The Monday Baseball Column: The most interesting pitcher in Red Sox spring training

Rob Bradford
March 09, 2020 - 7:47 am
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — He often walks in when most are walking out. He very well may never get in a Grapefruit League game this season. And the only thing that separates him from the sea of other minor-leaguers who live life on the other side of the JetBlue Park complex is a 6-foot-6 frame that makes bystanders wonder who this might be.

He is Jay Groome, perhaps the most interesting player in Red Sox spring training.

For Red Sox fans the name still rings a bell. When you’re the 12th overall pick in the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft you’re going to garner some attention. But it has been a while for Groome. Too long. And he realizes it.

“I think everyone knows it,” Groome told WEEI.com regarding the importance of 2020. “I have my family pushing me because they know I’m back where I need to be. I’m healthy. They just want to see me finally start up a full season again. It has been a long time.”

The importance of Groome’s existence isn’t complicated. Despite two straight seasons that have been derailed by health issues — including last year’s recovering from Tommy John surgery — he still represents perhaps the highest upside of any Red Sox minor-league pitcher. 

One look at the big lefty throwing a baseball, even casually, and it’s not hard to decipher why so much anticipation follows Groome.

But, as he pointed out, it has been a long time. Three total starts in the past two seasons (all coming at the tail-end of 2019), to be exact.

“Last year was a totally different scenario because last year I was just trying to get my feet back into it. This year it’s go-time. I just have got to perform. I’m full-go which I haven’t been for a while,” Groome noted. “It’s been frustrating but now the way I’m feeling with everything … I’m still young and ready to play but I have to stay healthy and perform.”

It seems odd to put so many organizational eggs in the basket of a pitcher whose production at his highest level of professional baseball, Single-A Greenville, resulted in a 3-7 record and 6.70 ERA in 11 starts back in 2017.

But for the 21-year-old, that first go-round in pro ball seems like a lifetime ago. Living the life he has the past two seasons will do that.

“I wasn’t used to having injuries, especially this severe, so I just wanted to get it over with,” said Groome, who has no restrictions heading into this spring training. “After the first couple of months, I think it finally hit me. I look down and I see a scar on my arm that I never thought I would have. It was a crazy experience the whole thing.”

He added, “Another good thing going through surgery is you learn a lot more about the game. How many games I watched throughout the two years I basically rehabbed was a lot. You have nothing better to do. You just want to watch. I know it’s Rookie Ball but seeing what hitters do against certain pitchers. If one of my teammates is out there and he’s a lefty throwing hard I pay extra close attention because it’s kind of the same thing of me pitching. You take what you can get.”

Fair or not, the current state of the Red Sox makes Groome’s existence even more intriguing.

According to SoxProspects.com, he is still the fourth-ranked Red Sox minor-leaguer, just one spot behind fellow pitching prospect Bryan Mata. It says a lot. With all the uncertainty there is still all that expectation.

“I had it a lot in high school, the showcase circuit. I was never the guy who would want to go out and impress people,” he explained regarding the attention. “I knew if I played how I was supposed to it would speak for itself. I just like playing. If I do good, I do good. If I don’t I have to do better next time.”

Groome is still a ways away, most likely beginning this road back in Greenville. But no matter where he is, people will be watching. That’s just how it is when so much hope is attached. It’s the kind of anticipation that doesn’t disappear just because of a few lost years, as the southpaw is finding out.

“I have always been humble,” he said. “I haven’t done anything yet. I haven’t been in the big leagues so I can’t say anything about the team up there.”

That’s for the rest of us.

AN INTERESTING ADDITION

Connor Wong was undeniably the least publicized name of the three players coming to the Red Sox in the trade for Mookie Betts, simply representing a chance to become a future big-league backup catcher.

But before being sent down Sunday Wong left an intriguing impression. Despite a fairly undersized frame (maybe 5-foot-11, 180 pounds) he managed to flash the power that produced a combined 24 home runs in 2019, popping a pair of Grapefruit League homers.

Considering some of the adjustments Wong made toward the tail-end of last season thanks to some high-end technology, it’s worth keeping an eye on the backstop’s development.

“I noticed with MoCap (Motion Capture), being able to overlay my swing on top of major league guys just to see the differences and see how the body works,” he said. “We put my swing on top of Justin Turner’s swing. It wasn’t even about the power, I just had a lot of swing and miss in my bat because my hips kept rotating whereas his would stop and his bat would go through centerfield and my hips would keep rotating and my barrel would follow and I would be off pitches sooner than he would. That one really opened my eyes.

“It’s really cool. The data we have now can really be useful. But it’s a trap. You have to be careful. You can get caught up in it and be consumed with it. But using it the right way can be really useful.”

NO ESCAPING TECHNOLOGY

Speaking of machines, it is hard to miss the new additions on the backfields at JetBlue Park. Nine portable TrackMan machines.

The contraptions were an investment made by the Red Sox in order to start collecting a whole new round of data starting on Day 1 of spring training. Every side session. Every bullpen session. Everything. No longer was spin rate, velocity, release point, etc. going to be measured just on the main field.

“This is the first spring we have collected data on everything in spring training,” said Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush. “For the most part we’re trying to capture everybody every time they are on the mound.

“The eye test was all we had before and guys self-reporting. There is still value to that. Sometimes it doesn’t match up. Sometimes guys are better than they feel and sometimes they’re not. It’s a way to balance out our own evaluations.”

The collection of data is really as much about next year as it is this time around. Since this is the first year implementing this approach, it won’t be until 2021 that the Red Sox can compare many of these pitchers’ results so early in spring training.

So long to “the ball was coming out of his hand really nice” narrative.

“Guys were reluctant to have their movement tracked this time of year, but most players realize there is value to it. I’m not judging them. I’m just giving them feedback to get them to where they need to get to,” Bush said. “I don’t know if we’re going to need all this next year. But we had to start somewhere and start building up a baseline to work off.”

Trackman
WEEI.com photo

KEVIN PILLAR HAS SOME THOUGHTS

The eye test for Pillar has always produced impressive results when analyzing his defensive acumen. The analytics? Not so much. For an outfielder with such a stellar reputation in the field, the measurements have been a mixed bag.

Kevin Pillar numbers
Baseball Savant

So we asked him about it …

“It’s a very complex question for me to answer. Analytics is just a piece, maybe a small piece, in determining someone’s pure value. I think there are a lot of things analytics don’t take into consideration when it comes to the human element. Whether it’s weather conditions, sun, the fear factor of approaching the wall, the wall behind you, the wall to the side, players overlapping, infielders going back and you coming in. There is a human element that the advanced metrics don’t take into considerations. It’s not as simple as black and white. They might say that ball had a 50 percent chance of being caught but they don’t understand the fear factor of running full speed and having about six inches before you’re about to collide with the wall. It’s easy to have a mathematical formula saying this ball should be caught X amount of times … 

“A huge portion of the game is playing in some sort of shifts, which includes the outfielders now shading outside their normal territory. It always seemed a little unfair that the defensive metrics held so much weight when these external factors aren’t taken into consideration. Players are positioning themselves less and less in this game. It’s more about front office, advance scouts, coaching staffs that are trying to put their athletes in the best position to be successful.

“All my years in Toronto we would have a meeting 20 minutes before we went out to stretch. We would talk about our pitcher on the mound, we talked about how we were going to position all the hitters in the lineup. Most importantly the last component was making sure we used our eyes and we all communicated whether a guy was late, a guy was cheating or if our pitcher didn’t have his best stuff that day and we made adjustments according to what we saw. Moving to San Francisco I bought in the idea of using the cards a little bit more. I was in a new league, with new pitchers facing new hitters and I felt like it was going to be best for me to buy into the positioning they gave me because I was learning on the fly. As the year went by I started using my instincts a little bit more out there. 

“I definitely think the advanced metrics can be used as a tool to help us. I don’t think it is the end-all, be-all, but I do think it is the small piece of the puzzle.

“We don’t move to our glove side as well as we move to our throwing side so maybe when the positioning says play here I can shade over a little bit because I move better in a certain direction. That stuff that is a piece of the puzzle, not the entirety of the puzzle. A lot of the stuff they are doing  is good but in some way I think it is an unfair way of determining someone’s value or the way we perceive how somebody can impact the game on the defensive side of the ball.”

SOME OTHER THINGS …

- Brian Johnson has been hitting 93 mph on the radar gun. This is of note considering the average velocity on his fastball the last two seasons has been just under 89 mph.

- Red Sox non-roster outfield hopeful John Andreoli made a significant sacrifice this past offseason. The 29-year-old Worcester native prioritized his wife’s career over his, moving to New Jersey in order to make it easier for Cara (Harvey) Andreoli to go on auditions for her acting career. 

- It’s interesting to note that Carlos Febles believes the group the Red Sox will start 2020 with represents the best Opening Day infield defense the team will have had since he arrived. “To start the season, yes,” the coach said when asked if he believed this would be his best defensive infield to start a season. “I think we’re in a good place right now defensively. Defensively we’re going to be really good this year.” One of the key elements, he pointed out, was the presence of Jose Peraza at second base. Peraza first left an impression on Febles at the Single-A level in 2014.

- Martin Perez said the two teams to call him immediately at the outset of free agency: the Red Sox and Blue Jays.

- In case you have missed it, Rusney Castillo entered Monday hitting .521 (12-for-21) in Grapefruit League action.