Left-hander Trey Ball entered the season being viewed as the consensus best two-way player in the draft, someone worthy of early-round status as an outfielder or pitcher. But the mystery surrounding his potential career path lasted about as long as his first outing of the year.
This was a miserable spring in the Midwest, one filled with brutal weather conditions that became something of a scouting nightmare, with games of top prospects routinely getting rained out and leaving the armadas of GMs and front office evaluators, scouting directors and cross-checkers banging their heads against ... umbrellas, one supposes.
Even for those games that weren't rained out, the awful conditions weren't exactly conducive to seeing players at their best. With pitchers fighting through at-times arctic elements, they could be forgiven if their stuff was reduced.
"The weather was actually awful this year," suggested Ball. "We had a lot of snow and rain and it was very cold. I remember pitching at night when it was 30 degrees and sleeting out."
Through those types of circumstances, Ball took the mound for the first time in 2013 in a frosty day game in late-March.
"He came into the season and obviously, he's very talented. He has all five tools. Being that type of an athlete, it'd be tough to not look at him as a possible everyday guy. He hits with power. He has speed. Everything," recalled New Castle High School coach Brad King. "But he came out of the gates, early in the season, throwing 94 in Game 1. We were playing at Crawfordsville. It's 40 degrees. He comes out on top of his game and he really never looked back. As the season progressed, his off-speed pitches got better, his touch got better and it really became a no-brainer that people were going to look at him on the mound first."
Already, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see why Ball represented an opportunity for the Sox, in the words of scouting director Amiel Sawdaye, to "swing for the fences" with their first-round pick. As a 6-foot-6 lefty whose wiry frame suggests the possibility of more strength and, hence, velocity, particularly when exposed to something other than this spring's climate challenges, and particularly when committing full time to a pitching program, it's easy to think about a fastball that can regularly be dialed into the mid-90s.
If Ball -- who put up the usual Nintendo numbers (6-0, 0.76 ERA, 93 strikeouts and 13 walks in 46 innings) that one will encounter in a high-school first-round pitcher -- is a left-hander with the ability to summon that kind of velocity, the notion of potential top-of-the-rotation potential already becomes fairly straightforward to fathom. After all, consider the following list of left-handed starters this year whose average fastball has been 92 mph or better:
Derek Holland, Rangers (93.6 mph): 5-2, 2.81 ERA
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (92.5 mph): 5-4, 1.93 ERA
Matt Moore, Rays (92.5 mph): 8-1, 2.95 ERA
Gio Gonzalez, Nationals (92.4 mph): 3-3, 3.64 ERA
Jon Lester, Red Sox (92.4 mph): 6-2, 3.60 ERA
Chris Sale, White Sox (92.3 mph): 5-3, 2.44 ERA
That's it. There are six left-handed starters in the majors this year whose fastball has routinely topped 92 mph, and the group features one Cy Young award winner (Kershaw -- who, notably, was taken by the Dodgers with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2006 draft), one Cy runner-up (Gonzalez), two players with past All-Star credentials (Lester -- who, notably, represents the last high school left-hander on whom the Sox used their top pick in a draft ('02) and Sale) and two more who may be in line as soon as this year for All-Star consideration (Holland, Moore).
In other words, were one to construct a prototype of a No. 1 starter, Ball's size, athleticism and power fastball would represent a number of checked boxes -- particularly given the room for projection of his present heater.
"We tried to keep the pitch count down obviously when it was cold here in Indiana, but as the weather started warming up and he built up his stamina, the last I think three outings he had, he was up around 100 pitches. And talking to scouts, his velocity stayed in that 92-94 range in that whole game," said King. "I've heard -- haven't really spoken to anybody -- I've heard that he touched 95 and maybe even 96, but I can't confirm that. ... [And] once he gets some more weight on his frame, a little bit more experience working with the top guys in the Boston organization, he's probably going to gain maybe three, four miles per hour on his fastball."
But, of course, if Ball didn't have an arsenal beyond a fastball, then the Sox would have just spent their highest draft pick in two decades on a reliever. So what else does the 18-year-old feature? That's where things start to get interesting.
For most of his high school career, Ball was a fastball/changeup/knuckleball pitcher. Knuckleball?
"He did throw a knuckleball. As a matter of fact, he did throw it a little bit this year," said King. "It's got a lot of movement, but that's one that a lot of people have talked to him about getting away from, but I wouldn't be surprised if you see it a little bit."
Ball's arm was protected as an amateur. His father didn't want to see him become a cautionary tale, a high schooler whose reliance on breaking balls led to an early-career blowout.
And so, until about halfway through his junior season, his arsenal featured his explosive fastball along with a pair of secondary weapons that rely on grip rather than arm stress. The result is a level of comfort with his changeup, a pitch that is often an area of developmental need for most high school and even some college pitchers at the start of their pro careers after they spent their amateur lives blowing away opponents with power.
On top of that, Ball finally started working a curve into the mix in 2012. In doing so, while the pitch is a work-in-progress ("I see myself working on the curveball a lot, improving that," noted Ball), the left-hander showed early signs of aptitude for it.
"To be honest with you. if you came out to see him play, you wouldn't think he'd been doing it for only a year, because he's pretty polished," said King. "Obviously it has room for growth, but it's an above average high school curveball. He really doesn't have the wear and tear that most high school pitchers have because he's never really thrown it."
After last summer, when Ball was a standout on the showcase circuit, he was identified by the Sox as a clear possibility to be worthy of one of the top 10 picks in the draft, and so the team placed a priority early on getting numerous looks from many evaluators at his outings. Obviously enough, in Ball, they saw the sort of pitcher on whom they could dream -- for whom there was not only that dazzling present fastball from a left-handed pitcher but also the traits (size, athleticism, competitiveness -- most recently evidenced by his state championship-clinching shutout in which he punched out 13 in a complete-game three-hitter, and that idea that pitchers from the cold-weather regions typically have more physically in the tank than what they show in the season) that the Sox love to see in projecting top high school pitching talents.
"We viewed Trey as one of the most complete players available in this year's draft," amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye said in a press release. "His size, athleticism, competitiveness, and makeup made him attractive to the Red Sox as we watched his outstanding performance as both a pitcher and an outfielder. We were thrilled that such a talented player was available to us, and believe that Trey will excel professionally as a left-handed pitcher."
So will the Sox be able to sign him? After all, the last time that the team took the most prominent two-way player in the draft was 2008, when first-rounder Casey Kelly required a well above-slot signing bonus ($3 million) and a commitment that the Sox would permit him to pursue a professional career as both a pitcher and shortstop in order to pass on a two-sport scholarship at the University of Tennessee. Likewise, the last time that the Sox took a University of Texas recruit in the first-round, they had to convince catcher Blake Swihart -- who possessed a wardrobe of nothing but burnt orange clothes in homage to the Longhorns -- with $2.5 million (again, a slot-destroying sum) to pass on his scholarship.
Ball, on the other hand, seems less unlikely to drag out negotiations. How focused was he on the possibility of a professional future? He willingly took a hit with his numbers as a high school senior -- posting a solid but not outrageous .322 average in 90 at-bats with 10 homers, 21 steals and 31 walks -- because he elected to swing with a wood bat in an effort to further his potential pro future and to give scouts a somewhat less-artificial look at him as a hitter than might have been the case with aluminum.
Indeed, if anything, there is speculation that he might be willing to take a slightly under-slot bonus (the No. 7 pick has a recommended bonus of $3.246 million) that would permit the Sox to push some money towards another pick or picks in the draft. His wardrobe is somewhat more diverse than was Swihart's.
"I don't see a whole lot of burnt orange," chuckled King. "As far as signability, I've known Trey for a long time. His goal has been to get to that next level, to play at the pro level. I think his main goal is to play professionally. It's in Boston's hands now, but I'd say we can see him with the organization soon. Looking at those [slot] numbers --- not that an education from the University of Texas isn't a great thing, but that would be tough to walk away from. And you get to live a lifelong dream."
Indeed, Ball did little to conceal his excitement in a conference call following his selection. Never, he admitted, did he dream that he would be taken as high as No. 7 overall. When his name was called, the 30 family members with whom he'd elected to spend draft night -- passing on the opportunity to travel to New Jersey for the broadcast of the selection process when he learned his grandparents could not accompany him -- exploded.
"I was speechless. It's kind of surprising. I had no idea where it was coming from. I guess it was a last-minute decision, but I'm not sure. It's a moment of greatness, and I'm very excited, very happy," said Ball. "Once they read the name, everyone erupted and everyone was yelling and screaming. I hugged my mom first and that was a moment I'll never forget."
As for whether he wants to turn pro or follow through on his Texas commitment?
"We haven't shut the door on anything," said Ball. "But it's the best fit for me and my family. Anything can happen, but I feel that Boston is right for me."
At the No. 7 pick, the Sox reciprocated the sentiment. There is unquestionably considerable risk -- the potential for injuries among high school pitchers alone suggests a considerable barrier to the realization of potential -- but the team also saw a player with the talent and potential to justify a bold move with the seventh pick in the draft.
After all, a 6-foot-6 left-hander with the ability to throw strikes and light up the radar gun represents a pretty obvious formula for impact.