Cody Buckel hopes the nightmare is over and the dream is still alive. The constant fear of failure no longer eats at him like a disease.
It’s Thursday morning on the back fields of the Surprise Recreation Campus, and Buckel talks candidly about his last 12 months. He is working out with the rest of the minor leaguers a year after having a locker in the big-league clubhouse and being considered the team’s top pitching prospect.
The Rangers once wondered how good Buckel could be. Now, it’s a question of whether Buckel has overcome the control problems that threatened to crush his dream of pitching in the big leagues last year.
“Before last year, I had never experienced failure,” Buckel said. “In the back of my mind, I was afraid to fail. I think that’s why failure hit me so hard. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
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This a pitcher who the Rangers once refused to include in a trade for Justin Upton, who reached Double A when he was 20 years old and was the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2012. He was invited to big-league camp the following spring and that’s when things fell apart for the Rangers’ second-round pick in the 2010 draft.
Buckel allowed six runs and five walks over one-third of an inning in his Cactus League debut and had a 108.00 ERA.
That was the first sign of trouble, but Buckel labeled that outing as “an adrenaline rush.”
Once demoted to minor league camp, Buckel got it back together but then unraveled in the prospects’ game that features the organization’s top prospects.
Someone made a comment to Buckel about his mechanics before that game and he tried to make an adjustment. For a guy who had a combined 2.48 ERA and a 288-to-76 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first three professional seasons, it’s hard to imagine why somebody would suggest a change.
But Buckel tried to implement it in that prospects game and …
“That was a big no-no,” Buckel said. “I was uncomfortable with it, but thought it was the right thing to do. Pretty soon, I was physically not where I wanted to be and the physical and mental side goes hand in hand. I was trying to overthink and overthink and it was just spiraling.”
Still, Buckel broke camp as one of Frisco’s starters but things continued downward. He made six appearances, including five starts, and couldn’t find the strike zone. He had a 20.25 ERA and issued more walks (28) than strikeouts (9) for the first time in his career.
It became clear what Buckel was dealing with. In golf, they call it the yips. In baseball, it’s known as Steve Blass disease, named after the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who had an unexplained loss of control after the 1972 season.
“I believe that’s what it was,” said Keith Comstock, the Rangers’ rehab pitching coordinator.
“Cody does too. He owned up to it. We don’t wish that on anybody, but it made him realize he wasn’t as big as he thought he was. It just humbled him. You have no choice to go through that and not be humbled.
“To be honest, about 50 percent of pitchers have some form of the yips. Whether it’s throwing a pitch out, trying to intentionally walk a guy, throwing to first base, most guys have something. It’s just not as noticeable as a guy who can’t play catch or can’t throw a strike.”
Comstock knows from his own experience. He had the yips in 1979 when he was in the Angels’ minor league system. Back then, teams released players who had that issue and Comstock found himself looking for a job. He eventually worked through it on his own and went on to pitch in the big leagues for parts of six seasons from 1984-1991.
So it helped that Comstock worked with Buckel every day in Arizona. They played catch. They went through drills. And, just when it seemed like Buckel might be getting it straightened out, Comstock would throw in something that could rattle him.
“When he played catch and someone would walk by, his throwing would get off,” Comstock said. “For someone like Cody going through what he was, the fear is that you’re going to hit somebody in the head when they’re not looking. So I made a drill where I had all the pitchers walk back and forth so he’d stop looking at the people around him.”
It took time, but Buckel got through it.
“I’m glad to be out of that now,” he said. “I think about simple tasks like throw the ball over the plate, throw the ball outside. Not what am I doing with my foot? What am I doing with my hand? What am I doing with this?
“It’s a learning process and I’m glad it happened to me when I was 20 and not 26. Baseball is a game of failure, and you’ve got to learn to accept failure. Going through the worst of it, I think I’m finally mentally strong enough to handle it.”
Comstock played an important role, as well as rehabbing big leaguers such as Colby Lewis and Joakim Soria and sports psychologists Carrie Johnston and Don Kalkstein.
“I always try to give advice to the younger guys, and it doesn’t really matter if you’re hurt mentally or physically,” Lewis said. “It’s still baseball and you have to be able to conquer those types of things.”
Buckel is in a better spot now after an off-season perfecting his ping-pong skills, playing golf and hanging out with family and friends. He is relaxed and having fun again coming into spring training. He admitted there weren’t too many reasons to smile last year and that has changed.
Buckel referenced a Michael Jordan quote about needing to fail over and over again in order to have success and believes that will be the case for him.
Comstock does, too, saying: “Cody has got a little bit of vengeance on his mind and he’s going out there to have a breakout year. He’s worked really hard and is just excited about it.”