The Red Sox knew there was something different about Jeter Downs.
It was 2019, and the infield prospect was still a member of the Dodgers organization, in the midst of a breakout year between High A Rancho Cucamonga and Double A Tulsa. He would ultimately slash .276/.362/.526 with an .888 OPS. He hit 24 home runs, too.
Though 19 of those homers came with Rancho Cucamonga in the California League — a league where the ball flies, and one known for inflating power numbers — the Red Sox believed that Downs had found something.
And as the club inched toward a trade that ultimately sent Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers, Downs, whom the Reds had dealt earlier that year, would soon be on the move again.
“Our scouting reports came in stiffer, stronger, better grades,” said Red Sox vice president of professional scouting Gus Quattlebaum. “As the season kept going on, while he was with the Dodgers, we noticed in the office with some of our objective work — batted-ball data, what have you — we noticed that there was a hint of some sort of something changing. He was taking off.”
The Red Sox wanted to get underneath the hood even more. They needed some eyes, so they called on hitting coach Tim Hyers, who offered his assessment of Downs.
“He was using his body more efficiently, and using the ground more,” Hyers said.
The foundation of hitting begins with the feet, working its way up the kinetic chain. The ground essentially means stability. Without stability or balance in the lower part of the body, the upper body and then the hands won’t function properly. His feet allowed Downs to be on plane with the ball, setting him up for the ideal launch position.
Downs said it was about “understanding myself, knowing how my body works, learning how to use it properly, and getting into my legs and using that as well.”
Downs is a hitter. Always has been. It’s a huge part of what made him a first-round draft choice by the Reds in 2017.
Hector Otero, then the coordinator of amateur global scouting for the Reds covering mainly South Florida, Puerto Rico, and the international area, first noticed Downs as an 11th grader at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami.
“He always showed that he had a natural hitting ability that was very apparent for his age,” said Otero, who is now the international cross-checker for the Diamondbacks. “He was polished. He had a plan. Very confident and mature. He did not look 17 when he was hitting.”
Downs’s confidence and aura have made an impression in spring training this year. After a 2-for-2 day that included a homer early in camp, manager Alex Cora described him as a player with “a slow heartbeat.” The 22-year-old never looks to be in a rush.
“He looks like he plays the game at ease,” said veteran Angels outfielder Jon Jay, whom Downs trained alongside the past two offseasons. “He’s a guy that, sometimes, it’ll look like he’s not really trying. But he really is. That’s just the way he plays.”
“I think that’s one of my gifts I was just born with,” Downs said. “I’ve always had it ever since I was super young.”
Downs’s ability to slow the game down is innate, but it’s also a result of knowledge passed down by his mentor, Jay. The 11-year big leaguer talks to Downs about how to carry himself, what it takes to stick around.
Still, there’s an education Downs must digest through his own experience, which only comes through playing. There are more adjustments and refinements to be made with the same tool that helped get him to this point: hitting.
Downs is a rhythm hitter. His leg kick and hand load before the pitch leave little margin for error and have one requirement: He has to be on time.
“He does have some moving parts, which is fine,” Hyers said. “The No. 1 thing when you talk about Jeter is being on time. But when he is on time and it gets to the ground, and the lower half is stable at good foundation underneath him, then that’s when he’s able to transfer force and allow the hands to work cleanly to the ball.”
Timing is everything for Downs. He acknowledged the unfortunate timing of losing a minor league season in 2020 and how it has forced him to work off some rust this spring. He acknowledged how his timing at the plate can waver at times.
“Still to this day,” he said, “it’s a work in progress.”
He mentioned the timing of this spring, and how he now feels acclimated. The blockbuster trade that landed him in Boston happened while Downs was driving across the country to Arizona last year for Dodger spring training. He had to turn around.
“It was a lot for somebody that’s never been in something like that,” Downs noted.
Yet Downs’s slow heartbeat steadied the tsunami. Now, it’s all at ease. He’ll get in a minor league season, resuming his big league quest. His feet are in the ground. The foundation is set.
“When you see someone who has that slow, brief mentality, a good internal clock, never no sense of panic, even though the game is moving very quickly on the ground down there, that’s always a turn-on for an evaluator or coach,” Quattlebaum said. “And it suggests that he’s going to play with some consistency.”