In the summer and fall of 2012, Trey Ball represented a fascinating curiosity. Evaluators viewed the Indiana prep star as an elite athlete, but there was some debate about whether he had a brighter future as a center fielder or pitcher.
In the spring of 2013, however, Ball ended the debate. As a lefthander whose velocity was regularly at 94-95 miles per hour in cold-weather games and with a hammer of a curveball from a smooth delivery, he flashed top-of-the-rotation potential. The Red Sox drafted Ball in the first round (seventh overall) in 2013, and they committed to developing him as a lefthanded starter.
Five years later, however, Ball’s path to the big leagues has become opaque. In spring training this year, he moved to the bullpen, where he has worked at up to 95 m.p.h. and shown a somewhat improved ability to get swings and misses (a career-high 19.6 percent strikeout rate, including a 26.9 percent against lefties) with his fastball/slider combination.
What he hasn’t been able to do is avoid hard contact, as evidenced by a .322 opponents’ batting average, a .961 opponents’ OPS, and a 7.11 ERA.
And so, over the last several weeks, Ball’s pregame routine has included more than just getting ready to pitch. He also has been jumping in the cage with the Double A Portland Sea Dogs, taking hacks during batting practice.
This isn’t the turn on the road map that is certain to have Ball convert to a position player, but the Red Sox also haven’t ruled it out.
“It’s definitely not a conversion at this time,” said Red Sox vice president of player development Ben Crockett. “There’s still good things with his stuff.
“He’s been taking [batting practice] for a while. He continues to pitch. That’s kind of how we mapped it out for him — more exploratory than anything else. We’re still kind of in that initial stage at this point.
“Trey was on board. It was an opportunity to do something he’d enjoyed in the past. It gives him a chance to go out and take BP. I think if you ask a lot of pitchers whether or not they’d have interest in doing that, I think you’d probably get a lot of positive responses across the board.”
So the Sox aren’t committing to anything with Ball. Given that he’s in the initial stages of his career as a reliever, he may continue to be a pitcher — and a pitcher only — moving forward.
For now, there are no discussions about developing him simultaneously as a pitcher and hitter (the Shohei Ohtani plan), or moving him off the mound full time, or having him alternate a half-season of pitching with a half-season of playing in the field, something the organization did for a year with 2008 first-rounder Casey Kelly.
But if the Sox do have Ball cross the line from pitcher to hitter, they’ll be asking him to undertake something drastic. There are numerous success stories of position players moving to the hill. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, for instance, used to be a catcher. Nationals closer Sean Doolittle moved off first base in the Oakland system. The Red Sox just traded outfielder-turned-pitcher Williams Jerez to the Angels as one of two relievers in the Ian Kinsler deal.
But going from the mound to an everyday player is different. This century, Rick Ankiel and Adam Loewen come to mind as players who reached the big leagues as pitchers, saw their mound careers come to a screeching halt, then moved through the minors anew and reached the big leagues as position players. (Loewen, amazingly, saw his position career stall and once again reached the majors as a pitcher. He’s now playing indy ball in New Britain, Conn.)
They are outliers.
It’s one thing for a position player to find a one- or two-pitch mix and channel that into a mound future after a couple years of not throwing off a mound. After all, those players continued to throw and develop arm strength as position players.
Pitchers, however, put down a bat as soon as they enter pro ball. Red Sox lefthander Brian Johnson was considered good enough as a power-hitting first baseman to have gone in the first three to five rounds of the 2012 draft had he not been taken as a pitcher out of Florida in the first round that year. Johnson didn’t pick up a bat until preparing for an interleague game last season, after four years of focusing solely on developing as a pitcher.
“The game was a lot faster than I remembered it,” said Johnson. “I remember when I faced a guy in Miami [this year], 92 [m.p.h.] looked like 100. It looked quick. Putting it down for — what? — four years, then picking it back up, it’s tough.
“And I’m seeing predominantly fastballs off pitchers. I couldn’t imagine jumping into someone else’s shoes and seeing four to five pitches that are off-speed, especially when guys have power stuff.”
That said, Johnson believes that with more batting practice, he has gained increasing comfort in the batter’s box. He noted that as a standout athlete, Ball represents the type of player who has a chance to thrive in challenging circumstances should he move off the mound.
“Obviously, he’s a great athlete,” said Johnson. “The more and more practice you get, the timing will come back.
“They say it’s like riding a bike. I wouldn’t say it’s like that, but it’s kind of similar to where if you do it more and more, you kind of get that timing down, hand-eye coordination back, and everything kind of clicks.”
The Red Sox and Ball are still trying to figure out what might click, and how to give the former top pick his best chance to get to the big leagues. Five years into it, Ball’s career represents a venture into what could be a fascinating unknown.
■ Righthander Tanner Houck spent much of the first half of the season working to alter his pitch mix and figuring out the right balance between a two- and four-seam fastball as well as the best shape to his breaking ball. He appears to have come out on the other side of that undertaking. In his last nine starts for High A Salem, Houck has a 2.58 ERA with 51 strikeouts and 19 walks in 52⅓ innings, generating a ton of ground balls with his two-seamer as well as swings and misses with his four-seamer and breaking ball.
■ Righthander Denyi Reyes is enjoying a remarkable season in Single A Greenville. The 6-foot-4-inch 21-year-old, who has exhibited outstanding control in his four-year pro career, went 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA, 30 strikeouts, and no walks in July, leaving him with a 10-3 record, 1.89 ERA, 122 strikeouts, and 13 walks in 123⅔ innings.
He features a four-pitch mix (low-90s fastball, curveball, slider, change) that lacks a true wipeout offering, but the improvement in the breaking balls and ability to attack the strike zone suggest a player who has a chance to perform his way into prospect status.
■ Third baseman Brandon Howlett, the 21st-round pick in this year’s draft, is turning heads in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League. The 18-year-old is hitting .341/.434/.565 with 3 homers among his 13 extra-base hits in his first 24 pro games, delivering offensive impact in his first pro summer in a fashion that has been matched by few Red Sox high school draftees in recent years.
■ In Portland, Michael Chavis has struggled in his return from his 80-game season-opening suspension for a positive PED test. In 12 games, he is hitting .152/.264/.326, striking out in 32 percent of plate appearances. He’s also committed four errors.
■ In Salem, shortstop C.J. Chatham may have hit a bit of a wall, hitting .212/.254/.227 with 19 strikeouts in his last 71 plate appearances, lowering his line to .297/.344/.359. A performance dip down the stretch for the 23-year-old doesn’t come as a complete surprise, given that he missed nearly all of 2017 with injuries.
■ Salem righthander Roniel Raudes, who last pitched June 8, is expected to miss the rest of the season with elbow inflammation. The 20-year-old is not expected to require surgery.
SAME FACES, NEW PLACES
The trades of Triple A relievers Ty Buttrey and Williams Jerez set in motion a series of dominoes in the Red Sox system. Most notable among them: Travis Lakins and Matthew Gorst moved up from Double A to Pawtucket, while third-rounder Durbin Feltman moved up in his first pro summer from Single A Greenville to High A Salem. Feltman is believed to be the first Red Sox prospect to advance past Greenville in his pro debut since 2005 first-rounder Craig Hansen. The Sox are also promoting second baseman/outfielder Jarred Duran and catcher Kole Cottam from Lowell to Greenville.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.