For Red Sox Prospect Thad Ward, Zero Is The Magic Number
There are a lot of outstanding numbers one could use to describe Thad Ward’s season. You could point to his 2.10 ERA, which is the second-best among qualified starters in Boston's system. Or you could look at his 142 strikeouts, which are the most among Red Sox prospects and the 11th most in the minor leagues.
Those figures describe what Ward, 22, has done this year. But to understand how he got there, the most appropriate number is zero, which explains why his signature slider gets so many swings and misses.
“When it comes to a slider, you want your spin efficiency as low as possible, as close to zero as it can possibly be,” Ward said after his most recent start. “And my slider spin efficiency is zero, so I have perfect sidespin on my slider. That’s big for me because my slider’s my best pitch.”
The pitch was excellent on Aug. 10, when Ward struck out eight for high Class A Salem in five, one-hit innings against Carolina. He induced 16 swings and misses in 92 pitches, good for a rate of 17.4 percent. That’s well above his season rate of 12.8 percent, which is tied for the best in the Red Sox's system among pitchers with 100 or more innings.
Despite all the punchouts this year, Ward insists that’s not his aim. Instead, he wants to use the natural sink on his fastball to create early, weak contact. He throws three types of fastballs: A four-seamer, a sinker and a cutter, and he uses them all to try to let the hitters get themselves out.
“Strikeouts were never a big thing in my head where I want to strike out this many guys,” he said. “It’s always been: Just stay in the zone and force contact early. Because I’m able to be in the zone a lot and because guys are either swinging and missing or making early (foul) contact and start waiting on pitches . . . it’s allowed me to really put guys away when I’ve had opportunities to.”
Any pitcher would gladly take the results Ward has produced this season, but they’re extra special in his case considering he’s in his first full season as a starter after spending three years in Central Florida’s bullpen.
At Central Florida, Ward whiffed 127 batters over 118.2 career innings. His combination of a 92-95 mph fastball and power slider led the Red Sox to call his name in the fifth round of the 2018 draft and hand him a signing bonus of $275,000.
His 2019 workload alone is just three innings shy of the 115.2 innings he logged at UCF over three seasons, but his pitches still look crisp and lively. His fastball touched as high as 96 mph against the Mudcats, and his slider got plenty of swings and misses.
That stamina can be credited, in part, to the athleticism he displays in his up-tempo delivery, as well as a new routine that he created to help him transition into a starter’s role.
Ward’s routine begins with some long-toss and weightlifting the day after a start, followed by a clean slate the next day. He throws a bullpen session and lifts more weight on the third day, and completes the cycle on the fourth day with a flat-ground session from 90 feet. That completes the cycle and gets him ready for his next start.
Though he was mostly a fastball-slider pitcher in college, he had five offerings at his disposal. The only pitch he’s truly added is the cutter, which was done with the help of a pair of righthanders within the system.
“I was messing around with it in spring training, and a pitcher named Matthew Kent throws a good cutter, so I went up to him and asked him how he throws his cutter,” Ward explained. “And then I started playing catch with it, and when I started throwing it in my sides is when (Red Sox assistant pitching coach Brian) Bannister taught me (Rick) Porcello’s grip, so I adjusted to Porcello’s grip and really started throwing it with that grip.”
Porcello’s grip is closer to a two-seam grip, with the baseball held across the seam and Ward’s middle finger near the horseshoe formed by the stitches. Ward’s cutter and slider are two distinct pitches, and he started one particularly nasty cutter at the hip of a righthanded hitter who watched as it came back through the front door for a called third strike.
Between the new cutter and the tried and true slider, it’s not hard to understand why Ward has spent his first full season as a starter racking up strikeout after strikeout.