For Oakland A’s prospect Cody Stull, the 2016 season changed the course of his career.
An afterthought last spring, Stull didn’t break camp as a member of a full-season affiliate and had to wait until April 28 to join an active roster for the first time. It didn’t take long for Stull to prove he was much more than an afterthought. In 55.2 innings, Stull posted a 1.46 ERA while striking-out 63 for the High-A Stockton Ports. He walked just 11. During one stretch, Stull went a full month between runs allowed. By the end of the year, Stull was one of the A’s top left-handed relief prospects. He earned a spot in the A’s spring mini-camp and appeared in two big league spring training games.
Stull says his experience in big league camp helped to quantify how close he is to reaching his ultimate goal of pitching in the big leagues.
“It was an unbelievable experience and I was very thankful to have had the opportunity to do it,” Stull said. “It helped me to realize that the dream is possible. Having the chance to face big league hitters like Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson, I realized that it is possible to get guys like that out just doing the little things like getting to a location and making my pitch.”
This season, Stull didn't have to wait for his first assignment coming out of spring training. He broke camp with the Midland RockHounds and has been a key part of their bullpen all season. In 15 innings, Stull has a 3.60 ERA and a 10:5 K:BB. Texas League batters are hitting only .224 against him and he has yet to allow a hit to a left-handed batter. Stull says that although there have been some ups-and-downs, he feels good about how the adjustment to Double-A has gone.
Stull got a taste of upper-level competition at the end of last season when he was promoted to Triple-A and spent a week pitching for the Nashville Sounds. He then joined Midland for the final few games of the regular season, as well as the post-season. Although it was only a handful of innings, Stull felt that his time with Nashville and Midland last season helped him make the adjustment to the Texas League at the start of the 2017 campaign.
“Just going up Triple-A for the week that I was there and facing some of those guys who have played in the big leagues or are bouncing back and forth was extremely helpful,” Stull said. “In Stockton, you might face two or three guys in the line-up who are going to have a good approach. In Nashville and even in Double-A, you’ve got more guys in the lineup who are sticking to their approach or know what they are looking for. Either they are baiting you into throwing what they want to throw or are waiting for that one mistake to happen.”
Stull came to professional baseball with an effective change-up and cutter, but it was an adjustment with his fastball that led to his breakout 2016 season. After a 2015 season with Low-A Beloit when Stull posted a 5.00 ERA in 68 innings, the left-hander knew he needed another a wrinkle to his repertoire. His two-seam fastball was too straight to be effective against right-handed batters. That off-season, Stull was throwing with fellow prospect Kevin Shackleford -- currently with the Cincinnati Reds’ organization -- who mentioned he threw a one-seam fastball. With only a little experimentation, Stull was able to add the pitch to his arsenal and he immediately found success with the one-seam fastball during the 2016 season.
“I started to get a lot more sink and run action,” Stull said. “I’ve had a lot more success with it against righties and also to lefties.”
Stull says his mental approach also helped him take his game to the next level.
“Being able to lock in and know that you are only ever one pitch away from getting out of any jam really helped,” Stull said. “It kept me from trying to force a pitch or trying to do too much with a pitch.”
Stull profiles as a LOOGY – a left-handed relief specialist who can be brought in to neutralize an opponent’s toughest left-handed batters. Only one left-handed batter has reached against Stull this season (it was via a walk) and in 2016, lefties had only nine hits and four walks in 75 plate appearances (.129 BAA). Right-handers have found more success against Stull, but he has pitched well enough against righties to be able to work multiple innings on a regular basis. Stull says the one-seam fastball has helped him keep right-handers honest and that his change-up is an equalizer that keeps right-handers from sitting on his fastball.
Stull has also shown the ability to keep the ball in the ballpark, allowing only nine homeruns in 163.1 career innings. He has struck-out nearly a batter an inning (162) during his career, but Stull has learned that getting outs efficiently will keep him in ballgames for more than a few batters.
"My approach to each batter is something that I have learned from [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson – within the first three pitches of an at-bat, let’s try to force some contact,” Stull said. “Obviously everyone wants to strike someone out, but if I can throw eight pitches and get two outs, that let’s me pitch a little bit longer.”
On Sunday, Stull needed just 36 pitches to get through three innings. Twenty-four of those pitches were strikes and he recorded six outs on the ground. Stull took over for starter Brett Graves in a 1-1 game in the sixth inning and kept the game tied going into the ninth. After Lou Trivino pitched a scoreless ninth for the RockHounds, Midland scored a run in the bottom half of the frame to earn a 2-1, walk-off win.
The win was Midland’s sixth straight and upped their season record to 17-13. Stull says the team is gelling after an up-and-down first few weeks. He also says the bullpen unit, in particular, is operating with high confidence. The current Midland relief corps of Stull, Lou Trivino, Kyle Finnegan, Sam Bragg and Jake Sanchez has a collective 1.95 ERA in 60 innings.
“I think our bullpen is one of the best in the league right now,” Stull said. “We have a lot of very talented guys. I think there are a lot of different variables that can come at you and all of the guys in the bullpen are very competitive dudes and we know that we are good enough to pitch at the next level. We carry that over every outing that we have.”