Craig Breslow Has Brought a Touch of Minnesota to Boston’s Pitching Program

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Craig Breslow is restructuring the Red Sox pitching program. Hired in October to replace Chaim Bloom as Boston’s Chief Baseball Officer, the 43-year-old erstwhile reliever is doing so in multiple ways, and that includes having effectively cloned himself with a Twin. Earlier this month, Boston’s new top executive lured Justin Willard away from Minnesota to be the team’s Director of Pitching — the same role Breslow held in Chicago when he worked to revamp the Cubs’ pitching development process just a few years ago.

That Breslow’s approach is largely data-driven and comes with an adherence to bat-missing qualities is a big reason why Willard was brought on board. Much like the Yale graduate who hired him, Willard — a former college hurler with an MBA from Radford University — is both well-versed in analytics and an advocate of arsenals rife with plus raw stuff.

Asked about him at the Winter Meetings, Breslow cited Willard’s “pretty strong track record of pitching development,” adding that he was “mindful of what Minnesota has done over the last few years in the development of some of their guys.” The proof is in the numbers. Twins pitchers logged sub-4.00 ERAs in each of the past two seasons with Willard as the club’s Pitching Coordinator (the first time they’ve done so in over a decade, save for the 60-game COVID campaign), and the five highest strikeout totals in franchise history have come since he joined the organization as a minor league pitching coach in December 2017. Under the direction of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, who have led the Twins front office since October 2016, Willard helped to modernize a program that for too long had favored a pitch-to-contact approach. (For more on what Willard will bring with him from Minnesota, be sure to read this recent article from The Athletic’s Jen McCaffrey.)

Told what Breslow had said, Falvey responded by offering an expansive glimpse into what his organization’s pitching department has been accomplishing — something that more teams than just the Red Sox have noticed.

“If you’re on this side of the table it’s unfortunate, but you’re also proud of these guys,” Minnesota’s Executive VP/Chief Baseball Officer told me. “Having a few pitching coordinators, key pitching people, find major league jobs elsewhere is a cool thing. Justin this year. Zach Bove last year, jumping to Kansas City to join their major league staff. J.P. Martinez leaving our group to go to San Francisco. And then Pete Maki coming from our minor league group up to the major league group in the bullpen, and now he’s our pitching coach. That’s a testament to the work each of those guys has put in, how progressive they’ve been, how open-minded they are, how they’ve woven in some of the traditional ways to teach pitching, but also with the new systems and tools that we have available to us.

“It’s all about ‘How do we put the best tools in place so that our coaches and our players can find ways to get better?’ Over the last handful of years, we’ve done that with our development crew [and] with our major league group. What I’m most proud of in the last couple of years is how well the major league staff has integrated it. For a long time in baseball it was, ‘You can do this in the minor leagues. You can implement this in A-ball. You can do this in Double-A.’

“Pitch development, pitch design… no one is a better example of that than Pablo López and his changes this year after we traded for him. His open-mindedness to ‘Here is why this will help you’… We feel that we’ve got good people in that space, and we also feel that it’s a really good overall philosophy.”

Which brings us back to Breslow and a Red Sox organization that has inarguably been doing a subpar job of developing pitching for several years running. To say that a restructuring was in order would be an understatement, which is a big reason why Chaim Bloom’s replacement has a reputation as a pitching authority.

Between the program Boston had in place, the one Breslow put together in Chicago, and Willard’s work with Minnesota, a triangle of expertise is coming together with a singular goal of success. I asked Breslow about the overlap and differences in philosophies within that triangle.

“It’s a really good question,” he replied. “I think the benefit of having multiple perspectives is [having] unique and fresh ideas. But it’s really important that we align behind an overarching philosophy. Fundamentally, the goal of pitching is to prevent runs from being scored, and I think you can do that by generating swings and misses, limiting walks, and managing hard contact. We have to keep working backwards from that. That’s something that Justin, Andrew [Bailey, the team’s new pitching coach] and I share: the ability to develop stuff that can generate swings and misses in the strike zone. Justin brings a host of expertise and experience as it relates to stuff.”

Following up, I asked Breslow just how much he envisions the program that’s already in place changing. Percentage-wise, is it likely to be closer to 5%, 30%, maybe more?

“It’s difficult to put a number on it,” said Breslow. “I do think that there will be significant changes in terms of our commitment to building out ‘stuff,’ our commitment to bringing in a number of upside arms, whether that’s through the draft, through free agency, through trades.”

Two days after Breslow offered those comments, the Red Sox acquired Justin Slaten via trade during the Rule 5 draft. Selected by the New York Mets out of the Texas Rangers system and subsequently swapped to Boston in exchange for fellow pitching prospect Ryan Ammons, Slaten is a 26-year-old right-hander who logged a 36.6% strikeout rate over 59.2 innings between Double- and Triple-A this year. Possessing plus raw stuff that includes a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a sweeping slider that our lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen described as having a “bat-missing track record,” he serves as a good example of what the Breslow-built pitching program will be looking for.

“It was the marriage of the data — kind of the raw pitch characteristics — the performance, and the scouting group,” Breslow said of the Slaten acquisition. “Everything aligned. With this budding pitching infrastructure we were able to get additional perspectives, and when there is alignment across all of those groups, it makes for a fairly easy decision.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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5 months ago

Cool article, sounds like some good work being done in Boston.

5 months ago

It does. They can’t seem to talk about it without a lot of MBA speak of “alignment” and “singular goal of success”. I mean, jeez, I hope that’s the singular goal. If not I’m a bit confused.