Monday, May 27, 2013

Down on the Farm: Thoughts on Mike Kickham

It's always an exciting time for prospect watchers when a prospect gets called up to the majors, none more so than when it is a starting pitcher.  There's no easing into it with mop up duties or batting 7'th in the lineup.  When you are the starting pitcher for a game, you are to focal point and there is not hiding.  Yesterday, we got word from Bruce Bochy that the Giants were calling up prospect Mike Kickham to start Tuesday's game against the A's in Oakland.  What can we expect from him?  Let's go back and take a look at his history in the Giants organization.

Kickham is a big lefthander, 6'4", 205 lbs.  His scouting report has him hitting up to 94 MPH with his fastball on the radar gun.  He also has a sharp breaking ball.  No word on a changeup.  With that size and velocity, he clearly has the tools to pitch in the major leagues.

Kickham was drafted in round 5 of the 2010 amateur draft out of Missouri State.  He had pitched just 1 year there after transferring from JC ball.   His W-L and ERA were unimpressive at 4-9 and 5.25, but he had a fine K/9 of 9.66 with a BB/9 of 2.81.  He appeared briefly with the AZL Giants after the draft throwing just 2.1 IP.

His first full pro season was at Low A Augusta in 2011 where once again his W-L and ERA were unimpressive at 5-10 and 4.11, but his K/9 was a much better 8.30 with a decent BB/9 of 2.98.  His performance got stronger as the season progressed and he finished with a flourish.

The Giants were sufficiently impressed that they promoted him to AA Richmond for the 2012 season, skipping high A San Jose.  Kickham had trouble with his control early in the season and ended up with a line of 11-10, 3.05, 150.2 IP, 75 BB, 137 K's for a K/9 of 8.18 and a BB/9 of 4.48.  He again got stronger as the season progressed and cut his walk rate down in the second half.

In spring training of 2013, the Giants were concerned about their pitching depth and scheduled a special game to get an extra look at Kickham and Chris Heston who they considered to be the two pitching prospects most likely to be ready to help if the need arose in season.  We do not know how they graded out, but the Giants did not make any moves to acquire starting pitching at the end of spring training.

Kickham was assigned to AAA Fresno and got off to a rough start, but has pitched much better in his last 5 games.  His overall line is 3-4, 4.33, 54 IP, 22 BB, 54 K's with a GO/AO= 1.77.  BTW, his GO/AO was 1.46 in 2011 and 1.61 in 2012.  That it would improve in the PCL where a lot of the parks are in thin, dry air is a positive.  Over his last 5 starts for Fresno his line reads 3-1, 1.73, 31.1 IP, 9 BB, 29 K's, GO/AO= 2.00.

The PCL is a very tough league to pitch in.  Success there tranlates to the majors much better for pitchers than hitters.  Kickham has a nice combination of size, velocity, K rates and groundball tendency that should also be successful in the majors.  His one big question mark is command and control.  He has struggled with this with each transition, but has eventually settled in and pitched well once he got comfortable with the level.

The natural nervousness and excitement of pitching in your first MLB game generally has it's biggest impact on command and control, so it would come as no surprise if Kickham struggles with that in his debut.  Ideally, you would want a prospect like him to consolidate his recent success at the AAA level and make his MLB debut under less stressful circumstances with a September callup.  Vogelsong's injury forced the Giants to not give Kickham that luxury and he's getting thrown into the fire.  The other side of the argument is that if you have a prospect who has a hot hand at AAA, maybe it will carry over into his MLB debut and give him a confidence boost.  As Brian Sabean likes to say, maybe the Giants catch lightning in a bottle.


  1. Kickham gets called up before Zack Wheeler...

    Mets fans, hopeful in their 18-29 team, turn bitter and call for Sandy Alderson's head

    Funny, who has better PCL numbers, Kickham

    I think Bobby Evans is right and it is a little early for Kickham

    I think this is Bochy's call, as Gaudin is too valuable as a safety net with Casilla out and Timmy/Zito/Cain all having short starts recently.

    1. In Wheeler's defense, Las Vegas is one of the toughest parks for pitchers in a PCL that is famous for tough parks for pitchers. Wheels is another guy whose command/control has to catch up to his stuff. I think he's a potential future ace, but the Mets will need to be patient with him, something that organization and those fans are not known for.

    2. Wheeler needs a Tidrow.

      I remember one year, Bumgarner was struggling in his first few starts in Fresno, and fans were wondering what had happened to the top prospect and about his loss of velocity. Then Tidrow went down and things turned out pretty well after that.

    3. I don't think it is a matter of needing a Tidrow now. It is passed that now. Tidrow had his shot and the Giants decided to cut bait and make Wheeler available in trade.

      With the Giants and Tidrow, they were trying to change Wheeler's mechanics, presumably because they foresaw future injury problems and he could never adjust (I would also note that they did the same with Bumgarner but gave in after 3 starts, allowing him to return to his former mechanincs, and eventually gave him a long-term contract, indicating lesser concern of future injury, whereas they kept at changing Wheeler the whole time he was a Giant). The Mets returned him to his high school mechanics and his performance instantly improved, but then there is that issue with mechanics and injury that presumably the Giants were trying to fix and avoid. So who is right?

      It looked like the Mets were right with his success up to now, but now that is in question. I think Wheeler's clavicle soreness, which indicates a problem with his shoulder, earlier this month could be a sign that whatever the Giants were trying to fix is starting to manifest itself physically.

      It has to be disconcerting that a 22 YO pitcher with no history of shoulder problems nor any injury or incidence to suggest such a soreness suddenly experiences soreness so early in the season, roughly six weeks had passed when he reported the issue. That was the Sophie's Choice there, do we let him to be the ace his skills show, but at risk of injury, or do we keep at him to change his mechanics, so you might have a healthy pitcher, but not one who was of much good while doing that. Of course, sometimes there is an issue and it works itself out and everything is fine (see Cain and his various elbow issues), so we don't know yet where Wheeler is, the story is yet to unfold.

      He has returned and I believe he has done well, so right now, the Mets appear to correct. But that clavicle soreness is a warning smoke signal that will be watched now, for future recurrence.

      About Gaudin, it appears he has moved up in the hierarchy, he will be helping out in place of Casilla now, as a set up guy, paired up with Affeldt. I think Machi is in the mix as well. Meanwhile, Mijares and Kontos will be our middle relievers and soaking up more of the innings when the starters are hooked early.

      I still like Kontos a lot. His K/BB is still excellent and he gives up less hits than IP, which is good too, plus don't walk too much. Given that he is a reliever, I think it is a matter of small samples killing his seasonal numbers. If you cut out his early issues, in the 22 games since, he has a 3.86 ERA in 21.0 IP with 20 K and only 7 BB, much closer to his numbers last season. I liked that trade and still think we got a steal, as much as I liked Stewart and his abilities. I think he will be fine once the season ends and we look at his overall numbers.

  2. Kickham was a sneaky bonus guy, the Giants went overslot. I think his fastball is very underrated. Is it just a mph or two tic below what gets huge hype? A lefty throwing 95 gets huge noise. He's got 4 pitches, decent control, this is going to be scary and fun! I think the key is to try and get bad contact off the fastball and not get too cute early. The moneyball A's have changed their tune some but they might have a force him to throw strikes take it approach. So throw strikes!

    1. Kickham needs to throw strikes, that's for sure.

    2. Yeah, I was surprised when we picked him up, I thought that a low 90's LHP could still be pretty good and yet he fell to us there. BA says that his potential is as a #3 starter, which would be good for us, as we could be needing one soon, plus if our other high-end prospects reach top of rotation status, he could be like Zito, one of the best back of rotation starters in the majors.

      However, while I like his potential, I have set my expectations low for this start, it is rare the prospect who comes up and pitches well in his first MLB start. Hopefully he will be the exception, but as Schulman pointed out, even our best - Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner - had bad first starts before settling down. In fact, it might be better if he did do poorly, the history of starters who did well, Laskey, Sadowski, is not good.

  3. Any word on the corresponding 25 and 40 moves for Kick?

    I would guess Rosario is the 25, but about the 40? Voges or KCya to 60? Abreu DFA?

    1. Probably Surkamp goes to the 60 day DL.

  4. Its an exciting time when a young pitching prospect like Kickham gets an opportunity to make his major league debut because he gets to show the Giants and other clubs what he can do.. You never know what this might lead to. I remember back in 1989 the Giants called up a young LHP Dennis Cook to make a spot start.. The Phils were impressed enough that he ended up being part of the Steve Bedrosian trade that also included another young LHP Terry Mulholland. I mention this because the Giants are in the win now mode like that 89 team which won the NL Pennant.


    1. Given our lack of depth in the starting ranks for a couple of years, until the groups in A-ball start making noise in the upper minors, I doubt that the Giants will be shipping Kickham out in trade this season, that would surprise me a lot.

      A better bet would be trading some of the guys in A-ball (San Jose or Augusta) to get that grizzled vet that Sabean and Bochy likes for the pennant run.

      But good memory, I was bummed about that trade, I liked both Mulholland and Cook and they always seemed to pitch their best against us after that. Losing them was probably part of the reason we had that fallow period after 1989 until 1993.