No, it wasn’t the debut Kyle Hart had envisioned while fighting his way from a 19th-round pick to the big leagues.
To be sure, there were impressive moments where the lefthander showed the composure and command to get big leaguers out. But the ultimate line — two-plus innings in which he yielded seven runs (five earned) on seven hits while walking three and striking out four Thursday in a 17-8 loss to the Rays — will go down as one he’d quickly like to put behind him.
Will he get a chance to do that? That curiosity hovers over both the pitcher and a Red Sox organization that has rarely afforded such chances in recent years.
No young Red Sox pitcher has made more than one big league start as a first-time call-up since 2015, when Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens made their debuts. (Travis Lakins made three starts in 2019, but he did so serving as an opener. Hector Velazquez made three starts in 2017, but he’d entered the organization as a relatively finished product after a long career in Mexico.)
Since then, Darwinzon Hernandez got one start in 2019. Jalen Beeks got one start in 2018. That’s it. As an organization, the Red Sox have had a very quick hook with starters trying to break into the big leagues.
That can’t continue. The Red Sox are aiming to create a functioning pipeline that produces big league starting pitchers. That undertaking is impossible if they are unwilling to give young arms extended opportunities.
Under former president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, that didn’t happen. The case of Beeks — who was on hand for Hart’s first start, as a member of the Rays — is instructive.
In 2018, Beeks — much like Hart — had forged a remarkable path through the Red Sox system. A 12th-round pick in 2014, he reshaped and overhauled every pitch he threw over four years in the system, earning raves from staffers for his aptitude, and ultimately his stuff.
“There was not a pitch that I had that I got drafted with that I ended up with in the big leagues,” said Beeks. “Obviously, the Red Sox were great just helping me out through all that. They weren’t trying to put me in a box.”
His development commanded notice. In the early part of that season, the Rays asked whether the Sox might be open to dealing the lefthander. The answer at the time was clear: no.
Then Beeks made his big league debut against the Tigers in June. As often happens with a pitcher in his first big league appearance, he struggled, allowing five runs in the first inning and six runs over four innings. His stuff was lighter than it had been that year in the minors, his fastball hovering around 90 miles per hour. He was sent down immediately after the game.
Five weeks later, Beeks again was called up, this time to offer innings out of the bullpen. Again, he got hit around. Again, the Rays — who were willing to trade rental starter Nate Eovaldi — asked if Beeks might be available.
This time, they received a different answer. One start and one relief appearance had sufficed to convince the Sox that Beeks was expendable.
The trade worked out brilliantly for the Red Sox, with Eovaldi emerging as a force in the 2018 playoffs. That said, it also underscored the differences in pitcher development between the organizations.
When Beeks got to the Rays in late July, his first appearance was a dud. He allowed eight runs in 3⅓ innings, the same sort of outing that rendered him expendable to the Red Sox. Tampa Bay looked at it differently.
“We’re going to commit to players that we like,” said manager Kevin Cash. “Certainly young pitchers or young players for that matter, it wouldn’t be very smart of us to run away from a guy that we’d just acquired and thought highly of.”
The Rays made that point clear to Beeks.
“They were like, ‘Listen, you’re up. You’re going to pitch. It’s going to be consistent. You’re going to have a consistent every five days. Just go do it,’ ” said Beeks. “That was an absolute relief, obviously, with the uncertainty.
“When you know that you’re on a short leash, you feel like you have to get every guy out. You can’t make mistakes. You give up a run, you’re getting sent down. You try not to think about that, obviously, but you want to stick around. I was putting too much pressure on myself early, especially with the Red Sox. [With the Rays] I started trusting my stuff again that, if I just make good pitches, good things will happen.”
After that first outing, Beeks went 5-0 with a 3.07 ERA in his next 41 innings, working mostly as the bulk innings pitcher behind an opener. Over the last two years, he’s continued to evolve.
He’s increased his use of his changeup, changed his delivery to hide the ball by his hip in order to increase deception (“I know it looks weird, but in baseball, pitching and weird go together well,” he said), and embraced a mantra that was first introduced to him by Paul Abbott, his pitching coach in Double A Portland when he was with the Red Sox.
“I remember Paul Abbott telling me that my mentality should be one, two, three — strikeout,” said Beeks. “When that’s your goal, it changes the way you pitch.”
This year, Beeks has struck out 18 batters in 10⅔ innings, generating swings and misses on 19.7 percent of his offerings — the second-highest swing-and-miss rate in the big leagues. One evaluator joked that perhaps the Red Sox could seek to trade for him as they search to build their starting depth.
In order to get to a place where they aren’t mining for starters from other organizations, the Sox eventually will have to start giving young pitchers from their farm system the same sort of opportunities that Beeks got with the Rays.
Will Hart get a second shot at starting in the big leagues? The answer will say quite a bit about where the Red Sox stand in their commitment to pitcher development.