Pitcher Cody Buckel – scheduled to make his first start at L.P. Frans Stadium in four seasons when he faces the Delmarva Shorebirds today (May 27) – was seemingly in the midst of a meteoric rise to the majors after a strong first full-season at Hickory in 2011.
After posting a 2.61 ERA and fanning 120 in 96.2 innings with the Crawdads, his stock rose further at Myrtle Beach in 2012, when he named Baseball America’s Class High-A’s Pitcher of the Year. Buckel closed out the 2012 season as the Texas League’s (AA) “Pitcher of the Week”. Next spring, the then 20-year-old earned an invitation to major league spring training with the Texas Rangers in 2013.
It all crumbled in 2013, when Buckel suddenly couldn’t find the plate. In the following interview, Buckel shares about the start of his troubles at AA Frisco, some of his rehab, and what he appreciates about the game four years after leaving Hickory.
You came here last week, so let me start with what is the game plan for you?
Buckel: To get back into starting and to get back into a starting role and get that routine back. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been into a starting position. I think that’s where I’ll feel much more comfortable is getting back into a routine.
Does it feel weird coming back here four years later?
Buckel: I can honestly tell you, I never expected it – to be here – four years ago. But, it’s kind of a part of life. It just kind of throws you around. It’s the game of baseball and the unexpected lifestyle. I’m just trying, while I’m here, to make the most of it.
You’re still only 22, which is not old for this league. Do you look at it that this is a chance to start fresh again? Or is it, gosh, I’ve got to come back here again?
Buckel: It’s definitely a fresh start. It’s definitely a new opportunity. It’s not very likely in this game that you get many chances and I’ve been blessed to get three new chances. I’m starting over again and trying to find out who I am again. This is a great place to do it.
What is the first thing you hope to find again coming here?
Buckel: Just getting the routine back again. I had a really set routine back in 2011 and 2012, and I got away from it in 2013 and I really didn’t get to do it last year. Now that I’m starting again – coming here with a six-man rotation is a little different – but it’s going to be getting back into a routine, knowing what I have to do this year throwing wise, lifting wise, running wise. I just think that works out well for me.
At the end of the year, what is success going to look like for you when you pack up and leave Labor Day, here or elsewhere?
Buckel: It’s definitely being back into starting; to be able to get back and throw the five to seven innings again. Being able to take the team, regardless of how they’re playing, deep into games, Being able to throw all of my pitches for strikes. Being ahead in the count and use all of my pitches again.
As far as stuff, what are you hoping to find again?
Buckel: Stuff wise, it’s not necessarily the movement or the sharpness of it. It’s more just being to command it and use it in any count. That’s what I was really known, and really prided myself for, was being able to throw any pitch in any count, and being able to throw the ball wherever I wanted to throw it.
The last few years have kind of been a struggle of finding command. It wasn’t necessarily that the stuff wasn’t good; I didn’t really throw it where I wanted to throw it. The first start I had here a couple of days ago, I actually had pretty good fastball command and I threw the curveball pretty well. I threw the changeup pretty well. It’s just finding, basically, the command of all of it.
Take me through the start of 2013, which had to be just an absolute nightmare for you when you started at Frisco.
Buckel: I was a young kid in big league camp and I let it get the best of me. I went down on the minor league side and I had two outings after that went really well. I thought it was the case of just getting down to Frisco and doing really well. There was something in my mind that turned off or clicked off, or something. In my last start, or my last outing, or really my last two outings, I really had no idea where the ball was going and I couldn’t figure out why, and that carried over to Frisco. It just kind of mentally drained me. There was one point where they thought I had mono; I had so much stress. I had put so much stress and pressure on myself.
I spent the rest of that year down in Arizona just really re-learning how to throw the ball again. It was like I had a traumatic injury and had to learn how to walk again, but this time, it was learning how to throw again. Keith Comstock was very supportive and it worked out very well.
In 2014, I was trying to jump back and start, I think, a little bit too soon. I wasn’t quite ready and I ended up in the bullpen. I had a pretty solid few months at the end of the year. This past offseason, I went to Australia and got a few starts under my belt and did pretty well down there. I did pretty well in spring training being able to go out and get three to five innings starting again. I went out to Frisco and went back to the pen and then I fell out of my routine again, because I wasn’t a starter at Frisco.
I think the Rangers realized that and they said that, “we want you to start, because we think that’s what you’re best at. So, we’re going to send you back down to the lower levels and get you back into your routine and get you back to starting again and get your confidence back.”
I’m sure you remember Matt Thompson, who in a sense went through a lot of the same things, where in 2011 he just couldn’t find the plate anymore Did you have in the back of your mind, is this going to happen to me?
Buckel: It did happen to me. It happened to me likewise in 2013. I couldn’t play catch from 30 feet away. It was embarrassing; you almost wanted to go home and cry every night because you couldn’t do what you loved.
Did you have worries that you’d be released?
Buckel: No, not really. Obviously, there were some worst-case scenarios about that, but the Rangers were very supportive and said, “We know what you can do. We know what we’ve seen you do for two and three years now. We know that it is still in you and that it’s still capable of you. We’re going to be out there with you until you find it again.”
When you get a call to the majors, will this all seem like a blip? Will you look back at it in appreciation? How do you think you will see it?
Buckel: A necessary evil. Like I’ve said before, I never saw myself as a greedy or prideful kid. I think the game showed me that I was and I didn’t realize that I was. I knew I was good and I thought I was the best. I thought I was going to get to the major leagues at 21. That was the way I was going and that was the pressure I put on myself. Then, when I started falling away from that, the pressure overcame me and it dragged me down.
So, I’ve learned now how to kind of relieve pressure. Even when I was struggling in 2014, or even in Frisco when I was struggling a little bit, I still didn’t feel as much pressure, or I didn’t get as hard on myself, which I used to do very much so. I used to be super hard on myself. One day, when I’m in the big leagues – obviously, I have to be able to get there – I’ll be looking at this as a necessary thing I had to go through.
What do you appreciate most now that you maybe didn’t in 2011?
Buckel: I had tunnel vision in 2011 and 2012. My sole focus was getting to the big leagues and my sole focus was baseball, baseball, baseball. I’ve just kind of open up the blinders to the side of my eyes, to realize that there’s more in the world than baseball. I’m not saying to take me away from baseball, or any of that. I can focus on baseball when I’m out at the field.
Now when I’m away from the field, I can appreciate the things that baseball does for me, as far as traveling around the country, or have the friends I get to meet and the experiences I get to have. In 2011 and 2012, I didn’t even realize that. I just kind go to the field, get back to the apartment, come back to the field, go to the apartment.
Now, I’m kind of being a good teammate – hanging out with the guys, going to see movies with the guys, going to the golf course. Back then in 2011 and 2012, I wasn’t very social. I wasn’t very talkative. Now, I’m more part of the guys, especially here. I was here in 2011, so some of the guys are asking me, “what’s it like in Frisco?” or “what was it like here in 2011?” So, I kind of get to play that little bit of a role model, which is a new role for