Kirkman throwing the change for strikes

SURPRISE, Ariz. – In order to make the Rangers' opening day rotation, Michael Kirkman knows he'll have to show consistent command and improve his changeup. And so far, he's doing just that. Lone Star Dugout sat down with the 24-year-old hurler for a Q&A session.

Left-hander Michael Kirkman had a successful all-around 2010 season. Not only did he earn Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year honors, but he also posted a 1.65 earned-run average in 16.1 big league innings and finished his campaign by pitching in the World Series.

But Kirkman knows there's room for improvement, and he knows he'll have to progress in order to make the Rangers' opening day roster this season.

While Kirkman has excellent stuff that includes a 91-94 mph fastball and a plus slider, he must improve his command. At the time of his big league call-up last summer, Kirkman topped the PCL with 68 free passes issued. And in his 16.1 frames with the Rangers, he walked 10 more batters.

The 24-year-old is getting a shot to stick as a starting pitcher due to his 6-foot-4 frame and solid four-pitch mix. However, he knows he'll have to develop his changeup (a below-average pitch last season) and command in order to stick.

Currently in competition for a major league rotation spot, Kirkman has appeared in two spring training games thus far. He has yielded three runs on five hits over five innings, walking two and striking out two. Though the numbers aren't dominant, as the hurler explains below, he feels he's beginning to pound the strike zone and throw his changeup for strikes with more consistency.

If Kirkman is able to harness the command of his fastball and develop the changeup into at least a usable third pitch, he has a chance to become a middle of-the-rotation starter. He already possesses two plus pitches to go along with a decent get-me-over curveball.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with Kirkman after his strong three-inning performance on Saturday afternoon.

Jason Cole: You've gotten action in two games so far. What are your thoughts and how did you feel you were able to build on the first outing?

Michael Kirkman: The first one wasn't as bad as the numbers showed. I made some good pitches and I left some pitches out over the plate. But I got the ground balls that I wanted. In the first game, they just skipped through the holes. This past game, I got the ground balls I wanted again, and the plays were made. They hit them at the guys rather than through the holes. I'm right where I want to be right now––throwing all four pitches for strikes, and everything seems to be going the right way right now.

Cole: In spring training last year, you were working on mixing in a two-seam fastball and a cutter to go along with your four seamer. Do you still work with either of those?

Kirkman: No, I'm just basic four-seam, curveball, slider, change.

Cole: At what point did you drop the two-seamer and cutter and decide to stick with the four-seamer full time?

Kirkman: About halfway through the year last year. I've got a decent slider, and it works for me. I get pretty good sink on my four-seam. I really couldn't control the cutter like I wanted to. It ended up being a slider half the time anyway. I was walking guys at that point, too, last year. And I wanted to refine my four-seam command before I try to do anything else.

Cole: Last season was obviously successful for you in a number of aspects. But what were you looking on developing over the offseason?

Kirkman: Getting better. There's always something to improve on, and it's always going to be command with me it seems like. Now that I seem to be throwing four pitches for strikes, it's really going to help. So if I don't have my fastball command one day, I've got my other three pitches that I can throw for strikes. And I have confidence to throw those at any time.

Cole: What needs to happen for you to continue developing your command? Is it a mechanical thing? Mental?

Kirkman: I think it's both. I think it's mental and mechanical. Mike Maddux always says it's all about conviction, and it's a full-body conviction. You can't just tell yourself to throw it there and just kind of throw it underhand and expect it to get there. You can't do that. It has to be a full-body commitment to every pitch.

Cole: When you throw bullpens or work in games out here, what has been your focus point?

Kirkman: That's been just it––full-body commitment. I'm trying to get my fastball down to the knees and hitting the glove.

Cole: It seems like you're starting to throw the changeup for strikes a little more often, and I know that has been a big focus for you over the last two years. Can you talk about how that has progressed?

Kirkman: Yeah. I think I threw five yesterday––all for strikes. I got one swing and miss. The rest were foul balls. I got a weak ground ball my first time out with a changeup. And I got another swing and miss and another foul ball. But I don't think I've thrown but two or three balls with it. I feel like I can command it down in the zone a lot better this year.

Cole: You're still using the split-change grip, right?

Kirkman: Yeah.

Cole: Has the improvement just been a product of getting accustomed to it and getting more of a feel?

Kirkman: Yeah. It moves like a splitter, but it's just a lot slower. I can get it down to like 78 mph at some points, but most of the time it's around 82.

Cole: What are you looking for out of yourself in your next few spring outings?

Kirkman: Just to keep getting better in every outing. On Thursday, I want to do better than I did yesterday.

Cole: I know you didn't throw the curve and change quite as often when you were coming out of the bullpen in the majors last year. Are you trying to mix those in with more frequency so far in camp?

Kirkman: Yeah. Yesterday, behind in counts, I was throwing changeups in the fastball counts. I think Justin Upton was up and I threw two 3-2 changeups. Last year I would have never done that, whether it be Triple-A, Low-A, or whatever. I wouldn't have done that. It shows me that I have the confidence in it and I can throw it at any time.

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