We’re six starts into his first year at A-Advanced and he’s still only 19, two years removed from portraying Zac Efron’s character in Royal High School’s production of Disney’s High School Musical. His stuff is nearly unhittable, and it almost feels as if all that’s left for Cody Buckel at this level is to actually throw a no-hitter.
The Pelicans righty is 3-1 with a 1.31 ERA, second best among active Carolina League pitchers. He has a league best 41 strikeouts, the fifth ranking total in the minors as of his last appearance. And yet, Buckel gets a little lost in the ocean of prospect hype.
Buckel’s left off the Top 50 lists by all four Baseball America experts in their yearly Prospect Handbook. He’s lost behind the likes of fellow teens Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, justly so, because both have made their big league debuts. But he also falls behind organization mate Jurickson Profar, who skipped Myrtle Beach this year for Double-A Frisco. He slides behind 18-year old Dylan Bundy, who some assert could make his MLB debut this season for the Orioles at just 18. He doesn’t generate discussion like the Royals Bubba Starling, the Twins Miguel Sano, the Cardinals Carlos Martinez or the Pirates Jameson Taillon. Granted, all were first rounders or coveted international signees, but none have dazzled like the Pelicans 19 year old.With Harper making his Nationals debut last week, I asked Myrtle Beach pitching coach Brad Holman how Buckel would do in the bigs tomorrow…you know, just for fun. He said he’d probably do alright. Then he added, “He thinks he can.”
“Moving up the ladder,” Buckel said, “obviously the game’s going to speed up a little bit and the talent’s going to be a lot better and the knowledge of the game is going to be a lot better. But it’s still baseball. It’s still the same game I’ve been playing since I was three. It’s still on the same field with the same bases. Nothing really changes. I look at it as just another start. It doesn’t matter who I’m facing, who’s in the batter’s box. I’m going to attack with what I have and how I know how to pitch ever since I picked up a ball on the mound when I was eight.”
Just for fun I asked if Buckel thinks he could get big leaguers out.
“Oh yeah I got Moustakas out a couple times and I got Torrealba twice,” Buckel said with a boyish laugh. Confident but not cocky. “I can get big leaguers out.”
We’ve already given you Buckel’s stats, but numbers can be deceiving. So let’s dig deeper. In six starts he’s allowed only four extra-base hits and two came in one start. He’s allowed more than one run in only one start — three allowed at Potomac — and those all came in an inning spurred by two infield singles, one that hit the base umpire to help the Nationals hitter reach. And forget hits. Look at the outs. Thirty-nine percent of his outs come on strikes. Only 10% of his outs come on flys to the outfield. Everything else is on the ground. His success caused one media member to tweet that Buckel even saved an orphaned kitten while pitching against Frederick Thursday. Go pray to Jobu hitters, because that might be your only chance.
“Just making quality pitch sequences,” Buckel said. “A lot of hard work in the offseason’s paying off right now. Doing drills to keep my arm healthy and my body in shape and right now I’m showing that on the field.”
Now it’s not like everything’s cake for Buckel. He does have things he works on and would like to see improve. He is, after all, still at Advanced-A.
“The changeup wasn’t there early in the game yesterday,” Buckel said. “I was trying to slow it down too much with unnecessary things and not letting the grip do its work and letting it be explosive, like it is my fastball.”
Buckel’s also working on using his legs better. He wants to use his legs to push power into his core, not throw from his core. He’s also constantly improving his grasp of Effective Velocity — the theory created by former hitting coach Perry Husband, and devoutly studied by Diamondbacks prospect Trevor Bauer, Buckel’s longtime friend.
“It’s basically a mind game,” Buckel said. “It’s deceiving the mind of hitters, disrupting their timing with certain pitch sequences and locations of pitches. Going all the way up to the Major League level it’s just reaction of the hitters and being able to see that. Right now I’ve got a pretty good feel of what sequences I need to throw and what I’m seeing out of the hitters and what the catchers are telling me.”The theory is nothing new. In fact it’s been around a while, dismissed Buckel says, because it was too scientific and difficult to grasp.
“Trevor’s a tricky mind and he can grasp anything he puts his mind to,” Buckel said. “It’s definitely difficult to grasp at first.”
Getting a grasp on Perry Husband’s theory has taken time for Buckel as well. He used it last year at Low-A Hickory, but has really driven into the core of the process during the offseason and in 2012. In fact, he’s having so much success, he’s almost matching Bauer, who leads the minors with five more K’s than Buckel. The two traded texts about it this week.
“No one ever succeeds their master,” Buckel said Bauer joked to him.
Maybe not. But in this case, a pretty close second isn’t half bad.