For much of the past two seasons, “enigma” has been an optimal word to describe Rangers pitching prospect Cody Buckel. Formerly a performance prospect extraordinaire who dominated the A-ball levels as a teenager, he suddenly lost all sense of the strike zone in 2013, walking 35 batters in 10 2/3 innings. It’s one thing to see a pitcher totally “lose it” in this fashion, but it’s another for that pitcher to be one who originally was lauded for his exceptional polish.
With Buckel entering the 2014 season still at just 21 years of age, a second-round pedigree, and a past history of dominance, the Rangers weren’t ready to cut bait just yet. A look at his statistics this past year reveal a pitcher who wobbled through a slightly less disgraceful year than his 2013—a 5.73 ERA in 59 2/3 High-A innings, mostly in relief, a disgusting (if much improved) 19.9% walk rate, and a solid 26% strikeout rate. Instead of being essentially unplayable, Buckel is now just bad.
Or is he?
I got my first look at Cody Buckel on May 5. He entered in relief and immediately walked the leadoff batter on four pitches, and he later gave up a ringing double off the center-field wall to Courtney Hawkins, but he didn’t allow any other damage in an inning of work. What disappointed me most about Buckel from this viewing wasn’t necessarily his lack of control or any sort of mechanical woes, but instead that he didn’t seem to have much stuff. All he threw was a straight 89-91 mph fastball and an ordinary 83-85 mph cutter/slider hybrid, a 40-grade pitch if I was being generous. I found it hard to believe that this pitcher, even if he had MLB-level command, could have ever struck out over 30% of batters he faced at the High-A level two years prior. Even if the Rangers straightened him out, he projected as an expendable organizational reliever, the sort of guy who’s a bit below-average even among A-ball bullpen arms.
His next two times out after that, Buckel walked six batters while recording a total of one out. At that point, on May 16, he had walked 22 batters in 10 innings while striking out just six, allowing an absurd .156/.518/.250 line. Granted, 22 walks in ten frames is better than 35 in 10 2/3, but that “progress” still didn’t really count as good news.
The rest of the way, though, things were a bit different for Buckel. From May 22 through the end of the year, here’s his stat line:
49 2/3 IP, 48 H, 35 R, 30 ER, 34 BB (15.1%), 67 K (29.8%), 0 HR, .265/.388/.337, 5.44 ERA, 3.18 FIP
To be sure, there are still too many walks in there, but there’s that 30% K rate again, no homers, and a pretty good FIP. Most importantly, there were very few outings in that stretch where Buckel showed the major issues of his past. He allowed seven runs in 1/3 of an inning on July 8, but in that game, he only walked one of the eight batters he faced. He walked four batters and allowed five runs in a two-inning spot start on August 13, but then only walked three in eight innings over his final five appearances, so it was just a blip. Other than that, there were no “disaster” outings.
So what happened to suddenly make Buckel a somewhat successful minor league pitcher again? I saw him again on July 17, and even while watching him allow five runs (two earned) in three frames, I got a good sense of why he was back on the fringes of the map.
First, Buckel made significant improvements to his delivery.
While the basic principles of his mechanics remain unchanged, the Buckel on the right is a far more confident pitcher than the one on the left. For one, after working exclusively from the stretch in his May appearance (likely for the sake of simplicity), he returned to using a windup by July. Second, the Buckel on the right is a bit more compact and quicker to the plate, generating more consistent momentum while also facilitating more mechanical consistency.
The momentum to the plate is a key factor here, because it allows Buckel to throw harder than the 89-91 mph he worked at in May. On July 17, he was comfortably at 90-93, which is far from superhuman but certainly a bit less ordinary. He still has the workable cutter, which also took a slight step forward by coming in at 84-88 mph with reasonable action, and he also flashed an equally good changeup at 82-84 mph, but the offering that really holds some intrigue is this:
Back in the days where his prospect star shone brightly, Buckel was touted as a four-solid-pitch guy with good command, with a curveball being his closest thing to an “out pitch.” Now that he has some idea where his offerings are headed, he’s able to work the curve–traditionally a tough pitch to command–back into his arsenal, and he doesn’t hesitate to use it frequently.
It’s a bit of an odd pitch, as Buckel varies the speed on it considerably, throwing it anywhere from 67 to 75 mph. It tends to flatten out a bit at 74-75 and get too loopy in the upper 60s, functioning best in the middle of its velocity range, but it flashes above-average when everything lines up, playing fringe-average overall.
So Buckel brings an average fastball, a curve that is average or better with some frequency, and two other playable offerings, which is actually fairly rare for a 22-year-old hurler, and helps explain his sudden ability to strike out 30% of High-A batters. Given that he’s shown the ability to throw strikes consistently in the past and has made considerable progress in coming back from his Neighborgall-ian abyss, there’s still plenty of hope that he could one day throw a pitch in the major leagues.
One wonders, however, what Buckel’s optimal role is. His four-pitch mix seems well-suited for a starting role rather than the short stints of the bullpen, but he has yet to prove he can start a game without falling apart — as I mentioned above, his worst control outing after May 22 was his one spot start on August 13. Relieving may be a better fit for Buckel’s mindset, but his solid-all-around arsenal doesn’t really lend itself to matchup advantages.
He’ll obviously need to cut down on the walks even more as he advances, but given where Buckel was coming into the season, or even in mid-May, it’s hard not to be encouraged by his more recent progress. He’s not 23 until June and likely will open 2015 back in the upper minors, so he has plenty of time to continue moving forward and fulfilling at least a fraction of his initial promise.
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