Kasey Kiker was selected 12th overall in the 2006 amateur draft out of nationally ranked powerhouse Russell County High School in Seale, Alabama. After quickly signing, Kiker was assigned to short-season Spokane in the Northwest League.
The Kasey Kiker era had begun.
Kiker logged just 52 innings with Spokane, but the results were very promising. Despite pitching against much older competition, Kiker still averaged just under a strikeout an inning while holding the more advanced hitters to a .232 batting average.
After starting the '07 season in extended spring training, Kiker made his full-season debut with the Clinton LumberKings of the Midwest League. Kiker was purposefully limited to only 20 starts, but he didn't disappoint. In just under 100 innings, Kiker showed why he was such a heralded prep star by compiling an ERA of only 2.90 while striking out 112 batters.
The highlight of the season came in a Midwest League playoff game that saw Kiker repeatedly flash a bat-breaking 97 mph heater to go along with a tight curve with 1-to-7 tilt and what Baseball America would later call the best change-up in the Rangers' farm system. Not bad for a 19-year-old in his first full season in professional baseball.
Along with his results on the field, Kiker was quickly gaining a reputation as a pitcher that didn't care much for hitters. He would let them know early and often, if need be, that the plate didn't belong to them. If you are standing on top of Kasey Kiker's plate, there is a better than average chance that your uniform is going to get a little dirty.
Kiker is a throwback. When he was drafted, he featured what Mike Hindman accurately described as an Eisenhower-era leg kick (which has since been altered) to go along with the bulldog mentality of a young Don Drysdale. Almost everything about his game was anachronistic.
After once again starting the year off in extended spring training, Kiker made his '08 debut for the Bakersfield Blaze in the hitter-friendly California league. Thanks to the breakthrough performances of pitchers like Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland, as well as the influx of high-ceiling draftees, Kiker's season has gone largely unnoticed. That's a shame. Kiker has more than held his own in a league where he is one of the youngest pitchers.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Kiker about his performance in the California league, as well as what teammate he thinks is the best pure pitcher. His answer is going to shock you.
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Q: What pitches do you throw?
A: Fastball, curveball, and a change-up.
Q: How do you grip your change-up? Do you throw a circle change-up?
A: No. I kind of throw it with a claw grip.
Q: Does that claw grip give you some splitter action?
A: Not really. It gives just the regular change-up action. It has some movement but nothing like a true splitter.
Q: Most pitchers coming out of high school have underdeveloped change-ups. How has your change-up progressed since you've been in the minors?
A: I think it's my best pitch right now. Just being in the Cal League now I feel like that pitch has been my savior, man. When I can get the count in my favor I can just dump it in there and it does the job. The change-up is the most important pitch to have in the Cal League.
Q: How have the rest of your pitches developed in your second full minor league season?
A: Everything is more consistent. I can keep the ball down in the strike zone. My command of all three pitches has improved.
Q: What has been the average velocity of your fastball this season?
A: Around 88-93 mph.
Q: What are some of the reasons why you have seen a dip in your velocity this season? Is the simple answer just fatigue?
A: Fatigue is an issue. I've also read that your sophomore season is often considered your hardest season. Honestly, I'm not really sure. I'm trying to figure it out as well. It definitely has dipped this year. I'm not worried about it though. It will come back.
Q: What adjustments have you made, if any, since coming back from the shoulder soreness that sidelined you for a few weeks last month?
A: Well, I've just really had to learn how to pitch all over again. Our manager D.B. [Damon Berryhill] and pitching coach Dave Chavarria have been trying to teach me how to pitch when I don't have that fastball. Now I'm learning to throw behind-in-the-count change-ups and sometimes pitch backwards.
Q: Do you feel comfortable "pitching backwards"?
A: I feel comfortable. I did it for a while before I had a good fastball. In the 9th grade I used to be that crafty little lefty and then I got my velocity and could blow people away. I've kind of come back around to that.
Q: How has the curveball developed since you started "pitching backwards?"
A: It's more consistent now, but it's definitely my third pitch. I can stay on top of it and drop that thing in there for strikes, but it's not all the way there yet.
Q: Are you 100 percent healthy right now?
A: I'm okay. I don't know about 100 percent. I don't know anybody that is 100 percent in August. I would say that I'm okay.
Q: Was the shoulder soreness the result of a mechanical issue or was it just some routine arm fatigue?
A: Our trainers and staff got together and said it was just fatigue from throwing. Nothing to worry about.
Q: Speaking of mechanics, there have been several pitchers that have openly questioned some of the mechanical adjustments that the Rangers have instructed them to make. Do you feel comfortable with your mechanics, and would you ever voice a concern if you didn�t feel comfortable with an adjustment?
A: I would say something if I didn't feel comfortable. I feel good right now. I'm able to keep my fastball low and stay on top of the other stuff and keep it low as well. I feel comfortable throwing all three pitches. I feel good with my mechanics.
Q: Some have suggested that you profile better as a late-inning reliever rather than as a front-line starting pitcher. What are your thoughts about that?
A: I heard that too, it's just speculation. Whatever role the Rangers need me in is the role I will do.
Q: If you had a choice, would you rather stay as a starter?
A: If I had a choice I would want to remain as a starter. No question.
Q: Do you think you will be durable enough to sustain a full 200-plus innings workload at the higher levels?
A: I think I can. Everybody is different but I think I will be more durable the older I get. I just need to keep getting stronger.
Q: There is always debate about whether the heat in North Texas affects the quality of the pitching we can produce. Being from Alabama, do you think the heat will be an issue for you once you get to Texas?
A: I shouldn't have any heat-related issues. I played a game in high school when it was 110 degrees outside. The whole team in Bakersfield is used to the heat. Definitely no excuses out of me.
Q: You have quietly had an excellent season pitching in a very hitter-friendly league. Do you feel like you haven't received the attention you deserve?
A: No. I don't really care about that. I just need to work on improving my stuff, staying healthy, and logging my innings. Everything will be okay.
Q: Have you heard anything about a possible roster spot in the prospect-rich Arizona Fall League?
A: I haven't heard a word.
Q: It seems likely that you will start the '09 season at Double-A Frisco. What are some of the things you are hoping to accomplish at that level?
A: I don't know if I'm going to start there or back in High A. Wherever I go, I just want to break camp with a team. My goal is to be ready to go April 1st. The last few years I've had to wait back in extended [spring training]. My goal for next year is to break camp at 100 percent.
Q: Who is the best pitcher you have seen in the minors since you were drafted?
A: Clayton Kershaw. No question. He is amazing.
Q: What about a teammate?
A: I'd have to say Mike Ballard as far as a pure pitcher goes. He can just spot up like I have never seen. I played with him for two years and I don't think I've seen that man miss two spots in two years.
Q: What is it going to take for you to become a Major League pitcher? What pitch needs to improve the most?
A: It's a lot just to get there and even more if you want to stay there. I don't want to be just a cup of coffee guy. When I finally break in I want to stay there. I'm going to have to work a lot harder and keep my body in shape. The main thing is to be 100 percent for years to come. You have to be 100 percent for a lot of years to make that happen. You have to be focused. That's what it takes.
As far as what pitch needs to improve, I would say that every pitch could improve. I'm still learning.
Q: What do you think about the Rangers farm system? What�s it like to be a part of something like this?
A: This system is crazy right now. It's unbelievable. The pitchers are just amazing. We have like 15 potential Major League starters! That's a good problem to have. It's a very cool thing to be a part of. I'm honored.
Q: I heard you were a big college football fan. Auburn or Alabama?
A: Roll Tide all the way. All the way! 100 percent. I don't care if we lose every game; as long as we beat Auburn, it will be a good season.
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Nicely done, Kasey.
Special thanks to Bakersfield Blaze general manager Shawn Schoolcraft.