Trey Ball and Irrational Fan Expectations

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People love talking about prospects. They represent hope for organizations. Sometimes, however, fans’ obsession with prospects and their status goes too far. Brandon Magee looks at Trey Ball and irrational fan expectations when it comes to pitching prospects.

Trey Ball was drafted as the seventh overall pick of the 2013 MLB first-year player draft. Despite not yet turning 21 and pitching in High-A Salem, people are concerned about his progress. Has Trey Ball progressed slower than expected? Or, are the expectations of how Ball should be progressing based on poor assumptions? 

Ball was a two-way prospect coming out of high school in Indiana – excelling with an ERA of 0.76 with 93 strikeouts in 46 innings while batting .330/.504/.795 with 20 extra base hits in 30 games in his senior season. In an article by Kyle Brasseur of ESPN Boston, GM Ben Cherington talked about why Ball was picked:

“Makeup, athleticism, stuff, projectability. We sort of go through the checklist of things that we need to see in a high school pitcher to invest a first-round pick, and he just checks all the boxes. He’s got the chance to be really good one day.”

Trey got his professional start in the Gulf Coast League in 2013, pitching seven total innings in five games. The next season, Ball skipped directly to the A-Ball affiliate Greenville Drive, starting 22 games. Ball struggled with the assignment, especially at the beginning. After his fourth start – where Ball went 2/3rds of an inning allowing 5 earned runs – his ERA stood at 9.42 with a WHIP of 2.44 and a OPS against of 1.071. After that game, Ball’s numbers started to slowly improve. Over his next ten starts, Ball was able to mix in very good performances (such as three five inning starts with no runs allowed) with poor performances (such as 4 IP, six runs on four hits and four walks). After the third no run game on July 19th, Ball’s ERA was still at 6.06 with a 1.70 WHIP and an .857 OPS against:

While there was clearly progress, it was also slow and rocky. However, he was a nineteen year old in full season ball, nearly two years younger than the average pitching prospect in the South Atlantic League. In his final seven games of the season, Ball found his groove. In only one of those games did Ball allow more than two earned runs or pitch less than five innings (on August 15th, Ball pitched two innings while allowing four earned runs (nine total) on nine hits and four walks). For the first time in his professional career, Ball came off the mound after completing six innings – in fact, he did so five times in those final seven games. He also pitched part of the seventh inning on August 10th, when he went 6 ⅔ innings, giving up only three hits and two walks. He finished off his season in style, going six full innings on August 30th, giving up five hits and striking out five while allowing no runs for the fifth time in twenty-two appearances. His final line in 2014 was  a 4.68 ERA with a 1.50 WHIP and a .775 OPS against. These stats were less than stellar, but the progress over the season was evident:

Promoted to High-A Salem to begin the 2015 season, Ball again struggled early. As the second youngest pitcher on the staff (Australian Daniel McGrath was born ten days later), Trey started the season by allowing 6 runs and 10 hits in his first start. After, arguably his best professional appearance in his next outing (six innings, no hits, no runs, two walks, five strikeouts), Ball put up four poor starts. After the game on May 9th (five innings, six runs, seven hits, two walks), his ERA stood at 6.03 and his WHIP was 1.40. However, even within those weak outings there were signs of progress as he reached the fifth inning in all of those games. 

As was the case in Greenville last season, Ball quickly showed progress. In his next five starts, Trey pitched 27 ⅓ innings, allowing only five earned runs. In his last four starts prior to Sunday, Ball has pitched into the sixth inning, and in three of those starts, he has not allowed a single run. In the final two starts, Ball may well have turned a corner. On June 4th, Ball gave up two hits and four walks, striking out a pair in six scoreless innings. On June 9th, Ball gave up two hits and two walks in 5 ⅔ scoreless innings, striking out a career high nine:

After the game, Alex Kraft of MiLB.com talked to Ball about his outing. Ball analyzed his approach:

“I’m starting to really hit on working in and out with my pitches and keeping (hitters) off balance with my offspeed stuff. Honestly, I think I need to continue working with my fastball command as well as with my changeup and curveball. Just being able to command all three of those pitches.”

After his second consecutive no run game, Ball’s ERA tipped under 4.00 for the first time in his career. On Sunday, Ball continued his recent dominance, going four more innings without allowing a run – 15 ⅔ innings total. Unfortunately, rain delayed the game and ended his outing early. His ERA currently stands at 3.73, his WHIP currently stands at 1.34 with an OPS against of .714. Progress is being made and made quickly but is it coming slower than others with a similar pedigree?

In the 2002 draft, the Red Sox selected another left-handed high school pitcher out of a northern state, Jon Lester from Washington. Like Ball, Lester got a taste of professional baseball with the Gulf Coast League Red Sox in the year he was drafted. He then began his first full season in the South Atlantic League as a 19 year old. As a 20 year old, Lester spent his season in High-A Sarasota, where he recorded a 4.28 ERA with a 1.32 WHIP. The next season Lester was in AA Portland, the following season he made his Major League debut.

Henry Owens, a lefty out of California, followed a similar path. A first round draft pick in the 2011 draft, Owens debuted with the Greenville Drive in 2012 at 19 years old. He also had his struggles, finishing the season with a 4.87 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. He was promoted to the Salem Red Sox in his second season, Owens’ season in Salem was generally smoother than Ball’s has been, but was not without it’s own rough spots (3 ⅓ IP, eight runs (six earned), on five hits (three home runs) and two walks on May 11th). Owens was promoted to AA Portland for the final month of his second season where he also spent most of his third season, before getting a late season bump to AAA Pawtucket. The 22 year old Owens is currently spending his fourth professional season with Pawtucket:

Although not a draftee or a Red Sox signee, Eduardo Rodriguez showed a similar career progression as Ball, Owens and Lester. He was 19 years old when he made his full season debut with the Delmarva Shorebirds of the South Atlantic League, struggling with a 3.70 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. Rodriguez started the next season with the Frederick Keys of the South Atlantic League, putting up a 2.85 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP in 14 games before being promoted to the Bowie Baysox of the AA Eastern League. Rodriguez would spend the next year and a half at the AA level, refining his skills. Starting this season with the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox, Rodriguez made his Major League debut on May 28th:

19 year old* 20 year old* 20 year old* 21 year old* 22 year old* 22 year old*
A Ball High A Ball AA Ball AA Ball AAA Ball MLB
Jon Lester 3.65 ERA/1.38 WHIP 4.28 ERA/1.32 WHIP 2.61 ERA/1.15 WHIP 2.70 ERA/1.46 WHIP 4.76 ERA/1.65 WHIP
Eduardo Rodriguez 3.70 ERA/1.24 WHIP 2.85 ERA/1.21 WHIP 4.22 ERA/1.29 WHIP 3.60 ERA/1.31 WHIP 2.98 ERA/1.10 WHIP 3.55 ERA/1.03 WHIP^
Henry Owens 4.87 ERA/1.45 WHIP 2.92 ERA/1.13 WHIP 1.78 ERA/1.09 WHIP 2.60 ERA/1.13 WHIP 3.45 ERA/1.29 WHIP^
Trey Ball 4.68 ERA/1.50 WHIP 3.73 ERA/1.34 WHIP^
*Age as of June 1 ^Season In Progress
@soshbaseball

Trey Ball should not be considered a bust. In fact, his progression through the system is going according to plan. Considering the progress he has made in just his last six starts, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that Ball gets a promotion to the AA Portland Sea Dogs this season – following the same path as Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens. He is certainly on pace to join the Sea Dogs by at least next season, just as Lester did when he was 21 years old. None of this means that Trey Ball will make the Major Leagues. However, it does mean that progress takes time for high school pitchers and fans should not jump off the bandwagon as soon as a bump in the road is hit.

Brandon Magee is our resident minor league expert. Check out his weekly minor league report, breakdown of this year’s draft, and the 2010 draft.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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