalo. In 2003, Willis and new manager Eric Wedge were promoted to the Cleveland Indians. Willis was in the position for seven seasons until he was fired as part of the housecleaning by the Indians after the 2009 season. Willis rejoined the organization in 2014 as a special assistant to baseball operations. In his previous stint with the Indians he had worked closely with John Farrell, who was Cleveland’s director of player development from 2001 to 2006.
He joined the Mariners organization in November, 2009, as their minor league pitching coordinator. At the end of August 2010, he was promoted to pitching coach. He remained with the Mariners until 2013 when manager Eric Wedge resigned.
As the pitching coach for the Indians, he worked with two Cy Young award winners: C.C. Sabathia (2007) and Cliff Lee (2008). He worked with another Cy Young winner in Seattle, Felix Hernandez (2010). However, Hernandez was already King by the time Willis joined the coaching staff late that season.
In 2002, the year prior to Willis’ hiring, Sabathia had an ERA of 4.37 and FIP of 3.87, a K/9 of 6.39, a BB/9 of 3.77. In the years between 2002 and his CY Young year his ERA was never higher than 4.12 and his FIP, except for a high in 2004 of 4.21, was never higher than 3.22. In his Cy Young year of 2007, his ERA was 3.21 and his FIP was 3.14. His K/9 and BB/9 were 7.80 and 1.38, respectively.
In 2004, his first full season, Lee had an ERA of 5.43 and a FIP of 4.97, a K/9 rate of 8.09 and a BB/9 rate of 4.07. Lee showed steady improvement until his ERA and FIP both spiked in 2007. That season Lee injured his groin in Spring Training and only started 16 games. He was also optioned to AAA Buffalo following a game against Boston in which he gave up seven runs in four innings. He was called back up in September and pitched out of the pen. In his Cy Young year, his ERA was 2.54 and his FIP was 2.83. His K/9 regressed some to 6.10, but his BB/9 was lowered significantly to 1.37.
In 2002, the Indians’ team FIP was 4.16. In Willis’ first season, the team’s FIP rose to 4.49, but the team’s ERA dropped from 4.91 to 4.21. Two seasons later, the team’s ERA again fell to 3.61, lowest in the American League, while the team’s FIP fell to 3.92. From 2006 until Willis’ dismissal in 2009, both ERA and FIP steadily rose, finishing with a 5.06 ERA and a 4.73 FIP in his final season. In his first two full seasons as pitching coach of the Mariners, the team’s FIPs were 3.84 and 4.00.
It is difficult to determine the worth of any pitching coach by looking at statistics of an individual pitcher or a staff. There are too many variables involving too many individuals to decide ultimate blame or credit. However, Carl Willis has experienced extensive success at the major league and minor league levels as a pitching coach. This will be useful as he works to gain the trust of the current staff and as he helps new pitchers adjust to Fenway Park and MLB in general.
Before the game on Sunday, Willis mentioned that he had spoken to the pitching staff. One of the main things he would stress with the staff would be commanding the fastball in all quadrants of the strike zone. He and Farrell appear to be on the same page with this pitching philosophy. In an earlier meeting that Farrell and Nieves had with the pitchers, the manager stressed using the entire strike zone and to not feature any area in particular. The Red Sox have been searching for an ace all season. Maybe this philosophy will lead at least one out of the wilderness and to the head of the rotation.
One question: Now that we have our Col. Blake, can we start referring to Dana LeVangie as Radar?
Stats courtesy of fangraphs.com