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One Big Question: Can Jay Groome find his out pitch?

Whether it’s an old or a new breaking ball, he needs it to come around.

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Jay Groome, September 2021
Kelly O’Connor

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Jay Groome.

The Question: Can Jay Groome develop a breaking ball to be his out pitch?

The not-so-great history, especially over the last decade or two, with the Boston Red Sox developing pitchers has been well-documented, and the question of why that has been the case remains a fascinating one. Serving as its own baseball-themed chicken or the egg question, one could just as reasonably attribute these issues to poor talent evaluation or to poor development once getting the talent into the organization. The real answer is likely a combination of the two, which is never as fun, along with a lack of commitment of top amateur resources to the pitching department.

That’s why, in 2016, the Red Sox had a prime opportunity to answer some of these criticisms and perhaps learn a bit about this organizational shortcoming themselves. In that summer of 2016, coming off a rough 2015 in which things started to come together a bit but still resulted in a last place finish, Boston got a rare opportunity to draft and develop a top-tier draft-eligible pitcher. That was Jay Groome, who at times leading up to that draft was in consideration as the number one overall pick. A few factors combined to make him fall in that draft, and sitting at number 12 the Red Sox decided they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring him into the organization.

The excitement around the southpaw was palpable for Red Sox fans, with some wariness in there as well, which is natural when a player like him falls in the draft. There’s got to be a reason for that, you know? But with Groome, many of the reasons he remains just a prospect at this point almost six years later do not have to do with the reasons he fell in that draft. Instead, he simply hasn’t stayed healthy. Granted, it’s not as simple as just calling it bad luck because there were some concerns about his conditioning early in his career, and the amount of causation between that and his injury history is impossible to know. What we do know is that from the time Groome entered the organization to the start of last season, he had not been able to really come close to a full season as a professional, with his biggest setback being a Tommy John surgery undergone in 2018.

Last season, we did finally see Groome for what was basically a full season, with some time missed in the middle not for injury but rather paternity leave. That’s the good news, that the southpaw managed to get through 21 starts, beating a previous career-high of 14. The bad news is that the results were a bit middling. They weren’t terrible, to be fair, and there was some good stuff in there, but in the end he pitched to a 4.81 ERA between High-A and Double-A (most of that being spent in High-A) with 134 strikeouts and 36 walks over 97 13 innings. So the strikeout stuff was good with a rate over 30 percent, and even his walk rate was right around average, but overall the results just weren’t there.

From a scouting perspective, what was most clear was that Groome, coming off that Tommy John, just didn’t have the same level of stuff that scouts had hoped for when he was first drafted. That’s certainly true of his fastball, which prior to his surgery looked like it had the potential to sit in the 93-95 range at full maturity but now is more of a low-90s pitch. He also has a changeup which is certainly a solid offering, but not an out pitch, which in fairness is the case for most changeups.

That brings us to the breaking ball portion of the lefty’s repertoire, which once upon a time was going to be a reason he could potentially separate himself as he moved up the ladder. As Keith Law noted in his most recent write-up of Red Sox prospects, he thought Groome’s curveball in his amateur days was one of the three best he’d ever seen from a non-pro, up there with Dylan Bundy and Lucas Giolito. Law also notes that all three of those pitchers have since undergone Tommy John, with Giolito being the only one to see a return to form from his curveball.

Boston Red Sox Taxi Squad Practice
Jay Groome, 2020
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

This is going to be an important thing to track for Groome in his second full season. It was nice to see him on the mound and healthy so much last season, and that was really the big marker we were looking for, even more so than his performance. But now looking ahead to 2022, it’s more about the performance, and more importantly making strides with his breaking ball. With a solid fastball and good changeup that appears to be the least affected pitch from the surgery, there’s a good baseline for him to be a fringe-average starter. And while he’ll likely never return to that top-of-the-rotation upside we saw in his amateur days, Groome could be a mid-rotation arm if he not only develops a workable breaking ball for his third pitch (his curveball may already be there), but making it a true out pitch to get him out of trouble.

The curveball is going to be the main focus here because that was once his bread and butter, and the fact that we’ve seen it be so good before, even so long ago, gives it a leg up. That said, there is a slider that could potentially move ahead of the slower curveball and become that breaking ball Groome needs to add. The slider is more of a new pitch, as he just started throwing it in 2020, but reports indicate it is moving in the right direction. Sox Prospects notes that the offering has made strides since he first started throwing it, and Law goes so far as to say Groome tightening the slider is more likely than his curveball coming back.

Even beyond Groome, the Red Sox are starting to develop better pitching, and more than any time in recent history they have a line of arms in the high minors waiting to contribute at the highest level. Groome is among them, having been placed on the 40-man prior to the 2021 season to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, though he’s a step behind with only three starts at Double-A. But looking down the road, he still has arguably the most upside of the group, maybe with the exception of Brayan Bello. The issue is that you really need to squint at this point to see that mid-rotation upside. That squinting, however, will be less of a necessity if we see one of those two breaking pitches, whether it be the old or the new, make a step forward and become a legitimate out pitch.