Buckel refining deep repertoire

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Right-hander Cody Buckel worked four scoreless innings while pitching opposite Yu Darvish in a minor league intrasquad game at Surprise Stadium on Sunday. Although the 19-year-old admits he didn't have his best command, he threw only 44 pitches in the four innings. Lone Star Dugout features and interviews the pitching prospect.

Texas Rangers pitching prospect Cody Buckel went up against Yu Darvish in a minor league intrasquad game on Sunday morning. In reality, the Buckel-Darvish matchup meant little. It was two pitchers facing minor league hitters and getting their work in preparation for the regular season.

But it provided an interesting contrast between a 25-year-old established star and a 19-year-old prospect. While both pitchers have relatively deep repertoires, Darvish was clearly more advanced, striking out 11 batters in five innings.

Buckel performed well in his own right, throwing only 44 pitches (including 32 strikes) in four scoreless innings. He allowed three hits and struck out one without issuing a walk.

In the outing, Buckel's fastball sat between 89-92 mph and topped out at 93. He also mixed in a 72-76 mph curveball, an 84-87 mph cut-slider, and an 80-83 mph changeup. Although the California native doesn't overpower hitters, he has a mature repertoire with three advanced secondary pitches and more than a feel for pitchability given his youth.

The entire package was on display last season when he made 23 appearances––including 17 starts––at Single-A Hickory, where he posted a 2.61 earned-run average. In 96.2 innings, he allowed 83 hits while walking 27 and striking out 120.

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound righty was a bit up in the zone with all four of his pitches on Sunday morning––something he mentions in the following interview––but he threw strikes and mixed his pitches well. While Buckel threw plenty of fastballs, he also worked in six curveballs, five cut-sliders, and four changeups.

The curveball wasn't at its sharpest in the outing but had good depth––it's a pitch with plus potential. His cut-slider showed nice tilt in addition to the cutting action––particularly in the first inning. His lone strikeout came against outfielder Teodoro Martinez, who swung through a high 87 mph cutter to lead off the outing.

Buckel went up against the following lineup––Teodoro Martinez (LF), Kyle Hudson (CF), Yorvit Torrealba (C), Jared Prince (RF), Brett Nicholas (1B), Vin DiFazio (DH), Alejandro Selen (3B), Yefry Castillo (DH), Jonathan Roof (2B), Andres James (2B). He retired Torrealba both times, getting him on a grounder back to the mound (a 92 mph fastball) and a popout to shortstop (74 mph curveball).

Although Buckel had a strikeout rate of nearly 31 percent at Hickory last season, he doesn't project as the type of pitcher who should strike out a batter per inning at the upper levels. Still, he's a potential middle-of-the-rotation arm given his projected ability to command and mix a four-pitch repertoire of solid-average overall stuff.

The former second-round pick, who spent part of his offseason working with Arizona Diamondbacks top prospect Trevor Bauer at a baseball facility outside of Houston, is likely to open the 2012 campaign at High-A Myrtle Beach. Despite his youth––he doesn't turn 20 until mid-June––Buckel should be polished enough to have success with the Pelicans and could pitch with Double-A Frisco at some point this season.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with the prospect after his recent intrasquad outing.

Jason Cole: Tell me about getting the opportunity to pitch in the big league stadium this morning and go up against Yu Darvish.

Cody Buckel: It's definitely a fun time. I get to come out and throw in front of some fans. You get to see––it's an honor to be on the same field as a superstar. And he's got pretty nasty stuff.

I watched from the dugout. Sometimes I was gazing as how nasty his stuff was. But I wasn't too worried about what he was doing. I can't control what he was doing. I was doing what I was doing. I'm not really facing him. I like to say that I'm facing myself. I just went out and had a good time with it.

Cole: How did you feel about the outing today?

Buckel: It was good. I was a little erratic. I didn't really have the fastball command, but luckily, my curveball––I think I spotted it up every time. I think I threw two good sliders. Like I said, I was a little erratic in the bullpen with my release point and my mechanics. So I didn't have my best stuff today, but it was one of those days where you go out and battle.

Cole: That 86-87 mph pitch is kind of your cutter-slider, right?

Buckel: Yeah, it's a cutter or slider. It depends on the day. Some days, it's 83-84 and it's more loopy like a slider. And some days it gets all the way up to 91. Today it was more of a slider. I threw a good one to Torrealba. I think that was my best one of the day. Other than that, I just went out there and battled.

Cole: How nice is it to face a guy like Torrealba, an established and veteran big leaguer?

Buckel: It's pretty cool. The adrenaline gets going a little bit, but you've just got to realize that it's another hitter up there, and you've got to execute pitches. But it's definitely a thrill to be able to face guys like that.

Cole: What are your thoughts on your spring in general so far? I know you've had a few outings before this one.

Buckel: Yeah, it's going pretty well. I think today was actually––I don't want to call it my worst outing––but it was definitely the outing where my mechanics weren't in synch. The last few, I've been really in synch and making a lot of quality pitches.

Today, I got away with a couple. There were a couple hard-hit balls, but I've got to hand it to the defense. These guys out here––there was an incredible double play by Kata. They helped me out. But it's just one of those days where I go out and battle with what I have.

Cole: I didn't get a chance to interview you after last season, but it was obviously a good first season for you down in Hickory. What did you come away with after that first full season?

Buckel: It was definitely a chip off my shoulder. I went in there with kind of a new approach to pitching. It was a little bit of pressure to kind of execute it and make sure you have a positive outcome on it. I went out there, and I did what I did best. I went out there and executed and had a good year. I had a pretty good offseason––tweaked a few things and came back even stronger. So I'm looking to have another good year.

Cole: What exactly do you mean by a new approach to pitching?

Buckel: Pitch sequences. I'm not a guy who goes out there and throws 97-98––who can blow it by people. So I've got to have another weapon in my back pocket. I like to use theory approaches––things called the attention theory, effective velocity, tunnel theories. It really goes into detail about it, but it would take me awhile to explain it. That's what I'm using. I'm still getting used to it, but right now it's paying off.

Cole: Where does that come from? Where do you get it from?

Buckel: Me and my friend Trevor Bauer––we go out to a place called the Texas Baseball Ranch, which is run by Ron Wolforth. They took him and made him a pretty amazing pitcher, so I wanted to see what he did. I went down there, and him being one of my best friends, he showed me everything. He taught me what his way is. And so far I'm doing a pretty good job of following in his shadow.

Cole: How long were you out there this offseason? When were you out there?

Buckel: I was out there in January. I went there for a couple weeks and spent it with them. I knew the general stuff of what he did, but I didn't know the concrete details. So I went out there and kind of solidified it. Now I know why he does what he does and the sequences that he uses.

I'm not just pitching out there––I'm actually having a plan and an approach. It's definitely about feeling more confident on the mound, knowing that you're going to attack hitters with what you have and what you're trying to do that day.

Cole: Take me through an average day out there with Bauer and the guys at Texas Baseball Ranch.

Buckel: We go there and we do a little explosive training, like explosive ladders, explosive cones. And then we'll go into arm drills––throwing weighted balls and doing pronation drills. It's really good stuff. It's stuff that is definitely out of the ordinary.

So you go out there and you basically train. You're creating bullets for your arm instead of losing them. It's learning the right, healthy mechanics. They always mention Nolan Ryan pitching into his 40s and throwing 95 mph and not losing a bit of it. So that's kind of their philosophy. It's basically just taking good care of your arm.

Cole: Your mechanics resemble Trevor Bauer's a little bit, don't they?

Buckel: Yeah, we've always looked like each other. We didn't plan it. We didn't do anything. We just met each other one day and saw that we had similar mechanics. So that's why I think it works so well for me with him being my mentor and my role model to follow. Basically what he does is a resemblance of what I do. It definitely makes it a lot easier when we're very similar.

Cole: Do you guys talk pretty often out here even though he's across town in Scottsdale with Arizona?

Buckel: Yeah, of course. We had dinner a few nights ago. We talk on the phone. I went to watch his outing. He always texts me. I texted him today and said, ‘Hey man, I'm pitching against Yu Darvish.' He was like, ‘Okay, go get ‘em.' That was a lot of fun. But yeah, we're talking every day.

Cole: Tell me about that cut-slider you have. Isn't that something you also used quite a bit in high school?

Buckel: Yeah, it's kind of funny. I was just messing around with it in the bullpen, and the catcher goes, ‘You should throw that in the game.' I said, ‘Okay,' and I went and threw it and had success with it.

It's probably my least polished pitch, but some days, it can be my most polished pitch. Today I threw a few that were good and a few that were bad. So I'm definitely still working on it. That's never-ending. My curveball was good today, but it might not be good tomorrow. It's just getting more consistent with the pitch.

Cole: A big thing for a lot of guys out of high school is the changeup. I know hard-throwers in high school don't want to speed up the bats of their competition, so they generally don't throw many changeups. How did that come along in your first season?

Buckel: It definitely helped me out. I think the first half of the season, I was fastball-slider. That's basically my bread and butter. Then halfway through, it flipped on me. I lost the slider and the changeup came out of nowhere, then I lived fastball-changeup. By the end of the year, it flipped on me again and I was throwing fastball-curveball.

So it's nice to have four pitches. Usually at least two of them are working. And when I have three of them working, that's when I know I'm going to have a good outing––or at least make quality pitches.

Cole: Is the changeup something that you were throwing to right-handed hitters last season as well as lefties?

Buckel: Yeah, I throw changeups to righties and lefties––down and in to righties, down and away to lefties. I try to stay away from that down and in to a lefty. But yeah, I definitely throw it, and I try to throw it in any count––behind in the count. It's definitely a pitch that I'm learning to throw that I need at this level.

Cole: When you work in the bullpen out here, what are kind of your checkpoints? What are you focusing on improving right now?

Buckel: I have a few checkpoints for myself. It's to get into a good squatting position when I go to the mound to really solidify my back leg. Firing my hip at the right time––sometimes I go a little too early, so I've got to remind myself that I have got to stay closed a little longer. And a firm front side. Sometimes I get a little too anxious and my front side kind of bails out and I leave pitches up. I was doing that a little bit today. The last inning, I made an adjustment and did a lot better. So yeah, those three things––a good power squat position, a good hip firing, and a good firm front side.

Cole: As you enter this season, it's probably safe to assume that you'll be beginning the year at High-A Myrtle Beach. Is there anything you have in mind that you'd like to get better at?

Buckel: The experience––getting to know when to pitch and getting that feeling of throwing in front of people. I want to get that feeling of playing 142 games and getting at least 25 starts. It's definitely going to be a grind, but I look forward to it, and it's going to be a lot of fun this year.

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