PORTLAND, Maine — A year ago, Durbin Feltman’s entry into the Red Sox system came with a countdown. The third-rounder, who’d been as dominant as any college closer during his three-year career at TCU, seemed certain to blitz to the big leagues.
Some evaluators thought he had the stuff — a mid- to upper-90s four-seam fastball and a devastating power curve — to reach the game’s highest level as soon as 2018. While the Red Sox made a point of keeping him below Double-A in his first pro summer, it nonetheless seemed like a real possibility that — in a bullpen short of established late-innings options — Feltman had a chance to emerge as a big-league possibility by the middle of 2019.
But need (real or perceived) does not dictate a player’s developmental timetable, nor does it alter the reality of the difficulty of professional baseball. Feltman’s first full pro season has offered reminders why so few players storm through the minors within a year of being drafted.
“Everybody gets kind of a baptism by fire when they get into pro ball,” said Joe Oliver, Feltman’s manager in Double-A Portland. “I don’t know if it’s a fair assessment for him to think that he could blow through the minors. I don’t know exactly where it was all fabricated or where it came through, but he’s one year removed from TCU. . . . He’s been put on the fast track, definitely, but he’s starting to understand how difficult it is on a day-to-day basis.”
The 22-year-old, who had a 1.93 ERA with 36 strikeouts and five walks in 23⅓ innings in three levels of A-ball (Lowell, Greenville, and Salem) last year, has endured some sizable potholes in 2019 in Portland. In 18 games and 20⅓ innings, he has a 5.75 ERA with nearly as many walks (16) as strikeouts (21).
“It hasn’t gone the way I’ve wanted it to so far,” he acknowledged.
Yet Feltman believes that his season reached an important turning point on May 9.
That was the day, after a third consecutive disastrous outing in which he collectively allowed eight runs and walked nine in three innings, a pitcher who spoke candidly of his appetite to get to the big leagues as soon as possible recognized that he needed to stop trying to overthrow while pitching for promotions.
“I was just like, ‘I’m putting too much pressure on myself that I’ve got to make it now. I’ve got to focus on where I am now,’ ” said Feltman, who quickly recognized via video that he was pulling off in his delivery, resulting in his dramatic difficulties throwing strikes. “I kind of got ahead of myself a little bit. Since then, I was just, ‘Relax, and do what you do.’ Since then I’ve gotten back into the swing of things.”
Indeed, Feltman has allowed two runs while striking out 11 and walking three his last eight appearances and 10⅓ innings. His velocity has been solid even if shy of where it was in college — his fastball has sat at 93-94 mph, topping out at 96 — and, at the encouragement of the team, he’s been focusing on pitch location.
Feltman threw his fastball down in the strike zone, with his breaking ball diving below it for chases at TCU. The Sox want Feltman to focus on attacking at and above the top of the strike zone with his fastball, while landing his power curve (a pitch with high-80s slider velocity that has 12-to-6 downward break) either in the zone or just below it.
“I’ve started throwing up in the zone a little bit more. Wherever he sets up, I throw at the catcher’s mask,” said Feltman. “I’ve noticed that it plays better up there. The worst they do is pop it straight up.”
“That’s a huge, huge adjustment for him,” observed Portland pitching coach Paul Abbott. “Everything that’s been pounded into his head up to this point is, ‘Bottom of the zone, bottom of the zone.’ Now he’s starting to pitch to the top of the zone. It’s a big difference in your release point. He sees it and understands why we’re doing it. He’s getting there.”
In short, Feltman is developing — the point of the minors, and part of the reason why the suggestion of a blitz to the big leagues was a bit misleading. There is more for him to do, whether locking in the consistency of his delivery to improve his command, continuing to gain comfort with different locations, and perhaps even working a bit more to incorporate a third pitch.
He remains mindful of the conversations about the Red Sox big-league bullpen, and he likewise sees that teammate Darwinzon Hernandez has shuttled directly between Double-A and the big leagues. That is a path Feltman would love to travel, but he now recognizes that he’s better served focusing on his work in Portland than trying to dictate when he gets to Boston, a lesson that will soon be shared by the players whom the Sox took in this year’s draft.
“You know there’s a chance, but at the end of the day, you have to perform well to get that chance,” said Feltman. “If you pitch well, you kind of force their hand. You can’t look forward to it. I feel like I did that earlier and that’s kind of why I struggled a little bit.”
■ Outfielder Jarren Duran, promoted to Double-A Portland following a .387/.456/.543 run in 50 games with High-A Salem, created buzz in his second game in Portland, not only lining a double to the opposite field off the Maine Monster but also showing blazing speed in beating out a routine grounder to short for a single.
■ Righthander Tanner Houck struck out 11 with no walks while allowing a pair of runs (the product of weak contact) over seven innings for Double-A Portland on Thursday. Houck dominated righthanders with a wipeout slider while working up and down in the strike zone with four- and two-seam fastballs and also mixing in some good changeups. Houck has had a very strange season, facing several lineups comprised almost entirely of lefties and a couple (as with Thursday’s) made almost entirely of righties. Righties are hitting .226 with 29 strikeouts and one walk against him; lefties are hitting .321 with 31 strikeouts and 18 walks.
■ Albert Feliz, a 17-year-old outfielder in the Dominican Summer League, hit three homers as part of a 4-for-5 performance on Thursday. All three homers had exit velocities of 100 mph or greater, and his fourth hit was a double to right-center that hit the top of the wall.
■ Righthander Kutter Crawford has experienced a sudden loss of the strike zone in High-A Salem, walking 13 in his last three starts (14 1/3 innings). Prior to that, he had just 14 walks in 43 innings while forging a 2.72 ERA.
■ In Double-A Portland, shortstop C.J. Chatham has been sidelined for the last two weeks with a hamstring injury – particularly noteworthy given that he missed almost all of 2017 with hamstring injuries. He has begun a running program.
■ First baseman Josh Ockimey continued something of a roller coaster three-true-outcomes season. In his last 10 games, he’s 3-for-35 with 15 strikeouts in 40 plate appearances. Though he has 13 homers, he’s hitting .207/.367/.509 with a 28.4 percent strikeout rate. That said, his numbers against righties – .252/.416/.605 – suggest a potential contributor if the team needs a lefthanded bat with thump.