There is no better way to destroy expectations than success. The Boston Red Sox pipeline to the Major Leagues produced a high number of incredible talents under Theo Epstein as Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, and Clay Buchholz all graduated from the Sox organization to make significant contributions to very good teams.
That the Red Sox graduated so many high-impact talents set the bar high for the next generation of prospects. The Sox haven’t experienced the same success rate in recent years, failing to graduate a single first-round pick to the big league club since 2006.
Not all players were bad selections, as Boston began trading away some of their young players to land more big league talent to boost the big club. Anthony Rizzo, Josh Reddick, and Justin Masterson are all former Red Sox later round picks to make their mark in other cities.
By virtue of being Red Sox prospects, it seems many of the former can’t miss/blue chips types over the last few years never really panned out. Fans became convinced that Lars Anderson or Casey Kelly would star alongside homegrown products like Pedroia and Lester for years to come. Abundant media coverage fuels the wishcasting, turning non-elite first basemen into untradeable cornerstones. It was only a matter of time for each of these big names – often falling to the Sox in their tradition late-round draft position because of premium dollars promised in signing bonuses.
A few years of unavoidable attrition combined with trading prospects and paying top dollar for free agents cost the Sox much of their top line minor league talent. After the collapse of 2011 and disaster of 2012, Ben Cherington and the Sox brass changed course. In addition to high risk/high reward players filling their low minor leagues, Cherington and his team used the huge trade with the Dodgers to send out expensive veterans and replenished the Sox prospect pipeline.
Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster were the two biggest prospect “gets” in the Nick Punto trade. Webster was always a good prospect, one who had the tools to become a legit big league starter but couldn’t put it all together on the field. This spring, it appears Webster has taken great strides towards realizing some of that potential. With the Red Sox media beast backing him, get ready to hear a whole lot about Allen Webster for the next few months.
Allen Webster’s great leap towards excellence should not come as a surprise. Breathless as some of the Red Sox writers praise might be, this was a player with serious upside while a member of the Dodgers. Kevin Goldstein expressed significant optimism at the time of trade, noting a refinement of his three pitch mix lead to much greater results in the second half of 2012.
Since coming to the Red Sox, Webster made some key mechanical changes to help him better deploy his hard, heavy sinker and plus change up. The first move has also been the easiest to implement: moving Webster to first-base side of the rubber.
Marc Normandin of SB Nation breaks down how much of a benefit this can be for a sinkerballer. Not unlike the Rays tweak that unlocked Fernando Rodney‘s inner Rivera, allowing a right-handed pitcher with significant arm side run to still attack the inside of the plate to righties makes all the difference.
A simple shift on the rubber can do wonders for certain types of pitchers, as it can emphasize the natural movement of their pitches.
— Marc Normandin (@Marc_Normandin) March 13, 2013
Webster has the stuff and the Red Sox have a vision for how to unlock the best inside him. The spring results are easy on the eyes but they are still just Spring Training outings. In lieu of more to go, on the buzzwords take over. How to best describe Allen Webster? Athletic.
The points on Webster’s athleticism are valid, as the above-linked Providence Journal piece notes just how green Webster was when the Dodgers took him in the 18th round. His path to the big leagues has been slow and deliberate, gaining momentum as he translates that athleticism into bigger and bigger radar gun readings and a more consistent and effective delivery.
Webster’s spring numbers are certainly impressive. While not quite playing himself onto the Sox Opening Day roster, he is certainly raising his profile among Sox fans and prospect watchers.
Control is the biggest hurdle between Webster and big league success. The move on the rubber should go a long way to helping him throw his best pitch to righties for strikes. His maturation as a pitcher – the ability to throw all three pitches with confidence and in any count – should allow him to get ahead more than early in his minor league career, where and overreliance on his change up caused him problems.
Red Sox manager John Farrell expressed delight over Webster’s new found control in Alex Speier’s profile of the young right-hander, a classic story of “trusting his stuff”:
“The one thing that he’s grasping is that with his stuff and the action of his two-seamer, he doesn’t have to pitch to a third of the plate. He can be more aggressive on the white part of the plate, and it’s allowed him to pitch and at least execute strike one at a higher rate. It just opens up so many more options for him. In a nutshell, it’s his ability to attack the strike zone, strike one.”
Throwing strikes about mid-to-low level minor leaguers is one thing. Allen Webster remains a project – a much more projectable one after the mechanical tweak. The recent influx of freshly pumped air into Webster’s tires won’t change his immediate future. The Sox will send him down to start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket. Can the young “athlete” make his mechanical tweaks stick away from the watchful eyes of major league instructors and his former-pitching-coach manager?
It won’t take much success in the minor leagues to convince the Red Sox front office to make room for Webster in the big league rotation. With Felix Doubront and John Lackey ahead of him on the depth chart, Red Sox fans at least have a silver lining to cling to should the black clouds gather.