By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
Brent Honeywell paused for a long time after hearing the question. Every iteration of it.
Mitch Lukevics said he wanted you to improve your “pitch-to-pitch focus.” What does that mean to you?
Lukevics, the Tampa Bay Rays director of minor league operations, issued that challenge to the 21-year-old right-hander after the team’s January winter development camp. Three months later, Honeywell is still trying to figure out what it means.
“Me, personally, I think I’m focused,” he said on Monday. “I think I’m focused on what I’m trying to get done.”
Other than left-hander Blake Snell, who made his major league debut against the New York Yankees on Saturday, Honeywell is the top-ranked prospect in the Tampa Bay organization.
He mixes a fastball that has reached 97 mph on the radar gun with an above-average changeup and a curveball he says is “the best it’s ever been,” as well as a true screwball he learned from his father, Brent Sr., who pitched professionally in the late 80s, and cousin Mike Marshall, who rode the pitch to the 1974 Cy Young Award with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Since the start of 2015, his first full season, the Carnesville, Ga., native has made 30 starts between Low-A Bowling Green and High-A Charlotte, going 11-6 with a 2.68 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 168 innings.
Since he debuted with the Stone Crabs on June 27, the 2014 competitive balance pick is 6-2 with a 2.36 ERA over 18 starts, including a complete game shutout of Tampa on July 18 and a six-inning, two-run performance in Charlotte’s Florida State League championship-clinching victory over Daytona on Sept. 13.
So when Lukevics told him he needed to be more focused, Honeywell said, “it threw me a curveball.”
“Because every time I go out,” he added, “I’m focused.”
I had seen seven of Honeywell’s first 17 starts with the Stone Crabs in person, but always from the same angle: In the Charlotte Sports Park press box, through shatter-proof glass three stories above field level. I wanted to see him throw from a different perspective, to see if I could get a sense of that focus.
So Friday, I watched the right-hander’s outing in Fort Myers from the front row behind home plate.
Honeywell appears angry when he pitches. Hat brim pulled down low, lip packed and a steely glare ever present on his face, it’s almost as if he’s seething at every batter that comes to the plate.
He wasn’t perfect against the Miracle, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits while striking out seven over 6 2⁄3 innings. Things unraveled a bit after the leadoff man in the third inning reached on Cristian Toribio’s dropped pop fly, with one run scoring on a wild pitch and another on the single through the right side.
But none of that seemed to affect Honeywell. It seemed to make him angry. Almost every bit of contact he allowed — hit or otherwise — seemed to be followed by a swinging strike.
When he gave up a long drive to right in the second inning that would have been an extra-base hit had Landon Cray not made a leaping catch against the wall, Honeywell got the next batter to swing through three straight strikes — two 90-plus-mph fastballs and a 78-mph curve.
And when he allowed those two runs on 17 pitches in the third innings, Honeywell followed it with three straight scoreless frames of seven, 10 and 12 pitches, allowing one hit and striking out three.
“I feel really good. The ball is coming out good,” Honeywell said. “What I was telling (pitching coach Steve ‘Doc’ Watson) is, I want to be in midseason form from the first start. Then that midseason form gets better.”
So it sounds like, on the mound, at least, that Honeywell has the focus Lukevics was looking for. But the point the longtime farm director was trying to make in January was that it takes more than physical ability and an every-five-day focus to become a major league pitcher.
Lukevics likened the situation to the one Snell was in at the start of last season. By his own admission, Snell wasn’t a particularly hard worker. He was rated as one of the top prospects in the organization, but the numbers (3.19 ERA, 56 walks in 115 1⁄3 innings in 2014) didn’t always show it.
Last year, though, Snell was far and away the best pitcher in Minor League Baseball. Baseball America and USA Today said so after he went 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 134 innings.
The left-hander started the season with 46 consecutive scoreless innings, needed only 16 starts to move from High-A through Double-A and onto Triple-A Durham, and probably would have gotten the call to the majors had the Rays been better positioned in the playoff race.
The difference, Lukevics said, was focus.
“You saw how that turned his career from good to great,” he said. “Brent can do the same. And when he does the same, does that a little bit more and focuses a little bit more, he can have that same type of turnaround. He has the skill necessary to do that.”
Through four starts so far this season, Honeywell has allowed just three runs (two earned) on 15 hits while striking out 27 over 24 2⁄3 innings.
Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns, who managed Snell in Bowling Green and Charlotte, doesn’t believe we’ll see another pitcher make a meteoric rise like the Rays’ No. 1 prospect did last year. But he does see a difference in Honeywell.
“I think he understands that every pitch is different than the last,” he said. “He’s learning, he’s asking questions, and he sits by us the whole game, which is good. I would agree with Mitch. That’s something he definitely needed to work on, but he’s getting better.”
Honeywell said he isn’t doing anything different this season and hasn’t noticed any changes from last year. But maybe that’s a good thing.
In three years, Honeywell has gone from a little-known community college prospect to a competitive-balance pick, a No. 41 ranking among baseball prospects and, perhaps very soon, a promotion to Double-A in his third professional season.
Maybe Lukevics and Johns simply haven’t grasped the focus he already has.
“I haven’t changed since I got into pro ball. Have I changed this year? No. Am I going to change, down the road, the way I pitch? No,” Honeywell said. “Right now, I don’t see anything I need to change.
“I know exactly what I want to do. And I’m going to do it.”