Passage through the minor leagues is not expected to go smoothly and cannot be judged solely on performance at a specific point in time. Even top young talents are expected to struggle, in part because they’re adjusting to advancing competition, in part because they’re still maturing, and in part because there’s an element of trial-and-error.
“Player development is a long-term plan,” said Dave Bush, Red Sox pitching coordinator of performance. “It can be hard to be patient, but we’re looking years down the road.
“We want guys to be successful right away, but we also want to make sure we’re doing it in a way that they can continue that as they move forward. We don’t want to sacrifice who he can be as a big leaguer just to make them a good A ball pitcher.”
For the Red Sox, the start of this season has been a reminder of the power of the long view. In particular, the early excellence of righthanders Tanner Houck (3-1, 3.60 ERA, 21 strikeouts, 7 walks in 20 innings in Double A Portland) and Bryan Mata (1-0, 1.40, 26 strikeouts, 7 walks in 25⅔ innings in High A Salem) represents a reversal from the shadow under which the organization started 2018.
A year ago, Houck (ranked third in the system entering 2018) and Mata (fourth) got off to brutal starts in Salem. Their poor first-half performances — along with the absence of the team’s top two prospects, Jay Groome (elbow injury) and Michael Chavis (PED suspension) — cast the farm system in a poor light.
But the direction of the arrow for those two by the end of last season and into this one offers different conclusions. The prospects found solutions that permitted significant growth.
“We’ve got a lot of really, really good guys,” said pitching coordinator of logistics Ralph Treuel. “If we put our brains together, we’re going to come up with something good.”
Mata, who doesn’t turn 20 until later this month, gained considerable strength and velocity as he prepared for the start of 2018, a teenager’s physical maturation. But he struggled to corral the increased velocity, particularly as he tried to incorporate a two-seam fastball.
Through 10 starts last year, he walked more batters (34) than he struck out (31). But down the stretch, he started to locate the pitch in the strike zone, and he’s built upon that this year.
Now he’s regularly sitting at 94 m.p.h. with his four- and two-seamer while topping out at 97. He’s stopped walking batters (his walk rate has plummeted from 7.3 per nine innings last year to 2.5), his strikeouts are up from 7.6 to 9.1 per nine, and he’s permitted Salem’s grounds crew to take days off thanks to a remarkable 66.7 percent ground ball rate.
“He’s settled in quite a bit,” said Bush. “He’s still evolving quite a bit. I think we forget how young he is. But he’s made a lot of progress.”
Houck’s difficult start to 2018 came when a pitcher who’d thrown chiefly two-seam fastballs and sliders in college started working chiefly with a four-seamer, almost to the exclusion of his two-seamer. He struggled with his command, walking a ton of batters and giving up homers.
Just before the All-Star break, the organization encouraged him to lean once again on the two-seamer. Houck didn’t hesitate.
“That’s me,” Houck said. “That’s who I am.”
He started dominating while leaning again on his most comfortable pitch, and he is confident in spreading the strike zone from top (with four-seamers) to bottom (two-seamers).
Moreover, he’s one of several pitchers with whom the organization has been working in an effort to produce Corey Kluber-like sweeping sliders that travel the distance of the plate and produce swings and misses.
The results have been eye-opening. In his last 10 starts (six in Salem last year, four in Portland in 2019), he’s 6-1 with a 2.62 ERA, 62 strikeouts, 13 walks, and just one homer allowed in 55 innings.
He’s thrown 11 shutout innings with 15 strikeouts in his last two starts, showing the sort of dominance that made him a first-rounder in 2017.
“Failing at the beginning of the first half was probably the best thing for me in terms of my development,” said Houck. “I know that I can get past all the rocky edges that are happening through it and continue to stay positive.”
Both Houck and Mata look like legitimate prospects again, with a chance to impact the Red Sox in the big leagues by next year — or, in Houck’s case, potentially sooner. Their about-face suggests that, at a time when the team’s minor league talent is considered depleted (Baseball America ranked the system dead last), there is work happening to counter that.
“We’re perceived as not very good by the industry,” said Treuel. “I think we’re better than a lot of people think we are, and I think we’ll prove that out.”
■ Jarren Duran, a 2018 seventh-rounder who moved from second base to the outfield last year, is off to an amazing start in Salem. The center fielder is hitting .404/.459/.545 with nine extra-base hits and 11 steals through 24 games.
■ Shortstop C.J. Chatham, who hit for average (.314) but almost no power (25 extra-base hits in 114 games) in 2018, has been hitting the ball with more authority in Portland. He has nine doubles through 20 games with a .311/.369/.432 line.
■ Righthander Alex Scherff, who had an up-and-down first full season in which he missed significant time with injuries, is off to a strong start while repeating at Single A Greenville, with a 1.89 ERA and 19 strikeouts in as many innings.
■ First baseman/outfielder Sam Travis is hitting .214/.353/.286 with a 23.5 percent strikeout rate in Pawtucket.
This is his third and final year with options. Given that Chavis has surpassed him in the pecking order of righthanded bats, the 2014 second-rounder may be nearing a crossroads in his Red Sox career.
■ Outfielder Cole Brannen’s second season-opening stint in Greenville is starting no better than his first. Through 21 games, the 2017 second-rounder is hitting .169/.250/.229 with a 37.6 percent strikeout rate.
■ Righthander Denyi Reyes, who was added to the 40-man roster this offseason after showing spectacular command of a four-pitch mix last year, is 0-3 with a 6.87 ERA through four starts in Portland. He’s walking 4.9 batters per nine innings — up from 1.1 last year.