By the time the first half of the season came to a close, Single-A Greenville first baseman Josh Ockimey was putting up some of the best numbers in the South Atlantic League.
Through 61 games, the 20-year-old was batting .297, with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs to boot. He had an impressive .435 on-base percentage and was named a league All-Star. He managed to become the 10th-ranked Red Sox prospect at MLB.com after being ranked 16th at the start of the season.
Selected by the Red Sox in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia, Ockimey began to demand attention thanks to his power at the plate. His 16 home runs are fifth most in the league, and MLB.com says that the left-handed batter has “some of the best raw power among Red Sox farmhands.”
Ockimey, who blasted a 420-foot home run at Fenway Park during a pre-draft workout two years ago, said he’s never really had difficulty showcasing his strength on the offensive end.
“I’ve always been naturally able to generate power,” Ockimey said. “I just try to square the ball up, and if you get that done, it’s part of it.”
The success at the plate came to a screeching halt, however, once opposing teams started to use a shift on the pull-happy Ockimey. He’s averaging a measly .149 in the second half, including .151 in July. It didn’t help that he had more strikeouts in July than any other month.
“He really used the left side of the field well early on, middle of the field well early on,” Greenville manager Darren Fenster said. “Then all of a sudden, teams started pounding him in and he got beat in a little bit, so he started looking in. It’s just been a back-and-forth of him kind of just getting back to the middle of the field.”
With the season winding down, and the book already out on Ockimey, it’s crucial for him to get back on track and finish strong if he wants to stand out in a organization jam-packed with promising prospects. Can he get back to his first-half self and cap off a breakout year, or will his struggles continue, suggesting his first-half performance was a fluke?
This isn’t the first time Ockimey has gone through a rough stretch. He hit only .188 in 36 games in the Gulf Coast League in 2014, describing that first year as a learning experience.
When Ockimey does go cold at the plate, however, Fenster has been impressed with the slugger’s work ethic and attitude.
“The way that he’s handled both his times where he’s been going well and when he’s been struggling here a little bit in the second half has been really, really impressive,” Fenster said. “He has not let good or bad affect the way that he goes about his business, he’s a very professional worker in every sense.”
Ockimey has spent extensive time before games working with Greenville hitting coach Lee May Jr., who was a first-round draft pick of the Mets in 1986. May echoed Fenster’s comments on the prospect’s professionalism.
“He’s grown a lot,” May said. “He’s learned a lot this year going through a full season and kind of getting a run around the track and getting a feel for what it’s about to be a professional hitter and athlete. He’s done a phenomenal job working on both sides of his game, as far as defense and the offensive side.”
One of the reasons Ockimey thrived offensively earlier this year is his improved judgment on pitches. After totaling a 34.1 percent strikeout rate with the Short-Season Single-A Lowell Spinners in 2015, Ockimey has dropped that rate to 25.7 percent during his time with the Drive.
Part of the reason is he’s now wearing contacts that improve his vision to 20/15. Ockimey also has increased his walk rate from 10.9 percent last season to 17.5 with Greenville.
“Just recognizing the pitches,” Ockimey said when asked how he’s able to draw walks at such a high rate. “Say if it’s a 2-0 count and the pitcher paints a fastball low and away, like somewhere right on the plate, you don’t necessarily have to swing at it. Just looking for the pitches that you want.”
Fenster points out that although Ockimey has had a hard time getting hits, he still is managing to get on base and be productive. His on-base percentage for the month of July was .291, thanks in large part to a 15.5 walk rate.
The on-base percentage always will be there, but Ockimey will have to beat the infield shift in order to return to his first-half self. Ockimey has the tendency to pull hits between second and first base; almost all of his ground outs have been fielded on the right side of the diamond.
According to May, all Ockimey can do is focus on making good contact, and the rest will take care of itself. He said playing a full season for the first time also has affected Ockimey, who played only 56 games with the Spinners last year.
“You don’t worry about where they’re playing on defense,” May said. “You just try to square the ball up and hit the ball hard. I don’t think the defense has played any part of his average, I just think it’s a young kid going through his first season. … It’s a lot to ask for a guy to come in and hold and do what he did from the beginning of the season all the way to the end. This is just kind of where he has to be digging and finishing up the season and trying to learn from it, learning how to play when you’re a little tired and your legs are a little heavy.”
Ockimey agreed with his hitting coach that he needs to get back to hitting the ball cleanly, and the results will follow.
“If you stay in the middle of the field, square the ball up, that’s all you can do,” Ockimey said. “Wherever it goes, it goes. If it goes for a hit, and you squared up, it’s a good thing. If you squared up and somebody catches it, it’s still a good thing. There’s nothing you can do about it, you did your job. It’s one against nine.”
It seems the pressure sits on Ockimey’s shoulders as he works to push his second-half batting average closer to the Mendoza line. The Red Sox have one of the deeper farm systems in baseball, with four prospects ranked in the top 40 overall at MLB.com and plenty of other promising athletes in the organization. Red Sox personnel surely will be looking closely at Ockimey’s numbers in the upcoming weeks to determine which player he is more like, the Ockimey from the first half of the year or the second.
Fenster said it’s not about productivity for Ockimey; rather, it’s about maintaining the same approach on the field and doing your best to finish on a high note.
“We place such an emphasis on finishing the race and trying to finish strong,” Fenster said. “That means controlling the things that we can control and being consistent in our approach every day. When we do that, all those numbers that everybody sees on the back of a guy’s baseball card at the end of the year, they tend to take care of themselves.”
This final stretch of games may be Ockimey’s most important stretch of baseball in a long time. Credit to him, he clearly isn’t stressing the numbers; he even admitted to not knowing his batting average.
“It’s funny because I was just talking to one of my teammates about it,” Ockimey said. “You don’t really look at your average until the end of the year. I was told I was hitting .240, but I felt like I was hitting .270.”
Ockimey has the right mentality to overcome his slump. Now all he can do is keep his eye on the ball and hope for the best.