Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! We continue to break down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of the top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
As a silver-ish lining to the 2012 chicken-and-beer collapse, the Red Sox picked as high as seventh in a draft for the first time in 2013 since selecting Trot Nixon in 1993. Their prize was Trey Ball, a 6’6” high school outfielder and southpaw who signed for an under-slot $2.75M.
Now 21 years old and with a second full season of experience as a pro, Ball is still more project than projectable. And while the Red Sox probably didn’t expect that he’d be anchoring the rotation in 2016, they probably did expect that he’d figure in somewhere in the team’s top ten prospects at this point (spoiler alert).
What Went Right in 2016
The profile that led the Red Sox to gamble on Ball is still intact. Mixed into his 4.73 ERA in 25 starts overall were a handful of strong games, especially in the middle of the year, when Ball seemed to take a step forward. In June, Ball pitched to a 1.59 ERA in 28.1 innings, including his longest start of the year (6.2 IP) and a dominant performance in which the Indiana native punched out nine hitters in the Cleveland organization.
The BP prospect staff checked in with Ball when things looked like they were starting to click, posting a mixed bag review that raised an eyebrow in a good way. The staff saw a delivery that was repeated more consistently than in his first season—an important development for a pitcher whose main shortcoming has been command. The 88-91 mph fastball would leave Ball a tick below average for a major league lefty, but the 92 mph he flashed would be average or better. And while Ball’s loopy curve was still inconsistent, he showed something tighter at times, a pitch that could finally be thrown for strikes, earlier in the count.
What Went Wrong in 2015
You kinda sorta did the math in your head: if Ball had a 1.59 ERA in June and a 4.73 ERA overall, the rest of Ball’s year was less than inspiring. That 5.61 ERA (I know you didn’t actually do the math) was probably a better reflection of who Ball was on the mound last year: an athlete with an unathletic delivery and very iffy command who sometimes looked the part but couldn’t count on his fastball or his out pitch.
There are pitchers in the majors who get by with a walk rate only slightly better than Ball’s 4.18 BB/9 last year, but there’s every reason to think he was at High-A last year specifically to work on his command; it wasn’t a pitching style, but a technical problem. There’s still plenty of time for Ball to put it together, but mastering his own body will not necessarily get easier as it changes.
BP’s Chris Crawford wrote of Ball’s 2016 that his “secondary offerings haven’t made any real progress.”
The very real potential for improvement is great—few mortals have the ceiling that Ball still has right now. Having plenty of time to improve, though, doesn’t make up for making essentially no progress at all in 2016. In high school, Ball had a useable curveball and a changeup with potential; BP’s Chris Crawford wrote of Ball’s 2016 that his “secondary offerings haven’t made any real progress.” As Crawford noted, “[a]dd in well-below-average control and command, and you get a guy who is closer to non-prospect than prospect.”
Outlook for 2016
Ball doesn’t need to make The Leap to stay on the prospect radar a year from now—he just needs some of that “real progress.” The Red Sox bet big that Ball’s athleticism would allow him to overcome his rawness, and that’s still what they’ll be waiting on as the 2016 season gets underway. Time is not necessarily on the team’s side with Ball, who may not be moved up a rung to Double-A in 2016 until he shows better command. The Red Sox will not have to add Ball to the 40-man next November, but his brief time in rookie ball in 2013 made that season a “qualified season” for purposes of the Rule 5 draft—he’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in 2017 at the ripe age of 23 unless he gets protected.
It’s hard to continue to bet on a pitcher who needs to make several kinds of improvements at once, but is that what it would take for Ball to be relevant for the Red Sox? The report last June, days before he became old enough to drink, noted that Ball’s 6’6” frame still offered plenty of room to add strength. When Ball grows into his body, even a small spike in velocity could make him a candidate for messy but competent innings.
That same process could also pay real dividends for Ball in terms of control, not just because the strike zone would become a more hospitable place to work. Control problems seem to stem from difficulty repeating a delivery when tired, as the prospect staff wrote in June that Ball struggled to repeat as he got deeper into the game. It all adds up to back-burner status for Ball, but the right kind of progress will be physical—and that could show up on the mound well before we see it in the stat sheet.
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