Consistency. While impressing scouts with a repertoire of three potential major league caliber pitches, it’s the one thing that has escaped top Red Sox pitching prospect Stolmy Pimentel during his rise through the Red Sox minor league system.
And the lack of consistency has almost reached the point of approaching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde levels. For example, the right-hander has made seven starts for Double-A Portland this season. In three of those starts, he’s put up a stellar 1.13 ERA, struck out 14, and walked just 3 in 16 innings. In the other four starts, Pimentel has posted an atrocious 11.25 ERA, struck out 7, and walked 9, averaging just 4 innings per start.
One answer to the inconsistency issue might be that Pimentel just turned 21 in February, and due to an aggressive placement in Double-A, he’s still maturing as a pitcher while at the same time facing competition with an average age of 24.3 -- more than three years his senior -- in the Eastern League. Which is not surprising, as the Red Sox front office has consistently pushed Pimentel to pitch above his age level during his climb up the organizational ladder.
Signing at 16 and assimilating to the United States
Pimentel signed with the Red Sox out of the Dominican Republic on July 2, 2006, the first day he was eligible to sign a professional contract. He was just 16 at the time, measured 6-foot-2, and weighed about 160 pounds. As the Red Sox were the only team to work him out, he received a $25,000 signing bonus, relatively low for a free agent on Day 1 of the international signing period. While his fastball only sat in the mid-80s at the time, the Red Sox scouting team saw a lot of projection in his arm and frame. They turned out to be right.
He began his professional career in the rookie-level Dominican Summer League in 2007, going 3-0 with a 2.90 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 22 walks in 62 innings. In the process, he took home league All-Star honors, and was also named the 2007 Red Sox Latin program pitcher of the year.
At 18, Pimentel was then assigned to pitch with the short-season Class-A Lowell Spinners, skipping over the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where most international prospects get their first taste of living and playing ball in the United States. He handled the transition quite well, going 5-2 with a 3.14 ERA, 61 strikeouts and 17 walks in 63 innings. More impressive than his statistical line, however, was his quick assimilation to living in the United States. Pimentel seemed to learn English and adapt to American culture at a quicker rate than most other international prospects.
He discussed the process with SoxProspects.com back in June 2008, and had some interesting observations. “It’s important to learn the language to me, so I started learning English two years ago,” said Pimentel. “The more difficult thing, though, is feeling alone, because I’m far away from my family and friends at home. The food is also very different here, without as much flavor. The people are also more respectful and polite here, always saying please and thank you. They also respect personal space more -- they don’t touch each other as much as people do in the Dominican.”
With his breakout season in Lowell, Pimentel placed himself on the prospect radar, earning interest from other clubs in the process. At the same time, Boston’s front office became so impressed by Pimentel’s potential that they refused to include him in the Jason Bay-Manny Ramirez deal at the 2008 trade deadline, which reportedly almost caused that landmark trade to fall apart.
Advancing to A-ball
Pimentel advanced to pitch for Low-A Greenville in 2009, where he went 10-7 with a 3.82 ERA, 103 strikeouts and 29 walks in 117.2 innings. More importantly, however, is that he began to flash three potential plus-major-league pitches at the age of 19, including a projectable low-90s fastball, an excellent changeup and a developing 12-to-6 curveball.
At 20, Pimentel received another promotion, this time to High-A Salem to begin the 2010 season. While he put up a decent line for his age at 9-11 with a 4.06 ERA, the inconsistency issue began to rear its head. He would look like an ace one day, and then the next start he would struggle to find command of any of his pitches.
One string of six starts in late April and May 2010 is particularly telling of the inconsistency problem. Pimentel managed to sandwich three dominant performances, including six perfect innings against Lynchburg on May 15 and six no-hit innings against Winston-Salem on May 27, in between three poor starts, in which he collectively went 0-2 with a 9.69 ERA. He finished the 2010 season on a somewhat strong note, however, going 3-0 with a 3.03 ERA over his last six starts.
Approaching the majors
Pimentel’s performance (and frankly, his Rule 5 status) earned him a spot on Boston’s 40-man roster in November 2010, and that came with a guaranteed invitation to major league spring training. Having just turned 21, he reported to camp measuring in at 6-4 and weighing in at 225 pounds -- about two inches and 60 pounds more than when he signed back in 2006.
“I think a lot of it has come from just growing up -- I’m 21 now,” said Pimentel. “While some of it has been natural, the Red Sox have also put me on a program to get my body stronger. I’m been pushing myself to do everything they want me to do when it comes to working out, both with my lifting and overall conditioning.”
With his newly-improved strength, Pimentel has been able to get his fastball to the 92-95 mph range, while also developing an intriguing low-90s two-seamer, tools that only increase his potential as a major leaguer.
The club gave him the opportunity to make three short starts with the major league team this spring, which included two perfect innings against Boston College to open Boston’s spring training schedule on February 28. Ultimately, he broke camp with High-A Portland in April, opening the season as the third youngest pitcher in the league. As aforementioned, he’s mixed in three excellent starts with four poor starts so far this season with the Sea Dogs, which Pimentel attributes to a number of factors.
“First, the weather has been a lot colder in the early going. I’ve never really experienced that before. I’m not making it an excuse, but some of those days it’s tough to get loose and you have to really work between innings to stay warm so you don’t come out the next inning too stiff,” said Pimentel. “That’s been a big change. The guys are much better hitters as well -- they take better pitches during at-bats. Sometimes, you throw a good pitch down in the dirt or just off the corner and they’ll just sit on it. That’s been a big difference early on.”
He also attributes his success (or lack thereof) early in the season on whether he’s been able to throw strikes early in the count.
“It starts with working on my fastball and being able to throw that for a strike early on, especially down in the zone,” said Pimentel. “When I feel like I’m going good, I’m able to throw my fastball where I want it, and then I can start throwing my other pitches. Sometimes, I’ll have a tough day keeping my fastball down, and when it’s elevated these hitters are much better at hitting it well. When I’m struggling, it’s mostly when I can’t locate down in the zone and pound down in that area. If I can establish the fastball, it makes it much easier for the other pitches -- my changeup and curveball -- to do their job and use them to get hitters out.”
Throwing strike one with his fastball has indeed been the most important factor in Pimentel’s success on an outing-by-outing basis. When he’s able to establish his fastball early on in an outing and early on in the count, his plus changeup becomes an outstanding complement, and a pitch that’s close to unhittable for Double-A competition. When he’s not able to get ahead in the count, he just hasn’t been able to mix in his changeup -- his best pitch -- as effectively.
The second issue that has caused Pimentel to suffer some inconsistency is the development of his curveball. When it’s working, it shows true 12-to-6 break and sits in the low-70s. But he still has the tendency to hang the pitch up in the zone with less break, where he can get knocked around. Ultimately, if Pimentel is able to overcome these issues -- a promising proposition given his advancement relative to his age -- he has the ceiling of a second or third starter for a first division major league team.
And while he continues to work on his development, Pimentel understands that getting comfortable to pitching in the United States is always a work in progress for any international player, even if he is ahead of other prospects in that respect.
“The thing I keep in my mind is to just keep talking in English and not be afraid to make a mistake when using it,” said Pimentel. “If I don’t know a word or how to say something, I’ll just ask for help on how to correctly do it. Once you get comfortable and can speak English, it gets much easier living in the United States. You can order food for or ask for directions on something. It’s about being able to communicate with people, so I’m trying to learn something new every day and converse in the language every chance I get.”
Looking ahead, expect Pimentel to spend the rest of the 2011 season in Portland, and perhaps even come back for a return engagement with the Sea Dogs next season, with the hopes of getting his first major league experience at some point in mid-to-late 2012.
Mike Andrews is the Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com.