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March 29, 2015 at 11:01 AM

With new delivery honed, Haley looks to build on breakout season

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In his first full season in the Red Sox system, right-hander Justin Haley flashed his potential on the mound while also demonstrating a major wart. But it was last year in his second full season that Haley broke through to plant himself firmly on the map as a potential future big leaguer, posting a 2.35 ERA between Salem and Portland.

“The key to my success was a lot of things,” Haley said, looking back at his breakout season. “Just being aggressive and being confident in my stuff, trusting the catcher, and trusting the plan we had in place before the game started and just staying with it.”

More significant than the decrease in runs allowed was his vast improvement upon a significant flaw in his game in 2013. Though he managed to put up solid numbers otherwise, Haley had sported an ugly walk rate of 5.3 per nine over 124 2/3 innings with Greenville. Last season, he looked like a different pitcher, lowering that rate to 2.7 per nine across two levels, including a 2.2 mark in 92 2/3 innings in Salem.

He attributed part of this success to a change in his delivery that he had worked on since being drafted, but finally took hold last season.

“I've definitely worked on [my delivery] a lot since signing with the Red Sox,” the 23-year-old said. “Since last year, I think we really brought in a good delivery and really honed it in. I'm just trying to get more comfortable and build confidence in what I have.”

Haley built that confidence in Salem last year, posting a 2.82 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 19 games (11 starts), while spending parts of the early season piggyback starting. When he got the chance to move up to Double-A in late July, he did not disappoint. The jump into upper minors can be the biggest adjustment before heading up to the majors, but Haley attributed his early success to coaches and teammates easing the transition.

The sparkling 1.19 ERA Haley posted as a Sea Dog may be a bit misleading though. His strikeout and hit rates improved modestly, but most notably, his control problems resurfaced, as he walked an extra batter and a half per nine with Portland. On the other hand, it was a small sample size and and it was still significantly lower than his rate the year prior.

These control problems popped up again in his first spring training start this year, as he walked two in three innings of work. Haley said afterward that he was working on mixing in his offspeed pitches in the two latter innings, so not much can be gleaned from those results. If anything, it was impressive to see him work out of jams without damage.

"The plan was to just be aggressive in the zone," Haley said. "The second and third inning came up and we wanted to mix in our pitches. [I] started working a lot more offspeed, started bringing those pitches along a little more. That was definitely the plan in the last two innings."

He threw fastballs almost exclusively in the first inning, sitting around 88-90 mph, and topping out at 91. During the regular season, he has run it up to 94-95, but, again, it was his first outing.

For secondaries, he went to his slider first in the outing, a hard one at 85-88 mph. He used the curveball sparingly, featuring a couple in the high 70s and one at 73. Though he featured the slider more in this start, he does not view one as more advanced than the other, but instead, uses them situationally.

"I like to let the game dictate, have a good feel for what the hitter's looking for and what I've thrown him [in the past]," he said. "I think they're just both good tools to have, so I wouldn't pick one over the other."

His final pitch is a changeup in the low-to-mid 80s that he mixed in regularly in the latter two innings. All four of his pitches have around average potential ceilings, which is what gives him a legitimate chance to stick in the back end of a major league rotation if everything goes to plan.

[Read Chaz Fiorino's scouting take on Haley's outing here.]

Haley had trouble choosing which secondary pitch he favors: "I think it's important to be aggressive with all my pitches. I don't really pick favorites. I want to bring all my pitches up to a higher level."

Haley pointed to tempo and strike-throwing as the keys he's focused on this spring and heading into the season. Coming off a strong season, he spent the winter away from baseball trying to keep on that upward trajectory that has marked his first two-plus years in the system.

"Always trying to get better in the offseason, always working on something," Haley said. "Trying to improve every year and never be stagnant. Just keep getting better every year, that's the plan."

Photo credit: Justin Haley by Kelly O'Connor

Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP.