Song won't be navigating uncharted waters
Noah Song became the ninth Midshipmen since 2002 to have his name called during the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft when the Red Sox selected him No. 137 overall on June 6, 2019. From that list, only four graduated from the Naval Academy -- Mitch Harris (2008), Stephen Moore
Noah Song became the ninth Midshipmen since 2002 to have his name called during the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft when the Red Sox selected him No. 137 overall on June 6, 2019.
From that list, only four graduated from the Naval Academy -- Mitch Harris (2008), Stephen Moore (2015) and Luke Gillingham (2016) are the others -- and Harris became only the second academy graduate to play in the Majors since Nemo Gaines made his debut with the Washington Senators in 1921. All of them were required to serve at least a portion of their active duty commitment directly out of the academy.
Song is now in the same boat (no pun intended). After his waiver request to transfer to the Navy Reserve -- and thus delay his five-year military obligation until after his baseball career -- was denied, the right-hander set his spikes aside to report to flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola at the end of June. That's tough news for Red Sox fans.
"He is an absolutely exceptional talent," said Moore, who's seen things from the perspective of the mound as well as the cockpit. "The best pitcher the Naval Academy has ever had."
The 23-year-old got his first taste of professional baseball when he made seven starts in the Class A Short Season New York-Penn League last summer and then made five appearances with Team USA in the fall, but it's unclear when he'll be back on the diamond in a competitive setting.
When Song's request was denied, Boston vice president of player development Ben Crockett issued a statement saying the team would be in his corner even if the hurler wasn't free to play for two years. Current policy allows service academy graduates who are under contract with a professional sports team to apply for early release -- usually with a six-year commitment to the Navy Reserve required upon approval -- after they serve two years of active duty. So, the Red Sox may be able to begin working with Song in two years, but it's not a foregone conclusion.
There are no guarantees about Song's situation, but there is some precedent.
Harris twice petitioned for early release from active duty to the reserves and was denied both times. He didn't get on a pro mound until five years after the Cardinals drafted him, debuting with 20 relief appearances for the Class A Short Season State College in 2013. In Gillingham's case, the southpaw made four appearances for Rookie-level Bluefield after the 2016 Draft but then reported to the USS Stockdale in San Diego and didn't return to the Blue Jays until 2019, when he tossed 34 Northwest League innings for Rookie Advanced Vancouver.
However, both Harris and Gillingham were ensigns in the surface warfare group. Song is not. He is an ensign in aviation -- as was Moore, who is now a lieutenant embarking on his sixth year as a naval flight officer.
"It's really different in the aviation community," said Moore, a 10th-round pick of the Braves in 2015. "You have different requirements and a lot of money, resources and time go into your training as an aviator. I could have entered the surface warfare community and that probably would have allowed me to shorten my active duty commitment and transition into the reserves sooner, but once I was accepted in the aviation community, I wanted to at least see my initial commitment through."
There is another possibility for Song. Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite or Secretary of Defense Mark Esper could overturn the waiver-denial recommendation of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday and allow Song a release from flight school in one year. That would allow the 23-year-old to rejoin the Sox next season, but this pathway seems very unlikely.
Still, the organization that made him the highest Midshipmen baseball player ever selected emphasized, again, they are sticking by their guy.
“We very much support Noah’s plan to serve his country and will be excited to have him return whenever that time comes,” Crockett said. "It was certainly a factor for our scouting department, but we evaluated Noah's talent very highly and were excited to take him where we did."
So, while no one knows for certain what the future holds for Boston’s sixth-ranked prospect, Moore can offer the best insight into what Song can expect as he undertakes flight school with an eye on a return to baseball.
Prior to Song’s selection last year, Moore was the highest Midshipmen baseball player ever selected when he was taken 300th overall in 2015. The lieutenant acknowledged that he keeps ties with his former program and coaches at Annapolis and has met Song and believes the hard-throwing righty is as well suited as anybody to balance a commitment to the Navy and the pursuit of a career in baseball.
“I know all about Noah and have kept up with everything he has done. He is an impressive kid,” Moore said. “The year after I graduated was his freshman year, and I went back to Annapolis and met him. ... If you saw him as a freshman, you would never have guessed all the accolades he would go on to earn.”
Song holds the Navy baseball records for career wins (32), strikeouts (428), innings pitched (334 1/3) and is tied for the most shutouts in school history with nine. He was a consensus first team All-American. The Claremont, California, native was also a finalist for the 2019 Golden Spikes Award – given to the best amateur player in the country by USA Baseball.
But, according to Moore, that success won't necessarily work in Song's favor as he ventures through flight school.
“He’s going to face a lot of adversity, regardless of what people actually know about him,” he said. “Just based on the headlines, everything he has achieved to this point, his status as a professional athlete, and where he is as an NFO … people will view him differently and approach him differently, which will cause a lot of adversity. Word travels. You can’t fly under the radar when you have such a large story behind you, but in the end it will make him stronger as a professional athlete and an aviator.”
Finding a way to stay in baseball shape could also be a challenge for the 23-year-old. Crockett confirmed that while the organization maintains some contact with Song, he has not begun formal baseball activities. And, without a bullpen or a cage on base and with the day-to-day grind of flight school a full-time commitment, how can baseball fit in at all?
“It’s easy to stay in physical shape, but it’s very tough to stay in competitive shape without competing,” Moore said. “Conditioning is always there, but it’s a challenge to stay in baseball shape when you can’t play regularly. You hope you find someone who has some baseball experience and you do your best to keep throwing every chance you get. One of my friends during my time in Pensacola was a catcher in college. I would throw to him to keep my arm in the best shape I could.
“There aren’t really baseball resources available to you there, but you stay committed to your own workouts and try to build a routine as best you can.”
Paul Kostacopoulos, Navy baseball coach since 2006, doesn't believe that's too high a hurdle for the 2019 Patriot League Pitcher of the Year.
"His work ethic was superior in the sense that he did what we asked him to do, and he did more than we asked him to do. He always prepared himself at the highest level," Kostacopoulos said. "Time isn’t that easy here, but he took advantage of every single minute that he could have to better himself as an athlete.
"One thing that really stands out to me about Noah is his incredible focus. He has an ability to lock in like no one I've seen before. Whatever it is that he needs to do, he can forget what's to the left of him and to the right of him and lock in on what he wants to accomplish."
In Moore’s case, he was allotted the opportunity to join Double-A Mississippi when the team played in Pensacola.
“It was pretty great, because I could work out with the team and the coaches and treat the weekend as if I was part of that group,” he recalled. “We would share stories, me about what I was doing and them about their baseball grind in the Minors. I’ll never forget it.”
And with just over five years of experience since being commissioned as an NFO, Moore reflects on his time as an aviator, away from baseball, with no regrets. But the game continues to fuel his passion.
“It’s been quite an experience from where I started to where I am now, but I am in a great spot,” he said. “I love where I am. I love the people I fly with, but I still love baseball. Baseball was my first love. It’s been my dream since I was a kid. So, I want to see this through and then pursue that dream of playing baseball and see that through.
“When it’s all said and done, I think it would be really cool to be able to say I flew F-18s in the Navy and pitched in a Major League game.”
The 28-year-old also said he would offer this piece of advice if he gets the chance to talk to Song again:
“Go where your heart tells you. In the military and in our specific profession, you never want to disappoint the people that allowed and afforded you the opportunities you’ve been given, so you don’t want to walk away with any regrets. But if you want to chase something, be honest about what that is and go for it.”
Song and the Red Sox were hopeful that a new Department of Defense policy endorsed by President Trump -- permitting service academy graduates who are under a professional sports contracts to forgo being commissioned as officers until their playing careers are over and then fulfill their five-year service commitment or repay the government the cost of their college education -- could be retroactively applied. However, the policy will take effect for the Class of 2020, and since Song was already commissioned when he became a Naval flight officer following his graduation, no exception will be made for him.
"With that exemplary focus and drive that he possesses, and the ability to take direction, too, which is another great attribute, I think he's going to be wildly successful," Kostacopoulos said. "On some level there's some frustration with the people who are involved in this, and I get that, but I think the Red Sox know he has the ability. Certainly, I think his commitment to serving his country and doing what he can do militarily is super important to him, but at the end of the day my advice is: stay with this young man. He'll surprise you with what he can do."
In June, Song wrote in a statement obtained by the Capital Gazette, "If I were somehow allowed to transfer into the reserves, I would have every intention of serving on active duty after my time with baseball ends. I place an incredible amount of personal value in serving my country and doing so in a meaningful way.
“I am fortunate to have two ‘Plan As’ in life: I want to serve my country as a naval aviator and play baseball for the Red Sox. I will continue to do all I can to accomplish both, and I sincerely appreciate the support I have received from the Navy and the Red Sox in reaching those goals.”
Undrafted out of Claremont High School, Song majored in engineering at the Naval Academy. During his freshman campaign in 2016, Song posted a 2.75 ERA in 75 1/3 innings while his pitches typically sat in the mid-80s. He was named the Patriot League Rookie of the Year and a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, and he was increasingly dominant over the next three years. Stints in the Cape Cod League after his sophomore and junior years saw him improve by leaps and bounds.
"When Noah arrived here he was very underdeveloped from a weight standpoint, and his metrics weren't quite there yet, but he had projectability," Kostacopoulos said. "And from the moment he arrived, he worked hard, really filled out and saw that bump in velocity that's really been a difference-maker. He stayed focused, always listened to our coaching staff, and built off that and really maximized his potential."
By his senior season, Song’s fastball was consistently clocked in the mid-90s, and he sported a plus-slider. He went 11-1 with a 1.44 ERA while setting a single-season Navy record with 161 strikeouts (third in Division I baseball) over 94 frames. His 2019 15.41 K/9 IP mark was tops in all of D1 baseball since 2009 and ranked sixth all-time.
He signed a below-slot $100,000 deal with the Red Sox after being selected in the fourth round.
"In my opinion, and certainly others', we believed he was higher than a fourth-rounder," Kostacopoulos said. "But because of military and question marks surrounding when you go to an academy, it certainly discounted him back a little."
Song made his pro debut with Class A Short Season Lowell on July 25. Over seven outings with the Spinners, he posted a 1.06 ERA and 0.88 WHIP while limiting opponents to a .167 average. He notched 19 punchouts to five walks over 17 NYPL frames.
Noah Song 158 km/h 98 MPH 🔥🔥🔥 Ties fastest pitch of #Premier12 2019 #ForGlory @USABaseball pic.twitter.com/vUxlpfkY6E— WBSC ⚾ #Premier12 (@Premier12) November 13, 2019
In five relief appearances for Team USA in the World Baseball-Softball Confederation Premier 12 Tournament in the fall, Song yielded one hit and a pair of walks while fanning six over 5 1/3 shutout innings. His fastball regularly sat in the upper-90s and occasionally hit triple digits. He also impressed scouts with the command of his off-speed offerings.
“He pitched very well in his first taste of pro ball and continued that with Team USA in the fall,” Crockett said. “He made a great impression on and off the field, showing an excellent pitch mix and great poise. He has a bright future.”
Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.