Trey Ball has had a rough time in the pros. Drafted with the seventh-overall pick back in 2012, Ball was a tall, projectable left-hander who had the ceiling of a number two starter. He was the kind of pitcher that made sense for the Sox to get in terms of that ceiling, as they so rarely had the opportunity to draft that early. With that youth and projection also comes a low floor, though, and that’s where Ball has spent most of his pro career.
It’s been four years since Ball was selected, and he’s made progress on the mound in that time. He hasn’t made that much, though, and is still only in High-A, where he still hasn’t quite solved the level — in fact, he’s pitching in a way that suggests he would be wrecked with a promotion to Double-A.
With many pitching prospects, consistent pummeling at Double-A would mean the end of the line — maybe they try to convert to relief to see if their stuff plays up, or maybe there just isn’t any stuff to be played up with that switch, so they call it a career when there’s no other option in sight. Ball has another option, though, and it doesn’t involve the mound at all. The Red Sox could very well convert Trey Ball to hitting, which in the eyes of some, like Baseball Prospectus’ Christopher Crawford, is what they should have done in the first place.
"I thought Ball was a hitter from the moment I saw tape of him hitting, and unfortunately, nothing has happened since 2013 to convince me otherwise,” Crawford told Over the Monster. “I wish I could be surprised that the pitching hasn't worked out, but I'm not. We've seen lots of left-handed projects go high, but Ball was almost entirely projection; the overall stuff was lacking, and that's being nice. Has he made some progress since he was a prep? Sure, but there was just such a long way to go.”
Back in 2013, when Ball was first drafted, Crawford warned of all of this in our annual look at where Boston’s new first-round pick ranked in the system after being selected:
There are three things that concern me about Ball.
1. Not a great feel for pitching yet.
2. Arm action isn't the cleanest.
3. I still think he's a better hitting prospect.
And where is he now? Not one of Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, Keith Law, or Sox prospects ranked Ball in the organization’s top-10 to start 2016. Even after his comparatively decent start to the year, Sox Prospects still only has Ball ranked 15th in the system, one spot up from where he was when the year began. Sox Prospects’ scouting report describes his potential as mid-rotation, but there is also a lot still built on hope and results that haven’t existed just yet. That’s not a knock on Sox Prospects’ evaluation of Ball, by the way: it’s just the reality of the lefty’s situation.
Let’s break down just what the issues are with Ball on the mound. He has a 2.81 ERA in 64 innings for High-A Salem, but that’s about as deceiving as ERA can get. Ball has struck out just six batters per nine in his second year in the Carolina League. He’s walking 4.5 batter per nine, so his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 1.3 — last summer, it was 1.3 for Salem. He’s not giving up as many hits as he used to, and the introduction of ground balls to his game — Ball is inducing grounders 51 percent of the time after an abysmal 24 percent rate in 2015 — has helped him make up for the walks and lacks of strikeouts, but what exactly is all of this going to look like at Double-A when he eventually gets there?
Ball walks too many batters and doesn’t miss enough bats, and this whole process is going to start over again when he gets promoted. It took him two tries at High-A to figure out the level, and you could argue pretty easily he still hasn’t quite done that. What’s the end product going to be if the Sox keep him on the mound, and when will they get to see it? He’s already four years into his pro career, and might see Double-A for the first time before this season is out.
Remember, the jump between the low- and high-minors has a lot of similarities to the jump between the high-minors and the majors. Ball is going to be in for a rude awakening when his opponents are no longer swinging at the pitches that induce these grounders as often, or letting his misses go unpunished as often.
So, the Sox can keep Ball on the mound, and maybe get a big-league pitcher out of him eventually if he suddenly progresses — and fast — in ways that he hasn’t shown himself able to prior to this point. Or, they could try him as a hitter now, while he’s still young enough to figure things out and maybe contribute in that way.
Just who was Ball as a hitter back in high school? He eschewed aluminum bats in high school for wood, even though his league didn’t require or even suggest that. He had plenty of success in high school using wood, too, and it looked like there might be a potential professional hitter in there.
“As a hitter, I saw a guy with a smooth, line-drive swing who had enough bat-speed and projection in his frame to hit for power,” said Crawford of Ball’s work at the plate. “He was also a solid-average to above-average runner, and though there was work to be done, he looked like a potential 55-grade right fielder because of his athleticism and a plus-plus throwing arm. There was a lot of work to be done, but I thought there was as much upside in his bat as any left-handed hitter in the class.”
Ball is now four years older and with less time to polish off that promise to turn it into production, but he’s not exactly close to figuring things out on the mound, either. At 22, he’s still young enough to have time to figure out how to hit professional pitchers — it would essentially be like the Sox just drafted an outfielder out of college.
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The Sox should hit reset with Ball before too much longer, giving him a bat and an outfielder’s glove and letting him try to reach the majors that way. There’s still potential on the mound, but we’re at the point where he seems so far away from fulfilling it that asking him to toss the last four years away to try hitting doesn’t sound ridiculous.
Maybe he’s not cut out for a pro career as a hitter — maybe he ends up seemingly stuck in place like Stetson Allie, a former pitching prospect and second-round pick the Pirates converted to the mound two years after drafting him. Or maybe he’s the hitting answer to Williams Jerez, a Red Sox second-round pick who converted to the mound and then rocketed through the system to Double-A after three tough years as an outfielder.
Stetson and Jerez both need a lot of work to get to the majors from where they are, but both are in a better position — and closer than they ever looked like they would get in their old roles -- thanks to a switch. Maybe taking Ball off the mound and seeing if the 6-foot-6 bat still has that bat speed and a line drive swing is just delaying the inevitable. Maybe changing his role after some progress, however limited, isn’t going to be good for Ball regardless of any latent offensive talent he has. Or maybe it’s exactly what he needs to jump start his career.
We won’t know unless the Red Sox try, and given where Ball’s career is as a pitcher, trying seems worth the risk.