Hard work paying off for Kirkman

FRISCO, Texas - Michael Kirkman, a 6-foot-4 left-hander, is having a breakout season, going 5-2 with a 2.63 ERA in 65 innings between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco. Kirkman has endured a number of detours on the way to Frisco, and Lone Star Dugout chatted with the 22-year-old about his career thus far.

Michael Kirkman is just 22-years-old, but he is already in his fifth season of professional baseball.

Kirkman has been through quite a bit in those five years.

The Texas Rangers selected Kirkman with their fifth-round pick in the 2005 MLB Draft. He impressed immediately, posting a 3.44 ERA in 52.1 innings with the rookie-level AZL Rangers in the summer of '05. Kirkman threw strikes, allowed less than a hit per inning, and struck out 10 batters per nine innings.

And then it went south.

As Kirkman explains in the following interview, the Rangers made a mechanical adjustment that clicked for him in Fall Instructional League and Spring Training. When they sent him to Single-A Clinton to open the 2006 campaign, things fell apart.

Kirkman walked 24 batters in 19.1 innings, leading to a 6.98 ERA over six starts. The club sent him back to Extended Spring Training, and he re-appeared when the AZL began once again.

The left-hander's control only got worse, as he issued 27 walks in 15 innings with the rookie league club. He was walking 16.2 batters per nine innings.

Kirkman's control problems continued in 2007, as he split time between short-season Spokane and Single-A Clinton, walking 37 batters in 40.1 innings.

Coming into the 2008 season, most Rangers fans had written Kirkman off as a lost cause. In two full seasons of professional ball, he had pitched sparingly outside of Surprise and failed to throw strikes when he did.

The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Floridian popped up with Clinton once again in 2008, but something was different this time.

He was throwing strikes.

Kirkman went 4-3 with a 4.36 ERA in 74.1 innings for the LumberKings. He gave up 78 hits, walked just 23, and struck out 58.

Though his stuff wasn't as powerful as it was when the Rangers initially selected him in 2005, he pitched well.

Less than one year later, the power stuff has returned for the southpaw. Kirkman went 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA for High-A Bakersfield early this season. He walked 18 batters and struck out 54 in 48 innings.

After sitting in the 88-90 mph range with his fastball last season, Kirkman is consistently throwing between 90-93, topping out at 94 mph this year. He also features a promising slider in addition to a curveball and a changeup.

If Kirkman doesn't stick as a starting pitcher, he could have a promising career as a left-handed reliever with power stuff.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with the pitcher after his most recent start with Double-A Frisco, in which he surrendered three runs over seven innings pitched.

Jason Cole: What are your thoughts on your season as a whole, both with Bakersfield and Frisco?

Michael Kirkman: I've commanded the ball in the zone this year. That always helps a lot. For the most part, I've kept it down and my offspeed stuff has really worked for me.

Cole: You mentioned commanding the ball this year. Going back to previous years, obviously your first year in professional ball was great. But the second time around, you struggled and began walking lots of hitters. What caused the sudden control issues?

Kirkman: I had a big change in my mechanics during my first instructional league. It worked through the instructional league and spring training. When I got to Clinton my first year, it just didn't work anymore. I pitched that whole season like that. I tore my hamstring, came back to Arizona, worked on it a little more. It never got better. Then I changed my mechanics back to my original mechanics, and that helped. Then I hurt my elbow twice that year.

Cole: What was the mechanical change that was made?

Kirkman: It was going through a full windup rather than just turning and going to the plate. Going back over the head in the full windup.

Cole: What caused the adjustment to just stop working all of the sudden?

Kirkman: I think it was a mental thing. For some reason I was telling myself that it wasn't going to work. That usually means that it's not going to work. I just wasn't confident in it for some reason.

Cole: How were you able to get over those issues?

Kirkman: Just knowing that I could do it. Just working hard and having the confidence in myself that I could work through it.

Cole: You mentioned the two arm injuries. What exactly happened and how far apart were they?

Kirkman: They said it was a slight tear in whatever the Tommy John ligament is. I don't know what it is called. I rehabbed that back after the first time and started throwing well again. Then I went back to instructs that year and hurt it again. They just told me to go home and not touch a baseball until January. That helped.

Cole: When was this?

Kirkman: This was during the '06 season.

Cole: Last season was really your first full year back at 100 percent. When you were with Clinton last season, were the control struggles of the past ever in your mind?

Kirkman: No. I just knew I was going to throw strikes. I knew I was going to get the ball over the plate and get guys out.

Cole: Do you remember exactly—if there was exactly a point—where it just clicked again for you and you were able to consistently throw strikes?

Kirkman: It was last year when I was in Extended Spring Training. Me and Keith Comstock, my pitching coach from '07 in Spokane, we worked on a little thing. I started watching Cliff Lee pitch, and I started watching video of him and video of me. I was comparing myself to him. One thing he did is he shortened up his front arm and it let him get through the ball rather than having to go around himself to get to the plate. That really, I think, is what turned me on.

Cole: You've had a bit of a spike in velocity this season. Do you know if there is something behind that? Has there been a key to it?

Kirkman: No, I think it's just my arm getting used to the full season.

Cole: What was the key to your performance in Bakersfield? You pitched well in Clinton last year, but you obviously took it to another level at the start of this year.

Kirkman: Trusting my arm, trusting my fastball, and really trusting my defense was the biggest thing. Not getting behind hitters and letting my defense work.

Cole: Tell me a little bit about your stuff right now. What pitches do you have in your arsenal?

Kirkman: I've got a four-seam fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup.

Cole: Do you ever throw a two-seam at all?

Kirkman: I haven't, no.

Cole: I noticed that tonight you didn't throw a changeup until the fourth inning. Do you generally save it until later in the game?

Kirkman: Yeah, I do. The second or third time through the order, I'll start a guy off with it.

Cole: Is there one pitch more than the others that you're focusing on developing right now?

Kirkman: My slider. My slider was bad tonight. I didn't have it working. I had to go to my curveball. My slider is usually my out pitch.

Cole: You didn't have a curveball before the last couple of years, did you?

Kirkman: No. They actually took away my slider for a little while when they changed my mechanics. And then I went back to my original mechanics. This Spring Training is when I re-implemented my slider.

Cole: Has it been easy to re-gain the feel for it?

Kirkman: Yes, it has been really easy.

Cole: On a night that you do have command of your slider, are you throwing that more often than your curveball?

Kirkman: Yes.

Cole: Out in the California League, they've got hitter's parks all over, as you know. Did the league force you to alter your approach to pitching at all?

Kirkman: No, not really. I just had to keep the ball down and let my defense work. I couldn't think about the home run ball. I couldn't think about a walk or a double and a home run. You just can't think about it.

Cole: Being a guy that hadn't really ever pitched a full season before this year, could you have seen yourself getting to Frisco this quickly?

Kirkman: I thought they would let me really build on my Bakersfield start this year and let me go through some struggles in full-season. I was very surprised that I got the call to come up here.

Cole: Tell me about when they did promote you. What did they say to you and how early did you know before you got here to Frisco?

Kirkman: It was the day before I got here actually. [Steve] Buechele, our manager in Bakersfield, called me into the office. He said, ‘You know you're pitching Sunday, right?' I was like, ‘Yes, sir.' He said, ‘In Frisco?' I just said, ‘No, I didn't know that.' That's how I found out.

Cole: You got to pitch in front of the second-largest crowd in Dr Pepper Ballpark history tonight. How do you like playing here with these facilities and in front of these crowds?

Kirkman: It's amazing. It is a big adrenaline boost.

Cole: Talk about your start tonight. It seemed like you gave up quite a few singles, but you were able to limit the overall damage on the scoreboard.

Kirkman: As long as I'm not walking anybody and I'm letting my defense work, I'm not going to get hurt too badly. I gave up back-to-back solo home runs, but that's only two runs. I just have to keep the ball on the ground.


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