It isn't too often that a pitcher can carry a major league ERA of 1.07 with 28 strike-outs and only four walks in 25.1 innings into a season and be considered under-the-radar. Yet that is the position that Oakland A's left-hander Brad Kilby finds himself in at the start of the 2011 season. Kilby is coming off of a frustrating 2010 campaign that was lost mostly to a shoulder injury that required surgery. He had to watch as the injury-depleted A's used 13 different relief pitchers (in addition to himself). Then this off-season, Kilby saw his spot on the A's bullpen depth chart slip, as the team added a number of veteran major league relievers to the 40-man roster in an effort to prevent the same depletion of depth the A's experienced in 2010.
Being on the DL is something that is foreign for Kilby. Since turning pro, he has rarely been on the disabled list, tossing at least 60 innings in every season from 2006 through 2010. In 2009, he set a career-high with 80.1 innings pitched, including his first 17 innings at the big league level.
Kilby still isn't certain exactly when the shoulder injury occurred. He didn't feel himself during spring training, when he posted an uncharacteristic 6.75 ERA in 10.2 innings. Despite the high ERA, Kilby was one of the last players cut from A's camp, and he had the one of the best April/early Mays of his career, both with Triple-A Sacramento (1.69 ERA and seven strike-outs in 5.1 innings) and Oakland (2.16 ERA and eight strike-outs in 8.1 innings). However, after returning to Sacramento on May 3, Kilby developed shoulder soreness that worsened over the course of the month. On May 26, the pain was so bad he had to remove himself from a game against Nashville.
An MRI would reveal a tear in Kilby's rotator cuff. The tear was small enough that Kilby initially tried rehabbing the injury without surgery. But when that wasn't enough to alleviate the pain, Kilby had to go under the knife. He would miss the final three months of the minor league regular season.
Despite being sidelined, Kilby remained an integral part of the 2010 River Cats' club. A native of nearby Elk Grove, Kilby stayed with the ballclub throughout the year when they were in Sacramento. Already a River Cats' fan favorite thanks to his status as a hometown player, Kilby became somewhat of a mascot midway through the season with the introduction of his now legendary "Rally Pants."
The first appearance of the "Rally Pants" came on June 17 when the River Cats were taking on the Reno Aces. The injury-plagued club was short on bench players, so then-Sacramento manager Tony DeFrancesco had players on the DL in uniform on the team's bench so they could act as first base coaches. Kilby decided to have a little fun with teammate Lenny DiNardo. DiNardo is notorious for wearing tight-fitting uniform pants, so Kilby – who normally goes for the loose fitting look – put on DiNardo's pants. DiNardo was so amused he insisted Kilby act as the first base coach that inning, which was the eighth. Sacramento rallied from a run down to take an 8-6 lead and would go onto record their first come-from-behind win of the season. Two days later, Kilby wore the pants again in the eighth inning, and this time the ‘Cats rallied in the ninth and a legend was born.
"I think the team went eight or nine and one with me wearing those pants. It was fun, but I don't see them making a comeback. I like to be in the dugout when I am playing, but other than that, I don't like being in the dugout. I like to let the hitters do their thing," Kilby said.
It has hardly been a typical off-season for Kilby, who has been splitting his time between therapy sessions and conditioning work. Kilby has been working hard on strengthening his elbow, in addition to his shoulder, to try to prevent the injury to the elbow that often occurs for pitchers who have had shoulder problems. He has also been concentrating on strength training in his legs.
"Everything [with the rehab] is going great. I occasionally have some soreness the day after I throw, but other than that, everything is going great," Kilby said.
"Great therapist. Great trainer. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised with how I look when spring training rolls around."
Part of Kilby's rehabilitation has included making tweaks to his throwing motion, specifically where he has his arm straight down his leg instead of bringing it all the way behind his back. Kilby said that of the pitchers currently in the major leagues, his new throwing motion most resembles that of New York Yankees' ace C.C. Sabathia. Kilby's old throwing motion made it particularly difficult for hitters to pick up his release point. He admitted that he had some concerns that his new motion would take away some of that deceptiveness, but off-season workout buddy and A's catching prospect Max Stassi told Kilby that he still had trouble picking up Kilby's release point in a recent bullpen session.
"[The new throwing motion] is something that I am probably going to do for the rest of my career," Kilby said.
"I don't know if I will throw as hard. I'm still waiting for that, but I think I'll be alright. It might be easier to repeat my delivery the new way, which will probably help me with my secondary pitches, as well as being deceptive."
Kilby has been throwing off the mound for the past several weeks and while it remains to be seen whether he can get his arm strength up to the point where he can pitch on back-to-back days by the end of spring training, he feels like he is on the right path. Kilby admits that when he started his throwing program, he had doubts about his recovery.
"It was like I had never thrown a ball before. It did not feel good. I told [the therapist], ‘I think something is wrong. I think we have to go back in there,'" Kilby said.
"But after three or four times throwing, it started to feel really good. I think I just had to break-up some scar tissue and get the motion going."
Although this is Kilby's first major arm injury, it is not the first time he has faced the possibility of an injury ending his career. Before the 2009 season, Kilby was pitching in winter ball in the Dominican Republic when he was struck in the forehead by a linedrive. He was couch bound for nearly two months after the injury and there were questions about whether he would be able to return to the mound. Those concerns kept the A's from adding him to the 40-man roster that off-season and the 29 other teams from claiming him in that winter's Rule 5 draft.
Kilby erased those doubts quickly with arguably the best season of his career in 2009, a year that culminated in his major league debut that September. He knows that he faces those same doubts once again this year, as he was removed from the A's 40-man roster this off-season and was once again bypassed by all 29 other teams both during the waiver claim process and in the Rule 5 draft. Kilby is confident that he will once again prove his doubters wrong.
"When I get back out there, I'm just going to have fun. I know the odds are stacked against me. People have been telling me that I can't come back from this injury, and I'm ready to prove them all wrong once again," Kilby said.
"They told me I couldn't come back from the last injury, so I'm ready to prove some people wrong and get back to the big leagues."
Despite the uncertainty that a major arm injury brings, Kilby has very clear goals for the 2011 season.
"If I have my way, I will break camp with the River Cats, stay healthy the whole year and make it back up to the big leagues by September. Those are my goals," Kilby said.
"If I don't make it back up to the big leagues, then I want to help the River Cats win another division championship because I'm three-for-three at that level, so I'd like to keep that train going."