August 3, 2012 at 10:26 AM
Of all the responsibilities of a minor-league pitching coach, Salem’s Kevin Walker and Portland’s Bob Kipper are uniquely qualified to carry out one of the hardest: selling a young starting pitcher on a move to the bullpen.
“I think that’s human nature to kind of feel (like it’s negative), like you’re relegated to an insignificant role,” Kipper said. “But when it comes right down to it, pitching is pitching… I can speak to this very well in the sense that I made a conversion from a guy who was a starting pitcher to a guy who found a knack for coming out of the bullpen.”
Kipper was selected eighth overall by the California Angels in the 1982 MLB Draft, and reached the major leagues as a 20-year-old starter in 1985. He was traded to the Pirates after two appearances with the Angels, and started there for two seasons before he was moved to the bullpen. Looking back, Kipper said it helped for a number of reasons.
“I was a guy who came to the ballpark mentally ready to pitch every day because I had to,” he said. “That helped. I didn’t have the four days in between to allow my mind to wander. That’s a personal experience of my own, and maybe some guys are more geared to that type of role because of the mentality on a day-to-day basis that you need to have.” Kipper ended his big-league career with a 15-16 mark, a 3.59 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 226 relief appearances.
While Kipper’s transition extended his playing career, Walker’s was responsible for him making it to the big leagues in the first place. Walker, a sixth-round pick of the Padres in 1995, started for four seasons in San Diego’s system, but said he had a “tough time developing that third pitch.” In 1999, his second stint with High A Rancho Cucamonga, Walker moved to the bullpen, and after four relief appearances the following year in Double-A, Walker was called up to the majors.
“Once I turned into a reliever, everything kind of clicked and I went fast,” he said. “Hopefully this works for some of these guys, but for me, that was my niche.” After making 70 appearances in 2000, Walker pitched in the bigs for parts of the next five seasons before bouncing around Triple-A, trying to catch on somewhere in 2006 and 2007.
“Relieving was easier for me because I could go out and throw, because if it was a good game, great,” Walker said. “And if it was a tough game, forget it, because I was going to be in there the next night.”
For Walker, that fateful conversation with a young pitcher is different with each player.
“For some guys, it’s a relief,” he said. “Some guys’ personalities, the way they go about the game, they’re better suited for a bullpen role. A guy that has good stuff, maybe a hard fastball, a hard slider, but hasn’t developed that third pitch yet, maybe he’s better suited to face that lineup one time rather than two. Sometimes, it’s a better path to the big leagues, too.”
Both Walker and Kipper have had the bullpen conversion conversation this season, most recently between Walker and Ryan Pressly in Salem. Pressly had a 5.95 ERA in 13 games before moving to the bullpen in mid-June, and though a 0.1-inning, five-run effort on July 1 ballooned his ERA as a reliever with Salem, Pressly was called up to Double-A Portland on July 15. In 12.0 innings of relief so far for Portland, Pressly has a 3.75 ERA and has held opponents scoreless in half of his six appearances.
“He’s had three or four years of starting, and I think with his mentality and his stuff right now, his aggressive nature, I think he is better suited for the bullpen,” Walker said. “He has a good fastball and a good breaking ball, and to have those two things is a must in the reliever role.”
In Portland, Pressly joins Chris Balcom-Miller and Brock Huntzinger as new-comers to their 'pen roles. Balcom-Miller’s first relief appearance came on June 19, and he said it was revealed during the conversation that the organization had been planning to make the move at some point.
“We decided to get a head start right now, so I was alright with it,” he said. “They said it wasn’t because of my performance. They made sure to let me know it wasn’t a performance issue.”
Since his move, Portland has dealt with a shortage of arms, meaning Balcom-Miller threw starter-like innings twice in early July. His ERA in 11 appearances out of the bullpen is 3.21, and he’s allows just one run in his last four appearances spanning 8.2 innings.
But save for Pawtucket reliever Alex Wilson, whose move to the pen was made out of a perceived major-league need that never materialized, the strongest results of anyone who made the switch this year belong to Huntzinger. The right-hander scuffled in four starts to begin the season, but moved to the pen and has posted a 2.72 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP in 46.1 relief innings. Boston named him the minor league pitcher of the month for June.
“Brock Huntzinger is a guy who has seen his stuff spike,” Kipper said. “He was a guy who went from upper 80s and low 90s to touching 96 (mph), but it comes down to his ability to angle or leverage that baseball. He developed a legitimate slider, and he’s always had pretty good feel for a changeup. I think he’s getting comfortable in his new role right now as a guy coming out of the bullpen.”
Photo Credits: Bob Kipper and Ryan Pressly by Kelly O'Connor
Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.