In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays made Jeff Ames a supplemental first round pick, selecting him 21st overall. However, Ames’ combination of age and ability may not have warranted him being selected so highly. The Rays had 10 picks before the second around that year, and they had to sign several players for below-slot bonuses. Ames was one of them. Ames signed for $650,000 compared to the slot bonus of $803,000 and the reason was simple: he was selected above his draft slot. Ames had talent–his fastball touched 95 MPH–but he was a junior college sophomore already 20 years old and still very raw. He couldn’t command his fastball, his slider stayed slurvy, and he slowed his arm action on his changeup. Complicating things even more was a questionable work ethic. Ames had a chance to be a very good pitcher, but he had a long way to go, too long for a 20 year old drafted so highly. But maybe selecting Ames wasn’t just about the money for the Rays. They saw something that other teams did not and have exploited that since Ames’ first full pro season.
Ames’ professional baseball career began in disastrous fashion. In 11 appearances, 5 starts, at Advanced Rookie Princeton, Ames’ ERA was just 7.12. He did strike out 39 while walking 7, but he got hit around time after time, allowing 40 hits and 4 home runs (1.2 HR/9) in 30.1 innings pitched. Speaking to Curt Railo of MiLB.com, Ames discussed that experience with the P-Rays.
“In junior college, I was facing hitters who weren’t as disciplined as the hitters I’m facing now, so I was able to get away with throwing a ball way up in the zone, and they would swing right through it. My first year with the Rays [in Princeton], the aggressiveness got the best of me. I was leaving balls over the plate and guys were hitting them all over the field. It was a big learning curve. My pitching coaches helped me hone in and channel my energy in the best way.
Ames struggled, but then the Rays’ pitching coaches made some adjustments. Those adjustments worked quite well. The following season, Ames did a complete 180 for Short Season-A Hudson Valley, going 6-1 with a 1.94 ERA, a 9.8 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 0.1 HR/9 in 13 starts and 64.1 innings pitched. This season, though, his performance has slipped quite a bit. He has gone 9-4 for Low-A Bowling Green in 22 starts and 109.2 IP, but he has slipped to a 3.02 ERA, a 6.5 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9. What is happening? As it turned out, things are actually going in the right direction. Jared Sandberg, Ames’ manager both at Hudson Valley and Bowling Green, gave this insight.
“Jeff is a fierce competitor, and he has a mid-90s fastball. He goes right after hitters. His slider has shortened up a little bit, and he made a huge adjustment with his change-up. He used to work underneath it quite a bit and really show the hitter what was coming. Now, he’s throwing it off his fastball. He has the ball going all over the place. He also added a little two-seam fastball as well. Now with his repertoire, if one pitch isn’t there, he’s got something else to go to.”
You look at Ames’ sub-par strikeout rate and it is far where it should be for a pitcher with his stuff. The reason for that, though, is that Ames isn’t pitching off his fastball as much. If Ames was sticking to the plan of blowing by hitters with his fastball, his fastball has enough velocity and late life that many Low-A hitters would be fooled. Instead, Ames has sacrificed some strikeouts to work on his secondary pitches, and finally they’re starting to click. The slider is flashing plus more often while the changeup is slowly but surely coming along. Add in a two-seamer in the low-90’s, and Ames is really learning how to get the most from his repertoire. Ames is still years from the major leagues. But with all his pitches moving in the right direction, it isn’t hard to imagine him being quite good when he gets there.
Jeff Ames was a raw talent when the Rays drafted him. He had the fastball, but everything from his secondary pitches to his attitude trended in the wrong direction. Ames is just the latest example, though, of the Rays’ ability to get the most of their minor league pitchers. No one in baseball is better at developing young pitchers, and the Rays can draft for higher-upside pitchers knowing that. Not everyone will pan out, but with the pitching proficiency the Rays have, no one can be surprised that their system just keeps churning out starting pitchers. And with pitchers like Ames leading the next wave, they are showing no signs of slowing down.