FORT MYERS, Fla. – Jason Groome turns 18 on Tuesday. The event will not represent his most significant milestone of the week. On Monday, the still-17-year-old lefthander made his first professional appearance in a game since the Red Sox took him with the No. 12 overall selection of this year’s draft.
In two innings pitching for the rookie level Gulf Coast League Red Sox against the Rays’ GCL affiliate, the first-round pick out of Barnegat (N.J.) High came as advertised. Groome threw two shutout innings with 30 pitches, 19 of them for strikes. He allowed one hit (an opposite field double to a lefthanded hitter who lifted a fly ball just inside the left field line), walked none and struck out three.
Opposing hitters swung and missed at seven of his offerings – five on fastballs that ranged from 90 to 95 m.p.h., two on nasty 78-80 m.p.h. curveballs.
“It basically meant all the hard work finally paid off. You’re finally a pro now. After putting on the jersey, it’s just a dream come true. I’m finally playing professional baseball … Wearing this shirt, I’m part of the Red Sox family. It’s awesome,” said Groome. “I just overall felt great. … I really wasn’t nervous at all. Coaches always say just trust your stuff, you’re here for a reason, and if your stuff wasn’t good enough, you wouldn’t be here. I took it as that.”
Between Groome’s size (6-6, 200) and the ease with which he showed quality stuff, it wasn’t hard to see understand why the Red Sox were so excited that he fell to them with their pick.
“That’s what they’re supposed to look like. Big lefthander with size, some secondary stuff to go with it,” said GCL Red Sox manager Tom Kotchman. “He doesn’t look like he’s a guy that’s just out there, max effort throwing fastballs. He’s got an idea what he’s doing.”
For now, particularly in the short outings that will characterize the start of his pro career, Groome is emphasizing his fastball and curveball. His changeup (a pitch he threw just a couple of times during Monday’s start) will be an area of emphasis going forward.
“He’s got an excellent fastball, a really good breaking ball, and the changeup is still a work in progress,” said GCL Red Sox pitching coach Dick Such. “It’s a really good arm. He has a nice, easy release. If we can keep his mechanics in order, he should be a good one.”
Of course, the question of what Groome “should” be is an interesting and potentially perilous one. While he arrives in the Red Sox organization with considerable fanfare based on his potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter, the Red Sox are trying to instill the understanding that he is at the beginning of a years-long process. Kotchman, the father of a former first rounder (Casey Kotchman) and someone who has encountered numerous first-rounders over the course of his 38 seasons in the dugout for the Tigers, Red Sox, and Angels systems, has discussed the need to emphasize work over reputation to Groome.
“I understand expectations of first-rounders. I have one that lived 20 feet from me in my house. I get it,” said Kotchman. “I had Roger Clemens when he signed out of the draft. The only way you knew he was a first-round pick was by watching him pitch. That’s what your goal should be.”
In that vein, Groome has encountered nothing but raves to this point from the Red Sox organization. While makeup questions floated around him leading up to the draft, none of those have been borne out since he signed on July 15 and commenced his pro career.
“He’s done all the right things, never been late, no curfew stuff, nothing. He’s been outstanding. … We’ve never had to address him once, on or off the field,” said Kotchman. “He’s been perfect – the face, the articulation of the language, just blending in with everyone, doing the charts, being where he’s supposed to be. He’s never been in the wrong place one time. We’ve got pitchers here who still don’t get to the right place.”
Monday was Groome’s first opportunity to pitch against a lineup of professional hitters and to start taking a measure of his stuff against them.
“I have goals for myself,” said Groome. “I know that I’m at the end of the ladder right now, but I know that as long as I trust in my stuff and trust the process, there’s no reason why I can’t be up there.”