The first season in Triple A for a young player can sometimes be like a difficult crossword puzzle to solve. The hitters’ approach at the plate is more refined. The pitchers understand how to better mix pitches, locate effectively, or set up a hitter for a strikeout.
It is somewhat of a barometer for what the major leagues will offer, though that of course stands as an even bigger test.
In Worcester, Red Sox infield prospect Jeter Downs is getting his first real dose of Triple A.
Downs, 22, has a smooth, effortless righthanded swing, one that allowed him to unlock a .276 batting average in 2019 to go along with 24 homers, a .526 slugging percentage, and an .888 OPS at High A and Double A in the Dodgers system.
Yet 2021 has featured some rocky roads for Downs, who is hitting just .239/.333/.394 in his first 19 games.
“In all fairness, he hasn’t played in a year and a half,” said WooSox hitting coach Rich Gedman, alluding to the minor league shutdown in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We did some alternate-side stuff, and it’s just not the same. So I think he’ll be just fine. And he’ll continue to improve as he goes.”
Downs, currently playing for Team Colombia in the Olympic qualifier in Florida, has struck out 38.3 percent of the time with the WooSox. That almost doubles his strikeout percentage in High A in 2019.
Is that strikeout rate normal for a player just getting his feet wet in Triple A? There’s some gray area.
“It’s hard to say it’s normal,” said Red Sox vice president of professional scouting Gus Quattlebaum. “That’s what we’re really trying to wrap our heads around, is how much benefit of the doubt do we give players? Not just our own, but others.”
Sample sizes matter, and in this case, Downs has just 81 plate appearances in Triple A. Furthermore, his best tool is his bat, so it would be bold to suggest that he won’t eventually get to his numbers — or some version of them. Yet to do that, adjustments must be made.
When Downs had his breakout year two seasons ago, he learned how to engage his legs better. His leg kick made up part of his load, allowing him to hit through the baseball, which helped lead to his power.
“It’s about knowing how my body works, learning how to use it properly,” Downs said during the spring.
In addition to the leg raise, Downs’s hands don’t load directly backward toward the catcher. Instead, he moves his bat above his shoulders, then cocks the barrel forward, allowing momentum to carry his hands back naturally before thrusting them toward the pitch in the zone.
The problem with all those moving parts is that everything has to be lined up perfectly. The timing has to be impeccable, and the better the pitching, the harder it can be for a hitter to have success.
“It’s very difficult, but he’s very, very athletic,” said Gedman.
Still, Gedman acknowledged that Downs’ load (or timing) might have a shelf life to it.
“I think he’ll calm it down some as he gets a little older,” Gedman said. “He’s already started to make those adjustments. He’s been successful. So therefore, if you find yourself struggling, you sit there and go, ‘OK, what do I have to do to make a correction?’
“He’s a pretty smart kid. It’s about creating some adjustability in that swing, allowing him to fire when he wants to fire instead of feeling like he’s out of control.”
Quattlebaum hasn’t made his way to Double A Portland or Worcester yet, but he has seen players at both Low A Salem (Va.) and High A Greenville (S.C.). Here are some names that stood out to him.
▪ RHP Aldo Ramirez: He has a 3.71 ERA in five starts for Salem, striking out 16 batters in 17 innings. In the 20-year-old’s most recent start, he racked up five strikeouts and yielded a run in four innings. He has worked his fastball up to 96 m.p.h.
“He’s gotten a lot more physical since pre-pandemic,” Quattlebaum said. “He always had pitchability. He was really impressive.”
▪ RHP Bradley Blalock: The Sox took Blalock in the 32nd round in 2019, and Quattlebaum believes it was a steal. Blalock has a 3.00 ERA in five starts in Salem, tallying 18 strikeouts in 15 innings.
“His stuff isn’t quite where it was in the fall,” Quattlebaum said, “but he’s got the combination of fastball quality and pitchability.”
▪ RHP Brayan Bello: The 22-year-old’s name continues to make its way around the organization. His fastball/changeup combo is his bread-and-butter, while his slider is a work in progress. During an outing for Greenville against Brooklyn (Mets), Bello flashed what that pitch could be.
“When I was there, 97-99 m.p.h. [on his fastball],” Quattlebaum said. “He started to labor a little bit and fell behind in the count to 2-and-0, 3-and-1. And then, ‘Oh there’s a power slider, 87-88, first strike.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
Bello has a 2.11 ERA in 21⅓ innings (four starts) to go along with 30 strikeouts.
▪ OF Gilberto Jimenez: Another name that has made the rounds. Jimenez is hitting .325/.371/.434 at Salem. The switch hitter is a very toolsy player who Quattlebaum believes can play left, center, or right field.
At the plate, he has two approaches — one from the right side that obviously lends itself to more slugging, and more of a slap-type approach from the left. But Quattlebaum believes he can do more damage from the left side.
“There’s enough lift in there,” Quattlebaum noted. “And most importantly, he hits the ball hard. So, I would argue that the simple swing might be a competitive advantage where everyone else is striking out at alarming rates.”
Quattlebaum said that Jimenez’s 15.7 percent strikeout rate is a bit inflated, noting that he’s very aggressive early in the count, often leading to quick at-bats.
▪ LHP Jay Groome: He has a 7.88 ERA at Greenville, but in his last start, Quattlebaum saw some promise from the young lefthander. Groome worked through five innings, allowing just one hit while striking out four. He didn’t walk a batter after issuing 10 walks in his four previous appearances.
Groome, the Sox’ 2016 first-round draft choice, hasn’t pitched much. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2018 season. In 2019, he tossed just four innings, and he lost last year because of the pandemic.
“He has dealt with so much,” Quattlebaum said, “but the last outing as I understand it was really encouraging.”
▪ SS Cameron Cannon: The Sox’ second-round pick in 2019 is hitting .286/.340/.495 with 4 homers in 22 games at Greenville.
“He’s hitting the ball hard, showing better mobility and steadier actions at short,” said Quattlebaum. “It looks like we have someone who can profile at short or second, and that’s always encouraging.”