NASHVILLE — When Craig Breslow was hired as the chief baseball officer of the Red Sox early last month, he vowed to bring major changes to the club’s pitching program. On Monday, he confirmed another hire made with pitching improvement in mind.
Weeks after unveiling former Red Sox reliever Andrew Bailey as the club’s new pitching coach, Breslow confirmed that the Red Sox have hired executive Justin Willard away from the Twins as the organization’s new “director of pitching.” Willard, who had spent six years with Minnesota (including the last three as minor league pitching coordinator) will work hand-in-hand with Breslow and Bailey in reframing the organization’s philosophy about everything that happens on the mound. Willard won’t be in uniform but he’ll be based in Boston as a high-ranking executive — and the first external front office addition Breslow has made since taking over.
Breslow, whose title with the Cubs included a similar “director of pitching” label, said Willard will oversee the organization’s “wing-to-wing pitching infrastructure.” The hire was first reported by Julian McWilliams of The Boston Globe.
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“We’re really excited to bring him on board,” Breslow said of Willard. “Someone that comes with a pretty strong track record of pitching development. We’ve been mindful of what Minnesota’s done over the last few years in the development of some of their guys. We feel really lucky, really fortunate. He spent quite a bit of time with Andrew Bailey, so we feel like those two will be in lockstep. And pitching development is something that I feel comfortable kind of diving into. I feel like we’ve got the foundation for a really strong infrastructure and something that’s going to need to evolve and grow over time, but we’re off to a really good start.”
Willard, who pitched at Concord University in West Virginia, first coached as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 2013 before joining the staff at Radford University as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. He joined the Twins in Dec. 2017 and served as a minor league pitching coach before being promoted to minor league pitching coordinator in Jan. 2021. Minnesota has seen a number of young pitchers, including Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober, Jhoan Duran and Griffin Jax, impact their major league roster in recent years. Breslow hopes bringing Willard aboard will lead to similar results.
“There’s a solid track record of success and a number of pitchers in Minnesota have taken a step forward and are now impacting their major league team,” Breslow said, “but beyond that, we had a chance to spend quite a bit of time with him in person, had him connect with Andrew and (manager Alex Cora) and make sure that he was going to be able to impact our major league pitching group as well as the (player development) side. We feel really comfortable in his ability both in terms of technical and tactical skills and then also leadership and strategic thinking.”
The hiring of Willard is notable because it marks the third time in the last two months that the Red Sox have made a significant external hire on the pitching side of the organization. A large part of the club’s interest in Breslow was his success in developing pitchers in Chicago and Bailey was well-regarded after four years as the Giants’ pitching coach. Now, three of the top decision-makers in the pitching department will bring ideas from three different places.
“I think the benefit of having multiple perspectives is unique and fresh ideas,” Breslow said, “but I think it’s really important that we align behind an overarching philosophy. As silly as it sounds, the fundamental goal of pitching is to prevent runs from being scored. I think you can do that by generating swings and misses, limiting walks and managing hard contact. We have to just keep working backwards from that.
“That’s something that Justin, Andrew, AC and I all 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 developing stuff, to increasing in competitive rates and to challenging guys to deploy their best stuff in the strike zone.”
Breslow, a pitching guru, has made it no secret that he wants to shake things up when it comes to Boston’s organizational pitching structure and philosophy. The Red Sox have had trouble developing homegrown starters for more than a decade and ranked 21st in team ERA (4.52), 24th in opponent average (.256) and 24th in homers allowed (28) during a last-place finish in 2023.
“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 and then, employing proven methods to to tweak and optimize that stuff and to get it in the zone as best we can,” he said.