Fastball command the key for Buckel

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Right-handed pitcher Cody Buckel, who turned 20 in mid-June, is currently the youngest pitcher in the Double-A Texas League. While he is experiencing some growing pains at the higher level, he's still been able to keep his head above water. Lone Star Dugout features and interviews the prospect.

While Frisco starting pitcher Cody Buckel is experiencing some growing pains in Double-A, he's also been able to keep his head above water. The 20-year-old Buckel, who was born in June 1992, is currently the youngest pitcher in the Texas League.

Buckel has a 4.58 earned-run average through seven starts with the RoughRiders. In 37.1 innings, he has allowed 31 hits while walking 15 and striking out 34. The numbers certainly aren't bad, and he was never likely to match the video game-like numbers he posted in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. At Myrtle Beach this year, Buckel had a 1.31 ERA in 13 starts, yielding only 49 hits while striking out 91 in 75.2 innings.

Armed with a deep repertoire, Buckel profiles as a number three or four starter at the major league level. The youngster is intelligent on the mound with an advanced feel for pitching while showing the ability to manipulate the ball. During a start, he'll mix in a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, changeup, and even the occasional reverse slider.

The entire package would seemingly make Buckel an attractive option to other teams if the Rangers are to make a trade before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. Although he doesn't project as a front-end starter, he's a ‘high floor' type of prospect, and there's plenty of value in that during trade talks. Buckel's ceiling may be as a number three or four starter, but his polish and wide arsenal also gives him an excellent opportunity of realizing that potential.

"I think Cody has always been a mature kid for his age," Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark said in a recent interview with Lone Star Dugout. "Baseball maturity-wise, he has shown a lot of progression over the last year and a half. Cody is a pitching coach's dream from the standpoint that he always has a lot of preparation before he starts.

"He's always doing the little things to help him become better. So from a pitching coach's standpoint, we just get out of his way. We try to talk about pitch sequences, we try to talk about things––more of the fine-tuning of the game. But delivery-wise, he is who he is."

During his July 20 start at Corpus Christi's Whataburger Field, the California native surrendered five runs on six hits in five innings, walking two and striking out five. He battled well early in the contest before serving up a fifth-inning grand slam to Hooks third baseman Andy Simunic.

Buckel, who threw only 55 of his 99 pitches for a strike in the outing, had some trouble with fastball command. As the prospect mentions in the following interview, fastball command was his biggest issue in the outing, as he was often falling behind when failing to locate it early in the count. While he walked only two batters in the five innings, he fell behind 2-0 to eight of the 22 hitter he faced.

After Buckel's first Texas League start on June 24––another game in which he was too often falling behind with his fastball––Clark mentioned that, despite Buckel's deep repertoire, he must first make sure he establishes fastball command.

"First of all, as we get into the higher levels and obviously getting to Double-A––I told him tonight, ‘We've got to make sure that we command our fastball," Clark said. "It's okay to have three, four, or five different pitches. But if we don't command our fastball––especially to the glove side––and we don't get strike one, then really the other pitches don't come in to play."

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound hurler doesn't have a wipeout secondary pitch, but all of his offerings are capable of missing bats at times. When he's able to get ahead in the count, he can keep hitters guessing by chasing strikeouts with his entire arsenal.

As Clark stated, for the secondary pitches to be used as put-away offerings, he'll need to get ahead in counts more consistently. Buckel has shown strong fastball command in a handful of his outings for Frisco, but he's been hit and miss from start to start.

While Buckel projects to ultimately have solid-average to plus command of his deep repertoire, the consistency isn't there just yet. After posting a sterling 6.9 percent walk rate at Single-A Hickory in 2011, the rate jumped to 8.5 percent with Myrtle Beach earlier this season. He's walked 9.7 percent since the promotion to Frisco.

Part of the issue is likely a natural adjustment to the higher level. Another factor could be some slight fatigue that's settling in, as the youngster is nearly 20 innings above last year's total with more than a month to play this season.

In the July 20 start against Corpus Christi, Buckel's fastball velocity was down a tick, and he had a little more difficulty repeating his delivery than normal. He sat in the 89-90 mph rage, topping out at 91 and often getting down to 88 in the fifth inning. Frisco manager Steve Buechele gave Buckel a couple days of extra rest between that outing and his most recent start––from July 20 to July 27––and he flashed better command while working at 90-94 mph.

The former second-round pick isn't the type of pitcher who will consistently blow hitters away on pure velocity, but he shows show the ability to get his fastball by guys. Rarely throwing a straight fastball, he most often works between 89-93 mph––sitting around 91-92––while bumping up to 94 a handful of times per start. He also reached 95 mph in a few outings earlier this season at Myrtle Beach.

When National Baseball Expert and former Rangers pro scout Frankie Piliere watched Buckel at the Carolina/California League All-Star Game earlier this summer, he wrote that Buckel has the ceiling of a number three starter.

Piliere also got the following quote from a scout in attendance:

"You have to think about his height and it's an issue, but his stuff is plus. His secondaries are refined now and I think his velocity is going to sit 91-93 deep in outings. That's not so much of a concern for me now. He's really come faster than I think some people expected. His command wasn't perfect tonight but it's been pretty good overall."

Buckel's refined secondary stuff has played a large role in his ability to fly through the lower levels and reach Double-A in less than two full seasons. Although he was a high school product, he entered the Rangers' organization with a mature curveball and an intriguing cut-slider.

The prospect has since separated his cutter and slider into two separate pitches, and while they were similar offerings velocity and break-wise earlier this season, they're starting to get more separation on the radar gun. His slider comes in at 81-85 mph with longer break while the cutter is harder at 87-90. In the outing against Corpus Christi, his slider was his most effective pitch.

Though Buckel's curveball command has also been inconsistent since his promotion to Double-A, many scouts view the 73-78 mph breaker as a future plus pitch. The curve has good depth, and he shows the ability to change speeds on it depending on the situation. One scout mentioned that Buckel does a good job of recording outs with the curve both in and out of the zone.

Perhaps the biggest development to Buckel's repertoire this season, however, has been the emergence of his changeup. It's currently an average to solid-average pitch that could become plus with more refinement. While he didn't use it often in the July 20 start against Corpus Christi, Buckel said he'd relied on it heavily during his previous start, which also came against the Hooks.

Earlier this season, Pelicans pitching coach Brad Holman talked about the work Buckel had done with his changeup.

"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."

Assuming Buckel is still a member of the Rangers' organization past this year's trade deadline, the remainder of this year is about him continuing his adjustment to the Double-A level, building strength and stamina for the future, and learning to battle and work through the slight fatigue of the six-month grind as a youngster.

Due to Buckel's somewhat slight (but certainly not tiny) frame, there will always been concerns from scouts about his ability to handle a 200-inning season. But he's an extremely hard worker who knows his body well, and it's also common for a 20-year-old pitcher to be slightly fatigued at this point in the season.

Still, for Buckel it's about the sum of the parts more so than the individual pitches -- his pitchability, fastball movement, and deep repertoire. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the prospect after his July 20 outing at Corpus Christi.

The following video shows Buckel's fifth inning from his July 20 start at Corpus Christi, his roughest frame of the night. After opening the start with four innings of one-run ball, he surrendered four runs in the fifth.

A longer video, which comes from Buckel's Double-A debut in late June, can be found at this link.

Buckel fifth inning at Corpus Christi: 7/20/2012 (best viewed in full screen and HD).

Jason Cole: What were your general thoughts on tonight's outing?

Cody Buckel: Not too good. I couldn't locate the fastball. I could locate everything else but a fastball. That got me through a few innings, but the last inning was a killer. When you can't throw a fastball for a strike, it's going to affect you, and it's going to make your other pitches not as effective. So I kind of ran into that block of just not being able to have fastball command.

Cole: Fastball command was also an issue in your first Double-A start––the last time I saw you pitch––but how was it in those four starts in between?

Buckel: The last three starts, I've actually had really good fastball command. Tonight was more like the first start. I didn't really have the fastball, but the slider I could throw for a strike, the changeup I threw for a strike, and the curveball I threw for a strike. I wish I could've thrown the fastball more for a strike to base that off the other pitches, but unfortunately, when I needed to throw a fastball in a located spot, I missed.

Cole: What did you feel was the issue behind the fastball command tonight?

Buckel: Just all mental. I could've taken a step and just said, ‘Okay, I've just thrown a few fastballs for balls.' I could've taken a deep breath and gone back, but I let it eat away at me. I didn't stay as composed as I could've tonight, and I think that affected that pretty well.

Cole: Do you feel that you're still trying to settle in at Double-A a bit?

Buckel: Not as much. I just haven't been mechanically sound––especially tonight. The four outings in between my first and tonight, I've been a lot better. But tonight was kind of a setback.

Cole: What was it mechanically that was unsound?

Buckel: I was just going forward a little too quick––not being able to catch up. With the breaking stuff, I sat back a lot better––especially with the slider. I wish I could've done that with my fastball.

Cole: You set out early this season with the goal of separating your cutter and slider into two distinct pitches, as it had been somewhat of a cut-slider in the past. It seems like they're gradually getting more separation from each other. Does it feel like that to you?

Buckel: Yeah, that's what I want so that's a plus––to try and slow the slider down a little bit and have that be a true separator. I think I've done that pretty well. I actually haven't gotten to throw the cutter in the last few games. That might be something I should do in the next few outings.

Cole: Did you throw a few cutters tonight?

Buckel: I think two tonight. I actually threw a couple pretty good ones. But I really needed to establish fastball command to make all these pitches effective.

Cole: In your first Double-A start, you had trouble locating the curveball and were missing above the zone with it. How has it progressed with each outing in Frisco?

Buckel: A lot better––especially tonight. I think I only missed up once with it, so that's a good sign––being able to get the curveball over. But again, you've got to be able to throw a fastball out of the right tunnel––the right plane––to make that curveball effective. Which, you know, my fastball was missing up tonight, so that did make my curveball effective. But getting ahead is also something I need to do in order to do that, and I didn't do that tonight.

Cole: This is your second time pitching at Whataburger Field within a week, and you've now faced Corpus Christi three times in your first six Texas League outings. In an eight-team league, what is it like to face the same teams so often and sometimes in consecutive starts?

Buckel: Yeah, my last start was here, and it was here again. So they were pretty fresh on what I threw last time. I tried to change it up a little bit. I threw a lot of changeups last time, so the goal was to get ahead early with the fastball.

Unfortunately that goes back to command, and I didn't have it. So I had to turn to another pitch––the slider––which helped me cruise through the second, third, and fourth an innings. Then a leadoff hit gets the rally going, a guy hits a slider––which was a good pitch and he just happened to put a barrel on it and put it in the right spot. Things just didn't seem to go right.

Cole: When you look at your full body of work in Double-A so far, what have you learned?

Buckel: The strike zone is a little tighter. The hitters have a little bit better approach. They seem to know what pitch they want to hit in a certain at-bat, and it's deciphering that and not throwing that pitch. I've done a good job when I get ahead in the count, but when you fall behind––like to Simunic 2-0, he's looking fastball, and unfortunately I've got to throw a fastball and hope that he hits it on the ground rather than out of the park. But he was seeing the ball well. Everything just goes back to getting ahead and having fastball command.

Cole: In the Carolina League, there aren't really any parks where the ball flies much at all. Maybe in Winston-Salem. But there's Whataburger Field here, and it seems like every fly ball hit to left field gets to the warning track at least. Does that change the way you approach the game when you pitch in a ballpark like this?

Buckel: Yeah, again it's going back to fastball command (laughs). Being able to pitch up in the zone effectively when you can, but it also means you have to pitch down in the zone effectively––especially when you fall behind. When you leave a ball belt-high, it's probably going to be hit pretty hard. I tend to pitch up in the zone effectively when I get ahead, and I wished I'd gotten ahead better in that last inning.

Cole: You didn't throw any reverse sliders tonight, did you?

Buckel: I threw one to Singleton. I think it was like an 0-2 pitch that was way off.

Cole: Have you been throwing it very often?

Buckel: I threw it a lot to Arkansas, but the last few starts, I've been more focused on getting the changeup over.

Cole: As you look forward to your last handful of starts this season, what do you want to accomplish personally?

Buckel: Just adjusting to this level. I think I'm learning something every time out. Fastball command is going to be the big issue––being able to do that. Just like the two games against Arkansas and the last game here, I actually had better fastball command. So taking those starts and watching video on what I did and how I approached it and try to get that feeling back.

Cole: How much does the video work factor in at this level?

Buckel: A lot better. You get to see where your mistakes were. You might have thought you made a good pitch, and then you watch the video and look back, and you might have missed just barely, but it's still a miss. You get to see hitters and what they're doing in certain counts. So video is huge.

Cole: Do you watch video of all your starts?

Buckel: Yeah, I try to just to figure out what I did wrong, what was in my mechanics that I did wrong, and what I think it was and then seeing it on video to make sure that's what it was. But it's a huge aspect here that you don't really have at the lower levels. You get to have it here, so that's pretty nice.

Cole: You're now at 108 innings for the season, and you threw 96.2 in your first full season last year. How are you feeling physically?

Buckel: Not too bad. I don't feel fatigued or anything like that, but it might have been a factor of not being in sync with my mechanics. That's just something I've got to get used to––it's my second full season and I've got to be able to work through the grind and be able to establish. I need to stay in good shape and stuff like that. I feel fine, but looking at video, it might just show that you have to sharpen up a little bit.

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