Sweet Like Honey

Brent Honeywell is a man of singular focus, and that focus is on baseball. The 22-year-old right-hander certainly has other hobbies and interests including hunting, fishing, and playing video games, but even when it seems like his attention is elsewhere his mind is always on baseball.

“I do nothing but think baseball, no matter if I’m home or here, it doesn’t matter,” said Honeywell.

The obsession with America’s pastime was present in Honeywell from an early age. Growing up in a baseball-loving family, the young Georgian had the game on his brain even as a child.

“I was always in uniform no matter where I was at,” said Honeywell. “I told my mom and my dad from day one I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player. I’ve got pictures from when my dad was coaching in Burke County […] and I was in uniform and I would throw out the first pitch every night and it’s funny because my mechanics are the exact same. My dad has been the one who taught me how to pitch since I was four years old. My mom said I would ride around in the buggy at the grocery store with a baseball.”

That single-mindedness has served Honeywell well over the years. He used it to master one of the most difficult pitches in the game, a screwball. Honeywell learned the offbeat pitch from his dad, who picked it up himself from his cousin Mike Marshall, who used the pitch to help him win the 1975 NL Cy Young Award with the Dodgers.

The family heirloom pitch helped Honeywell dominate his competition growing up, and after just one season at Walters State Community College in Tennessee he was selected by the Rays in the second round of the 2014 Draft. Honeywell then surged through the minor leagues and up the Tampa Bay Rays’ prospect rankings, bringing him to the precipice of the major leagues as the number two prospect in the system.

With all the success came confidence for Honeywell; a lot of confidence.

“You’ve got to have the kind of confidence where you know you can get that guy out in front of you,” said Honeywell. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Albert Pujols, it doesn’t matter if it’s David Ortiz, it doesn’t matter if it’s Mike Trout or (Bryce) Harper. It doesn’t matter if it’s those guys. Execute one pitch and you’ll get them out. As a pitcher you know that. You have to know that. If you’re gonna go out and sell yourself short, get off the mound because you’re not going to step on any pitch you throw. You’re not going to throw your pitches with any conviction.”

That confidence, the conviction in every pitch, the cutthroat mentality against every batter, is something Honeywell has always possessed. Or at least it was something he always possessed.

Honeywell began his pro career in 2014 with the Princeton Rays and has been on a seemingly unstoppable ascension to the major leagues ever since. With his ever-increasing strikeout total came a consistent string of accolades, including Mid-Season All-Star bids in both 2015 with Bowling Green and 2016 with Charlotte as well as being named a Tampa Bay Organization All-Star by MiLB.com following last season. The biggest award came from the Rays themselves however, as they named Honeywell their 2016 Minor League Pitcher of the Year after a dominant 2016 campaign that saw phenom go 7–3 with a 2.34 ERA and 117 strikeouts over 115.1 combined innings between High-A and Double-A.

The success carried over into the start of 2017 as well, as Honeywell struck out 20 batters over his first two starts with Double-A Montgomery before earning a promotion to Durham. Honeywell seemed destined to cruise straight to the big leagues when he began his Triple-A career with a pair of solid outings, including a quality start in his debut and a nine-strikeout performance in his second appearance.

That’s when the racecar that is Honeywell’s career hit a speed bump however, arguably the first speed bump of his career. The righty was touched up in Buffalo on April 30, where he allowed five runs over just 3.2 innings pitched. He bounced right back with solid outings in his next three starts before suffering the worst start of his career in Pawtucket on May 28, where he allowed a career-high seven runs on eight hits while lasting only three innings.

“(My dad) was in Pawtucket,” said Honeywell. “Saw me give up seven in three. He asked me after that, ‘I got a plane ticket and flew all the way up here to see that performance?’”

While Honeywell put up dominant outings since he also scuffled in several, leaving the formerly invulnerable hurler second-guessing himself.

“(Having down games) is tough because I know very well what I’m capable of doing, and I’m very capable of (succeeding) day in and day out,” said Honeywell. “That to me is what makes big leaguers big leaguers, is they can do it day in and day out. They’re consistent in what they do. I need to get back to having my bad starts at least go five innings, instead of having my bad starts go 2.1 or 3 or 3.1.”

Honeywell had a choice to make. Would he let the bad starts overwhelm him, or would he brush them off and figure out what he needed to do to improve?

“I’m so much better then what I’ve shown here,” said Honeywell. “I know that, and I hope everyone else knows that. I think they do. It’s the hand I’m dealt right now though, so what are you gonna do with it? You can sit back and feel sorry for yourself, or you can say, ‘let’s go!’ Day five, here it comes. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to pitch in Triple-A. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to pitch in the major leagues. Hopefully I’m knocking on the door, but it’s a kid’s game man, played by grown men. My dad told me that, and it’s always stuck with me. I love the game.”

So Honeywell went to work, talking with Bulls’ pitching coach Kyle Snyder as well as his life-long coach and father Brent. It didn’t take long for the trio to come to the same conclusion, Honeywell was overthinking. For someone with a pitch as devastating as the screwball and with an assortment of five, above-average pitches, Honeywell would get too passive at times.

“The biggest thing me and Kyle (Snyder) talked about going into the last start was, do not trick anybody; just power,” said Honeywell. “Power on power […] I think sometimes I get carried away with throwing my off-speed stuff, because my off-speed stuff is good.”

“It’s not necessarily about concentrating on the fastball, it’s about letting it rip” Honeywell clarified. “Throw the baseball how you know how to throw it. Throw it with conviction. Step on every pitch you throw. Step on it.”

Step on it. Those three words summarized what Honeywell needed to get back to thinking on the mound. The revamped bulldog mentality paid immediate dividends, with Honeywell striking out nine in a quality start vs. Charlotte in his penultimate outing of June. Now when the 6’2” hurler steps on the mound he has one thing, and one thing only on his mind, dominating his opponent.

“I can control the strike zone,” said Honeywell. “I can control what the hitters are gonna swing at whenever I want to. That’s what makes a pitcher a pitcher. When you have wipeout stuff that you’re not afraid to throw in any count, it’s a struggle for guys to sit on anything. Especially when your catcher comes out and says, ‘hey you’ve got a little too much to handle tonight so let’s go to work.’ That’s when you take the mental side out of it, of wanting to throw all of your stuff, and just let it eat. BANG, fastball; getting ahead in the count. BANG, fastball. Just continue to pound the zone.”

With his confidence and swagger restored (if it was ever truly missing) Honeywell is a man on a mission, out to show the International League, the Rays, and all of baseball exactly what he can do.

“In my opinion, you have to have (confidence) to pitch,” said Honeywell. “In my opinion you have to think you’re the best to get out the best, man.”