Brent Honeywell would ask himself many questions after a difficult outing.
Heâ€™d think about the game, what went wrong and what he could do better next time around. He thought a lot, perhaps too much, about his first two starts in the Florida State League in 2015. He got hung up on it. Back then, he said he asked himself why guys were hitting him so hard. Heâ€™d done well up to that point. He hadnâ€™t struggled much in Rookie League Princeton or in Short-Season A-Ball in Hudson Valley. This was a new challenge to the Tampa Rays 2014 second round pick out of Walters State Community College. Â
He still talks about these moments of reflection, but thereâ€™s a purpose to the process now. It isnâ€™t an energy-wasting exercise (not that it ever was) Â that can only hurt him, and the ball club, as that fictional Durham catcher once said. Honeywell simply wants to be the best.
In 2015, when the Tennessee native arrived to play for the Charlotte Stone Crabs, he began working with pitching coach Steve â€œDocâ€ Watson. Watson would prove to be integral in Honeywellâ€™s existential journey, as well as helping him develop all of his pitches, including that rascally pitch, the screwball. He tried to reach Honeywell in those vulnerable moments. Heâ€™d guide his self-analysis in a way that would benefit him. Toward the end of the season, when Honeywell was firing away, a few days before he threw a nine-inning complete game shutout, Honeywell recalled Watsonâ€™s words about mindset and not picking everything apart. This year, thereâ€™s something more self-assured about Honeywell, now at 21. He had healthy confidence, but now thereâ€™s something else. He knows how to put that thoughtful, contemplative nature to good use.
â€œFor me, personally, self-criticism isnâ€™t about beating yourself up,â€ Honeywell said last week in Clearwater. â€œYou can beat yourself up, or you can think what can I do different? Then you attack that next time.â€
When reflecting on times of struggle, he used his most recent start to illustrate that heâ€™s still always thinking, but, as he said, self-criticism doesnâ€™t have to be a negative.
â€œTwo or three games out there, Iâ€™d think, that pitch was not where it was supposed to be.Â Like the other night, I got the leadoff guy in the sixth inning; I was relaxing, going to work. I went away from my game-plan completely. Do I know why? No, I lost focus. Just for a split second. And that transpired into a run,â€ Honeywell said.
Through his first two starts this season, heâ€™s allowed just that one run in 12 innings. He went six innings in each outing, both no-decisions. He struck out five in the season-opener, and six his next time out. But that one run, that was enough. He had to ask himself some questions, not to over-analyze, but to improve.
Â â€œI was thinking about that and I talked to Doc about it. I was sitting in there eating, and I was thinking, you know, what do you do different there to keep that guy from getting on base? And I was like, you just attack with the fastball. But that team is a pretty darn good fastball-hitting team. I was self-conscious throwing it up there, when I shouldnâ€™t have been. â€œ
There was one of those thoughtful pauses, and then the flood gates opened. Sometimes when he talks, you feel like youâ€™re hearing him work it out in his mind.
â€œWhat are you here for?â€ he continued.Â â€œConfidence comes from good outings and more good outings. But then you get too high. Then you go low. You have to stay in between. Yeah, Iâ€™m going to get self-conceited. Itâ€™s a little bit of a joke in the clubhouse. Itâ€™s not that Iâ€™m being cocky. To me cockiness, is trying to show someone up.Â Itâ€™s about staying even-keel. If you think youâ€™re going to give up a run before youâ€™ve even hit the turfâ€¦why? I go out there thinking Iâ€™m going to throw a W. I pitch to take my team deep in the ballgames. I want it to be easy on them.Â When good things happen, you can show a little bit of flair, but when bad things happen, donâ€™t shell up. Just stay even keel.â€
Learning how to do that has taken some time. But the people around him see a difference. And the Rays will like what they hear.
â€œItâ€™s two things. One, heâ€™s gotten more mature on the field and off the field. Two, he learned this game is hard,â€ said Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns. â€œHe had a very easy time [before High-A]. He came here and got hit around a little bit; which is ok. Thatâ€™s part of the process. Itâ€™s good for him, itâ€™s good for everybody. But heâ€™s really grown up. Heâ€™s matured in his whole life. And his pitching continues to get better.â€
The son of former major leaguer Brent, Honeywell is repeating a level that he mostly dominated. Other top starting pitching prospects, chief among them Taylor Guerrieri, were assigned to Double-A Montgomery to start 2016. Honeywell seemed like a natural lock for the Biscuits rotation. For Johns, there wasnâ€™t so much surprise that he was back in High-A, but heâ€™s quick to praise him for what heâ€™s accomplished thus far.
â€œItâ€™s a good question, because what he did here last year was really good. But in terms of his professional career, this is exactly where he should be. Hopefully he pitches well and goes to Double-A.â€
When asked about the High-A assignment, Honeywell may have had some feelings about it, but as heâ€™s learning to keep those in check, he applied that to the news.
â€œI try not to get caught up in that. I mean, I look at it. But, itâ€™s a logjam [of pitchers]. You have a bunch of guys that are older than me, and theyâ€™ve pitched more innings than me. Theyâ€™re more seasoned. If you look into it, youâ€™re going to drive yourself crazy. I was talking to [Rays minor league hitting co-ordinator] Chad Mottola, and he said, â€˜Man, donâ€™t think about that, or youâ€™ll drive yourself crazy.â€™ Itâ€™s out of my control. Iâ€™m just working on where I want to go.â€
In order to get there and beyond, Honeywell has to have consistent all-important fastball command, and he pointed to the recent start heâ€™d made as proof that heâ€™s getting there. Everything was coming together in that outing. When he arrived at Spring Training, Honeywellâ€™s work with Watson was a mixed focus. Â Whatever plan the Rays have for him, he had his own specific goals.
â€œThis spring training I really got in with Doc. We talked sequencing pitching,â€ Honeywell said. Â â€œMy thing coming in was I wanted all my pitches to be three times sharper than they were last year. I worked this off-season on spinning the breaking ball. I worked on really feeling my pitches out in front, working over my front leg instead of behind, or trying to make the pitch move. Â So the breaking ball, the curveball, is going to be influencing way more than I ever thought. All my breaking stuff was working [in last outing]. My screwballâ€™s the best Iâ€™ve ever seen it.â€
His screwball has taken center stage lately. Thereâ€™s always interest in a pitcher who can throw a pitch that strange and rare. Making the pitch an effective weapon against hitters really comes down to whether your able to throw it in the first place.
â€œItâ€™s a double-edged sword. A guy can do it itâ€™s not difficult. If he canâ€™t do it, he canâ€™t do it,â€ said Watson. â€œTheyâ€™re not going to teach you how to do it. That might sound simplistic and silly. But itâ€™s something he has done his whole pitching life. So, itâ€™s very natural for him to super-pronate inside the baseball to get into that screwball spin.â€
The pitch has progressed, in part, because of the added velocity. While scouting reports previously reported it in the mid-70s range, Watson said that last year it was mostly thrown between 64-68 mph. This year in his first start against Palm Beach, it was hitting 75 mph. The velocity is the key.Â
â€œIt eliminates hitterâ€™s ability to pick it up early,â€ he said.
And itâ€™s not just hitters who were baffled by its trajectory.
â€œWatching him, I canâ€™t tell which pitch is which,â€ Johns said. â€œSometimes his changeup morphs into his screwball, sometimes the screwball morphs into the changeup. For me itâ€™s confusing. Because from the side, I canâ€™t tell which way itâ€™s going, left or right. Both of them have that sinking action. His screwball has a lot of action.â€
The work continues on the previously mentioned sequencing, and Watson has helped him to develop a better plan of action.
Â â€œThe physical part is a pretty complete package: his delivery, the quality of his pitches. Itâ€™s become more about what I call reading bats, reading swings, recognizing hittersâ€™ approaches. And understanding where he is in the lineup, in order to know basically how much leeway he has.â€
Theyâ€™re working on him being more aggressive in the zone with the fastball, when he faces the bottom of the order, something they began focusing on in 2015. He has a quality four-pitch mix to keep hitters off balance and challenged, but Watson doesnâ€™t want Honeywell to get caught up in that. He wants him to pay attention to the situation.
â€œHe needs to be more self-aware of where the game is at in the lineup. Defense is going to be a big part of the evolution for him,â€ Watson said.
Thereâ€™s another kind of evolution developing, as with any young player. But itâ€™s one connected to the way players are exposed these days. Honeywellâ€™s coming up in the baseball era that seems to be losing some of its aspirational qualities for young people, while simultaneously becoming more accessible. Teams promote their young players far more these days. And with the power of social media, everyone hears everything and quickly. Before a playerâ€™s seen a day of major league ball, and whether or not he ever does, he can connect with the major league fan base. Being a low-level prospect doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™re a nobody anymore. Thereâ€™s something special about that, but thereâ€™s also a danger in it. And for the unfiltered, more high profile player, Twitter and Facebook can be a whole other kind of proving ground. Psychologically, they have to handle themselves on a level that teams canâ€™t always control. Honeywellâ€™s finding his way in that regard as well. And, until recently, no issues arose. But after a photo went viral of Nationals reigning MVP Bryce Harper wearing a hat that said, â€œMake baseball fun again,â€ Honeywell had some thoughts. And he tweeted them. Â
â€œMake baseball fun againâ€ it must not be too fun being one of the youngest superstars. It must not be fun to face the best of the best.â€
A few moments later, he continued.
â€œI want to face the guy.â€
Honeywell left no doubt that he didnâ€™t approve, but maybe there was more to It, maybe it wasnâ€™t so much a criticism, but a way of telling a player of that stature to be grateful for every moment; because every player wants to be in his shoes, with all the big league lights shining on him. Then again, maybe Honeywell had some regrets?
â€œNo, not really. I didnâ€™t mean it in a bad way. I kind of mulled over it. Itâ€™s nothing too serious,â€ Honeywell said. â€œI mean, Iâ€™m not going to hit the guy if I face him. I want to face the best of the best. I want to become what heâ€™s become. Heâ€™s the best player in baseball. But, heâ€™s going to have a voice. He plays the game with passion and flair. I play the game with passion and flair. But Iâ€™m not trying to show anybody up. I donâ€™t know what exactly he meant. I probably took it out of context. It was just like defending what I love. And if it wasnâ€™t fun, I wouldnâ€™t be doing it.â€
Washington Nationals fans quickly responded, and continued to react negatively over the next few days. Honeywell made only one other comment, a response to a Nationals fan who felt the need to illustrate to the young pitcher, complete with an image of his stats, that he had a long way to go before being a big leaguer. Honeywell politely agreed, saying, â€˜Youâ€™re right about thatâ€™.
â€œWe try as an organization to be as diligent as we can to conduct themselves on social media,â€ said Johns. â€œWe have classes here in Spring Training about how to conduct yourself. Something you say can be perceived not how you meant it. Sometimes itâ€™s best to not say anything. But that usually doesnâ€™t happen.Â They grew up with social media, I did not. We try to teach them how to interact with fans in a positive light. And we try to teach them to not make comments about other players, even teammates, unless itâ€™s really, really positive.â€
Thereâ€™s so much to be aware of, so much to learn and mistakes are simply inevitable on and off the field. Johns sees the challenge of guiding players off the field as a much harder task. There are a lot of meetings, he said.
For any coaches at the minor league level, how do they find the line between teaching a player ways to handle all the things coming at them, while also allowing them to be comfortable in their own skin and be their own man? For Honeywell, those tweets, and any others arenâ€™t done carelessly or with crude intent.
â€œIâ€™m just being myself. When I put it out, I thought maybe people are going to take this kind of wrong. Â I know what I meant. Thatâ€™s the only thing that matters. Other peopleâ€™s opinion doesnâ€™t really bother me. There are peopleâ€™s opinions that I need to listen to. But I know those people.â€
Johns didnâ€™t have knowledge of the Twitter dustup, but he clarified what he knows to be true about a pitcher heâ€™s spent a few seasons getting to know.
â€œIâ€™ll tell you this, heâ€™s a good person and a good teammate, and he cares about baseball, and himself and his family. Heâ€™s a really good guy,â€ Johns said.
Each start provides a lesson, each game, every moment, and that now includes social media. It takes commitment that many of us canâ€™t imagine. Professional athletes are going to disappoint people one day, and be hoisted up in glory above the proverbial shoulders the next day or week. Striking that balance isnâ€™t a perfect art. Honeywell is in the moment, figuring it out. But itâ€™s tough not to at least ponder whatâ€™s ahead.
â€œIâ€™m happy to be here. Like I told Doc, I love pitching in the Florida State League. Youâ€™re playing in big league parks. Itâ€™s a different kind of environment. It probably gets better going up,â€ he pauses, trailing off a little, then says, â€œBut I havenâ€™t gone up there yet.â€
Odds are, heâ€™ll spend some time thinking about it. And thatâ€™s not a bad thing.