Oakland A's Spring Q&A: Kyle Christensen

The Oakland A's had big hopes for right-hander Kyle Christensen when they selected him in the 15th round of the 2006 draft out of a Southern California high school. A serious shoulder injury side-tracked Christensen, but he is now healthy and throwing harder than ever. Kyla Hill spoke with Christensen about his rehab and current health, his thoughts on the first week of spring training and more.

Graduating from high school as 17-year-old is one thing; being drafted by a major league team is another. One day can change your life just as quickly as one pitch can change your career.

For right-handed pitcher Kyle Christensen, the adrenaline rush that he felt a week after signing with the Oakland A's 2006 was short-lived. He spent his first season with the A's Rookie League team and 11.2 innings later, what he thought was a strained neck muscle would reveal itself to be something more – something he did not expect so soon into his career. An MRI would not only determine that the youngster had a torn labrum, but it would in fact test his determination to succeed at such a young age in such an unpredictable rollercoaster of a profession.

Rather than have shoulder surgery right away, Christensen opted to rehab his shoulder injury. After participating in extended spring training, he would spend the 2007 season in rookie league, again. With a solid 53.2 innings under his belt, a respectable 3.86 ERA and a 2-2 win/loss record, things looked to be turning around. Again, this excitement was short-lived. While participating in his first spring training in 2008, Christensen's shoulder problems persisted and he underwent surgery in July of 2008.

In 2009, Christensen participated in extended spring training for the second time and broke camp with the short-season A Vancouver Canadians. Even with minor muscle fatigue in his injury-plagued shoulder midway through the year, Christensen went 5-0 in 23.2 innings of work with a 4.94 ERA and 12 strikeouts. He is now entering camp lighter on his feet and more confident in his pitches. More importantly, he enters with a healthy pain-free shoulder, something he hasn't experienced since 2006.

Kyla Hill spoke to Christensen about his road to recovery and his hopes for 2010 and beyond…

Kyla Hill: How have you grown mentally and physically from when you were drafted as a 17-year-old to now being a 21-year-old? You seem wise for your age.

Kyle Christensen: Mentally it's definitely been a challenge for me, but I have definitely grown. I was young. I was 17 years old and things were so new when I was drafted. It took me a year or two to really get used to everyone and now that I have, I feel much more comfortable with where I am. I've grown – a lot. I am much stronger mentally and physically. I've started to fill out a little bit more and become more in touch with my body. I am more comfortable than before and have much more confidence. I am beginning to trust my pitches and understand what it takes to get to the next level.

KH: What was the best thing that came out of your shoulder injury? Some struggle with seeing the positive in something like this, but you don't seem to have a problem with that.

KC: I don't struggle finding positives in life. There is always something to build off of. I remind myself that there is something good, somewhere. Now my shoulder is taken care of and I don't have to worry about it anymore. My shoulder no longer hurts and, in all honestly, I made some really great friends out of my experience. Now I can focus on staying healthy. This was just something I had to take in stride.

KH: As a starter you have a variety of pitches. What are your pitches and what have you been working on to improve what you've got?

KC: Every pitcher changes their grips throughout their career. My two-seamer, four-seamer, change-up and breaking ball have all stayed the same – my selection has always stayed the same. The breaking ball has always been good for me and it's been a pitch that I've never had trouble with. I am very confident with it, so I really haven't changed that a lot. I am trying a new grip this year which seems to be working out for me. It seems to give me more 12/6 [straight down] and it's breaking away from the slurve [slider/curveball] that I had in 2006 and 2007.

The two-seamer I played with last year with Vancouver worked very well for me and it's working just as well here in spring training. I am working on the command and seeing what I can do with it to see where it breaks. However, it's a work in progress. A change-up is a tough pitch to hit and it's a hard pitch to throw. I figure if you can throw it, you're going to get guys out and it will get to you the next level.

KH: With an array of pitches available to you, you've also improved the velocity on your fastball. In 2006 you were 85-89 mph and last year you hit upwards to 93 mph.

KC: Yeah, my velocity has definitely jumped. The velocity in 2006 like you said was about 85-89 mph and when my shoulder gave out in 2008 I think I was about 90 mph. Last year, I was 88-93 mph and didn't have any shoulder problems, minus being shut down for a month for muscle fatigue. When I came back in 2009, I felt healthy again and everyone was happy with my velocity.

I owe a lot to my pitching coach Craig "Lefty" Lefferts. He has really taught me how to pitch. I've spent a lot of time with him because of extended spring training and in Vancouver as the pitching coach. I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of one-on-one time with Lefty and he has really helped me come along as a pitcher and in my career. He got my mechanics dialed into where I wanted them last year and I think that's where my improved velocity came from.

KH: Last year in Vancouver you had the opportunity to piggyback off of Ronny Morla and Hector Garcia while finishing the year 5-0. That must have been a difference experience coming out of the bullpen when you're use to starting the game.

KC: Yeah coming off of surgery, I think they were grooming me to be a starter and were shooting to have at least 30 – 40 innings for me. I reached the 23 inning mark or near there. Of course the piggybacking was interesting because it was all the adrenaline of coming out of the bullpen and having the reliever mentality, but it was just long relief. Lefty's knowledge helped me get into a routine and helped me narrow my focus. I was very fortunate to have that relief experience last year.

I honestly don't care at what point in the game I get the ball. It really makes no difference to me as long as I get to pitch. If I get to pitch, play baseball and make a living doing it, then that's all I could ask for and is the best thing that could ever happen to me. Wherever they decide that I'll be more useful to the team and the organization, I'll do it and I'll work by butt off to be the best.

KH: What would be something you feel like you could improve on if you were called upon to play more of a reliever role in the future?

KC: You're good, you're good [laugh]. Last year I had a problem with being a little overly aggressive and wearing my emotions on my sleeve. My adrenaline was through the roof, so I would get a little wild and try to over-throw. I need to bring myself down, focus on strikes and improve my control. Those are the areas that I think I need to work on, but of course others may think differently. I know I had a problem with getting too riled up, when I should have just relaxed and focused on throwing strikes.

KH: I like how you describe the batters you faced in high school versus those you face now.

KC: [laugh] The fat kid in high school didn't have quick hands; you could just throw a fastball right by him. You get up here and the fat kid has very quick hands and he hits the ball a long way. You definitely need to learn how to pitch at the knees. You need to work in and out, up and down; you really need to change.

KH: Okay, so your first spring training with an arm that is feeling great. What was the first week of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp like for you?

KC: Well, I showed up this year in much better shape than the previous season, almost 30 pounds lighter. I'm more prepared, mentally, physically and have much more confidence than before. For the week we are out here with just the pitching coaches and smaller groups, you get a lot of one-on-one time with a lot of smart guys. Guys sometimes complain about it and say it's too long, but I think a month is perfect and I don't take it for granted because I remember what extended spring training is like and this is heaven. We have good people that take such good care of us. I'm really just trying to be a sponge to everyone and to everything the coaches say. They've been there and done it.

KH: Games have yet to start and you have roughly a month left in camp. What are your expectations and what are you looking forward to taking you into the season?

KC: I will take all the wisdom from all the coaches here. I will work hard to apply that wisdom to my game and take it with to the field each day. I am going to work on all my pitches and make sure that I have control of them and place them where I want them. I am definitely here to work. I am hoping to stay healthy for a whole year and hoping to go to [Low-A] Kane County [at least] and perform there at a very high level. If I can perform and do well there, I'll shoot for [High-A] Stockton. I know that goal is a little high and perhaps a little unrealistic, but I figure if I set my goals high it will make me work that much harder.

KH: Okay so now just to humor me and our readers – do you have any pre-game rituals or are you superstitious?

KC: No and no.

KH: Really? You mean to tell me you don't jump over 1st and 3rd base lines?

KC: Okay, well I do that. But other than that I wash my socks, I wash my underwear, I brush my teeth every night and I wash my hair. I don't have a wad of licorice in my lip - nothing like that. I'm pretty normal.

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