Tampa Bay Rays: Brent Honeywell Is Like No Other Pitcher

The screwball. In any conversation about Tampa Bay Rays pitching prospect Brent Honeywell, you have to talk about his screwball, the pitch he throws that nobody else does anymore. Buster Posey claims that it is impossible to throw. However, when Honeywell was kind enough to talk with me on the phone for a few minutes, he was a little perplexed about why screwball pitchers were so scarce in modern baseball. To him, “It is just another pitch.”

“I have my curveball and then I have my screwball. It’s another breaking pitch…It doesn’t force swing-and-misses 150% of the the time. When I leave it up, it gets hit, just like any other pitch.”

Honeywell then went into the story about how he learned the offering when he was 13 years old and needed a full two years before he was confident enough to use it in games. “It isn’t like another pitch that you could learn in a day or two.” Honeywell asked teammate German Marquez about his curveball grip and others have asked Honeywell for help throwing a changeup, but the screwball is a different animal.

I asked Honeywell if it was a little bit more like a knuckleball in the sense that it is so difficult to master, but he had different comparisons in mind: Mariano Rivera‘s cutter and Koji Uehara‘s split-change (not to mention Marquez’s curve). To Honeywell, “screwball” is just a pitch type, but his screwball is a “nasty pitch,” and any such pitch takes time and plenty of effort to reach that echelon. A lot of pitchers throw curveballs, but few pitchers possess unhittable curves. For Honeywell, it is nice that he throws a screwball–he admits that it got him attention and contributed to him getting drafted–but what is really important to him is that it has turned into a dominant pitch that helps him beat opposing hitters.

One bizarre thing is that despite Honeywell’s screwball being his most renowned pitch, we have seen several times in writing that he doesn’t throw it often. Take Honeywell’s pre-draft report from Baseball America, their scouting report on him from the 2015 Prospect Handbook, and even their recent Midseason Top 50 prospects. When I asked Honeywell about it, though, he said that everyone claiming that was incorrect. “It’s a pitch in my arsenal, just like my fastball, curveball, and changeup.” He has been throwing it consistently all along.

Honeywell admitted that he hadn’t had a good feel for his screwball for a while before getting it back in time for his complete-game shutout against the Tampa Yankees on July 18th. He also agreed with me that maybe people were mistakenly identifying his screwball as his changeup. It sounds likely then that Honeywell’s screwball and his changeup are both just a touch overrated. When Honeywell’s screwball doesn’t move as dynamically, it looks more like his change, and considering that it still works well when it has that appearance, evaluators may be writing down “plus changeup” when they should have written “plus screwball.”

That being said, Honeywell remarked “They’re not in the batter’s box–they can’t see the way that it comes at hitters out of my hand.” But to paraphrase Honeywell, it doesn’t matter what pitch you throw as long as it’s effective. That word can be used to describe both his screwball and his changeup. He told me that “Both my screwball and my changeup come natural, so the Rays wanted me to work on my curve.” Honeywell did make an effort to use his curveball more as the 2015 season progressed, and he reports that it has been improving with each start.

A well-known story for the Rays is Alex Cobb teaching Jake Odorizzi his split-change, but Honeywell learned something from Odorizzi regarding a different pitch: the curveball. When Odorizzi joined the Charlotte Stone Crabs for a rehab stint, Honeywell noticed that “He doesn’t try to throw a snap-dragon of a curveball every time.” Honeywell understands that given the promise of his other offerings, it doesn’t make sense for him to try to throw the perfect curve at the risk of a hanger or a wild pitch. Instead, his goals are to spot it for strikes early in the count and give hitters something else to think about.

Honeywell likes how his screwball and changeup break one way while his curveball breaks the other. He is always going to pitch off his fastball, but hitters also have to take into account that one of his secondary pitches could set up another extremely well. That certainly doesn’t mean that Honeywell is unbeatable–he chocked up his rough outings to begin his High-A tenure to leaving all three of his secondaries up in the zone–but combining those offerings with a fastball reaching 96 MPH understandably makes him into one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.

Brent Honeywell’s fastball command and general ability to throw strikes may be the attributes he considers most important about himself as a pitcher. Don’t lose track of the movement on his heater either–even though Honeywell told me only throws a four-seamer, some of his pitches feature so much horizontal action that people think he throws a two-seamer as well. We also know that the Rays love throwing fastballs up, and Honeywell is already on board with that. Though he admits that “Entering pro ball, I never understood why anyone would throw an 0-2 fastball,” now he understands its value as a pitch to set up his secondary offerings.

Then, to top it all off, Honeywell has almost no platoon split. While plenty of young right-handed pitchers struggle facing lefty batters, Honeywell has allowed a .204/.272/.332 line against righties that goes up only slightly to a .244/.302/.346 line versus lefties. His strikeout to walk ratios are excellent against both of them as well–64-10 versus righties and 38-8 versus lefty batters. Honeywell says “I just want to throw the best pitch every time,” and doesn’t do anything differently depending on which side the opposing hitter bats. He can get anybody out, and he knows it.

Honeywell still has a ways to go in his development, but he has the stuff to be an ace along with the command and lack of a platoon split to make him as safe of a bet to be a big league starter as any pitcher at A-ball. Baseball America recently ranked him as the 40th-best prospect in baseball, and it may not be long before he earns much more prestigious accolades than that. Blake Snell is closer to the majors and Taylor Guerrieri still has considerable potential as well, but it is Brent Honeywell who is the Tampa Bay Rays’ best hope to become a frontline starter in the major leagues for years and years to come.