We close out our S2S South Atlantic League All-Stars with a pitcher that encapsulates what the Sally League is all about: Rangers right-handed pitching prospect Cody Buckel. Buckel’s combination of stuff, polish, and competitiveness make him the perfect ace of our SAL All-Star pitching staff. And like so many of these top South Atlantic League top prospects, Buckel’s future is bright.
Name: Cody Buckel
Age: Turns 20 in June
2011 Teams: Hickory Crawdads (TEX)
Basic Pitching Stats: 8-3 record, 2.61 ERA, 120 strikeouts (11.2 K/9), 27 walks (2.5 BB/9), 7 homers allowed (0.7 HR/9), and 2 games finished in 17 starts, 6 relief appearances, and 96.2 IP
Buckel was a 2nd round pick by the Rangers in the 2010 MLB Draft out of Simi Valley High School in California, and the Rangers gave him a $590,000 bonus to bypass a commitment to Pepperdine University and go pro. He signed just early enough to get into some games before the 2010 season was over, and in those games he threw 4 electrifying relief appearances spanning 5 IP for the Rookie-level Arizona League Rangers, not allowing a run as he struck out 9 and allowed just 2 hits and 1 walk. The Rangers decided to start him in extended spring training in 2011 and then had him work out of the bullpen when he first arrived at Low-A Hickory, but after he was sufficiently stretched out, they moved him to the rotation and the results could not have been better.
Cody Buckel looks nothing like a high school arm when he’s on the mound. He lacks the projection that you see from most high school pitchers. He was drafted at 6’0″, 170 and he has since filled out to 183 pounds. He has shown the type of velocity that you want to see as he has touched 94 MPH with his fastball, but more often he works in the 90-92 MPH range with nice movement away from right-handed batters along with average sink. Buckel does throw a curveball with some nice movement, but unlike most high school arms, it isn’t his best secondary pitch. That recognition goes to his changeup, which has an 8-10 MPH difference in velocity compared to his fastball and features additional downward movement. His curveball is a big 11-to-5 offering that’s a solid pitch but gets loopy at times. Buckel tops off his arsenal was another pitch that an anomaly for high school pitchers, a mid-80’s cutter with straight downward movement that he mixes in to force groundballs. Buckel has excellent control and command of his pitches and overall he’s extremely polished for a pitcher coming out of high school. Another positive for Buckel is his maturity as a person and his great competitive spirit, which helps him get the most out of his abilities. In 2011 in the Sally League, Buckel used his arsenal in addition to his great polish to dominate opposing hitters.
Among Sally League pitchers who threw a minimum of 90 innings, Buckel was 4th in ERA at 2.61 but first in K/9 (11.2), FIP (2.53), and according to Minor League Central, SIERA (2.48). MLC tells us that hitters weren’t fooled by Buckel’s pitch selection, swinging at 88.9% of pitches he threw within the strike zone compared to the 89.4% league average, and actually swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone than average, 19.3% compared to 24.6%. But they simply could not make contact, connecting on 49.5% of their swings against him compared to the 59.2% league average, the second best mark in the SAL among pitchers who threw a minimum of 90 IP, trailing only our number two starter on our S2S Sally League All-Star team, Taylor Whitenton. They made contact on only 49.6% of the pitches he threw in the strike zone despite the fact that he threw 78.2% of his pitches in the zone compared to the 68.7% league average. The fact that hitters had so much trouble making contact on Buckel’s pitches even though they were pretty good at recognizing them is a testament to just how good his changeup was. Its movement was relatively similar to his fastball’s, trading some horizontal movement away from righty batters for some sink, but hitters had a lot of trouble distinguishing them, missing on his changeup even when it was a strike because of the change in velocity and movement, although most of the time when his fastball would have been outside the zone, the changeup’s similar movement would have made it end up outside the strike zone as well.
When hitters did make contact against Buckel, he didn’t seem to do such a good job limiting the damage as he allowed a .125 ISO, just below the league average of .132. Buckel actually posted a 44.7% groundball rate compared to the 42.6% Sally League average, and a 0.80 groundball to flyball ratio (counting line drives as flyballs) compared to the .75 average, but he was hit relatively hard. He allowed a 17.2% line drive percentage compared to the 16.4% league average, but hitting line drives is somewhat out of the control of pitchers since hitters have to make just about perfect contact on the barrel of the bat to hit a line drive and pitchers can’t control how often they do that. That line drive rate isn’t a cause for concern and it wouldn’t surprise me if Buckel was better than league average in that regard in 2012. (As long as he stays close to the league average anyway, his strikeout and walk rates will continue to make him a fine pitcher.)
What was a good sign for Buckel was that in terms of straight flyballs (taking line drives out), Buckel allowed fewer than average, 32.4% of his batted balls compared to 36.4%, and even though he may have been somewhat lucky that 9.0% of his batted balls were pop-ups as opposed to the 7.2% league average (remember that a pop-up is a centimeter or two on the bat away from being a hard-hit flyball to the outfield), it was good that he prevented hitters from hitting too many flyballs against him. Strangely though, when hitters did hit flyballs to the outfield, 12.3% of those outfield flyballs went for home runs compared to the 9.1% league average. Accordingly, if we plug in only flyballs to the outfield for the xFIP formula, Buckel’s xFIP comes in at a crazy 2.35. However, factoring in that he was lucky on pop-ups, when we count pop-ups as flyballs that mark jumps up to 2.64, a tick above his 2.61 ERA. Overall, Buckel is a slight groundball pitcher but somewhat susceptible to home runs going forward because his bread-and-butter pitch, his fastball, doesn’t have much sink. His changeup acts as more of a swing-and-miss pitch that a pitch that forces a lot of groundballs. We’ll have to see if the Rangers try to make Buckel use his cutter more often in an attempt to fix that.
Cody Buckel had an incredible season in 2011, combining great control with an excellent strikeout rate, and even though there were a couple of minor problems, there was a lot for Buckel and the Rangers organization to be proud of.
Buckel doesn’t have the stuff to be an ace, but especially if he can improve his cutter and work it into his arsenal more, which would allow him to force a nice amount of groundballs, he can be a nice number three starter or even possibly a number two because of his nice fastball and excellent changeup. Buckel reminds me of a pitcher with a similar build, Ian Kennedy, and he actually has better velocity on his fastball (although not the dynamic movement as of now) and just about as good of a changeup as Kennedy, although his curveball trails far behind Kennedy’s above-average curveball. Interestingly though, Kennedy’s curveball took quite a while to become the great pitch it is now, and we’ll see if Buckel’s curve can make a similar leap. Buckel had an excellent season in his first full year as a professional, and he has the ability to build on it and become an even better pitcher. Buckel will look to keep improving as he heads to the High-A level in a season where he won’t turn 20 years old until mid-June.
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