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Portrait of A Pitcher As A Young Man

Ramblings on Cody Buckel's Painful First Month

Everything's been a little off in 2013
Everything's been a little off in 2013

Amidst the tin can clatterings from the Rangers fan base following what appeared to be a static winter, a continuous thread emerged from nearly all of the front office's public appearances. On radio, television, and in print, there seemed to be a vocal notion that, internally, the team was prepared to give a chance to some minor leaguers they felt were ready to be major leaguers. We had a pretty good idea who they were referring to. In camp the need for another lefty reliever emerged, and we'd known for a while the team would need a 5th starter. Spring Training began without a veteran utility infielder, so we all thought there was an opening for a spry young Dominican speedster. The organization had a belief that their system had produced youngsters not only ready physically, but also mentally, for major league baseball. But you never know until you see them do it. And, up to this point, they've done it with ease. Frankly, the way these kids have jumped into becoming competent big leaguers contributing to a first place team has been remarkable. And unrealistic. As the tired saying goes, "baseball is a game of failure", and these kids haven't failed...yet. But it's not all gummy bears and skittles. In a game fraught with failure, back on the farm, we're seeing one. Hopefully, not a permanent failure, but one that has been undeniably surprising and disappointing.

Saturday night, I had a decision to make. Due to some grown-up obligations, I was running late in getting to the stadium. I'd seen both of Cody's previous home starts in person (and obviously, I've seen every pitch he's thrown this season on video-because I am not a cool person) and I knew that if I couldn't be in the building for the first inning, I may miss some fireworks. So I stayed back and watched on And I cringed, and I wrote notes, and I scribbled questions for scouts, and I cringed some more. I winced, and I sighed, and I dry heaved and curled up into the fetal position moaning a plaintive "whhhhyyyyy". OK so those last couple of actions were a little melodramatic, but hey, F-U man, this is shitty to watch.

The bottom line is, nothing is working.

I don't know what it is, no one does. I was in the building by the bottom of the first inning, primarily because the top half of the first was 3 hours-ish in length. Thus began my exercise in futility. Listen, if I knew what was wrong with the kid I'd be charging $800/hour as a sports psychologist and I'd have a waiting room full of pitchers, hitters, golfers, place kickers, goalies, and catchers. I have re-watched all 5 of his starts now and there is no method to this madness. So I went searching for insight. Plopping down in my usual spot amongst a sea of radar guns, stopwatches, clipboards and guys still convinced khakis and running shoes "works", I started asking questions. Ready for the good news? There were 2 consensus opinions(all assuming he isn't injured, which no one seems to think he is):

1. it is mental before it is mechanical

2. he oughta go to Arizona (extended spring training) until he's fixed.

A few quotes from guys paid to evaluate minor league talent: "His problem is from the neck up. I don't know what it is, but it's up there." "All the mechanical comes from the mental." and perhaps my favorite, "He should just go to Arizona and strike out Jairo Beras 10 times." Those are three quotes from three different guys all trying to articulate what they had just seen. Everyone seemed to agree that his mechanics are off because he doesn't have confidence in what he's doing. I had a long discussion with an seasoned scout about how sometimes guys like Cody have never really failed in their lives, and certainly not in baseball. He mentioned that baseball is "just a game of how you handle failure."

As for the next step, the consensus was that Cody should go to Arizona and join up with the extended spring training crew. Most of the scouts had forgotten that Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz, and Martin Perez were out there until I reminded them. "Oh, man, I forgot Colby Lewis was down there. Yeah, I'd have him hang with Colby." I was speaking with Jason Cole after the game who said he though that was a good next step as well. I asked a scout how long Cody should stay in Arizona, "...until he gets fixed. Until he can repeat, and feel confident again." So, in other words, I wouldn't put a time table on it.

From a personal perspective, it is truly one of the most unique stories I've had to write about. (Yes, I saw Kasey Kiker pitch often in Frisco, but I wasn't writing then) I like Cody and I've always been a little more bullish on his ceiling than others. I've spoken with his family, and I've written nice things about his ability. This is surreal. I described it last night like this: imagine the one thing in your life you have mentally automated the most. I mean, think about something you do everyday that you literally never have to think about. For many of us, it's driving, or even simpler, pulling out of your driveway. If you've lived in the same house for a while, you've unlocked the door the same way or lifted the toilet seat the same way, millions of times. Now imagine, your body, subconsciously, just simply stops doing the action. You have to think about what you're doing, every time. Then you think about why you're having to think about it so much. It's a mind-fuck that will warp anyone's confidence. Cody has thrown a baseball millions of times. With a few meager exceptions, the ball has always gone where he wants it to. Now it isn't. No real explanation, nothing physically wrong. It just isn't going where he wants it to. The ball's never done that before.

I don't know what to expect from here, but I've seen enough to say I'm no longer expecting much from Cody Buckel in the first half of 2013. I think I agree with everybody else, he should head out to Surprise in search of his mojo. Will he find it? Again, I have no idea. It's going to be fascinating to see how he responds to this. He's a cerebral kid, and I truly believe he is completely capable of righting his ship. But it's gonna take tough, ugly, honest assessment, and a ton of work. This is minor league baseball. This is player development. This is "setbacks and growth". And this is adversity. It's an adversity he's never faced. It's baseball, a game of failure.