OKLAHOMA CITY—Michael Kirkman plies his trade in a profession in which one of the most coveted commodities is a lefthanded power pitcher, whose career can be stretched for as long as he can retire lefthanded hitters.
But Kirkman, one of the hardest-throwing lefties in the Rangers system, was struck with a fear of taking the mound in 2007.
He knew then, based on recent results, that he was going to be wildly ineffective. His development path had stagnated at extended spring training and low Class A Clinton for consecutive seasons. And he was on the fast track to a third.
In a Rangers system rich with talent, Kirkman's stock was dropping like a share of General Motors. But he had an ally, former major league lefty Keith Comstock, and access to a video library that included the newest Rangers lefty, Cliff Lee, then pitching for Cleveland.
A minor mechanical tweak to emulate Lee's delivery was the first step in what has been a resurgence by Kirkman. The turnaround has been so sudden, and so warmly received, that he landed on the Rangers' 40-man roster last November to guard against being taken in the Rule 5 draft.
Kirkman then continued to elevate his prospect status during his first big league spring training camp, and in July the 23-year-old earned recognition as a Triple-A all-star after a strong first half for Oklahoma City.
The next step of his career path is now aimed at Arlington, Texas, and there's a chance he could arrive late this season. That's a long way from Clinton, Iowa, and the desert heat in the Rookie-level Arizona League.
"I was basically scared to pitch," Kirkman admitted. "It's tough to say that, but that's what I felt like. I didn't want to go out there.
"Once I got it in my head that I could pitch, that I could throw strikes, that I could get people out, it stayed. I kept that confidence."
The Rangers' fifth-round pick in 2005, Kirkman twice struck out 18 batters in a game during his senior year at Columbia High in Lake City, Fla.
But he couldn't find the strike zone in 2006 or '07, going a combined 2-10, 8.32 as he floundered in low Class A and in short-season ball. In 75 innings, Kirkman walked 88 batters—or 10.6 per nine—while averaging nearly two and a half baserunners per inning and uncorking 22 wild pitches.
As the Rangers filled out their minor league rosters at the end of 2008 spring training, they sent Kirkman go Surprise, Ariz., for another run at extended spring training. His way out was in the video room, where he compared his delivery to Lee's.
Lee didn't have a great 2007 season with the Indians, but he would end up winning the Cy Young Award in '08. Kirkman wasn't that dominant, but it must have felt that way.
A minor adjustment to his delivery produced a more consistent arm path for Kirkman, who promptly took off. In his third crack at the Midwest League, he put it squarely in his rearview mirror by stringing together a 4.36 ERA with 58 strikeouts and just 23 walks over 74 innings.
"It was a very small thing," Kirkman said. "I was watching (Lee), and I watched the video of me. His front arm was a lot shorter than mine. I talked to Comstock about it, and we worked on it in the bullpen for a couple sides, and I got it to where I wanted it.
"In my very first game, it started working more. I threw really well in a couple games. I went to Clinton, threw well and got a win or two. I went to (short-season) Spokane and threw really well there, came back to Clinton and kept it going."
Ready For The Next Step
The good work got even better in 2009. Making up for lost time, Kirkman blew threw the hitter-friendly California League in eight games. He went 4-1, 2.06 with 54 strikeouts in 48 innings for high Class A Bakersfield, and his 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio established a new personal standard.
Kirkman closed '09 with 18 starts for Double-A Frisco, and while he walked more batters (43) than he would have preferred, he also went 5-7, 4.19 with 64 whiffs in 97 innings. Furthermore, he had done the unthinkable in convincing the Rangers that he was a player they didn't want to risk losing in the Rule 5 draft.
With Kirkman's place on the 40-man came his first invitation to big league spring training, where he grabbed the attention of those who matter most.
"He was one of the highlights of big league camp for me as far as guys you weren't expecting to make the club," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "He carries himself with an air of confidence. He looks the part.
"He always had a big fastball. He's got one of the best breaking balls in the system. If he continues on the direction he's on now, he could play a role for us."
Daniels didn't rule out a 2010 callup for Kirkman, who finished the first half for Oklahoma City with an 8-3, 3.30 record in 17 starts. His walk rate had edged to 5.2 per nine innings, and he singled it out as the No. 1 area he is attempting to address.
Already this season, the Rangers had turned to RedHawks pitchers like Omar Beltre, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and Pedro Strop, and Kirkman's stuff could be valuable to Texas in long-relief role or even against a run of lefthanded hitters.
Kirkman admitted that he glances at the transaction wire occasionally and wonders if his time is coming. He's not counting on it, but the mere fact that a big league promotion is a realistic possibility shows how far he has come.
"Of course, I think about (a promotion) at times," he said. "I can't hang on that every time somebody grabs their side. I'll just keep doing what I'm doing, and I'm happy with that."
It's safe to say he's not scared to pitch anymore.
Jeff Wilson covers the Rangers for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram