Brayan Bello’s seven-inning no-hitter for Double A Portland last week put an exclamation mark on a striking development.
The 23-year-old has emerged as the best upper-levels Red Sox starting pitching prospect in years. So, what did the Sox and Bello see in that performance that stood out?
“He didn’t have his best stuff that day,” shrugged Sea Dogs pitching coach Lance Carter. “But he grinded, he figured it out, and he pitched.”
The same was true when he backed up that start Wednesday by allowing no hits into the fourth inning. When he finally gave up a single, Bello had recorded 39 outs over three starts between hits allowed.
Yet in those outings, despite amassing 13 scoreless innings and allowing just three hits (all singles), Bello’s changeup — often his nastiest swing-and-miss offering — has not had its usual movement.
He’s been able to work around that by commanding his pitches, attacking different parts of the zone with his high-90s four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, and slider. Bello has been good enough to hold opponents hitless even without arguably his best pitch (one he’s refined in part with the tutelage of Pedro Martinez).
The combination is impressive. Consider: Although Bello’s four-seamer averages 97 m.p.h. and has topped out at 99.8 (“We don’t round up,” said Sox pitching coordinator Shawn Haviland), most grade that as being just his third best, behind his two off-speed pitches.
The mix has produced Double A dominance and recognition across the industry for Bello, who is starting to crack national top-100 prospect lists. In six starts for Portland, he’s 4-2 with a 1.60 ERA, 32.6 percent strikeout rate (ninth-best in the Eastern League), and a .137 batting average against (third lowest).
Evaluators see a pitcher with mid-rotation potential who is coming into his own.
“He’s got a chance to be really, really good,” said Carter. “You get goosebumps thinking about the fact that this kid has come as far as he’s come.”
That assessment speaks to a remarkable rise for a pitcher who went overlooked coming out of the Dominican Republic.
Whereas most top prospects sign as 16-year-olds, Bello, a reed-thin 6-footer who weighed just over 130 pounds, joined the Sox as an 18-year-old in 2017, signing for less than $30,000. He had a quick arm and could break 90 m.p.h., but his lack of physicality made it easy for organizations to overlook him.
“It was probably because they felt like I was a little too skinny and just wasn’t built the way I am now. They probably just didn’t notice me at the time,” Bello said via translator Bryan Loor-Almonte. “But I’ve grown and gotten better and better at every level.”
Bello’s potential wasn’t obvious in mid-2019, when he struggled in Single A. Through 15 starts, he had a 7.49 ERA.
But rather than being deterred, Bello worked with Greenville pitching coach Bob Kipper to better understand how his pitches worked, how to sequence them, and where to locate them to achieve better results. In his final 10 starts, Bello had a 3.00 ERA with a 59-9 strikeout-to-walk rate.
“That’s when we started to see that this kid might have special characteristics,” said Haviland. “Not everyone can have an 8 ERA and show up at the ballpark confident in their abilities and sticking to the plan and believing in the process. But he did that.”
That commitment to his development served Bello well during the pandemic-induced cancellation of the 2020 season. He’d made strides, but without games every fifth day, he was able to focus on his physical development. Bello is now 6-1 and about 190 pounds, which allowed him to return from the pandemic throwing harder than ever, regularly touching the high 90s after he’d worked at mostly 93-95 in 2019.
“I just never stopped working,” said Bello. “Even though there was that shutdown, I just kept working, maintaining my routine, and just trying to do everything I could in order to just be ready.”
When the minors returned in 2021, Bello was just that. Back in High-A Greenville, he was so dominant in six starts (2.27 ERA, 45 strikeouts in 31⅔ innings, a chase rate of more than 50 percent) that the Sox bumped him up to Double A in June. But once in Portland, he alternately dominated and proved vulnerable to hard contact en route to a 4.66 ERA.
Though he has elite velocity that beautifully sets up his secondary pitches, Bello and the Sox recognized that upper-levels hitters were capable of turning around his four-seamer. (One evaluator suggested his 96-98 m.p.h. plays like other pitchers’ 93-95.)
And so, at the end of last year, Bello worked with Carter to develop a two-seamer, a pitch that has four fewer inches of ride than his four-seamer, and that features some arm-side run. The pairing of his fastballs along with a change and slider that he can use in different areas, in and below the zone, has resulted in Bello’s contribution to lawn care across the Eastern League.
While Bello still gets plenty of strikeouts, hitters fare poorly when making contact, with the righthander’s 62.5 percent ground ball rate ranking first in the league and sixth across all of the minors. That reflects Bello’s growing understanding of his abilities and how to harness them, and suggests a pitcher who may soon force his way to Triple A, with a potentially exciting big league future.
“His ceiling is a guy that can take the ball every fifth day for the Boston Red Sox,” said Haviland, “and help us win a World Series.”
▪ Righthander Josh Winckowski (Baseball America’s No. 9 preseason Red Sox prospect) has seen his velocity tick up, with his best results of the season following. He followed a start last week in Toledo in which he allowed one run over five innings while working at 93-94 m.p.h. with his best velocity of the season in a two-inning start on Wednesday in which he worked at 94-96. Over those outings, he had 10 strikeouts and one walk with a lot of ground balls over seven innings. His most recent outing was cut short in part to keep open the option of having him as a spot starter this weekend.
▪ After a rough April in which he hit .162/.230/.250, 19-year-old Blaze Jordan (No. 7) has bounced back with a strong start to May for Single A Salem, hitting .382/.436/.588 with just five strikeouts in 39 plate appearances.
▪ The hottest hitter in the system is 20-year-old Eduardo Lopez, who entered Thursday with a .424/.487/.848 line with four homers in May for Salem. The Sox signed Lopez to a seven-figure bonus as a 16-year-old in 2018, but the pandemic and injuries limited him to 11 games in 2020-21. Now healthy, he’s featured the compact swing that drew the Red Sox to him.
▪ WooSox catcher Ronaldo Hernandez (No. 27) is hitting .127/.127/.211 with 23 strikeouts and no walks in 71 plate appearances in Triple A.
▪ Salem righthander Wikelman Gonzalez (No. 13) has logged just four innings in his last two starts while struggling with his control. He’s walked seven, hit a batter, and struck out six.
▪ Reliever Durbin Feltman has given up two runs on three hits in each of his last three outings for Worcester, boosting his ERA to 7.36, despite an impressive 17-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s remained vulnerable to homers, giving up three in 11 innings, bringing his total to 19 in 114 innings in the upper levels of the minors since 2019.