Right-hander Allen Webster once again proved all but unhittable but struggled to find the strike zone. (AP)
This isn’t the same Allen Webster who opened eyes in spring training.
The right-hander currently in Triple-A Pawtucket bears some important similarities to the pitcher who showed off-the-charts stuff down in the Grapefruit League. His stuff verges on unhittable at times, as when he allowed one hit (a single) and permitted just two balls out of the infield in five innings on Sunday while punching out seven and getting swings and misses on 15 of his 92 offerings. Certainly, his 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings and .158 opponents’ batting average along with a 2.40 ERA are eye-openers. The pitch mix is electric.
But whereas his improved command in spring training — highlighted by a 14-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate — was one of the biggest show stoppers in camp, Webster’s command has regressed recently in Pawtucket.
Sunday underscored the trend. Webster was filthy out of the gate, retiring the first 11 batters he faced in order. However, he then allowed five of the next six batters he faced to reach, walking four of them in the process and missing the strike zone badly with a number of pitches. As a result, on a day when he had incredible stuff, Webster managed to work just five innings while throwing 92 pitches (48 for strikes — just 52 percent).
He’s now walked nine batters in his last 10 innings. In 30 innings in Triple-A this year, he’s walked 15 batters, a rate of 4.5 per nine innings. As much as the 23-year-old’s extraordinary stuff and ability to get both swings and misses and tons of grounders creates general enthusiasm about his big league future, the fact that he has dominant major league stuff does not necessarily mean he’s major league ready. After all, with his current command and pitch efficiency issues, Webster confronts some of the same issues that have been areas of concern for left-hander Felix Doubront. In eight starts this year between Triple-A and the majors, he’s worked more than five innings just twice.
The temptation when seeing a remarkable talent such as Webster is to focus on his ceiling. But it will take time before he is capable of scraping it.
TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 11-3 WIN VS. INDIANAPOLIS (PIRATES)
– Chris Martin contributed two scoreless innings, bringing his total number of shutout innings this year to 26 — 21 in Double-A, and five in Triple-A. Opponents are 2-for-14 against the 26-year-old in Triple-A.
– For the first time since April 27, Jackie Bradley Jr. was in the outfield, playing center on Sunday. He’d been limited to DH duties while managing his sore biceps at the end of April prior to landing on the DL for that condition. Bradley went 1-for-4 with a walk, and he’s hitting .300 with a .413 OBP in 13 games with the PawSox.
– Jeremy Hazelbaker went 1-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base (along with two strikeouts). Here are his year-by-year lines in full-season ball:
2010 (Single-A Greenville): .267/.360/.455, 63 steals, 12 homers
2011 (High-A Salem, Double-A Portland): .269/.360/.445, 47 steals, 17 homers
2012 (Double-A Portland, Triple-A Pawtucket): .273/.335/.472, 36 steals, 19 homers
2013 (Triple-A Pawtucket): .285/.358/.446, 12 steals, 5 homers
In other words, the 25-year-old is showing a fairly consistent track record across levels. His high swing-and-miss rates and the fact that he’s probably limited defensively to the outfield corners might have played into the fact that he didn’t get taken in the Rule 5 draft a year ago, but if he continues to perform at this level in Triple-A this year, it will be hard for teams in need of outfield help to ignore him again — if the Sox don’t protect him themselves on the 40-man roster.
DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 8-5 LOSS VS. BINGHAMTON (METS)
– Xander Bogaerts went 2-for-5 with a double. After not collecting any extra-base hits in his first 10 games of the year, the 20-year-old now has 13 (seven doubles, four triples, two homers) in his last 24 games, ranking fifth in the Eastern League in the category since April 17, with a line of .323/.411/.542 in that time.
– Left-hander Drake Britton gave up six runs (including a season-high five earned runs) while matching a season-high with seven hits allowed in 5 2/3 innings. He walked two, struck out four and got swings and misses on 10 of his 90 pitches. Britton’s ERA is now 4.79 for the year, and by and large, he’s showing improvement in pitching ahead in the count with reduced walk rates this year (3.4 per nine, compared to 4.0 per nine last year) while also working regularly into the sixth inning. Still, at a time when the left-hander is in his second year on the 40-man roster and when others in the organization — Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes and Henry Owens, to name a few — who have yet to make it to the 40-man roster are on more accelerated developmental tracks with clearer long-term likelihoods of futures as big league starters, there will come a point where the Sox will need to see Britton dominate for a stretch in the upper levels if he is to figure into the team’s future as a rotation member.
– Outfielder Pete Hissey went 2-for-5 with a double and triple, improving to 7-for-18 with four extra-base hits (two doubles, two triples) in his last four games. The 23-year-old is hitting .293/.370/.402 in his return to Double-A Portland, a considerable uptick over his .250/.298/.331 line of a year ago.
HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 6-4 LOSS VS. FREDERICK (ORIOLES)
– Catcher Blake Swihart suffered a disconcerting injury, getting hit on the head by a backswing. Swihart, who went 1-for-3 on Sunday, said via twitter that he did not suffer a concussion but did require three staples. He offered a kind of gross picture of his head wound on Instagram.
– Right-hander Noe Ramirez continued his promising showing as a reliever, tossing two scoreless innings in which he allowed one hit, didn’t walk a batter and struck out two. In his last eight appearances, the 23-year-old now has a 2.08 ERA with 17 strikeouts and one walk in 17 1/3 innings. Given his low arm slot, it’s not terribly surprising to see pronounced splits for the 2011 fourth-rounder. Lefties are hitting .350/.395/.475 against him, while righties have a .231/.281/.327 line. Still, he has a swing-and-miss changeup that lends itself to the possibility of effectiveness against hitters of both handedness.
– Third baseman Garin Cecchini went 1-for-3 and got hit by a pitch. He’s reached base in 11 straight games, with the 22-year-old pacing the Carolina League by huge margins in average (.381; second-best is .331), OBP (.478; second-best is .422) and slugging (.657; second-best is .549).
SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 9-7 LOSS VS. CHARLESTON (YANKEES)
– Daily Feats of Mookie: Mookie Betts went 2-for-4 with a double and a walk. He now has a 14-game hitting streak during which he’s raised his average from .145 to .264, elevated his OBP from .340 to .418 and nearly doubled his slugging percentage — thanks to five homers and six doubles among his 23 hits — from .263 to .496. On the year, he has nearly as many extra-base hits (15) as he does strikeouts (16), and he has more than twice as many walks (35) as he does strikeouts.
As explored at greater length in Sunday’s roundup, Betts’ offensive profile to date this year is unlike that of anyone else in the minors in 2013. While in a less-than-two-month sample (meaning, it may be little more than a mirage), he’s combining skills in games in a way that is rarely seen at any level of professional baseball.
– Shortstop Jose Vinicio went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles, his first game this year with multiple extra-base hits. (He had two such games last year, also in Single-A Greenville.) Both of the doubles came against lefties, against whom the switch-hitter had struggled to date in 2013. Entering the game, he was 2-for-29 with no extra-base hits or walks against southpaws.
This marks the second straight year in which Vinicio has struggled significantly against lefties. In 2012, he hit .305/.347/.396 against right-handed pitchers but just .203/.247/.304 against lefties.
– Right-hander Justin Haley matched a season-high with six strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings as a piggyback starter behind Austin Maddox. In two long relief outings since being moved into the piggyback role, Haley has allowed one run in six innings (1.50 ERA) while striking out eight and walking four. Those numbers compare favorably to the 21-year-old’s work in six starts preceding that, when he had a 6.66 ERA, 27 strikeouts and 28 walks in 25 2/3 innings.
– Austin Maddox, a 2012 second-rounder, continued to struggle in his first full pro season. He allowed nine hits (including two homers) in 4 2/3 innings while giving up five runs, striking out three and walking two. He’s yielded five or more runs in four of his last five outings. While he has a solid 31-to-12 strikeout-to-walk rate in 35 1/3 innings, he’s already permitted eight homers (2.0 per nine innings) with opponents hitting .342 against him.