Few stories in professional baseball this season have been as confounding as that of right handed pitcher Cody Buckel.
A former second-round pick of the Texas Rangers, Buckel has excelled as a professional prior to this season. Despite his smaller frame, Buckel has used polished mechanics and a mature approach to pitching to outperform what most scouts and talent evaluators refer to as average stuff. He doesn’t throw especially hard, working at 91-93 with his fastball, coupled with a big curveball that was learned from Barry Zito.
Buckel has dominated the lower levels of the minor leagues since joining the ranks of professionals in 2010. Buckel has pitched to a stellar 2.53 ERA across a sample of 240-plus innings spanning three levels coming into 2013. In that time, he’s struck out 288 hitters while walking just 76.
To say the future seemed bright would be a tremendous understatement.
Accolades followed for Buckel. Suddenly, he began appearing on top prospect lists, and not just those organizational top-20s. Buckel was rated number 87 by Baseball America during the off-season and making our list at number 96. Those rankings were a product of his great success, of course, but also were made with some level of trepidation as questions about his arsenal persisted.
The concern was that Buckel would struggle to miss bats as the competition got more advanced and would wind up yielding far too many hits and runs. Instead, Buckel has struggled much more with finding the strike zone than he has with anything else; a development no one saw coming.
The season began for Buckel at Double-A Frisco, the same place he ended the 2012 campaign. Right out of the gate, he struggled. He didn’t make it out of the third inning and allowed seven earned runs. The biggest problem was the five walks allowed. It was the beginning of a troubling trend.
Over the next three starts, Buckel continued to, well, struggle isn’t even the word for it. The outings got shorter, the pitch counts higher, the walk totals higher still. It’s a list of stat lines that are reminiscent of what happened to the likes of Rick Ankiel (when he pitched) and Dontrelle Willis.
1.2 innings, O hits, but two earned runs on six walks and a hit batsman. Another 1.2 inning start in which he posted five walks and one hit, a home run. That was followed by a three inning start that saw six walks. But rock bottom came back on April 27 when Buckel failed to record a single out. He faced six batters. He gave up one hit, but walked three and hit two others.
On May 1, the Rangers opted to shift Buckel to relief work. It didn’t help.
In his first relief appearance of the year, Buckel retired just one of the five hitters he faced. He walked three, allowed a hit and was charged with three earned runs. A fifth loss in six appearances was hung on his neck. Buckel has a ghastly 20.25 ERA in 9.1 innings this season. He’s struck out nine in that time. He’s walked 28.
To put that number in perspective, Buckel worked over 96 innings for Class-A Hickory in 2011 and walked 27 for the entire season.
This is normally the area of the post where I might make some judgements about the player, offer a projection or even just an opinion of their performance. In a case like this, though, I have as many answers as the Texas Rangers and their minor league staff does, which is none. What has happened to Buckel is sad and perplexing. This is not a guy who had struggled with control problems before and suddenly it seems he couldn’t throw a strike if his life depended on it. Your heart just breaks for the guy.
It must be a helpless feeling to be in such a strange place on the mound, here’s hoping Buckel can figure it out somehow. But I’m not optimistic.