Willard's vital role: Change Boston pitching narrative

February 29th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Ian Browne's Red Sox Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The man entrusted with running point for rebuilding the pitching infrastructure of the Boston Red Sox never threw a pitch in professional baseball.

You won’t see him making any trips to the mound this season to give a struggling pitcher advice.

But the work he will do behind the curtain, so to speak, will be at the forefront of the pitching improvements the Red Sox hope to make at every level of the organization.

His name is Justin Willard, and his title is simple enough -- director of pitching.

However, his job is wide-ranging and time-consuming and vital to the Red Sox in terms of changing a certain narrative.

That narrative is that the Sox have had a hard time developing impact pitchers through their pipeline over the last decade and a half, though there are exceptions, including Brayan Bello.

To fix it, the 33-year-old Willard will devour hours of video in search of mechanical flaws or potential pitch usage adjustments. He will pore through more advanced data than the Red Sox have had in recent years. Willard won’t just be focused on development. He will also be spending his share of time assisting pitching coach Andrew Bailey with maximizing performance at the Major League level.

“A lot of video, a lot of looking at data, a lot of breaking down data -- whether it's biomechanical data, pitch movement data, to layer the video on top of that,” Willard said. “Then it’s like, 'OK, cool. What's this guy doing to produce those outcomes?'"

Willard will need a lot of energy to get through it all with his coworkers.

“There's a lot of [energy drinks],” he quipped. “I can tell you that.”

How best to explain the philosophy Willard is trying to instill in the Red Sox?

“Really simple: Throw nasty stuff in the zone. You can have nasty stuff, but it's not gonna be maximized if you're not in the zone,” said Willard. “And then vice versa. If you're in the zone and you're getting hit, we’ve got to develop better stuff. And I think most importantly, defining that for players and defining what the scoreboard is.

“What's the rulebook? I always use an example, if you’re going to play Monopoly for the first time, you’re going to read the rules to understand what the game is. For the longest time, we’ve been playing one game. That’s not what we're playing now, and really helping players evaluate that and understand that drives buy-in and drives good questions and good conversations.”

One of the people Willard will converse the most with, naturally, is Bailey. In fact, the two hit it off the second they started working together through countless Zoom marathons before they finally met in January at the club’s Rookie Development Program in Boston.

“It's nice that we kind of sing the same song and speak the same language and believe in the same things,” Bailey said.

Willard, a Toronto native, pitched Division 2 baseball at Concord University in West Virginia. Shortly after he was done pitching, Willard went right to coaching at Concord before moving on to Division 1 Radford University.

It was when Willard was hired by the Twins, however, in 2017, that he got the opportunity he needed -- one that has him positioned to make important improvements in Boston. In recent years, the Twins have been a model of maximizing the performance of their pitchers.

What is Willard’s mission with Boston?

“So for me, obviously we want to impact development everywhere,” said Willard. “What do those processes look like? What does development look like in drilling down whether it's at the big leagues or in the Dominican Republic, what that should look like how it can impact every player in our org to get the most out of them?”

Bailey nearly joined forces with Willard when he was with the Giants three years ago, but instead went with another Twins employee as his assistant pitching coach in J.P. Martinez. That allowed Willard to earn a promotion in Minnesota from affiliate coach to Minor League pitching coordinator for a Twins organization that has developed pitching as well as anyone for many years.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora is loving the Bailey-Willard combination so far.

“Just getting to know Justin and Bails, it’s a good double-play combination,” Cora said. “I’m here to learn a lot from them and catch up with whatever they’re doing right now. The pitchers are happy. The organization is in a good place in that department. Hopefully from now on, we can turn the page on the whole narrative and we can produce pitchers that will make it a lot easier for the front office to make decisions.”