Over the next 48 hours everyone in and around baseball will be busy analyzing the rosters of minor league teams in anticipation of September call-ups. But perhaps the most interesting name who is currently on a 40-man roster, Matt Bush, may not get the call at all. By now we all know Bush’s story – the bust that was the first overall pick in the 2004 draft. The immature teenager who made more headlines for his transgressions off the field than his play on it. Fast forward to 2011, and not only has Bush overcome his personal demons with substance abuse, but he has put his career on a major-league path.
At the request of a friend, the Tampa Bay Rays sent an area scout to visit Bush while he was serving time in a mandatory Southern California rehab facility following an alcohol related incident. After coming away impressed with his personal progress, they team signed him to signed a minor league contract. From there, Bush relocated to the Winning Inning Baseball Academy near the team’s home base in Clearwater, FL. The academy also served as a home to Josh Hamilton – who overcame similar issues.
As the more mature – and more importantly sober – Bush made strides in his personal life, it would not be long after his signing that he would be back on the baseball diamond. After converting from shortstop to pitcher with the San Diego Padres, Bush blew out his elbow which required Tommy John Surgery. He spent most of the 2010 season rehabbing his right arm, but did appear in a handful of lower-level minor league games. The lack of live action did not stop the Rays from adding him to the 40-man roster this off-season, protecting him from potential poachers. He underwent a minor surgical procedure on his shoulder during the winter, but reported to camp in early 2011 ready to go.
Following a solid showing in a few spring training appearances, the Rays promoted Bush to Double-A Montgomery. The goal for the 2011 season was to stay healthy and become comfortable on the mound. Thus far, he has avoided injury on his way to completing 49.1 innings in 35 appearances. The ability to handle a seasons worth of work is key, but the results of that work are not bad either.
In addition to the health, Bush needed to prove he could be a pitcher and not just a thrower. Although he lost significant time due to injuries and legal issues, he could still light up a radar gun with a mid-to-upper 90’s fastball. However, he lacked polish in terms of command and control. Beyond the heater, he had little to offer as far as a secondary pitch(es).
Despite a 4.93 ERA this year, the 25-year-old has shown substantial growth in becoming a pitcher. In terms of things he can control, Bush has posted nice, round 3.00 FIP. He leads the Southern League (min. 40 innings) in both K/9 (13.86) and K% (34.7%). His walk rate is a tad high at 4.20 per nine; four of his 23 walks, however, have been intentional. If we subtract those free passes, his unintentional BB/9 is a much more attractive 3.42.
Where Bush has had the most trouble this year is on balls in play. His BABIP is near .400 with a left-on-base-percentage under 70%. Such numbers could be caused by a variety of factors including: an extreme case of bad mojo; the quality of minor-league fielders; or the fact that professional hitters are able to hit ill-located fastballs regardless of velocity, especially if they know it is coming. It is probably a fair dose of all of the above which is why the defensive independent metrics are so encouraging.
Aside from the control issues, the development of a secondary pitch is also important for Bush. After a recent bullpen session, it appears as if he may have found that pitch. Last month, he began toying with a slider and introduced it in game action on July 31. Including that game, he has thrown 11.2 innings over his last seven appearances with three walks and 16 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting under .200 during the streak. Of course, that is an extremely small sample size and because of that we can not say if it is direct causation or simply a coincidence. On top of that, without pitch f/x data it is unknown how much he is throwing the slider or how effective it really is. That said, it could be another sign of legitimate growth.
The Rays have stated numerous times that development is king. With that in mind, Bush’s numbers alone are not motivating factor for a call-up. At the same time, he proved he can handle a regular work load, and in the process, made himself a viable candidate for a bullpen role in 2012. Even if he doesn’t throw a ball with the big league club, perhaps getting used to major league life would be a valuable way to spend the final few weeks of his 2011 season. Considering where’s he’s been on and off the field, it is rather amazing his next stop may be in a major league town near you.