Buckel making a push for promotion

WILMINGTON, Del. – Despite being the youngest pitcher in the Carolina League for much of the season, Myrtle Beach right-hander Cody Buckel has been the circuit's best performer. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the 19-year-old prospect––along with his pitching coach––to discuss his progress.

Myrtle Beach right-hander Cody Buckel is not only the second-youngest pitcher in the Carolina League (aside from Orioles RHP Dylan Bundy), but he also has been the circuit's most impressive performer on the mound thus far.

The 19-year-old has already earned three Carolina League Pitcher of the Week awards. Through his first nine starts, he has a miniscule 1.33 earned-run average. He has yielded only 31 hits in 54.1 innings, walking 19 and striking out 64. He's also inducing 1.65 groundouts per airout.

Buckel currently leads the league with his 1.33 ERA––nearly a full run better than second-best Sugar Ray Marimon of Wilmington (2.13). His 64 strikeouts are also tops in the circuit, with Wilmington's Yordano Ventura coming in second at 61.

While the Rangers likely expected Buckel to spend the majority of this season with their High-A club, the 6-foot-1 prospect is quickly forcing the issue on a promotion. Buckel has permitted eight total runs in nine starts. He has also worked at least seven innings in three of his last four outings. The pitcher-friendly league isn't providing much of a challenge for Buckel, who has plowed through the competition in practically every start.

The former second-round pick has a chance to reach Double-A Frisco before the All-Star break. Although that may seem highly aggressive for a high school product in his second full season, Buckel is impressing not only with his results, but also with his mature mental approach to baseball.

"Cody has a pretty good wealth of knowledge for his age," Pelicans pitching coach Brad Holman said in a recent interview. "At 19-years-old, he has a good understanding of the biomechanics. He is always tinkering. He always wants to maybe work on a different grip or work on a different pitch. And he's not afraid to work outside the box."

Despite his youth, Buckel already works with a five-pitch repertoire––fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, changeup. While Buckel's fastball often isn't overpowering––though he has good velocity––much of his success stems from his ability to sequence and locate a deep repertoire of quality pitches.

One recent adjustment––as Buckel explains in the following interview––came with his cut-slider. The offering was somewhat in-between a true cutter and a true slider in the past, but Buckel separated them into two distinct pitches after spring training.

"The cutter is obviously very similar to the slider," Holman said. "But what separates those two pitches is probably two or three miles per hour. The slider has a little bit more depth in terms of the downward action of the pitch. It works better as a swing-and-miss pitch or a ground ball option.

"With the cutter, he can even elevate with it, but it has more of a flat movement. It still has a little bit of depth, but it's just firmer. One is about three or four miles per hour off the fastball, but the other is about six."

The California native turned in his best outing of the season on May 17 at Winston-Salem, when he tossed eight shutout innings while allowing three hits, walking one, and striking out a career-high 11 batters.

Buckel's velocity ticked up a notch in that game, as he hit 95 mph a number of times and was reaching 93-94 routinely in the seventh and eighth innings. For the most part this season (including his May 23 start), Buckel's fastball has worked anywhere between 89-93 mph, sitting at 91-92 and reaching up to 94 a couple times per game.

The upper-80s cutter, true slider, and curveball have been effective for Buckel this season. But it wasn't until that May 17 start that he also began to feel comfortable with his changeup.

According to Holman and Buckel, the prospect made a pre-start adjustment with his changeup grip. He ended up throwing the pitch for a strike 12 of 13 times in the game, using it effectively to both left- and right-handed hitters.

"I think this year the major progression has been in his changeup," Holman said. "In the (May 17) outing, he threw more changeups than he has. It has been too hard in the past, and he hasn't been comfortable with the grip in the past.

"We kind of tinkered with some grips and worked with that pitch. It has probably been a major contributor to his recent outings. But I think he had a pretty good package coming in. He has a pretty good sense of how to make adjustments and does all that on his own."

Given the overall advanced package and sparkling results, a Double-A promotion can't be too far in Buckel's future. The righty projects as a number three or four starting pitcher going forward, but he's also a difficult prospect to pinpoint at present. The overall repertoire is quality if not overpowering, and it plays up because he knows how to use it.

But the picture will become a bit more clear after he reaches Double-A and faces more mature hitters in a more neutral––if not slightly hitter-friendly––environment. Either way, Buckel appears to have all the tools to become a major league-caliber arm, and that could happen sooner than the Rangers had initially anticipated.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with Buckel after that May 17 outing to discuss his progress this season.

Cody Buckel spring training intrasquad: 3/30/2012 (best viewed in full screen and HD).

Jason Cole: First of all, tell me about your last start, working eight scoreless innings and striking out 11. What were your thoughts?

Cody Buckel: Yeah, it was a good night. It was something where I had everything going. I had all five pitches going last night. When I woke up that morning, I felt good. Maybe it was the week off with the rain delays. But I woke up feeling really good. I had a really good long-toss session, and I felt really good going into the game.

Cole: How has that been for the last week? It seemed for at least four or five consecutive days, you guys were coming to the ballpark unsure of whether you would play due to the rain.

Buckel: Yeah, we were coming to the park each day with the expectation to play, but in the back of your mind, you really didn't know. I felt bad for Kyle Hendricks because I think he had three days in a row there where he had to go out, get ready to go, and call it quits. But I had to alter my routine a little bit. I had to get another long-toss session in between. That really helped out. It kept my arm loose, and it paid off.

Cole: You mentioned the five pitches you've got. I know you have fastball, curveball, cut-slider, and changeup. What's the other one?

Buckel: Last year, it was like a cutter-slider hybrid. This year, I've actually split the two pitches. One is a true cutter––that one was like 89-91 mph last night. And then I have a slider, which is around like 84-87.

Cole: Is that a little different than what you were showing in spring training? It seems like you still had the cut-slider hybrid then.

Buckel: Yeah. During spring training, I didn't have the cutter really at all. I actually talked to Randy Henry here. He's our closer, and he throws a lot of cutters. I talked to him, and he kind of helped me decipher the difference between a true slider and a cutter. That kind of helped me get another pitch out of it.

Cole: Obviously your fastball is your go-to pitch, but would you consider any of the four secondaries as a standout go-to offering at this point?

Buckel: The cutter is a pitch that I can throw in any count. I think the slider is a pitch that I can throw in any count. The curveball is kind of a bigger pitch––it's either a put-away or something I can start off.

But it's good to have three or four pitches that I can start an at-bat with or come back when behind in the count. And the changeup––I actually had a really good feel for the changeup last night. So if I keep that in the repertoire, that's going to be really big for me.

Cole: It seems like the changeup has been kind of hit-or-miss for you over the last two years. How do you feel it is coming along?

Buckel: From last night's start to the previous start, it was night and day. I changed the grip on it. I talked to Brad Holman, and we went with a little bit of a grip change––a little bit of a feel change.

I started throwing it in the bullpen last night, and what do you know? I was throwing it for strikes in the bullpen, so I was like, ‘Let's try it early.' I threw it in the first inning, got a rollover groundout, and that gave me some confidence. I think I threw 13 changeups last night, and I threw one for a ball. So that's a huge step forward.

Cole: How much of an adjustment was that from what you had been using? Was it just a small adjustment?

Buckel: Yeah, it was a small adjustment. It was a four-seam––kind of like a ‘C' change grip. Before, I had the horseshoe on the right side of my ring finger. But then, while talking to Brad, he was saying how much longer my middle finger is than my index and my ring finger.

Then we switched it to where the horseshoe is on the left side. So I have a little bit more feel of my middle finger on the seam and my ring finger on the seam. I was throwing the pitch with those two fingers, and it came off a lot better. It felt a lot more comfortable in my hand.

Cole: Do you know how many pitches you threw in the eight innings?

Buckel: 95.

Cole: Was that the most you've ever thrown in a professional game?

Buckel: I might have thrown 100 at one point last year, but I don't remember. But from what I know, yeah, that's the most.

Cole: You'd only gone seven innings one previous time this season, and the eight was a new career-high for you. Did they just let you keep going out there since the pitch count was manageable?

Buckel: Yeah, they just let me go. I mean, I was 93-94 mph in the eighth inning last night. That's a huge step forward from last year. I was starting the game at 91-92 and falling back to 89. I was 93-95 in the first seven innings. Even in the eighth inning, I think I hit 95 once. I think that was a huge deal to keep the velo through the game.

Cole: What do you think has been the difference there in now holding your velocity throughout starts?

Buckel: It definitely has been the offseason training I had with my buddy Trevor Bauer. We went through video, looked at my arm action, and saw it was causing fatigue on my arm a little bit––especially late in the year and late in the game. And we corrected that. We got more of a healthy arm action and a more healthy delivery that puts less stress on the arm.

Cole: Overall, how do you feel you've progressed as a pitcher through eight starts this season?

Buckel: The results may look good last year, and they may look good this year. But, for me, I'm a different pitcher––completely. I've added another pitch. I'm throwing a lot more strikes in the zone where I want to rather than just throwing and hoping it goes over the plate.

I'm a lot more consistent with my offspeed pitches when behind in the count. I'm also getting ahead of hitters a lot better. As you go up the ladder, that's obviously a huge thing––being able to get ahead of hitters and put hitters away. So I've done a lot better job of doing that this year.

Cole: How nice is it to pitch in Myrtle Beach, a place where the ball doesn't fly as much? It seems like you can pitch maybe a little more comfortably and aggressively there.

Buckel: Yeah. You look at the hard-hit balls––especially to center and right-center field––and those things are floating up there and they're getting caught. So you can be a lot more aggressive and not afraid of mistakes. Most of those mistakes, at that kind of field, are going to result in outs. So you can definitely be more aggressive, especially in the Carolina League, where the ball doesn't seem to fly as well.

Cole: Are there any parks in this league where the ball seems to jump off the bat pretty well?

Buckel: Yeah, actually, Winston-Salem. We just came from there. They hit quite a few balls hard that jumped out. I think Trayce Thompson hit a ball off Joe Van Meter that I thought was a can of corn to left field, and it happened to go out of the park. So the ball actually jumped out there pretty good.

Cole: As you mentioned, you're a young guy with a five-pitch repertoire. Is it difficult to maintain all five of them at once? How do you balance that?

Buckel: It's just throwing them every day and doing drills with them. The changeup was a huge one that I was trying to get comfortable with. The slider and cutter are just basically the same pitch with a different grip––one just spins different than the other. So those are actually pretty easy to separate. The curveball is a completely different release and a pretty different feel. The fastball––I've been throwing straight balls all my life. So I'm pretty comfortable saying that I'm comfortable with all those pitches.

Cole: You mentioned that the slider and cutter are very similar. When did you begin separating those into two distinct pitches? Was that your first regular-season start?

Buckel: Yeah, I think it was two days before my first start. I was just kind of messing around with the cutter. I was playing catch with one of my buddies, and they said, ‘You know, that's pretty good.' I talked to Brad, threw it in the ‘pen, and said, ‘I'm going to use this in the game. I think it's game-ready.'

It was a feel pitch, and I felt good with it. I think the second batter I faced, I got a strikeout with it. I have just been getting more comfortable and more comfortable, and now it's kind of like a bread-and-butter pitch for me.

Cole: Results-wise, you couldn't be doing much better through eight starts. But as you look at your overall game, what do you feel maybe isn't up to your standard yet?

Buckel: The changeup. That's the huge thing that I'm really focusing on. And from last night's start, that was a huge step forward––to maintain and throw the changeup in the zone and get weak contact with it.

Cole: Is that something you've been able to throw to both left- and right-handed hitters?

Buckel: Yeah, I throw it to both. I threw a couple good ones to righties yesterday. One of them resulted in a double, but it was a broken-bat off the end of the bat that happened to catch the foul line. That's a good pitch to me. I did what I want. I got weak contact. None of my changeups were hit hard, and there were a few swings and misses. So I was really good last night with that.

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