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Steady growth led Red Sox to choose Cameron Cannon with their top pick in draft

The Red Sox’ top draft pick Cameron Cannonsaw his batting avarage improve from his freshman to his sophomore to his junior year (.274 to .321 to .397).
The Red Sox’ top draft pick Cameron Cannonsaw his batting avarage improve from his freshman to his sophomore to his junior year (.274 to .321 to .397). Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/FR157181 AP via AP

“Scouting history” is a commonly used phrase meant to capture a team’s history with a single player, but it takes on slightly different dimensions for Vaughn Williams when it comes to Cameron Cannon — the first player selected by the Red Sox in this year’s draft.

Williams, who scouts the Four Corners region for the Red Sox (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah), has watched Cannon for five years, dating to his junior year at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Ariz., and continuing through the infielder’s three seasons at the University of Arizona.

“I’ve seen the whole canon with him,” Williams chuckled.

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And what Williams saw was not merely a snapshot in time but instead a player evolving across it. It is one thing to see a player with obvious tools and skills that suggest sky-high major league impact. But that isn’t the type of player who is typically sitting on the board for the No. 43 overall pick, early in the second round.

And so, other attributes — not just performance but also change over time, whether a player emerges as something more than he’s been or one who has a long-established track record but endures an underperformance in his draft year that knocks him down the draft board — represent critical elements in adding to the appeal of a player. And in the case of Cannon — the canon of Cannon — there is evidence of steady growth that increased the conviction that he is a player who can handle the challenges of pro ball.

“On the field, off the field, strength, maturity, baseball IQ, work ethic, character — all of it has developed significantly over three years, and I’m really proud he put himself in position to be the first player chosen [this year] by the Boston Red Sox,” said Arizona coach Jay Johnson.

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In 2019, Williams saw a fascinating step forward atop years of steady improvement. Cannon’s average went up from his freshman to his sophomore to his junior year (.274 to .321 to .397). The same was true of his OBP (.384, .427, .478) and slugging percentage (.345, .549, .651).

Yet it wasn’t just statistical improvement that occurred. In the fall entering this year, Williams saw Cannon make adjustments that initially gave him pause. In his prior years, Cannon hadn’t used his legs to generate power in his swing and to drive the ball in the air. He’d more often drilled hard liners, some of which carried out. But as a junior, Cannon made a conscious effort to involve his lower half in his swing and generate more loft, altering his stance, approach, and how his weight transferred from his back leg to his front.

“I was looking to drive the ball a little more gap to gap,” said Cannon. “I was really trying to pepper those gap-to-gaps and get extra-base hits.”

But the adjustments didn’t immediately take in fall games. Williams questioned whether they were a good idea.

“You could tell he was making a change to get to more power,” said Williams. “I was ver-r-r-y cautious about it, saying, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to work.’ ”

But the Arizona coaching staff didn’t try to dissuade Cannon — a suggestion of its comfort with his solid hitting foundation, aptitude, and his ability to work through challenges.

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“This is why I think he’s a good draftee. He has what I would call a low-maintenance swing. What I mean by that, he could try a couple small adjustments because he always had a good base and foundation to go back to,” said Johnson. “He’s not a high-movement guy. He’s into the ground, uses his legs, he commits his upper body and lower body very well, he’s got a great bat path inside the ball. He always had a great foundation to go back to. I wasn’t really concerned.”

In the season, the infielder rewarded that perspective with an enormous performance, including eight homers and an NCAA Division 1-leading 29 doubles along with three triples. The 40 extra-base hits in 56 games suggested a player capable of getting the barrel to the ball frequently, while maintaining an approach that is under control, evidenced by the fact that he had more extra-base hits than strikeouts (29).

Cannon’s .651 slugging mark was particularly impressive given that it came despite a home ballpark, Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, that is cavernous. Yet even with a left-field foul pole that is 366 feet from the plate and 410 feet to left-center, Cannon kept driving the ball, in a way that forced Williams to reassess his outlook about the infielder’s power potential.

In high school and early in college, Williams projected Cannon as a hitter with below-average power, an infielder capable of perhaps hitting 10 to 12 homers with solid marks as a hitter and good on-base skills (as evidenced by the fact that he walked more than he struck out as both a sophomore and junior). But with Cannon’s performance with his swing adjustments, Williams reassessed Cannon as a player with perhaps average power, someone capable of 20 homers in the big leagues. Johnson views Cannon as a player with a chance to have an Ian Kinsler-like impact in the batter’s box.

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Given that the righthanded-hitting Cannon’s power typically is to the pull side, both Williams and the infielder see a natural fit for Fenway.

“I think [the swing] is going to translate great. I’m excited to get out there,” Cannon said of Fenway. “I actually did a workout there this summer playing in the Cape Cod League. I got a good feel for playing on the field. I’m excited to get out there, work those gaps, and pepper the Green Monster out in left.”

And what Cannon showed in his ability to develop his game against the somewhat pressurized backdrop of his draft year offered evidence of the player’s makeup and aptitude, strong traits critical for a player who must confront the challenge of adjusting to the pro game.

“He never looked back [from the swing changes],” said Williams. “That was, ‘OK, this kid can try something, implement something, work at it, and decide one way or the other whether to implement it.’ It was working. It was working. That says a lot. You gauge the determination, the aptitude . . . He’s going to be a special one. He’s going to be special.”

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Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.