April 6, 2015 at 7:00 AM
FORT MYERS, Fla. – The first spring training after being drafted marks the beginning of the rest of a baseball player’s career. The excitement of being drafted and getting his first taste of professional ball now in the past, the focus shifts to creating a routine and starting the development that will determine how long the player gets to pursue his dream.
For two high school 2014 draftees, catcher Devon Fisher and first baseman Josh Ockimey (pictured, left), calling baseball a job for the first time has been a rewarding challenge.
“I keep telling everybody, the last pitch I saw in high school was 86 (mph), the first pitch I saw in pro ball was 92 from a lefty,” Ockimey said with a laugh. “But yeah, it’s just the same thing: getting up, grinding every day, getting used to calling it a job. That’s what it is, I love it.”
For Fisher, one of the main adjustments he faces in his new environment is balancing the leadership responsibilities expected of a catcher with being one of the new guys in camp. From watching him on the field, it is clear he is not shying away from taking charge, an audible presence while directing the action on the field.
“Especially with catchers, you can see the whole field at the same time, so you’re the captain of the field, you tell everyone what’s going on,” the 18-year-old said. “You just have to carry it to and from the field. Even in the clubhouse, you have to be a leader. You have self-respect and respect your teammates, and that’s it.”
Both Ockimey and Fisher were lured away from their college commitments by above-slot bonuses last year. Fisher was one of two players selected by the Red Sox after the 10th round to receive a bonus in excess of $100,000, getting $300,000 to forego a commitment to the University of Virginia, largely based on his advanced defensive skillset for his age.
While Fisher was taken in the 20th round and cracked Baseball America’s and Perfect Game’s top 200 draft prospect rankings, Ockimey was selected in the fifth round, but was the only pick made by the Red Sox in the first nine rounds to not be among either publication’s top 500 prospects. His selection surprised some; his receiving a bonus that was more than $150,000 above slot surprised many more. Both were influenced by a private workout the Red Sox hosted for Ockimey at Fenway Park a week or two before the draft. Suffice to say, they liked what they saw.
“I think I put maybe one or two out, and put a couple off the wall,” he said with a smile.
“[It was a] breath-taking experience, as soon as you walk in, it catches your breath a little bit. But hey, I liked it, I liked it.”
Playing high school baseball in the Philadelphia area, game action and scouting opportunities were fewer and farther between for Ockimey than the baseball hotbeds in warmer areas of the country, likely contributing to his lack of hype prior to the draft. But he had helium among front offices entering that weekend due to what he showed in workouts such as the one at Fenway, and eventually decided to sign rather than attend Indiana. However, after working out with several different clubs, Ockimey had no expectations that the Red Sox would be the ones to select him.
“It was just pretty much open season, [you’re ready for] whoever takes you,” Ockimey said on the draft process. “I’m really happy; I grew up a Red Sox fan so it was definitely a great experience.”
Not as many workouts were required for Fisher (pictured, right), but the draft process was still stressful. Despite being committed to play for his home-state Cavaliers, the decision to sign with the Red Sox ended up being an easy one for him.
“It was pretty hectic at first, but I knew that once I was selected, I wanted to go [pro]. I’ve dreamed about this since I was a little kid, and I felt the time was right to come here,” Fisher said.
Following the draft, both players got a brief taste of professional ball in the Gulf Coast League. In 36 games, Ockimey batted .188/.292/.232, and hit .200 in four playoff games during the GCL team’s championship run. Fisher scuffled in a similar fashion, statistically at least, batting .210/.364/.226 in 22 games following the draft. Of course, little can be drawn from these numbers put up by two players fresh out of high school and adjusting to a whole new life, let alone differences on the field.
The first spring gives new draftees a fresh start on a level playing field.
“I’m seeing the ball well [this spring]. I feel like I can read pitches. It’s just a matter of getting my timing down and taking the hands through the ball,” Fisher said. “I like to, if I can, take a pitcher deep [into the count]. I’m looking for my pitch to hit, but if he serves me up a fastball first pitch, I’m going to take a hack at it.”
Patience has been a strength in Fisher’s short career, as his 15 walks in 22 professional games show. Furthermore, in three playoff games, he posted an on-base percentage of .583.
Recently, Ockimey impressed at the plate in an intra-squad game facing Clay Buchholz on the back fields at Fenway South. Though he recorded outs in his two at-bats, both were fly balls the opposite way, and one was squared up well. That may not sound impressive on the surface, but considering how his fellow hitters were having trouble making any kind of contact off Buchholz, Ockimey’s loud outs stood out.
“You definitely see why he’s one of the better pitchers in the league,” Ockimey said of the Red Sox Opening Day starter. “Definitely a great experience and it’s only going to get better.”
Such success can perhaps be traced to how well he has taken to adjustments to his swing mechanics that the team has worked with him to implement. In camp, he showed a calm set-up and a smoother swing than had been seen in video of him from high school.
“[I am] being more relaxed and having rhythm in the box, and just staying through the ball,” he said. “[I’m working on] keeping my front elbow down. Sometimes I catch myself coming up through the zone, [but] as long as I stay down through the ball, I’m pretty good there.”
The Red Sox sent Ockimey (pictured, left) home with a workout plan to improve his strength and flexibility. The flexibility improvements show, as he looked surprisingly nimble in the field for a man of his size, listed at 6-foot-1 but looking like he has grown since that particular measurement was taken. He is a big, solid first baseman, but does not look like he will add a lot of weight or have the body type that will create conditioning concerns as he matures.
Unlike Ockimey, whose bat will be what the club hopes will carry him to the majors, Fisher’s defense behind the plate will likely be what makes or breaks him. In camp, he showed a strong arm and the ability to block pitches in the dirt. To improve on throwing out runners, he worked with Red Sox minor league catching coordinator Chad Epperson on a near-daily basis to refine his footwork.
Controlling the running game is a personal point of pride for Fisher, but on balls in the dirt, Fisher feels a certain responsibility to his pitchers.
“I can either make a pitcher look good or look bad,” he said. “Two-strike pitch, he buries one in the dirt, that’s my job to get it, and if I don’t, that’s embarrassing to me. That’s my job. We work on it so much with [Epperson]. He just covers everything in the game and we come out and execute.”
Another adjustment Fisher must make in the professional ranks will be learning to guiding a wide variety of pitchers through their outings. Working with high school pitchers at Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, Virginia was a lot different than working with professional pitchers of various backgrounds, and not just because their arsenals are so much more advanced.
“The hardest thing to do is probably talk to my Spanish-speaking pitchers. I’ve tried to pick up a little Spanish when I can on the go,” Fisher said. “But we’ve got great guys here, great heads on their shoulders. I just walk up there and give them a breather most times, and they do the rest.”
After continuing to learn the professional game and lifestyle for a few more months in extended spring training, both Fisher and Ockimey are projected to head to Lowell in June. Getting their first taste of playing under the lights in front of a crowd will be their next step, their next new experience as the two begin to climb the ladder.
Photo credit: Josh Ockimey by Kelly O'Connor; Devon Fisher © SoxProspects, LLC
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP.