Nick Northcut is putting on a show. The 22-year-old Red Sox prospect has blasted 14 homers in 30 games for High A Greenville, most in the South Atlantic League and tied for third-most in all of minor league baseball.
The sight of his soaring fly balls has become a staple of the spring at Fluor Field.
“It’s been pretty majestic,” said Red Sox hitting coordinator Reed Gragnani.
His power surge has inspired moments of amazement. On May 7, Northcut stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. He had homered in each of his previous three games, and Greenville hitting coach Nate Spears couldn’t help but anticipate another.
After Northcut fell behind, 0-and-2, he spit on a pair of pitches outside the zone before getting a fastball middle-in. He didn’t miss it, launching a grand slam to left-center and leaving Spears shaking his head.
“You just kind of felt it,” Spears said. “It was kind of magical.”
Where did this come from? How did Northcut go from hitting three homers in 101 games in his first two professional seasons in 2018-19 to launching 31 in 126 games over the last two years? He can thank the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.
Both of Northcut’s parents perform in the orchestra; his father plays the tuba and his mother plays the flute.
With the cancellation of the minor league season in 2020, Northcut went home to the Cincinnati suburbs and dedicated himself to working out and spending time in the cage with his father.
Growing up, Northcut had used one of his parents’ most important tools, a metronome, to establish the rhythm and timing of his swing. For the first time in years, he dusted it off.
He synched the components of his swing — a toe tap, stride, and swing — to the 1-2-3-1-2-3 rhythm of the metronome: Tap-stride-swing-tap-stride-swing.
When a group of Red Sox prospects convened in Fort Myers, Fla., for an instructional camp in 2020, Northcut saw promise in the work he’d done during the shutdown. To build on his swing work, he moved to Fort Myers to work with trainers, nutritionists, and coaches.
Northcut started slowly last year in Single A Salem but caught fire down the stretch, hitting .295/.377/.608 with 15 homers over 60 games (in a ballpark typically hostile to power). He returned to Fort Myers in the offseason and further refined his swing, eliminating the toe tap. The results thus far have been eye-opening.
“He’s understanding the way his body works and the way his body moves a little bit more each year as he’s grown as a hitter, and we’re kind of starting to see just a little bit different product in the box now,” said Spears.
Northcut has proven capable of getting to a variety of pitches, including mid-90s fastballs, and driving them to all fields.
“It’s something I always thought I was capable of doing,” said Northcut. “Every single year, I thought I was capable of being the best hitter in the league, the best hitter in minor league baseball.”
While his power has been elite (14 homers, a .647 slugging mark), his .252 batting average has been roughly consistent with the league average, while his .305 on-base percentage has been well below it.
Northcut plays both corner infield spots, and his dominance against lefties — .471 with a 1.726 (!) OPS and 4 homers in 19 plate appearances — suggests at least platoon potential in the big leagues. The angle of his swing is geared to drive the ball in a way that characterizes many big league power hitters.
That said, there is a sizable question that hovers in the form of a high strikeout rate (36.7 percent, sixth-highest in the Sally League) and low walk rate (4.7 percent, fifth-lowest). Power is insufficient to carry a player to the majors if he can’t make enough contact.
Yet the Sox feel there are reasons not to be alarmed by Northcut’s strikeouts. His chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone is below both Sally League and MLB averages. He generally has done a good job of swinging at the right pitches, and further gains in his timing can allow him to get to more of the pitches he’s swinging at.
“He’s missing some pitches that we think he can hit, but he’s doing a fantastic job not chasing,” said Gragnani. “We can coach that.
“If he gets better at making contact in the zone, even at an average rate in MLB or even at this level, then you’re talking about a premium power hitter that can hit .270 with the damage.”
Northcut is more than willing to work on that timing. He has a metronome app on his phone that is part of his daily routine, the steady beat aligning not only with his swing but with a barrage of homers.
▪ Evidently, top prospect Marcelo Mayer did not receive the memo that he was supposed to be rusty after missing most of three weeks. In three games with Salem this month, he’s 5 for 13 with 4 doubles, posting a .385/.400/.692 line while showing an effortless ability to drive the ball to left.
▪ Outfielder Gilberto Jimenez is starting to tap into his considerable strength with a more upright stance that allows him to drive the ball in the air and improve his pitch selection. He already has a career-high five homers for Greenville and is hitting .319/.396/.532 in May.
▪ Utility player Eddinson Paulino is hitting .339/.425/.548 with more walks (9) and extra-base hits (9) than strikeouts (8) in 15 games this month for Salem. The 19-year-old lefthanded hitter, who already played short, second, and third, has recently started playing outfield.
▪ Lefthander Brandon Walter (No. 6 in Baseball America’s Red Sox prospect rankings) hit a speed bump in May after a dominant April. In two starts for Portland against Hartford, he allowed 15 runs (11 earned) in seven innings. He’s still throwing strikes (10 Ks, 2 BBs), but one evaluator wondered whether the deception from his low three-quarters delivery might diminish as Double A hitters gain familiarity with him.
▪ Worcester catcher Connor Wong is hitting .190/.282/.206 with one extra-base hit in 71 plate appearances.
▪ Portland infielder David Hamilton has seen his production taper off after a hot start. In his prior 22 games entering Thursday, he was hitting .221/.316/.372 with a 26.3 percent strikeout rate.