Willy Kesler is probably not a name most of you are familiar with yet unless you follow the lower minors. The Mariners selected the pitcher in the 18th round of last year's draft out of the University of New Mexico. You don't expect much from 18th round picks. Rather, you shouldn't. I have no idea if you do or not. The last one to reach the Majors was, coincidentally enough, Kameron Mickolio whom the Mariners took in 2006. Kesler was kind enough to answer some questions for me as part of this post.
Lookout Landing: You used to play outfield as well back in high school right? When did you switch full time to pitching?
Willy Kesler: I stopped playing the outfield in high school. I actually used to catch more in high school than any other position. I stopped playing other positions and hitting after my sophomore year in college. When I got to University of New Mexico [Ed. Note: Kesler transferred to UNM from Lamar CC] I was pitching only.
LL: You grew up in Colorado. Did that present any difficulties getting playing time in?
WK: The weather in Colorado was tough. I played in snow many times.
After being drafted, Kesler didn't dawdle in signing and spent the 2010 season pitching for the Aquasox of Everett where he acquitted himself well. He posted a solid 3:1 strikeout to walk rate and allowed nary a single home run over 30.2 innings and 19 appearances. However, a starter in college, Kesler was working out of the bullpen in Everett so given that context; the numbers there are more satisfactory than outstanding. I asked him about the different role.
LL: You were a starter in college but the organization has used you out of the bullpen. Still, you are typically throwing multi-inning outings. Are you satisfied with that or do you still want to return to starting in the future?
WK: So far, in my career I have been used more for long relief. I would love to start again, but in all honesty, if I'm getting into the game and getting the chance to help the team win either as a starter or relief, I'm happy.
LL: Fans generally understand how starters work through their routines, but how does that work with relievers? When do you find time to do side bullpen work or long toss or any of those things?
WK: That's kind of tough to do as a player. Some days I throw a side and then pitch in that game later that night. The bullpens just aren't as long.
Willy began this season still in the bullpen and now with A-ball Clinton, but did not last long in the Midwest League thanks to a dominating run of performance. Over 69 batters faced, Kesler punched out 16 and continued being stingy with the home runs, finally allowing his first as professional. What caught my eye though were the walks. That number was zero, giving him an enviable strikeout to walk ratio of infinity. That earned Kesler a promotion up to the dauntingly cozy confines and thin air of High Desert marking his third stop. I asked him about the promotions.
LL: How has the transition been so far from Everett to Clinton to High Desert in such a short time frame?
WK: The transition has been pretty easy, it's still the game of baseball and I still have to get guys out and help the team.
LL: Have you caught up with any of the other Lobos alums like [Jon] Hesketh or [Bobby] LaFromboise as you've moved around?
WK: I was able to hang out with both of them in spring training this year so that was pretty nice!
LL: Moving between three different teams in such quick succession brings you into contact with different pitching coaches. How consistent has the teaching philosophy been for you? What kind of role do the pitching (or other) coaches play for you?
WK: Everett and Clinton were the same pitching coach, so that was nice. Rich Dorman (Clinton's pitching coach) is a great coach and he helped me out a lot in Everett and Clinton. Both pitching coaches are very good and have the same concept, throw strikes. They don't care how you do it as long as you do.
LL: High Desert has to be an intimidating place to pitch at given the number of home runs allowed there. Does that get into player's minds? Do you plan around the park or prefer to stick to your strengths?
WK: Pitching in High Desert is tough, but it will just make me become a better pitcher by being down in the zone more. I try not to let it get in my head, because the hitter still has to make the contact on the ball. I just stick to my strengths. I love pitching in to guys. I'm really comfortable with that.
LL: What can you tell us about your current pitch selections? I've read that you use a curve, a change, a four-seam and sometimes a two-seam as well. You've been phenomenal this year at getting ground balls off hitters. Is that due to any pitch specifically that you try to get hitters to pound into the ground?
WK: Yes, I throw all of those pitches. I have been using the two-seam a lot more this year and that has helped get more groundballs. What has helped me the most this year is getting a better downward angle with my ball and keeping the ball lower at the hitters' knees. Then just let them pound the ball into the ground.
While the walk less streak ended immediately with the promotion, Kesler still has solid rates, especially when you factor in the park's effects and that six of his seven appearances so far in High-A have been at home in High Desert.
Pitching in Clinton and High Desert also means that I get to see batted ball numbers. In Clinton, in a league and team where the average ground ball rate is 47%, Kelser's was 62%. Granted it was over very few batted balls, but it backs up the no home runs in Everett and the ground balls have continued onto High Desert where it stands at 66%.
Though still pitching in relief, Kesler is not the single-inning outing type having tossed 60 innings in his 34 appearances. His experience as a starter in college indicates that he probably still has the endurance to stretch back out should the organization desire it or possibly settle into the sort of usage pattern that the Mariners are currently employing with David Pauley. Kesler is not yet knocking on the door of a trip to Seattle of course, but bullpen guys can move quickly through the system and anyone with such a potent mix of strikeouts, control and ground balls is worth paying attention to. Lastly, I asked him for an outlook on the rest of his 2011 season.
LL: Do you have any immediate goals for yourself? Stuff you want to either achieve or improve on this season? You've certainly had great success early so far this season. Does that make it difficult at all to get feedback on what you need to work on to become successful in the Majors?
WK: My goal is just to continue to get better as the year goes on. I want to get my change-up more consistent. Even though I have done well there is still a lot to learn from. Especially being that I haven't been perfect, there are many things to work on to make my mechanics more consistent as well.
Tremendous thanks to Willy Kesler for taking the time to answer questions from some random person on the internet and you all should totally go follow him on Twitter and be nice.