This past Thursday, I saw one of 2017’s breakout candidates for the first time: Philadelphia Phillies right-handed pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez. Sanchez was even better than advertised, and I think it’s safe to say he’s breaking out. Sanchez mixed in all kinds of fastballs from 92 up to a comfortable 98, and featured a promising slider and change. The command profile was unusually advanced for an 18-year-old making his second start in A-ball, especially one that was a late pitching convert. He worked unusually fast, and he got off the mound to cover first as fast as any pitcher I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t perfect—the command wasn’t always there—and normal caveats about tiny righties who have two starts above the complex leagues absolutely apply. But you’re probably going to be hearing us all talk about Sixto Sanchez in hushed tones for awhile.
The next night, I snuck away from that Lakewood/Greensboro series and drove down to Trenton for the Double-A version of Yankees/Red Sox. It was mostly to get a 2017 drop-in on Rafael Devers and start building up looks on Gleyber Torres. But the thing that ultimately stood out the most was Portland’s starting pitcher, Trey Ball.
Trey Ball was Sixto Sanchez once. Well, not exactly—Ball is an American lefty, and I don’t recall anyone clocking him at 98, but there are still a lot of similarities here. Ball was a two-way player when drafted seventh overall by the Red Sox in 2013, just like Sanchez was when signed, yet the skill on the mound was too much to pass up. Ball was just off our 2014 global prospect list, just like Sanchez was just off this year’s, a promising pitching prospect out of the Gulf Coast League about to make his way to full-season ball. And then Trey Ball’s career stalled.
He spent his first three full seasons as a terrible disappointment in A-ball. What looked to be projection turned into stagnation and even regression, as his fastball dipped into the high-80s and he never found a consistent secondary offering. His walk rate rose every year, starting to flirt with the same area as his strikeout rate. A 2016 run as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League went no better. Teams don’t give up easily on the seventh pick in the country, but Ball had an obvious fallback option beyond the usual lefty relief gig: playing the outfield, which was how he popped up on my radar as a potential 25th-man two-way player last month. The Red Sox sent him to Double-A Portland for 2017 for what might’ve been his last shot as a starting pitcher. I expected Ball to come out throwing along the lines of what CJ Wittmann last officially reported for BP in 2015: velocity in the low-80s up to 90 or 91, without great command or movement, along with a below-average curve and change that would occasionally flash better but usually not. That lined up with everything I’d heard about Ball since then—just not progressing much.
Instead, Ball came out firing 91-94 with a fastball that he manipulated well to both sides of the plate; the wow moment for me was when he completely tied up Torres with 93 cutting in on the hands. The command wasn’t great, but it was certainly better than advertised. The curve and the change still were what they’ve always been, below-average pitches with flashes of just a little more, but Ball showed off a pitch I wasn’t aware he threw: the hard cutter-ish slider that many around baseball have tried out. The pitch varied in velocity throughout the mid-high-80s, and he didn’t always command it or seem to know what it was doing. But there were plus sliders mixed in there, with sharp break. With further refinement, it might just be the swing-and-miss pitch that Ball needs.
I bring up Ball in relation to Sanchez to note how tremendously impatient we are as prospect folks. Ball is only 22; in another universe where he’d fulfilled his college commitment to Texas, he’d be a 2016 draft pick making his full-season debut this year. None of the abilities that made him a top-ten pick ever disappeared, they just didn’t progress how we’d have liked them to progress. There was no injury or major loss of skill. The dude just scuffled for awhile. Perhaps he’s done with scuffling now and about to break back into being a major prospect. Perhaps the slider never comes around and I got him on a day with a little extra juice on number one. Perhaps I just saw the best-looking start of an otherwise indistinguished professional career. But Trey Ball is firmly back on the prospect map for me, years after it looked like we were done caring.
There are very few prospects that don’t hit some type of bump in the road. Command comes and goes. Health problems, minor to major, can crop up. Long bus rides and crappy meals and bad sleeping situations can throw a player off his game. Many of these are the sort of things we will never know about as media and fans and evaluators. We can’t know, and we have to make judgments without knowing.
We play a partial information game, in which development comes in fits and starts if not steps back and leaps forward. I don’t have any easy explanation for why Trey Ball spent three years in the wilderness and suddenly came out with a velocity and slider spike, or even any great idea whether it will all stay. Maybe Sixto Sanchez’s ride through the ups-and-downs of prospectdom will be smoother. Maybe he’ll suffer the slings of “bullpen arm” the whole way through. Maybe he’ll go through a rough patch or miss some time. Pitching is complicated and messy, and pitching prospects are tough propositions on the best of days (if you believe they exist at all). So I don’t know what Sanchez’s path will bring, but I do know it’s going to be a long, long time before I give up on the kid, because I’m going to remember that the first time I saw him was right before I saw Trey Ball resurrect himself.