The path to the major leagues hasn't been an easy one for Sacramento River Cats right-hander Kyle Middleton. Selected in the 49th round of the 1999 draft by the Kansas City Royals, Middleton has faced an uphill climb throughout his professional career.
The Florida native put up some good numbers while in the Royals chain, winning 14 games in Low-A in 2002 and 11 games in High-A in 2003. However, his career stalled when he reached the Double-A level, as he spent two-and-a-half seasons in the Texas League before finally getting a crack at Triple-A midway through the 2006 season. Middleton was unable to capitalize on that opportunity, however, and he was released by the Royals that off-season after going 0-8 with a 5.33 ERA for Triple-A Omaha.
Middleton spent the 2007 and 2008 seasons in the Houston Astros chain, reaching Triple-A at the end of the 2008 campaign. However, he was released by the Astros after the 2008 campaign and he found himself out of affiliated baseball at the start of the 2009 season.
The 6'4'' hurler signed with his hometown team, the Pensacola Pelicans of the independent American Association. He starred for the Pelicans, posting a 1.75 ERA in 87.1 innings, drawing the attention of major league scouts. The A's snapped him up midway through the 2009 campaign and Middleton proved to a revelation for the Double-A Midland Rockhounds. In nine starts, he went 5-2 with a 2.69 ERA. His WHIP was a sparkling 0.99 and he threw one complete game shutout.
Middleton was just happy to be given another chance in affiliated baseball.
"You don't realize the difference until you are not with an organization. It was nice to get back. Once you are back, you just hope to stay back," Middleton said.
Middleton was a key player for the Rockhounds down the stretch last season as the team pushed towards an eventual Texas League crown. In two starts for Midland in the post-season, Middleton went 2-0 with a 2.19 ERA.
For Middleton, it was a thrill to compete for a championship.
"It was a blast. It was just a situation where you wanted to be out there every second to take it all in. It's just fun winning," Middleton said.
Once the season was over, Middleton was a free agent, but the A's quickly brought him back into the fold. Coming out of spring training, Middleton was bumped up to Triple-A Sacramento, but thanks to a roster crunch, he was moved from the starting rotation into the bullpen. Throughout the season, Middleton has been moved back-and-forth from the rotation and the bullpen.
Although Middleton claims he doesn't have a preference between the two roles, Sacramento manager Tony DeFrancesco recognizes the difficulty of having to move from one role to the other and admires the way that Middleton handled the transition. Middleton also had to deal with being told that was going to be sent back to Double-A at one point earlier this season, only to be "recalled" to Sacramento before even leaving for Midland.
"He's been on a rollercoaster this year," DeFrancesco said.
"You've got to tip your cap to Kyle. He went through a rough road here the first month or so and now he's on track and is one of our best starters."
In fact, Middleton has been so good for Sacramento that he was recently named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Week for the week of June 21-27. He went 2-0 that week and didn't allow a run in 14 innings. Middleton has a 2.45 ERA in 69.2 total innings this season, but his ERA is 1.93 as a starter (as opposed to 3.52 as a reliever).
Despite his tall frame, Middleton isn't an overpowering pitcher. His fastball generally sits in the high-80s and he has averaged only 5.7 strike-outs per nine innings throughout his career. However, he has always had good command and the ability to induce groundballs.
"He's really improved. He's got a really good off-speed pitch and a good breaking ball and he commands the strike-zone," DeFrancesco said.
Middleton also mixes his pitches well, keeping hitters off-balance by changing his pitch pattern. He claims not to have a particular out pitch.
"One day it will be one thing and the next day it's not there and you've got to move on and try to get something else working," Middleton said.
In the month of June, Middleton went 3-0 and didn't allow a run in 23 innings. He allowed only 12 hits and eight walks and he struck-out 20. He will look to extend that run of good pitching into July on Thursday night, when he is scheduled to take the hill against Fresno. Middleton's goals for the rest of the season are simple.
"[I'm] just looking to keep giving us a chance to win and keep pitching well," Middleton said.