Reimer: Jalen Beeks is the Red Sox' most dominant pitching prospect, and he kind of came out of nowhere

Alex Reimer
May 01, 2018 - 12:00 pm

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It is tempting to center the story of Jalen Beeks’ ascension through the Red Sox’ minor league system around one turning point. Two years ago, Beeks was slated to be a stand-in for Team USA in a tedious exhibition game against the Red Sox. The U.S. did not want to use any of its actual pitchers before the World Baseball Classic, so it called on Beeks, a 12th-round draft pick who finished the previous season with a 4.68 ERA in Double-A. 

But then Red Sox starter Roenis Elias strained one of his rib cage muscles while warming up. Minutes before game time, Beeks was summoned to start in Elias’ place. The baby-faced left-hander retired six of the eight batters he faced, including perennial All-Stars Giancarlo Stanton and Adam Jones. 

After that, Beeks went on to enjoy the best season of his professional career. He struck out 155 batters in 145 total minor league innings, posting a minuscule 2.19 ERA in nine starts at Portland before getting called up to Pawtucket. There, Beeks still struck out more than a batter per inning, all to the tune of a 3.86 ERA. The Red Sox awarded Beeks Minor League Pitcher of the Year for his efforts. 

This season, Beeks has been downright dominant. In four starts at Pawtucket, he’s whiffed 37 batters in 19.2 frames, including 11 in his most recent outing against Buffalo. His ERA stands at 1.37. 

So, can you trace Beeks’ rise back to that seemingly fateful March afternoon in Fort Myers? It’s complicated. 

“Mentally, maybe it was a (turning point),” Beeks told me by his locker in Pawtucket Monday.  “But physically that offseason, I had been feeling really good coming into Spring Training. I thought I turned a corner that offseason, and that was my first opportunity in Spring Training to really go out and throw. So that was pretty cool. It kind of rolled into the season.”

Standing at 5-foot-11 with an 195-pound frame, Beeks relies on a four-pitch arsenal to keep hitters off balance. His once-wild delivery has been simplified into a more standard windup, in which he releases the ball from a high three-quarters arm slot. Beeks looks like a Major League pitcher, despite his unimposing frame.

But it wasn’t always like this. Up until last year, Beeks was best known for being Andrew Benintendi’s teammate at the University of Arkansas. (Disappointingly, Beeks informed me he can’t recall any embarrassing tales about Benintendi, whom he dubs the “golden boy.”) That has now changed. Fresh off a stint in the Arizona Fall League, Beeks took it upon himself to develop a cutter prior to the 2017 campaign. A voracious consumer of video, Beeks says he watched almost every left-handed pitcher in baseball to study how they pitch. In particular, he says he studied Jon Lester and David Price, who bury their cutters towards the hands of right-handed batters.

“They made fun of me in Spring Training for looking up YouTube videos, but that’s how I learn,” Beeks said. 

PawSox manager Kevin Boles says the cutter has transformed Beeks on the mound. “He’s always had a real steady demeanor on the mound. It’s the execution, though. And obviously with this cutter he’s got in the mix now, that cutter has been a weapon for him,” Boles told me in his office. “He took it upon himself to study the best in the game, and evaluate video, and trying to find a different solution as far as making the ball move. He’s found something. This pitch has the chance to be a quality Major League pitch.”

Pitching coach Kevin Walker, who worked with Beeks in Double-A, says the 24-year-old now carries himself like a Major League-caliber pitcher. 

“He’s really come into his own as a pitcher,” Walker told me. “The stuff has always been there, but I would say it’s refining the stuff, and becoming consistent with your staff and actually learning how to pitch and how to sequence –– studying hitters. All of those things, he’s doing them now. He’s on the brink of being a Major League pitcher. He can pitch in the Major Leagues. It’s just about opportunity now.”

Shutting down Team USA for two innings is a great confidence booster. But Beeks’ performance was not some random occurrence. Rather, it was the culmination of an offseason spent pouring over video, and picking up a new pitch. Beeks has added a curveball to his fastball-changeup-cutter arsenal as well. 

“I’ve had great pitching coaches. My entire career, they’ve developed me and told me where to go, and I just did it,” Beeks said. “When I get out of my own way, things happen. It usually works out. I’m addicted to constantly learning. If I’m not getting better, or don’t feel like I’m getting better, I freak out and start doing something.”

Beeks says he’s also freer mentally than he was at the start of his professional career. His wife and two kids are back up north with him. For an Arkansas native who desires to own a farm in his post-playing career, that’s a big deal.

“I had my daughter the season before, so you’re thinking about your family,” he said. “Now I’ve got two kids. Coming into that Spring Training, I just felt pretty comfortable.”

The story of Beeks’ rise is more complicated than one good outing two years ago. In Boles’ mind, Beeks always had the tools, and now he’s putting it all together –– like all good players do.

“He’s always been pretty good,” Boles said. “Maybe going over to Major League games and getting out Major League hitters -– I’m sure there’s something to that, definitely. Being here at Triple-A, he’s faced a lot of quality hitters –– guys who have had Major League time. The more you face those guys, the fear factor or the unknown goes away to feel like, ‘I belong. I can get these hitters out.’ The more times you do it, the more that confidence breeds itself.” 

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