July 2017

A New Appreciation: An interview with Walker Weickel

It was a long fall for Walker Weickel from first-round stardom to his release five years later. The native of Orlando, Fla, Weickel was taken as the 55th overall selection by the San Diego Padres out of Olympia High School. With a 6-6 frame that had room to fill, the right-hander presented a 91-94 fastball with a curve. With seasoning in the minors, Weickel would likely land at Petco Field before too many years. At least, that’s what he thought.

He went through a tough, first full-season in 2013 and took some poundings at Low-A Ft. Wayne (IN), as many pitchers do. But the rough outings continued the next season and he finished the 2014 season at short-season Eugene (OR).

The Padres challenged him with an assignment to high-A Lake Elsinore (CA) before six weeks into the season he heard the three words feared by every pitcher: Tommy John surgery. After a little over a year at rehab, he made pitched ten innings at the Padres short-season and rookie affiliates with mixed results. This spring, he was released.

Sitting on the sidelines and rehabbing gave Weickel time to think about how his career had gone to that point, and consider how much effort he had put into his development. Not just effort, but honest effort.

With time to reflect, Weickel adjusted his attitude and recaptured his love for the game. Weickel took on his release from the Padres as a matter-of-fact business decision and dedicated himself to the next opportunity. That door-knocker came with the Texas Rangers, with whom he signed this April.

Since joining the Crawdads on June 3, Weickel has gotten deeper into games and, in the process, dominated South Atlantic League opponents. His OBA is currently at .170 with a 0.89 WHIP. Over the last two starts, Weickel has allowed five hits, walked two and struck out 12 over 13.2 innings. He threw a two-hitter over seven innings against Kannapolis on July 4 in front of a packed house. Weickel’s outing was punctuated with an emphatic fist pump after fanning the final two hitters in the seventh.

Below is part of his story.

Walker Weickel-Lin

Walker Weickel delivers a pitch during a 7/4/17 contest vs. Kannapolis (Crystal Lin)

 

First question for you: the first thing I noticed when you came off the mound after the last strikeout was a huge first pump. Reading your story a bit about your Tommy John surgery and then you get released by the Padres, and then you pitch well before a big crowd here, how much of that was the moment itself or you’re finally getting some things going in your career?

Weickel: I think it was a culmination of things. July 4th has always kind of an interesting day for me in my career. I’ve been scheduled to pitch July 4th two times, but it’s been rearranged for numerous reasons, and this prior to surgery. So, now in my first complete season from Tommy John and with a new team an having an opportunity to pitch on July 4th, it’s always been kind of a career checkpoint for me to pitch. Growing up as a kid and watching The Sandlot, you see the scene where everyone’s playing baseball under the fireworks; it’s something I’ve always wanted to experience and definitely wanted to get a win out of.

I was feeling good on the fourth, and yeah, that last strikeout, it was a culmination of all that. It was also their number four hitter (Kannapolis rightfielder Micker Adolfo). He had kind of given me a little bit of a tricky out the first two times before, so I finally got him on that third at-bat. It felt like a nice little way to end off the outing.

 

It looked like you had all four pitches going: fastball, change, curve and slider. Did I read that right?

Weickel: For me, I heavily run a two-seam fastball and try to sink the ball a lot and then pitch a changeup and curveball off of that. I change speeds on my curveball, so sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s tighter and gets mistaken for a slider. I was pretty pleased with how my pitches were working. Ricky (Valencia) had a good game plan going into the outing and I was able to stick to it. Ricky did a great job calling pitches all night and kept me comfortable and kept me fluid.

I think I had seven flyouts and six ground outs. So, it definitely helped that the hitters put the ball in play quick and let the defense make plays quickly and get back into the dugout and back to the bats. I was pleased with the overall efficiency and quickness of the game.

 

I’m guessing the answer to the next question might take up the rest of the interview. Describe how good it feels for you finally to get back into a rotation and you are taking the ball every six games.

Weickel: It’s tough to put into words. It almost feels like my career is starting over again. I was a starter out of high school and then my first couple of years in pro ball. I’ve definitely had some battles and some ups and downs. Then the Tommy John was a big point in my career and I really felt that allowed me to mentally collect myself and figure out who I was as a pitcher. It allowed me to craft my process for off the field, in terms of preparation and in terms of how I go about my business.

So, it’s been really rewarding getting a chance here and I’m so thankful the Rangers gave me an opportunity to put all that work into play and to see where it goes from here.

Walker Weickel 2 - Proffitt

Crawdads right-hander Walker Weickel (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

What was the journey like going from first-round pick to Tommy John and then your release essentially four seasons after your selection?

Weickel: It was ups and downs and a lot of emotions. It was definitely not something I planned for, that’s for sure. I think everyone has the grand idea of signing and then maybe a couple of stops in the minors and then right up to the big leagues. I would say that’s not quite the path, but at the same time there is no set path for anyone. Everyone kind of has their own journey and battle.

Even though I’ve had quite the ups and downs, and I’ve dealt with injuries and I had to sit out a year-and-a-half for recovery, quite frankly, I don’t think I’d put it any other way. It’s really allowed me to develop, I think, at the right time and it’s allowed me to really enjoy certain aspects of my career and different opportunities. But now to be back playing, to be fully healthy, knowing that my arm is secure and stable, knowing that I’ve had these past 24 months of just hunger and preparation to get back on the mound and prove that I’m still able to get out there and do the job, I couldn’t be more excited.

 

You talk about how everybody has their own path. There are guys that get into the game and realize that it’s much more of a mental game. You guys are growing up, especially if you’re drafted out of high school. There are some guys that are arrogant; there are some guys that are still little boys in many ways. Maybe the question I have to ask is what is the adjustment mental-wise or lifestyle-wise that you had to make?

Weickel: It’s easy to get caught up into the day-to-day activities of being at the park and spending 12 to 16 hours a day, roughly, at or on the baseball field and then essentially your home, your apartment or hotel to sleep and then back to the field. So, it’s easy to kind of fall into a rep versus routine.

You do the rep thing, you show up and kind of go through the motions. You play catch, or you take batting practice, whatever it might be. You actually physically do the practice, but you might not have definitive points that you’re working on or things you’re trying to get out of it. You might not necessarily be challenging yourself at practice. I thought I fell victim to that a little bit. I fell victim to potentially practicing some mechanical adjustments that weren’t quite right for my body, and for how I pitch in my game as a pitcher. So, over the course of time, failure definitely teaches you a lesson; it’s whether or not you want to listen to it.

When I actually had the surgery, and had to sit there on the sidelines, it really gave me nothing but time to think about all the things I’ve practiced, all the things I’ve done, the approaches to the game that I had taken, and really narrow down what was really working and what really wasn’t. I felt like I was able to sit down and craft a new approach for when I finally got healthy and was able to get back out there. So far, it’s been a much more efficient and a much more manageable process for the day-to-day grind.

 

What’s the biggest appreciation you have for the game now that you maybe didn’t have before?

Weickel: Just the fun that comes with playing baseball. I think a lot of guys, when you get into pro ball, it immediately becomes this business. There’s obviously that aspect to it, but it’s a game.

If you can’t get joy out of showing up to the baseball field and playing the game and putting on a uniform and getting excited about fireworks and pitching in front of fans, just the camaraderie with the guys in the clubhouse, or the jokes, or being around batting practice, the competition on the field and the childish fun that you get from this game, you’re doing something wrong. You’re not getting the full value of the game. Coming back and getting a second chance, it’s definitely been a lot more enjoyable and a lot more fun playing.

 

What was the bigger reality check, getting released or having the Tommy John surgery?

Weickel: I would definitely say Tommy John. Like I said, baseball is a business. At the end of the day, teams they have plans and you can’t take it personal. It is what it is.

For the injury, that was something I could control. I could really buy into my rehab and buy into my time down and get something out of it, or I could just go through the motions. When I had the surgery, my mentality towards a lot of things, not just baseball, but my approach in general of how things could change unexpectedly. It really kind of gave me more of an appreciation for game activities, to interactions, friendships, time available with family and friends, and time to work.

I feel like that really was to me was the greatest challenge and greatest test of my willpower and my dedication to the game, to sit through all the rehabs, to sit through maybe the minor setbacks and discomforts and negative thoughts during the rehab process and come out victorious on the other side.

 

Tell me about the Rangers contact and how that all came together.

Weickel: I was let go the last week of spring training. I had some calls out and was looking to see if any teams had any interest. It’s a tough time right then and there because a lot of teams are looking to finalize rosters and it’s tough to make additions.

I actually went home for a couple of weeks and never once had a doubt that I was going to be out of baseball. I felt like that after all the work that I had put in rehab and the work I had done to come back and prove myself – and I felt like I was at a stronger point than in my previous years before surgery. So I was able to actually get home and work a little bit and continued throwing bullpens, and stay sharp and stay strong.

I was able to finalize a workout with the Rangers scout back home. It was great because immediately he was excited and pumped and full of enthusiasm. To see that from the team really made me excited that they would give me an opportunity. When things finalized and came together, I was able to get out to Phoenix and join the club at extended spring for a couple of weeks and get my feet wet and adjusted to the organization. It was just all positives from the get go.

I feel like I was able to jump right in and continue my work and continue getting better with the coaching staff and the training staff down there, and really get a strong foothold into getting myself ready to come here and give the Crawdads a shot at winning some ballgames.

 

When you get a call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you?

Weickel: I can’t imagine. I really can’t imagine it. It would definitely be surreal. I honestly don’t even know what I would say on the phone to my parents, or my girlfriend or my parents or anyone. I guess it’s going to have to be an in-the-moment experience.

But, I got carried away early in my career trying to think too far into my future. And now, I think about the next hour, the next two hours, the ballgame that night, and then go to sleep and wake up and try to do it all again tomorrow. I pitch from inning-to-inning, start-to-start and then go from there and try not to get too ahead of myself.

 

 You have you, you have (Matt) Smoral, who was a former first-round pick with the Blue Jays who’s come here. You’ve got (Michael) Matuella, who was going to be a potential first-round pick, but then had the Tommy John and dropped to third. You’ve got (Jake) Lemoine, who battled injuries. Do you guys trade stories, in the sense that you have similar experiences?

Weickel: Yeah, it’s actually kind of funny, because all four of us are roommates. I feel like between the four of us, we definitely have a collection of experience and knowledge in just about every aspect, in terms of struggles and triumphs and things going not the way we’d planned for them to go. But, I’ll tell you what, I’ve never met a more positive group of guys. Guys that are willing to come out and give everything that they have each and every day, for their hunger to be better each and every time on the mound.

And that goes for the whole team. I think it’s exemplified in some of our performances this second half. They’ve really bought into the process. We have a fantastic team here – the pitching staff and the infield and outfield. It’s impressive.

If you get here during b.p. and watch some of the batting practice that goes on and some of the infield work, flashes of it are here in the game, but there’s some serious talent on this team. It’s enjoyable to pitch and to have solid defense behind me – guys that are going to bust their butts and do whatever it takes to win a ballgame. Our bullpen and coaching staff wants the exact same thing. So, it’s really refreshing being here with a winning team and a winning environment and a winning organization.

Walker Weickel - Proffitt

Walter Weickel delivers a pitch during a June 23 game vs. Augusta (Tracy Proffitt)

Wildcat on a Mission: An Interview with Kyle Cody

The Texas Rangers over the past several years have had good luck with drafting mid-round college level pitchers that have midwestern roots and seeing them develop into major league talent. Nick Tepesch (14th round from Missouri), Jerad Eickhoff (15th round Olney Central College) are a couple that come to mind. Connor Sadzeck (11th round Howard College) is another that’s on the doorstep currently at AA Frisco (Tex.). They’re like pre-packaged foods, in a sense: 6-foot-6ish 240 pounds with mid-90s fastballs, well-developed breaking balls and fledgling changeups. Just add seasoning and they’re ready to pitch.

At 6-7, 245 pounds with three pitches in hand Kyle Cody may be the soon on line at the major league buffet.

The Chippewa Falls, Wisc. native was the sixth-round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of Kentucky. The Gatorade player of the year in Wisconsin his senior season pitched four seasons for the Wildcats, spurning the chance to turn pro out of high school with the Philadelphia Phillies (33rd round) in 2012 and with the Minnesota Twins (73rd pick overall) in 2015. Cody, 22, comes with a fastball that tops 96 mph, slider and a changeup that he admits is a work in progress. He’s been a constant force in the rotation as of late. A one-hit, eight-strikeout, eight-inning affair at Lakewood (NJ) on June 17 earned him South Atlantic League pitcher of the week honors. Two starts later on July 3, he gave up one unearned run on one hit and fanned 10 at West Virginia. The SAL is hitting .132 against him so far in the second half with 19 Ks in 11 innings.

In talking with Cody for this interview, there is that quiet, midwestern manner that has an unmistakable, matter-of-fact confidence. He’s faced some of the SEC’s best over the past four years with the Wildcats and there is a sense, as he has seen those former foes attain major league dreams, that Cody feels he belongs with that group and soon.  Yet, for now, he knows there is work to be done in gaining consistency, not only from game-to-game, but pitch-to-pitch.

In the interview below, Cody talked about his progression this season, some of his experiences with the SEC that has gotten him to the point, as well as his current dream matchup in the majors.

Kyle Cody - lin 2

Crawdads RHP Kyle Cody from a game on May 16 vs. Greensboro when he fanned 10. (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

First question I have for you is what was it like pitching for Lexington? I know you went to UK (Kentucky) and unfortunately had a rain-shortened deal.

Cody: It was pretty cool to go back and get to see some friends back at school. It wasn’t like how it usually was, where you get the college atmosphere. There was no one there pretty much because school was out, but it was still nice to see some familiar faces and just to get back in that area. I love that place. It’s a beautiful area. It was cool to get back to some of the restaurants there and stuff. It was pretty fun.

 

How many tickets did you leave?

Cody: When I started, I think I left 15 tickets. It kind of sucked that I only got to pitch two innings. Because everyone left, because of the rain,  I didn’t really get to see anyone, but, it is what it is and things happen.

 

Did the folks with the Legends give you any recognition or did they just let it slide?

Cody: When I was on the mound the first time they played the fight song when I pitched, but nothing unusual. They said that I had pitched at University of Kentucky and a few of the fans clapped, so that’s about it.

 

You pitched at a high school in Wisconsin, so how did you wind up going to Kentucky?

Cody: I was offered by Minnesota, Ohio State and Kentucky. It was just I left like it was the best offer. They really took me in there and it felt like home. It just felt like I had a good connection with all the coaches and I felt like it was the best decision for me.

 

What was it like to pitch in the SEC?

Cody:  It was pretty cool. At first, it was kind of a tough adjustment coming from a small high school where I was pitching in front of 15 or 20 people, all the way to 12,000 the next year. So, it was kind of tough at first, but it was quite an experience to play there and you get used to it and get better.

Kyle Cody - Lin

Kyle Cody from an April 13 appearance vs. Kannapolis (Crystal Lin)

 

What was the biggest adjustment as far as going to college from high school? Obviously, the competition was different, but as far as pitching wise, what did you have to do?

Cody: Locating my fastball on both sides of the plate. In high school, I just kind of threw it by everyone. That was the big thing was command of the fastball and then having a second pitch, and getting better with that, and then developing a changeup, which I’m still trying to do now and still trying to get better with that. In college, you’ve got to try and show one (changeup) for a strike and then now, you’ve got to get outs with it.

 

What was your second pitch in college?

Cody: Slider

 

Are you still developing that or are you pretty comfortable with that?

Cody: I’m pretty comfortable with my slider, now. It’s gotten a lot better the past year or so, I’d say. It’s little more sharp and has a little more velocity than it used to. So, I’m pretty happy with where that’s at right now.

Kyle Cody Tag play - Lin

Kyle Cody on a tag play at third during a home game vs. Lexington (KY.) (Crystal Lin)

 

Let me stay on the adjustment thread. Coming to pro ball, what were some adjustments you had to make?

Cody: From college, I worked a lot on my stride length and getting that a little bit longer. At college, it wasn’t very long and then last year in Spokane. And now, I’ve been working on that so I can get a little more extension with my pitches and get a little bit closer to the plate. So, that’s one thing I worked on. Also, just messing around with the changeup and trying to find a comfortable grip and get some velocity off of that pitch.

 

You had some games where you had some double-digit strikeout totals and then some where you didn’t, but you’re getting outs. Are you more comfortable as a strikeout pitcher or getting your groundballs and letting your defense work?

Cody: I don’t really have what I would prefer. I would say I just get outs anyway I can. The name of the game is to get outs any way possible. If one day it’s strikeouts and the next day it’s groundballs, I’ll take it. It doesn’t matter to me. If my pitches are working and I’m striking people out, I’m happy with that. If my fastball is working that day and I’m getting groundballs, then I’m happy with that, too.

 

Do you have a sense early if something is working that this is going to be a good day, versus, maybe it’s going to be a little tougher today?

Cody: Yeah, there’s been a few games already where I don’t really have command of my fastball early and then I have to work off my slider and get a few swings, and my changeup. There’s other times where I won’t have my offspeed pitches and I’ll have to just pound the fastball in and out. Those are days you have to battle just to try and get groundball outs and try to keep yourself in the game to save the bullpen.

 

What was the first reality check in pro ball when you realized that this is a whole different level?

Cody: I think it was my second outing. I came out of the bullpen and I just got roughed around a little bit. I think we were playing Everett and they had their first-rounder on the team – I think his name was Kyle Lewis. He hit a ball pretty hard off of me into the gap. I kind of feel like that was the moment where I was like, “Okay, it’s for real now. I’m ready to go. Let’s go.”

 

Was there a moment – and maybe it was that one – where a guy hit what you thought was a good pitch?:

Cody: Oh yeah, that happens a lot. You think you make a pitch and all of a sudden it’s in the gap or over the fence. So, that’s just something where you tip your cap and say, “they hit my pitch where I wanted it to be located.” You’ve just got to live with.

 

Talk to me about mental adjustments. Everyone I talk to says that when they get to the pro level there it’s much more of a mental game than a physical game. Have you found that to be true to this point?

Cody: In college, my coach preached that about the mental aspects of baseball. He always talked about being positive with yourself when on the mound and telling yourself where you’re going to make the pitch, where the pitch is going and stuff like that and keeping it simple. Right now, I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of just keeping it simple and just focusing on executing pitches when I’m on the mound. That’s all I’m going to focus on right now is where the next pitch is going to be.

 

Is this more of a mental game than you thought it would be at this level?

Cody: Oh yeah, definitely.

 

How so?

Cody: (laughing) I mean, I feel like the whole thing is mental until you just execute a pitch. Off the field, you’ve got to talk to yourself a certain way and do the same stuff every day and just having a routine and going about your business. I feel like the mental side is what keeps you going, too, and what drives you in baseball.

 

How much did SEC play prepare you for the pro level?

Cody: I’d like to say quite a bit. You see all of the talent that comes out of the SEC and just all the pro players that are already in the big leagues and guys that I’ve faced already that are from the SEC. I’d like to say that it helped me to get where I’m at now. I’ve just got to keep working and hopefully move on and keep moving up.

 

Have you faced a guy in the pros that you faced in college where you’ve nodded and said, This is pretty cool; we’re both here.”?

Cody: I faced Dansby Swanson (Vanderbilt) in college. I faced Alex Bregman (LSU) in college. My teammate A.J. Reed, he went to the bigs, but he’s in AAA right now. Just guys like that, you kind of look back and you’re like, “Wow, two years ago I was pitching against him in college. Now he’s in the big leagues getting paid.” It’s kind of a reality check when you think about that for a second. Like, they’re already there and you’re still working to get there yourself. It kind of makes you work harder.

 

What’s the thing you’re most proud of as far as your progression this year?

Cody: I’d say, one thing I’ve been lacking in the past is consistency. As the season’s gone on, I’ve gotten more consistent with each start. I used to be up-and-down a little bit, a good start here and then a bad start and then a good start. Now I’m getting into a trend where I’m getting five or six innings almost every start. So, I’d say that’s the thing I’m most happy with now.

 

What’s the thing you’re working on next?

Cody: Limiting the walks. I’ve heard that if you want to move up, you’ve got to be able to throw the ball over the plate and not walk as many people. I think I lead the team in walks right now, so I want to cut some of those out.

 

You get a call to the major leagues, what is that like for you, do you think?

Cody: I feel like that will be a dream come true. Hopefully it’s not that long away, but it could be two or three years away. If that time comes, I’ll just be ecstatic to share that with my family and friends and just be very fortunate to be able to do that.

 

Is there a mentor that’s helped you along?

Cody: My parents have honestly gotten me so far and helped me be the person like I am today. They’ve helped me with anything and everything off the field. I can go to them about anything, so it’s something I’m very fortunate to have.

 

Who’s the big leaguer you’re looking forward to facing? Whether he gets a bomb off you or not, who do you want to face?

Cody: I want to face Bryce Harper, just because there’s a lot of hype there. I feel like he carries himself into the batter’s box like he’s going to hit a home run every time. I just want to look at him and be like, “I’m here, too.” I feel like that would be fun at bat.

 

Kyle Cody mug

Series Preview: Kannapolis at Hickory July 4-6

Kannapolis Intimidators (Chicago White Sox) (43-37 overall, 4-8 second half, tied for 6th South Atlantic League Northern Division) at Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) (34-48 overall, 7-5 3rd SAL Northern)

The Hickory Crawdads begin a weeklong homestand with a three-game series against in-state rival Kannapolis.

 

If you plan to go:

GAME TIMES: Tuesday – Thursday at 7:00 p.m.

PROMOTIONS:

Tuesday – Independence Day Celebration and Post-Game Fireworks

Wednesday – Kids Win Wednesday: All kids 12 and under admitted free, also get vouchers for free meal, bounce house, speed pitch and carousel;

Thursday – Thirsty Thursday; Rudy Wright Night

 

TICKETS: $9 dollars for regular seats, $14 for VIP section. NOTE: Tickets for July 4 are $12 for regular seats, $17 for VIP section… while supplies last!

WHERE IS IT?: Clement Blvd., 1 mile west of U.S. Hwy 321, near entrance to Hickory Airport.

PARKING: All parking is $3.

CONCESSIONS: L.P. Frans Stadium has two main concession areas plus the Crawdads Café. The concession stands have your basic ballpark food: Hot dogs, burgers, chicken sandwich, BBQ, etc. The Crawdad Café has a menu that features more diverse items, including the Mac & Crawdog, Banana Foster Bites, Fried Pickles, Sloppy Burger, and more. Click here for the menu http://www.milb.com/documents/3/3/4/185907334/cafe_menu_6eeko6n2.pdf

 

Probables (Kannapplis/ Hickory):

Tuesday: RHP Yelmison Peralta vs. RHP Walker Weickel

Wednesday: RHP Blake Hickman vs. RHP Edgar Arredondo

Thursday: RHP Luis Martinez vs. RHP Reid Anderson

 

Recent Series History:

In 2017, Hickory is 10-9 as the teams enter the final series vs. Kannapolis this season. The Crawdads have not lost a season series against Kannapolis since 2010 (7-9). The Intimidators hold a 4-3 edge in games played at L.P. Frans this season and are looking to win its season-series at Hickory since 2008 (3-1).

 

About the Crawdads:

The Crawdads hope to springboard off a successful road trip and use that momentum to improve upon a 15-24 home record. They return home after their first winning road trip (5-3) of the season. Hickory won 3 of 4 at Kannapolis last week and then earned a split of a four-game series at West Virginia by winning Monday night’s finale… At the plate, the Crawdads are fourth in the SAL in total bases, supported by a league-leading 28 triples and 56 homers, which is fourth in the league. However, that has not added up to tallies on the scoreboard as the Crawdads are ninth in runs scored. Some of that has been due to impatience at the plate. Hickory is tied for last in walks received and next to last overall in on-base percentage (.305) …The Crawdads remain last in the SAL in ERA, but the trend continues towards improvement as the club is under five (4.87) and is no longer on pace to set a club record. Hickory is last in WHIP, and next to last in both walks and hits allowed.

 

Prospects to watch- Hickory:

CF Leody Taveras (No. 1 MLB.com and Baseball America, No. 43 Baseball America top-100 prospects, No. 51 MLB.com top-100): Signed as international free agent 2015 out of Tenares, Dominican Republic. Went 3-for-11 at West Virginia and has a .302/.415/.372 slash for the second half. Has just four extra-base hits since May 30. Tied for first in triples (5), second in ABs, 5th in games played, 8th in runs scored, tied for 9th in hits

SS Anderson Tejeda (No. 7 MLB.com). Signed as an international free agent in 2015 out of Bani, D.R. Went 2-for-11 in series at West Virginia. Has shifted mostly to 2B, playing just four games at SS since May 30. Tied for 6th in SAL with 4 triples. Is tied for 4th in Ks and has 13 in 52 plate appearances (31%) in the second half.

2B Yeyson Yrizarri (No. 17 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of the D.R. Went 6-for-15 at West Virginia with a homer and 5 RBI. Has hits in 9 of 11 games in the second half, including the last six. Hitting .325/.333/.550 in the second half.

RF Jose Almonte (No. 28 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Santo Domingo, D.R. Has struggled all season (.186/.248/.305) and is now losing playing time, seeing action in just 7 of 12 games. Went 1-for-14 on the road trip and is 2-for-22 with 7 Ks in the second half.

 

Others to watch – Hickory:

C Ricky Valencia: Signed as an international free agent in 2011 out of Valencia, Venezuela. Named to the SAL All-Star Game as a reserve catcher. Went 4-for-11 at West Virginia and has hits in 6 of his last 8 games. Looking for his first extra-base hit since June 12.

1B Carlos Garay: Signed as an international free agent in 2012 out of La Victoria, Venezuela. Has settled into the starting first base slot since joining the Crawdads on May 20. Has hits in 10 of his last 11 games and multi-hit games in five of the last seven (14-for-32). Very much a contact hitter, has just 3 Ks over the last 11 games, but no walks. Overall, he has just 4 walks in 40 games, but just 14 Ks.

3B Ti’Quan Forbes: Second-round pick in 2014 out of Columbia High (MS). Has missed just three of 82 games. Went 5-for-15 at West Virginia and has 9 hits in 20 ABs. Is hitting just .217/.255/.319 at home.

C Alex Kowalczyk: 12th-round pick in 2016 out of Pittsburgh. Went 3-for-13 at West Virginia. Is at .333/.368/.417 in the second half. At home, Kowalczyk is .368/.403/.559. Has had trouble however behind the plate with a SAL-high of 9 errors and four passed balls in just 28 games.

RHP Walker Weickel: Signed as a free agent in 2017 out of the San Diego Padres organization with which he was a first-round pick. In his last start at Kannapolis, allowed three hits, a walk and struck out seven over 6.2 innings.

RHP Edgar Arredondo: Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Allowed two earned runs over five innings with five hits and three Ks at Kannapolis in his last starter. Has given up one for fewer earned runs in five of his last eight starts.

RHP Kaleb Fontenot: 21st-round pick in 2016 out of McNeese St. Pitched in three of the four games (2 saves) at West Virginia and has four straight scoreless outings.

 

About the Drive:

Managed by former Kannapolis infielder Justin Jirschele. The Intimidators won six of seven to close out the first half, which included a four-game sweep of then-first place Hagerstown (Md.) to claim the first half Northern Division title. Kannapolis will make its first playoff appearance this September since 2009…Winning the first half earned promotions for several players (six of the seven all-stars received promotions) and for now it has left Kannapolis scrambling for answers. At the plate, about 40% of the homers (21 of 52), one-third of the RBI, and nearly one-third of the hits are elsewhere. In losing the final seven games of its just-concluded homestand, Kannapolis scored 16 runs. It’s a team that doesn’t run much – a league low 50 steal attempts – and relies on station-to-station and situational hitting… The same holds true on the mound as players that made 48 of the 80 starts for Kannapolis are now elsewhere. Only one pitcher currently on the roster (Yosmen Solorzano) has made more than six starts (15).

 

Prospects to watch – Kannapolis:   

RF Micker Adolfo (No. 21 mlb.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of San Pedro de Macoris, D.R. Went 3-for-16 vs. Delmarva in the last series. Had a 16-game hitting streak (24-for-66) in May and was named the White Sox minor-league player of the month in May and June. He had ten homers, 19 doubles and 37 RBI during that stretch. He is tied for first in the SAL with 24 doubles, fifth in total bases and ninth in slugging (.483).

RHP Luis Martinez (No. 22 mlb.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2012 out of Carupano, Venezuela. Had a dominant first start of the season vs. Hickory on May 19 with 9 Ks and one run allowed on four hits over five innings. Bumped up to high-A Winston-Salem, he struggled (16 ERs, 25 hits, 10 BBs over 16 innings), then returned to Kannapolis on June 26 to again dominate Hickory (1 ER, 3 H, 5 K, 6 IP).

 

Others to watch – Kannapolis:

2B Mitch Roman: 12th round pick in 2016 out of Wright St. Went 3-for-19 vs. Delmarva. Named to the SAL all-star game. Shifted to SS after the promotion of Grant Massey. Currently fourth in the SAL in hits.

RHP Blake Hickman: 7th round pick by the White Sox in 2015 out of Iowa. Made his first pro start vs. Hickory on 5/31/17 and allowed one run on five hits and fanned two over six innings. Had a rough outing vs. Delmarva in his last start on June 30 (5.1 IP, 5 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 2 HBP, 4 K.).

 

Hey now, you’re an all-star: An Interview with Ricky Valencia

It takes a special person to wait as long as Ricardo (Ricky) Valencia did for an opportunity to play and sometimes baseball has a way of rewarding that patience.

Valencia’s selection to the South Atlantic League all-star game played at Columbia, S.C. a couple of weeks ago was all that is right with the minor-league baseball world. At 24, the Valencia, Venezuela native, who signed with the Texas Rangers in 2012, has done everything he’s been asked to do. Unfortunately, through the first half of 2016 very little of that had been during games. He played for four of the Rangers affiliates in 2015, but that totaled 15 games. And that was up from seven games in 2014. Over his first four pro seasons, Valencia played in just 78 pro games.

Injuries to several Crawdads got Valencia out of bullpen catching duties and into the lineup on June 11 at Kannapolis. He walked and doubled in that game, then two days later Valencia singled in a run and walked. The next day he added a single and double. Valencia put together a four-hit game on June 28. His season ended with a six-game hitting streak. His run through the second half of 2016 earned him a chance to play on a regular basis this year.

Playing time aside, Valencia is one of those guys that you want to see succeed. He is a kind soul and here is an example of that. In the interview below, Valencia named a list of those who had helped him improved. After the interview, I walked away to my next task. Ricky caught up to me and wanted to make sure I included Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook in his list of mentions.

Valencia is about the team – catching the bullpens, or working with a pitcher through a tough outing, or providing a steady presence in the lineup – he will give his best to help the team succeed. It’s guys like that I love seeing get his own recognition. Our interview happened two days after his all-star selection.

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Crawdads all-star catcher Ricky Valencia (Crystal Lin)

 

First of all, what was your reaction when you found out you made the all-star team?

Valencia: First of all, I didn’t know about it until my host family texted me and told me, “Congrats”. I didn’t know and then when I found out, I didn’t believe it. This is my sixth year and the first time I’m playing every day and I’m just doing my best. I knew I had some chance to make it, but I still couldn’t believe it. I was so happy that right away I texted my mom and she was so proud and my dad, too, and all my family were really happy for me.

 

This has to mean a lot more to you because of all the time you put it. You haven’t got to play a lot until this year. Describe what this means to you.

Valencia: it means a lot to me because, first of all, this opportunity I have right now, I’ve been waiting for it since I signed back in 2012. It means a lot to me, because it means that I can actually play. Before, I was only catching bullpens and not even playing was frustrating. But, I knew that I can do it and that’s what I’m showing right now, that I can actually play and do my best every time I go out there on the field. That is a goal that I wanted to achieve this year.

Before the season started and I found out that I was going to be the catcher every day, what I had in my mind was, “okay, I’m going to do my best.” I wasn’t even thinking on making the all-star game, I was just thinking about doing my best for the team. Being the old guy on the team, they expect you to be the leader and talking to the guys, helping them. That was really my focus, to help the team do better every night. That was pretty much what I was thinking from the beginning. But then, when I started good, I was trusting myself that I can do it. This step makes me feel more comfortable and more trusting in myself that I can do good. So, it means a lot to me to make the all-star team.

 

What was it like to sit so much the last few years and watch other people play and not really get an opportunity to play?

Valencia: It was frustrating, because I know who I am and I know I can do good. It wasn’t sad, because I knew in my mind that at some point I’m going to get an opportunity. I was working really hard, even though I knew I wasn’t playing. I was still working every day and getting my work in and keep faith.

 

Who was the people that helped you to keep focused, even when you weren’t playing?

Valencia: My mom and my dad, even though we are apart for seven months. Every day they would tell me, “You are good, keep trusting yourself.” Every day they would talk me because I would go back home and be sad. They would tell me, “Ricardo, you’re good; you’re fine. You’re going to get your opportunity. Just keep working hard and you’ll see. You will get the chance, too.”

 

As far as working on your catching skills, who have you worked with to improve that to get this opportunity.

Valencia: All the catching coaches and coordinators. They focused a lot on me with anything that could help me. Last year, here, I spent a lot of time with Matt Hagen, our assistant coach. He was also our catching coach. I learned a lot from him last year. He talked to me a lot about calling games and all of that.

All the coaches I had before and our old catching coordinator Hector Ortiz, he taught us a lot, and then catching Chris Briones. He was the one that told me to keep working because he knew that I was going to get this opportunity. All of them together, all that information that I got from everybody, it kept me going to get better every day. And then, even though he’s not a catching coach, Sharnol Adriana, anything he could do to help me, he would do it. Also, the pitching coaches, like Jose Jaimes. He helps me a lot with calling games from the pitching side.

 

Did it ever go through your mind that you wouldn’t get the chance to play every day?

Valencia: Yeah, it went through my mind, because I had never got the chance to play. This year, the fact that I finished up last year playing good baseball, and then I went to play winter ball in Venezuela, and I played really good – and I played with some big leaguers – it helped me to say, “I can do this.”

So, I real prepared myself really good because, in my mind, I told myself, “This is going to be a good year.” I don’t know how, but I knew this was going to be the year. So, I prepared myself really good and working hard every single day during the offseason. I went to spring training focused on doing what I do, not saying, “maybe I’m going to play every day.” No, that wasn’t my thinking. My goal was, I’m going to work as hard as I can every day and do my job and see what happens.

 

What was the area of your game that you had to work the hardest on to be able to play every day?

Valencia: My body.  Last year, I went to spring training at 226 pounds and they at the end of the season told me I can play, but I needed to focus on my body. They said if you can drop some pounds, you may have the chance to play more, because your body can handle that. So, I focused on that and came back at 206 pounds. I dropped 20 pounds just working and putting in some strength in my body. I think that impressed the team more to give me the opportunity, because they saw that I was able to do it.

 

Everybody’s goal is to get to the major leagues. What do you see as your path to get there?

Valencia: Baseball is not about skills or about how many tools you have, it’s about your mentality of what you can do in the field. Mostly, for me as a catcher, it’s how you handle a game, how you call a game, how you can help the pitchers. Most of the catchers get to the big leagues as good catchers and then they’ll focus on their hitting. You have to be a plus catcher to get to the big leagues, so that is my focus every single day is to be the best catcher.

 

How’s your throwing?

Valencia: It’s been good. It’s getting better. I’ve been working with Sharnol and Chris Briones. At the beginning of the season I was working on some different things, but then it’s getting altogether and lately it’s been good.

 

When you go home in September and you go to winter, what’s a good year look like for you?

Valencia: First of all, finish up strong here and then go back to Venezuela and rest up a little bit and then have a good winter ball season. They gave me a chance last year to play and this year hopefully I get more of a chance to play there. Winter ball is a pretty tough league because you play with big league guys, but at the same time that’s good experience.

 

Do you see yourself coaching or managing some day?

Valencia: A hundred percent, I see myself coaching. I like baseball a lot. I don’t see myself out of those lines. I’ve doing this my entire life since I was three-years old. At some point at my life, I’ll be coaching and I really like managing. I see myself managing at some point.

 

Have you started to look ahead at those plans and talking to those guys and learning what they do?

Valencia: Not that much. What I do is, I see what they do. I don’t talk that much. I don’t go to them and ask them how they do it, but I see what they do. I’m not going to go to them and say, “Tell me how to coach.” I’m not at that point of my life right now. I want to play as long as I can, but at some point, obviously, in everybody’s career there is an end and that’s when I’ll start asking. But right now, all I see, from any coach and any team I go to, I will take something from them.

 

What catchers have you learned the most from?

Valencia: Robinson Chirinos. Since I got to the states in 2015 for my first spring training, he’s been there. I just listen to him and watch him and all that. This year, we had a meeting with him and Jonathan Lucroy and I starting learning more from them. Last year during winter ball, I learned a lot from Jesus Sucre – he’s the catcher from Tampa Bay – I learned a lot from him last year because he was the catcher for the winter ball team and I was his backup catcher. He taught me a lot how to call games and helped me a lot with pitch sequences. I learned a lot from him.

 

Looking ahead as a possible manager, who do you see yourself being like? Who has impressed you as a manger that you might be like?

Valencia: The one that impressed me the most in the big leagues is Jeff Banister. The way he treats the guys, the way he fights for the guys out on the field. I had the opportunity, he had a meeting in the Dominican a couple of years ago when he had his first year with the Rangers. He went to the Dominican and talked to us the same way he talked to the big league guys. That means a lot because he cares for everybody in the organization. It’s just the way he’s in the game. He’s managing, but at the same time it’s like he’s playing. He’s there for everybody and caring for everybody. He’s strong mentally and that impressed me a lot.

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