Under director of amateur scouting Amiel Sawdaye, the Red Sox have shown an aversion to taking high-school pitchers with their top picks. Instead, steadier, more proven college arms have been the team’s preference over the last several years.
That trend was broken in 2013 when the Red Sox, picking seventh for their highest selection since 1993, chose Indiana prep left-hander Trey Ball. In his first spring training, Ball showed the raw skills and athleticism to warrant such a pick, but also exhibited just how large the gulf is between a projectable high-school arm and an early-round college pitcher coming out of the draft.
“He’s working on his mechanics and delivery, and learning how to pitch,” said Lowell pitching coach Walter Miranda, who oversaw Ball’s start Saturday against the Twins’ Class A team. “He’s only 19 years old, he’s trying to learn how to pitch and that’s why he’s here. When he learns how to control his body and repeat his delivery, he’s going to have better control and better command.”
In that start, Ball’s third of the spring, fastball command proved to be his undoing. Ball gave up four runs in 3 1/3 innings and was susceptible to hard contact when his fastball did catch the plate. At times in the start, Ball’s arm dragged, and he had trouble finding a steady release point. He also showed an unwillingness to pitch inside to right-handed batters, which allowed righties to stay back on his fastball and slap it down the right-field line on numerous occasions.
Ball’s fastball sat 90-92 mph and topped out at 93 in the first inning, then settled in around 88-90 mph as the start wore on. He also featured a two-seam fastball at 86-88 mph, a low-80s changeup and a low-to-mid 70s curveball. He said he felt his changeup was off in Saturday’s start; he had shown better feel for the pitch in earlier outings.
However, Ball said he knows the key to success is commanding his fastball, which will allow him to set up his other pitches.
“Like you saw today, the first couple innings it was fastball-heavy, getting ahead of hitters,” Ball said. “It’s your go-to pitch every time you’re out there. Your off-speed is to keep them off balance and to strike hitters out.”
Ball, who signed for $2.75 million as the seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft, has been brought along slowly. He threw just seven innings in five starts last summer in the Gulf Coast League and also threw in the Fall Instructional League in Fort Myers.
In each of his three spring starts, including Saturday’s against the Twins, Ball has pitched deeper into games. Saturday, Ball pitched into the fourth inning before he was lifted for right-hander Mario Alcantara.
“I’m going out there and getting my arm ready for the season,” Ball said.
Such a cautious approach is nothing new for the Red Sox. When the signing date for draftees was in mid-August, even the most highly-touted college pitcher began the following year in Low A to get used to a five-day pitching schedule at a lower competition level than their skills would otherwise dictate.
For some, such as Matt Barnes (19th overall, 2011) and Anthony Ranaudo (39th overall, 2010), their stays in Greenville were short-lived. Others, such as Brian Johnson and Pat Light, had longer stays.
Few precedents exist, however, for high-round high school pitchers under the current Red Sox brass. Cody Kukuk, selected in the seventh round in 2011, remained in the Gulf Coast League in 2012 after he faced disciplinary issues that spring. Jamie Callahan, a 2012 second-round pick, and Ty Buttrey, a fourth-round pick that year, each spent the 2013 campaign in Lowell after developing for the first half of the year in extended spring training.
The only likely precedent, in terms of opening-day assignment, is fellow tall left-hander Henry Owens. Owens, selected 36th overall in 2011 out of Edison High School, began his first full season in 2012 with Greenville, and had a similar edict as Ball likely will.
At that stage, Owens had a projectable frame and the raw abilities to succeed, but needed to refine his delivery and take control of his long limbs in order to produce consistent success. The same can be said for Ball, though at first glance Ball appears to have more lean muscle and slightly more athleticism.
Still, the comparison can be unfair either way, given Ball was a two-way player in high school who likely would have been a first-round talent as an outfielder as well.
“Coming in as a two-way guy through high school, I was always concentrating on both hitting and pitching,” Ball said. “Now, I’m pitching full time and trying to concentrate on that.”
For an athletic, moldable talent such as Ball, that focus likely will be a benefit in his debut campaign this year.
Jon Meoli is a senior columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.