Kirkman flashing big league stuff

With a 3.16 earned-run average and a league-leading 103 strikeouts, left-hander Michael Kirkman has emerged as one of the top starting pitchers in the Pacific Coast League this season. Lone Star Dugout features the 23-year-old prospect.


Michael Kirkman is playing his sixth season in the Texas Rangers organization. He earned a 40-man roster spot after last season and has ascended to Triple-A.

But until this month, he had never pitched in a professional All-Star Game.

"It's exciting," said Kirkman of playing in the Triple-A All-Star Game. "It's my first All-Star Game outside of high school stuff. The game was on MLB Network––my first time on a national telecast."

The left-hander was impressive in the showcase. He tossed a perfect inning on just eight pitches and flashed 94-95 mph velocity in the short outing.

Some scouts believe Kirkman has a bright future as a power lefty reliever with plus velocity and a hard, sharp slider. Kirkman certainly has been tough on fellow southpaws this year––they've posted a punchless .223/.273/.259 slash line against him.

As a 40-man roster member, Kirkman may even get a look in the big league bullpen as a September call-up this season. For now, though, he's developing as a starting pitcher and has a shot to stick in the rotation.

With a Pacific Coast League-leading 103 strikeouts, Kirkman is proving that he has legitimate swing-and-miss stuff. He induced an outstanding 21 swinging strikes in his last start, a six-inning, 11-punchout performance against Memphis.

As a starter, Kirkman throws his four-seam fastball between 91-94 mph. He added both a two-seamer and a cutter this spring to give hitters a different look on his heater.

The Florida native also is tops among PCL pitchers with 60 walks issued. He knows he'll have to continue refining his fastball command to stick in a starting role.

"I'm just working on command," he said. "Control of the fastball and letting everything else work off that. I'm still toying with some other things, but really it's just command of the fastball."

Overall, Kirkman's fastball command has been somewhat inconsistent from start-to-start. As a result, it's something he's looking to fix.

"I have to go out there and do what I know I can do," the prospect said. "It has been a little streaky this year. I'll have a couple starts where I walk some guys and a couple where I don't. I just have to keep a consistency."

The 6-foot-4, 195-pound hurler re-emerged as a prospect last summer, as his velocity jumped from the upper-80s to the low-90s, touching 94 mph in nearly every start. He also got some help from a re-emerging secondary pitch––his slider.

Kirkman threw a promising slider early in his professional career, but ditched it for a curveball when he ran into career-threatening control and injury problems in 2006 and '07.

He brought back the breaking ball with Bakersfield last summer, and it quickly became his go-to strikeout pitch. The 81-84 mph slider has developed into one of the better breaking balls in the system, showing sharp, late break with good tilt.

"This year, I've started getting on top of it more rather than letting it frisbee up there," said Kirkman of his slider. "It's about four or five miles per hour harder. I think it's a lot better than last year."

Kirkman says he has focused on commanding a backdoor slider to right-handed hitters along with throwing one that breaks in on their hands.

"The backdoor slider is something me and Salty have talked about," he said. "For example, I've faced New Orleans three or four times this year already, and they know I've got that down and in. I want to go away from them a little bit to kind of mix it up."

Kirkman has held on to his mid-70s curveball, using it as a get-me-over pitch a handful of times in each start. It's an offering he likely wouldn't use much––if at all––should he eventually move to the bullpen.

If Kirkman has a future as a big league starter, he likely must develop a more effective changeup.

The former fifth-round pick has struggled with the change throughout his career, but believes he's finding some progress. Kirkman recently picked up a split-change grip from OKC pitching coach Terry Clark––the same pitch Tanner Scheppers is currently working with.

"Terry Clark told me that Scheppers is throwing it," he said. "He taught that one to a couple other guys and it has worked for them. I've been struggling with the change for as long as I can remember. I've just been trying to find one that works consistently. Hopefully this one will."

One of Kirkman's primary challenges in finding an effective changeup is keeping good velocity separation from his fastball. He threw it between 82-84 mph during a recent start at Round Rock and was pleased with the progress.

"I've been moving my fingers around a little bit, trying to play with it," Kirkman said. "The velocity was a little bit better––a little bit lower. It's right about where I want it.

"If I can just keep that consistently and then start throwing it 60 feet rather than 58 feet, I'll be good to go."

Whether the 23-year-old winds up as a starter or a reliever, it's starting to look like he has a bright big-league future. Kirkman already has two legitimate plus pitches, but he realizes there's still room for improvement.

"I just want to finish my season strong. I want to keep my walks down in every start and just keep going the way I'm going right now. Then I'll be happy with it."

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