April 8, 2015 at 9:26 AM
SARASOTA, Fla. -- A few hours before Trey Ball made his final start before the 2014 All-Star Break, Greenville pitching coach Paul Abbott went to great lengths to explain away the nightmare start to Ball’s season.
Entering that game in mid-June, Ball’s ninth start of the season, the first number of the left-hander’s ERA was the same as his 2013 first-round draft position—seven—and it would remain that way until July 1.
But Abbott told of Ball’s youth, both on the mound and in life, plus the need for him to adjust to a full-season routine, to learn to use all of his pitches, and to get through a lineup multiple times per game.
Abbott's words bore themselves out that afternoon in Hagerstown, when Ball relied on his fastball to piece together five solid innings before giving up the cycle in a four-batter stretch in the sixth inning to ruin his final stat line. But those innings soon vanished, as did much of the concern about Ball’s development.
When Ball was brought up to Abbott again this spring, after a second-half in which Ball allowed fewer than four runs in nine of his last 10 starts and shrunk his ERA from 7.27 entering July to 4.68 at the end of the season, Abbott remembered that conversation.
Such is the development curve when a season’s worth of work is transmitted to expecting masses via only online box scores, and late-season progress is obscured by early-season results. It will be a much different pitcher who begins 2015 with High-A Salem than the one who arrived late to Greenville last year, something Abbott was confident of even through those struggles.
“I think the trust comes with just a little bit of maturing as a pitcher, knowing situations when to use pitches. His changeup got a lot better and he learned how to mix that off his fastball. His curveball got better. He got a little bit more angle, slowed him down a little bit so he could get some depth, and then everything wasn’t as flat and that made a huge difference.”
Key in his progress late in the season was the improvement of Ball’s changeup, which really came on in the second half as a pitch with plus potential that complemented his fastball well. His curveball, too, benefited from a mechanical adjustment that allowed the pitch to have more depth and not come out of his hand flat.
But using that flourishing arsenal was on Ball, and he learned the benefit of throwing all his pitches with conviction as the season went on.
“I think just in the second half, I started to trust all my pitches and I started to really buy into what I wanted to throw and when I wanted to throw it,” Ball said. “I think having the confidence in my three pitches that second half really helped me turn it around that little bit. In the first half, I think I just went with what the catcher put down a lot of the time. In the second half, I started calling my own game, throwing what I want to throw and being committed to that. … I threw my fastball way too much in that first half, and everyone hits fastballs, so you’ve got to learn how to pitch.”
In high school, a pitcher in the low-90s with a fastball like Ball can dominate with one pitch. Even this spring, as he did in his first start on March 19, Ball’s fastball was victimized by two mammoth home runs when it was left over the plate. But he combated that with his secondary pitches, which allowed him to limit the damage when things got bad late in 2014.
“Those [crooked-number innings] get eliminated as his knowledge of how to pitch gets better,” Abbott said. “That’s usually the second time around the lineup. Those guys all saw him one time. He was able to command the ball down, but everything was more flat. We gave him more depth, we gave him a weapon with the changeup, and his curveball was coming along too, so the second and third times around, he had better [pitches] to throw at them.”
Ball’s second half essentially turned on that development. Following the All-Star break in mid-June, Ball went 4-4 with a 3.36 ERA in 13 starts. His WHIP fell from 1.93 in the first half to 1.26 in the second half, and over his last 10 starts, Ball had an ERA under three, at 2.96.
“It’s subtle change,” Abbott said. “There are suggestions, then you see the proof, and when you’re 1-9 with a nine ERA, what are you going to do, keep doing the same thing? Changes were made, and I tip my hat to him. He stayed with it.”
Abbott said Ball never felt sorry for himself as his struggles went on. By August, they were a distant memory. When the Drive traveled to Lexington, Ky., a three-hour drive from Ball’s Indiana hometown, Abbott noticed a few friends watching Ball’s pregame bullpen session.
“I go, ‘Oh, you’ve got some people here? How many?’ ” Abbott said. “I’m thinking he’s going to say 12, 15. [He said] 60. He just kept throwing, didn’t blink an eye, and threw 6 [2/3] scoreless. … That’s one thing that stands out as much as anything he does, his makeup.”
Ball had never really struggled before, but also never thought about what a full season of such struggles would have felt like in the offseason.
“I was grateful how it ended, and I think that carried me into the offseason,” he said. “I came down here for strength camp and that really pushed me into offseason work, and coming into spring how I ended last year, that was my goal, to just continue to build on that.”
Photo credit: Trey Ball by Kelly O'Connor
Jon Meoli is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and a senior columnist at SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.