March 25, 2014 at 6:00 AM
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Cody Kukuk flashed both great promise and rawness in 2013, his first full season in the minors. The left-hander showed plus raw stuff and limited contact well, striking out 113 hitters in 107 innings while allowing just 6.5 hits per nine innings, fourth-lowest among all Red Sox minor league pitchers who tossed at least 80 innings. However, the positives were overshadowed to some degree by the massive 89 walks he allowed.
But having yet to give up a walk in game action this spring, it’s safe to say Kukuk’s offseason focus is paying dividends to this point.
“Just a young kid out of high school with some wrinkles in his mechanics,” Greenville pitching coach Paul Abbott said of Kukuk’s walk troubles in Low A last season. “We’ve worked hard on ironing them out and getting him into a position where he can repeat consistently. The second half last year, he started to get it, he got a lot better, and this spring training he hasn’t walked a guy yet.”
To Abbott’s point, in his 11 starts after July 1, Kukuk was able to lower his walk rate to 4.8 per nine, down from the almost a walk per inning rate he posted in the first half, at 8.9. He proved particularly prone to completely losing the strike zone—in four of his starts, three in the first half, he allowed six or more walks. He also had two consecutive starts in June in which he allowed five and three walks, respectively, while only going 2/3 of an inning in each. Following those two disaster starts, he moved to the bullpen for two piggyback appearances that seemed to key the turnaround of his season.
Both Abbott and the 6-foot-4 Kukuk cited refined mechanics as a key component of his strong spring. But they also viewed his 2013 as indicative of the natural growing pains of a young pitcher coming into his own.
“I think [the improved control this spring is due to] maybe a little bit of mechanics, but for the most part, just throwing everything with conviction: believing in the stuff that I have, and knowing that if I make my pitch then I’m going to be alright,” Kukuk said a day after going 4 1/3 scoreless innings in the High-A game on the back fields of JetBlue Park.
In that start against the Minnesota Twins' contingent on March 22, Kukuk mixed all three of his pitches effectively. Though he ended up going more than four innings, that was not the plan going into the start.
“I was supposed to only go four, but my pitch count was a little low, so I went another batter,” the 20-year-old lefty said. “It was a good problem to have.”
“Today he was outstanding. He’s been outstanding every game he’s pitched [this spring] and this was probably even better,” Abbott said following that most recent start. “[He] had a good live fastball, and he really commanded the strike zone with all three of his pitches. His maturity level too, as he’s getting older, just you can see the mound presence.”
Kukuk’s fastball sat 92-93 mph throughout the start, grabbing 94 a few times and scraping 95. His slider sat in the mid-80s in the outing, producing a few silly-looking whiffs, whereas his changeup was mostly in the low-80s. Both pitches flashed plus at times, but the key will be consistency.
“I feel really good with both of my off-speed pitches,” he said. “My changeup, I can throw it in an 0-0 count, 1-0 count, then I can also throw it in a 1-2 count to get guys out. I’m really happy with where my slider’s at right now. I didn’t expect it to be ready this early, but it’s very nice to have that. I’d say both the pitches are coming along very well.”
“Just across the board, he’s got plus stuff,” Abbott said. “He’s got a very live fastball that moves and shows you good velocity. He’s got a good slider, a little inconsistent at times. And he’s developed a really outstanding changeup that is an above-average changeup.”
Off of such a strong spring, Kukuk is likely to begin the season in the Salem rotation. This could be a pretty significant challenge, but if he can carry the success of this spring into the regular season, then Kukuk has a chance for a breakout campaign.
“Last year, I had no clue what it was going to be like going into it,” he said on the long season. “Now I have a really good idea of what I’m dealing with and I’m prepared for it, and I prepared in the offseason for it, so I’m ready to go.”
Photo credit: Cody Kukuk by Kelly O'Connor
Matt Huegel is Managing Editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP. SoxProspects.com Executive Editor Chris Hatfield also contributed reporting to this story.