Kentucky Kyles Come Back To Improve Stock

Kyle Funkhouser
Kyle Funkhouser (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

David Olmedo-Barrera's deep drive scraped the left-field foul pole in the top of the 11th, and all Kyle Funkhouser could do was sit in his home dugout and watch.

This was draft night. In another world, at another time, maybe Funkhouser would've been dressed in a suit somewhere, surrounded by loved ones, waiting for his name to be called. Maybe he would've walked across a stage.

The only stage Funkhouser had on June 8, 2015 was the field at Jim Patterson Stadium—Game Three of the Louisville Super Regional. The junior righthander, who had started Game One, thought this would be his last night at that field. He'd hoped Omaha would be his next, and final, career stop.

Instead, Funkhouser watched Cal State Fullerton celebrate a trip to the College World Series on his home turf. He would find out after the game that the Dodgers drafted him 35th overall—lower than predicted. It wasn't exactly bad news, but it also wasn't a consolation for what he just saw. That was going to be his last Louisville memory—the Titans throwing their caps in the air in front of 6,010 fans in stunned silence.

“It was quite bittersweet, especially at that time," Funkhouser said. “It was kind of a roller coaster night. It felt like we were in control of that game and kind of lost it late. We're winning, and then that happens, and then the season's over, and that might be my last home game, and then I found out I was drafted."

It wasn't a done deal. Funkhouser made that clear to his coaches soon after he heard the draft results. He kept his teammates in the loop, asking them to keep him in mind in case he needed housing at Louisville in the fall.

On July 17, Funkhouser took to Twitter:

“Wanted to be the first to announce I will not be signing, and will return to the University of Louisville for my senior season."

He wasn't ready to leave. Not yet.

Different Kyle, Same Problem

Kyle Cody (Photo by Robert Gurganus)
Kyle Cody (Photo by Robert Gurganus)

About 80 miles away, in Lexington, was another power pitcher with a similar dilemma.

The Twins took Kentucky junior righthander Kyle Cody in the second round, 73rd overall last June. Like Funkhouser, that was lower than what had previously been forecasted.

Cody had struggled through a 4-4, 4.91 season in 2015, losing the life and command of his mid- to high-90s fastball and losing his place in the weekend rotation at one point. The pressure of his junior season, of the draft, weighed on the 6-foot-7, 245-pounder. He wasn't having fun anymore.

“I feel like one thing last year I did is, I was always reading up what people were saying and all the negative stuff I read about me," Cody said. “And that's not important at all. I can only handle what I'm doing on the mound."

Eventually, Cody snapped out of his funk; he got back to enjoying the game. His last three starts of 2015 showcased what he can do at his very best—an eight-strikeout, three-run effort against Vanderbilt, taking a shutout into the ninth against Georgia, throwing seven scoreless, three-hit innings in the regular-season finale against Missouri.

None of that proved enough to mitigate his falling draft stock, but it did give Cody a jolt of confidence. He knew he could be better than what he was in 2015.

He knew he wasn't ready to leave. Not yet.

The Decision

“Why would you come back?"

Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell had to ask the question, not because he didn't want a fourth year of his Friday starter—of course he did—but he had to make sure Funkhouser was returning for the right reasons.

Not signing meant turning down at least a $1.7 million bonus; it meant putting his MLB dreams on hold. Why would he come back?

“The first thing he said is, 'I want to get my degree,'" McDonnell said. “And No. 2, 'I know I can get better.' And for me, that was a biggie.

“I'm going to get these guys their degree, whether they sign as a junior or not. We're going to get them back; we're going to stay on them. For me it was, 'Do you really think you can get better?' And he was adamant."

Much like Cody, Funkhouser found himself unsatisfied with his 2015 season. He's been a workhorse in his college career, routinely pitching deep into games. Taking into account summers in the Cape Cod League and with Team USA's Collegiate National Team, Funkhouser threw 329 innings from 2013-2015.

But he hit a wall in mid-April last year. Those innings caught up to him. Typically sitting 91-94 mph with room to rear back for more, Funkhouser saw his velocity dip. His breaking pitches lost some bite. From April 17 to May 25, his ERA ballooned from 1.96 to 3.29.

It was bad timing. Once viewed as a top pick, Funkhouser slipped to the supplemental round. He was the Dodgers' second pick, behind Vanderbilt righthander Walker Buehler. Even still, no Louisville player had ever been drafted higher. Walking away wasn't easy. Funkhouser said it was the most difficult choice he's had to make in his life.

“The draft's a mystery," he said. “It never quite works how you think it's going to—positively or negatively for some people . . .

“But it is what it is. I'm not disappointed with the Dodgers or with myself. It's in the past now. It's over."

Funkhouser was the highest-drafted player not to sign; Cody, the fourth-highest. How much room do they have to improve? How high can they jump in one year?

There's recent precedent. Most notably, righthander Mark Appel opted not to sign with the Pirates as the eighth overall pick in 2012, returning to Stanford for his senior season, then signing for $6,350,000 with the Astros as the No. 1 pick in 2013.

Before Cody, Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson has had a number of junior draftees return to the program.

“And it's been a really positive thing for all of them, whether it's (Collin) Cowgill or (Andrew) Albers," Henderson said. “It ended up being a positive thing for (Chris) Rusin. You're talking about three big leaguers. They've all improved themselves here. And so we've got a track record of kids coming back and having it be better for them."

It would have to be better. Otherwise, why would you come back?

One More Shot

There's no denying the value of playing for Team USA or in the Cape Cod League or in any number of summer collegiate leagues. Sometimes, though, there can also be value in spending a month or two away from the game.

“Having the summer off really helped me with my arm first of all—my arm felt better than ever this fall," Cody said. “And definitely in my head, too, I got to really sit back and really review the season in a not-so-emotional state, and I feel like that really helped me just looking back at all those starts and how much different of a pitcher I am now than I was then."

Both Cody and Henderson said the pitcher seems to be in a better place now physically and mentally. Cody said he's excited about the development of his curveball, which he's been throwing harder, off of his fastball. He's been landing it more for strikes, too, something he struggled with a year ago.

Looking back at last season, Cody realized he wasn't the leader he could've been. He remembers how much he learned from A.J. Reed, now the No. 1 Astros prospect, while he was in school. Since Cody made his decision to stay, he's tried to spend more time with the freshmen, to get inside their heads more and guide them. He's excited about his team's potential, ranked No. 25 to start the season.

“This year, I think we've mentioned Omaha 10 times as much as we have in the last three years," Cody said. “There's just a feeling on this team."

There's a similar feeling 80 miles west, where No. 2 Louisville looks every bit like a national title contender.

Last year, the Cardinals just barely missed their third trip to Omaha in three years. And that's something Funkhouser takes personally. There's a sense of unfinished business.

“We ended the year on a bad note, falling short of what our expectations were," Funkhouser said. “I didn't have the best year, didn't follow up my sophomore year with a great year, and that kind of left a bad taste in my mouth, as well. If I would've pitched better at times, then maybe there would've been a different outlook on the season."

Like Cody, Funkhouser used his summer to reflect. He came to the realization that maybe he pushed himself too hard early on last season. When his coaches would ask if he was good to keep going after 85 pitches, he'd always say yes, even if the score was 7-2.

“That's more on me than it is the coaches," he said. “I have to know my body better."

He sat down with pitching coach Roger Williams after his decision and formulated a game plan—a road map for getting better. There's still work to do on Funkhouser's command—he walked 3.60 per nine last year. He continues to tweak his curve, slider and change. In some ways, Funkhouser's struggles last season were a blessing because they forced him to use those pitches more, he said.

From a mental perspective, Funkhouser is more at ease with the draft microscope. Late last year, he said the draft was all his family and friends were talking about. He couldn't get away from it. Now, he said he knows what to expect, and he's tried to prepare All-American outfielder Corey Ray—a likely first-rounder—for the experience.

“I tell him just to play his game," Funkhouser said. “You can't really control what they think about you. You could be playing well and a team could still think something negative about you and vice versa."

Only time will tell whether the decision to stay will pay off from a draft standpoint. But certainly, Funkhouser will get his marketing degree—he's nine credit hours away. And certainly, he'll have the chance to wipe away the sour taste from last year.

“Hopefully we can look back and say, 'Hey, that was a great decision from Kyle to come back, from a health standpoint mentally and physically to do that,'" McDonnell said.

“He's a smart kid . . . He saw the talent we had. In his eyes, (he saw) one more shot to go to Omaha and win a national championship."

Even more, he saw the chance to write a better ending.

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