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Why Trey Ball's up-and-down season preaches patience in prospect development

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Ball, last year's number seven overall pick, has made huge strides since the beginning of July. The lefty's early-season struggles and recent successes, however, still don't warrant any type of prospect labels.

Gail Oskin

The start of Trey Ball's 2014 season was less than ideal for the lefty. Through the first two months of the season, Ball put up statistics that were discouraging, considering the hurler's draft position last year as the number seven overall pick in the First Year Player Draft. Through June in 11 starts, Ball posted a 7.27 ERA with 29 strikeouts, 17 walks, allowing 71 hits and 39 runs allowed in 43 1/3 innings pitched. On top of it all, against Ball, opponents hit .370, got on base at a .423 clip and slugged .563.

In short, Ball's performance was a disappointment. Given Ball's draft position and the amount of talent and the projectability that the lefty has, it was a performance that fell short of expectations.

Although Ball struggled in his first exposure to pro baseball in the Gulf Coast League (five starts, 6.43 ERA, seven innings pitched, five earned runs, six walks, five strikeouts), the struggles clearly extended into the first half. Ball's difficulties immediately brought up questions regarding the hurler's status as a top prospect in the Red Sox farm system. Ball started the season as a top-10 prospect for the Red Sox but, after his struggles, the southpaw dropped into the low-teens in many evaluator's rankings of the team's farm system.

Ball, according to many reports, struggled to show command of his arsenal, leading to his undesirable numbers for Greenville. It was no longer crazy to talk about whether or not Ball could put things together and show signs of what made him a top-10 draft pick.

Since the beginning of July, however, Ball appears to have turned a corner. In that span, Ball sports a 3.00 ERA with 25 strikeouts, 14 walks and 12 runs allowed in 37 innings pitched over seven starts. Opponents are hitting .188, getting on base at a .269 clip with a .273 slugging percentage off of Ball.

On Sunday, Ball had the best day of his professional baseball career, hurling a career-high 6 2/3 innings, allowing no runs, two walks, four strikeouts and three hits. The start marked the third time in the last four starts that Ball has gone six innings, something that had not done in his professional career until July 25.

Ball's development in recent weeks has opened eyes.

"[Ball]’s pitched progressively better and better as the year’s gone on," Greenville manager Darren Fenster told the Greenville News after Ball's start on August 5. "I don’t know if we’ve had anybody who’s really developed as much as he has."

The last seven starts for Ball have guaranteed that 2014 is not a completely lost year for the lefty.

Struggles are almost inevitable when it comes to high school pitchers, especially when pitchers are as raw as Ball was coming into the draft. For prep players, the statistics in the first year of pro baseball -- in Ball's case, in the Gulf Coast League -- are practically thrown out the window. Players often use that year to adjust to living life outside of home and playing baseball every single day.

One very successful major league pitcher put up this stat line in his first year of pro baseball in the Gulf Coast League: 2/3 innings pitched, six runs allowed, five hits allowed and one strikeout.

That pitcher is Jon Lester.

While Lester only pitched in one game, his first exposure to pro baseball after being drafted in the second round in 2002 was less than ideal. As Lester's performance indicates, one's statistics in the GCL has no bearing on future success in pro baseball.

High school pitchers inherently have an incredibly high risk of flaming out. With that said, Ball's recent success is incredibly encouraging, as he tries to establish himself as a pitcher with one of the highest ceilings in the Red Sox farm system. In addition to a fastball that can continued to be improved upon, Ball's already throws a changeup that is relatively advanced for his level, which can attributed to the fact that he was a fastball-changeup pitcher until his junior year of high school. Ball also continues to improve his curveball, a third pitch that could concretely establish his status as a prospect with a ceiling of a top-of-the-rotation starter.

"We viewed Trey as one of the most complete players available in this year's draft," said amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye when the team drafted Ball. "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."

While watching Ball progress for the remainder of the season, it will be important to not come to conclusions based on statistical results. Ball's future stats in High-A Salem and Double-A Portland will ultimately carry much more weight than the numbers he posts for Greenville for the rest of the year.

What's most important to remember about Ball is that patience will be required. At 6-foot-6, Ball will continue to add weight to his frame while learning how to command the strike zone. Time is still on Ball's side. Because there is no reason to expect Ball to contribute at the major league level in the next two years, even three years, there is no reason to put labels on his prospect status until 2015.

There still isn't any way to know whether or not Ball will succeed at the big league level. The team has drafted several high school players over the past decade that have not panned out (Caleb ClayJason Place come to mind). Whether or not Ball joins that illustrious group is very much in the air. Until then, Trey Ball is an idea, someone who either represents the future of the Red Sox or another name among the likes of Clay and Place.