The way the Red Sox roster stands right now, they still have a chance to be a good playoff team, but they are probably going to need some help from some unheralded pieces. That includes some rookies, of whom they should have a few (relatively) notable debuts. As camp gets closer I’ll have a look at all the players who could debut this year, but the biggest names are ones like Bobby Dalbec, C.J. Chatham and Tanner Houck. Looking at how things shake out at this moment in time, however, don’t sleep on Josh Ockimey as a guy who could make a real impact in the coming year, for better or for worse.
First, a little background on Ockimey for those who don’t know him. The first baseman was taken out of high school in Pennsylvania in the fifth round back in the 2014 draft. Starting in Lowell in 2015, he steadily made his way up the system, putting up offensive lines that were at least 21 percent better than league-average (per Fangraphs) up through Double-A. He first made his way to Pawtucket midway through the 2018 season and then spent all of 2019 there as well, putting up an average line in 2018 and a little better than that last year.
We’ll get into the strengths and weaknesses of his game in a minute, but first we have to acknowledge some barriers in his way. For one thing, the offseason is not over. As the roster stands right now, it’s not terribly difficult to see playing time for him, as the left-handed complement for Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec at first base, potentially allowing Chavis to roam a little bit to second base and left field, if necessary. That said, if/when they do something like bring back Mitch Moreland or even sign someone like Greg Bird, it becomes a lot harder.
Furthermore, Ockimey is not on the 40-man roster. He could have been added prior to the Rule 5 Draft, but the team opted to leave him unprotected for a second straight year, and once again he went undrafted. It goes without saying that players on the 40-man are more likely to be called out then those off. That said, the Red Sox still have plenty of fringe pieces around the edges of the 40-man who could be let go if room was needed for Ockimey. He won’t be handed anything, but guys like Hector Velázquez, Chris Mazza, Austin Brice, Jonathan Arauz could be off the 40-man. There’s also the Dustin Pedroia-sized elephant in the room and the very real possibility he is back on the 60-day IL to start the year. The point is, if Ockimey has a role, they’ll find a way to get him on the roster that is not too painful.
Now, as for Ockimey himself. He is a player, while certainly flawed and not likely a guy destined for stardom, who I’ve always liked. He’s not my typical kind of player — I generally gravitate towards contact/speed-oriented up-the-middle players — but he stood out to me when I saw him in Lowell back in 2015 and then again in Portland in 2017 and 2018. The power is very real, and while he’s had trouble always getting that to play in games (mostly due to his hit tool), it’s gotten more consistent as he’s progressed through his career.
He also draws a ton of walks, getting up to a rate of 17.5 percent last season in Pawtucket. There was some concern early in his career that he was actually too patient and that he was letting some hittable pitches go by in order to work a count and draw some walks. That part could still be true — it was when I saw him, but that didn’t happen last year. I was more concerned, however, that it simply wouldn’t work when he faced more polished hitters in the upper levels. He’s still been able to draw walks at the same rate, though.
The issues are as clear as the positives. For one thing, he swings and misses a lot and is never going to put up a high batting average. We know batting average isn’t the most telling stat for a hitter, but it’s still a major component of OBP and if you are starting with an average in the .200-.215 range — where he’s been in Pawtucket — you’re facing an uphill battle. His walk rate has buoyed that to this point, but it’s hard not to be wary of a guy who has carried a strikeout rate of at least 25 percent at every stop in the minors and has more often been closer to (or above) 30 percent.
On top of that, Ockimey is a strict platoon player. Now, since he hits from the left side he is on the long end of the platoon, but he is still nearly unusable against left-handed pitching. Here are his OPS’s against left-handed pitching in his full seasons, dating back to 2016: .535, .564, .775, .600. There is one season in there in which he was playable. That part can be mitigated, though, with the aforementioned presence of guys like Chavis and Dalbec, who both hit from the right side.
As I said at the top, the Red Sox are going to need to contributions from some unheralded and unexpected places if they want to reach their highest potential in 2020. One of this could be Ockimey. The first baseman has real power that should play in the majors as well as the patience to mitigate some of that swing and miss. More importantly, his enormous splits match up perfectly with where the roster stands right now. When we talk about prospects, we generally focus on star potential. As players get closer to the majors, though, perhaps we should pay more attention to role players whose clearly-defined role is there for the taking in the majors. That describes Ockimey, and while success — or even playing time — is no sure thing, he’s a guy to remember as the season gets underway and the roster churn begins.