Giants Lefty Kickham Responds To Early Challenges

RICHMOND—Despite possessing a sturdy 6-foot-4 frame and the pure stuff to turn heads, Double-A Richmond lefthander Mike Kickham has kept a low profile in a Giants organization that has seemingly developed pitchers at will.

A sixth-round pick from Missouri State in 2010, Kickham sits consistently in the low 90s and backs up his fastball with three promising secondary pitches. One Eastern League manager even nominated him as having the league's best changeup in this year's Best Tools survey.

However, command issues plagued the 23-year-old Kickham early in the season, and he managed to pitch into the sixth inning just twice through his first 10 starts. Like countless other minor league pitchers, he struggled to translate his impressive stuff into outs as he moved from low Class A Augusta in 2011 to Double-A this year.

"Early in the year I would have all these walks, and it was kind of messy and I wouldn't go deep into games," Kickham said.

In those first 10 starts Kickham issued 29 free passes in 45 innings (5.8 per nine), and while his control remains a point of concern, he has curbed his walk rate and worked deeper into games since the calendar turned to June. His walk rate has fallen off to 3.8 per nine in 15 starts since June 2, during which time he's averaged 6.1 innings per start and posted a 2.65 ERA.

Kickham attributed his recent success to minor mechanical adjustments. "I've kind of simplified my delivery," he said. "I've limited the movement of my hands. I used to be high-set with my hands with kind of this big movement. I just keep them (just above waist) now. It's a little bit of a shorter and simpler path for the arm."

And while minor tweaks sometimes are necessary for a player's continued development, adjustments to one's mental approach can be just as fruitful.

"The kid controls himself on the mound a lot better," Richmond pitching coach Ross Grimsley said. "He will still shake his head at times over a call, but his composure on the mound has totally changed from Day One until now, which is something that you'd like to see from these young guys."

Kickham's refined mechanics, command and mound presence have been on display during the second half of the EL season, but never more so than in early August. On Aug. 2, he struck out 12 and limited Reading to just three hits in a career-high 8 1/3 innings. Six days later, the lefthander issued two walks and struck out eight in seven no-hit innings against Harrisburg.

"He's been around the plate," Grimsley said of Kickham's solid second half. "That is the whole thing. The kid throws low- to mid-90s with a tremendous breaking ball. Once he gets ahead of guys, he can put them away. His success has been because he has been throwing his fastball for strikes."

A Solid Foundation

Four years ago Kickham was a relatively unknown entity. The Springfield, Mo., native failed to capture the attention of scouts because of questionable velocity. Barely recruited coming out of high school, he elected to attend Crowder (Mo.) JC.

Despite rather pedestrian numbers with Crowder—including a 5.62 ERA—Kickham added some much-needed velocity throughout the season and in a summer stint in the MINK League. Shortly before the beginning of his sophomore year Kickham was approached by Missouri State.

"He was only throwing between 83-85 (mph) coming out of high school, but even back then he had the size and the look," Missouri State pitching coach Paul Evans said. "We had a player (from MSU) on the Ozark Generals that summer and I got to see Kickham pitch. He absolutely carved, and his fastball was sitting at 91-92, so I got on the phone with our head coach and told him that we had to get Kickham."

After consulting with his parents, Kickham decided to transfer to Missouri State, in part because of the program's track record of developing big leaguers like Ross Detwiler, Shaun Marcum and Brad Ziegler.

"I knew about their history with pitchers," Kickham said. "I talked to my parents and they felt that I was ready for the Division I competition."

Though armed with increased velocity and self-confidence, Kickham's Division I debut did not go as expected. While he turned in a handful of dominating performances, the lefty went just 4-9, 5.25 in 15 starts for the Bears. Despite occasional struggles, Kickham was pleased with the strides he made, while Evans was nothing but complimentary of Kickham's development.

"He's a sponge," Evans said. "He's very intelligent and sociable. He was always standing next to me when he wasn't pitching. He wanted to know why we were pitching a guy in a certain way. If you tell him something only once it will click for him."

Major league organizations also were aware of Kickham's progress. Giants area scout Hugh Walker came away impressed after seeing the lefthander's stuff in person.

"He was big and physical with a quick arm," Walker said. "He hit 94 (mph) in the spring and had a nice, tight, hard slider with really good bite. I just fell in love with his upside."

A Bumpy Beginning

Kickham signed for $410,000 in mid-August of his draft year, so he made just three relief appearances in the Rookie-level Arizona League. The Giants had high expectations for the lefty in 2011 and hoped to push him to high Class A San Jose out of spring training—but things didn't work out that way.

Kickham battled a blister issue and didn't make his full-season debut with Augusta until mid-May. Instead of being discouraged, though, he embraced the assignment and the opportunity to learn from GreenJackets pitching coach Steve Kline, who pitched in the big leagues as a reliever for 11 seasons.

"That's something that I look at as a blessing in disguise," Kickham said. "He's a fellow lefty, and he had a great slider. I learned a lot from him, from my breaking ball to how to pitch to guys—stuff like that."

Nonetheless, Kickham struggled with his control in the early going before righting the ship in July. In his final 10 starts he notched a 40-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 55 innings. He finished 5-10, 4.11 in 21 starts overall with 103 strikeouts in 112 innings.

After watching him progress steadily for two season, the Giants could not be more pleased with Kickham's ability to respond to challenges. Through 25 starts this season he ranks second in the EL in opponent average (.223), third in strikeouts (125) and fourth in ERA (3.04).

"If he keeps everything up he could be in the big leagues soon," Giants pitching coordinator Bert Bradley said.