PEORIA, Ariz.—After a truncated first professional season because of a season-ending injury, Orioles farmhand Branden Kline is logging innings in the Arizona Fall League, and working on a delivery that has changed significantly from his college days.
Kline, who was not a veteran of the showcase circuit as a high schooler from Frederick, Md., created draft buzz his senior spring (2009) because of his loose arm and athleticism, projectable body and fastball up to 93 mph. Articulate and intelligent, Kline was dedicated to his education and followed through on his commitment to Virginia, although he was drafted in the sixth round by the Red Sox.
Kline's delivery was remade once he got to Charlottesville. In high school, he struggled with his landing and front leg, which hampered his ability to consistently throw strikes. But his landing became more consistent and softer. The righthander learned to the typical Virginia delivery, which begins with pitchers in a crouched position and bent back leg. Virginia pitchers maintain a lower center of gravity throughout their delivery, putting greater emphasis on leg drive off the rubber and pitching down in the zone, rather than using longer strides.
"It took me quite a while to make the transition," Kline said. "It took a lot of dry work to make sure that I was doing it correctly. And to make sure that everything was in sync and that I wasn't leaking too far with my front side or that my arm wasn't dragging. It is more focused on trying to drive towards home plate and keeping the ball down. When I first got to school my freshman fall, I was struggling and then it started clicking more when I went home and arrived for the spring."
Kline was successful out of the bullpen in his first two seasons and moved to the rotation entering his draft-eligible junior year. He struck out more than a hitter per inning (and finished fifth in the ACC in strikeouts) but walked 4.1 per nine, as Kline consistently threw across his body pitching from the far first-base side of the rubber, which reduced the consistency of his offspeed stuff. Some scouts believed that Kline's looseness, athleticism and quick arm were not being maximized with his delivery, as his actions and stride shortened. His fastball also had below-average movement, as it was often straight.
However, with above-average fastball velocity that touched 95, multiple offspeed offerings that showed average potential and a track record of performance in college, Kline was selected in the second round in 2012.
Virginia's track record of college performance and health is elite. Since 2005, Virginia has the lowest cumulative ERA in the country. In the 11 seasons the present regime has been in Charlottesville, there has been one Tommy John or labrum surgery performed on a Virginia pitcher. But, as one scout said, "You just don't see that type of delivery in the minor or major leagues often."
Kline's transformation began almost immediately after signing.
"When I flew down to Florida to sign and as soon as I got on the field the next day they took me over to the bullpen and started working on my delivery," Kline said. "I was there for less than 24 hours and they were already changing things."
His crouched start was quickly eliminated, as the Orioles wanted the long-limbed 6-foot-3 Kline to stay taller on his back leg and allow him to use his athleticism.
"The biggest changes were staying straight up with my lower half and not staying so crouched," Kline said. "After that it was adding a little bit of a pause in my motion so when I step back I take a nice, deep breath, and then initiating my leg kick going forward instead of doing everything at once and kind of like going through it. Simply because sometimes I would rush through it and my leg lift would be inconsistent. So in adding in the little pause, not only am I giving myself enough time to let my leg be in the same place every time but it made everything a lot more fluid."
From an altered starting position, Kline was able to lengthen his stride to the plate.
"My stride length has gotten significantly longer," Kline said. "It actually just coincided with my leg kick. When my leg kick would get to its highest point, I would drive it down and stride even further compared to just bringing my leg kick up to my hip and trying to be shorter with it, and therefore the ball would sporadically all over the strike zone."
Kline's longer stride and altered delivery allow him to get well above-average extension, a testament to his athleticism. According to TrackMan data from the AFL, Kline's average fastball extension is six feet and 11 inches, which is 14 percent longer than the major league average (six feet and one inch). This total ranks fourth among all AFL pitchers and allows his effective velocity (92.4 mph) to be one and a half mph faster than his radar velocity (91.0).
|Longest Pitching Extension in AFL|
|Pitcher||Parent Club||AVG. MPH||Extension (ft)||Effective MPH|
Most of the alterations occurred with Kline's lower half.
"My arm action and arm slot have stayed exactly the same since college," Kline said.
Kline has a stab out of his glove but above-average arm speed. He throws from a high three-quarters arm slot and can create downhill plane to the plate with his long arms. His direction to the plate also improved as he is not throwing across his body as much and is more balanced throughout his delivery. A Maryland native, Kline remained in Florida to work on his mechanics throughout the offseason, as well as add strength. Kline was a rare college player that offered physical projection. At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds out of college, Kline had a large frame that could hold significant additional strength gains, a lean build with sloped shoulders and some strength to his lower half.
"The past offseason I weighed roughly 195-200 pounds, so being able to stay Florida and work with the trainers I was able to put on 15-18 pounds, the majority of which was muscle," Kline said.
Kline began the season at low Class A Delmarva, posting 8.2 strikeouts per nine and 3.6 walks per nine in seven starts before suffering an injury and missing the rest of the season.
"I was doing some conditioning and agility drills on May 21st and it was a little bit of a freak accident where I came down and ended up breaking my fibula at the lower end of my ankle," Kline said.
He is pitching out of the bullpen in the AFL for the Surprise Saguaros, trying to make up for the lost innings. After missing so much time, Kline has not reached his prior fastball velocity, sitting in the high 80s and low 90s, averaging 91.0 mph according to TrackMan's AFL data. He touched 96 in the spring and has lost some of his recently added strength.
"Unfortunately I lost a good amount of that when I got hurt this year," Kline said. "But once the offseason hits I will start pounding the weight room again and hopefully get back up to that 215-220 range. Going into this season I felt really strong and powerful, while still feeling quick."
In college, Kline used both a slider, which showed above-average potential, and a curveball, but now he is focusing on a single breaking ball, making his low-80s changeup his third offering.
With the continued development of his offspeed stuff and improved fastball command, Kline could become a back-end starter or move quickly through the minors as a reliever, which some evaluators believe will be his long-term role.