Rockies right-hander Daniel Winkler posted a 2.97 ERA in the hitter-friendly California League in 2013. He struck out 10.5 batters per nine innings, walked 2.56 per nine and earned the league's Pitcher of the Year award. Then in five late-season starts with Double-A Tulsa, he posted a 3.04 ERA.
The stellar results didn't move the needle much on his prospect stock, though, as MLB.com left him off its Rockies Top 20 list. It's not a reflection of Winkler fading into the crowd, though. It's a reflection of how unique he is.
"You can't really say you've ever seen a pitcher like me," the 24-year-old said. "I think it's the deception."
The Arkansas Travelers became the Central Florida product's latest victims Tuesday, striking out 10 times and managing just one hit in a 2-0 Drillers' victory in Game 1 of their Texas League doubleheader.
Winkler (2-1) went the distance in the seven-inning affair, requiring 88 pitches (65 strikes) to do so. Through four starts, Winkler sports a 0.75 ERA. He's struck out 27 and walked eight over 24 innings. He also flirted with a no-hitter Tuesday, the second time he's done that this season.
After taking a no-hit bid into the seventh April 10, Winkler pitched 5 2/3 scoreless frames against San Antonio on April 15, and then had seven days between starts. He didn't allow a hit until the fifth inning Tuesday.
Winkler added a cutter to his repertoire this spring. He thinks the pitch is the biggest difference in what's allowed him to thrive early in 2014.
"In Spring Training, guys were saying I should throw a cutter," he said. "I had flirted with it before, and once I started throwing it, it was really easy to throw it. It looks like my fastball, especially when I come with the four-seam fastball, then come back to the cutter."
The pitch has been easy for Winkler to throw from his arm slot. He refers to it as a low three-quarter delivery, but the motion gets extra deception because of his unique windup, in which his right arm curls behind his body and conceals the ball from the batter's vision until just before release.
"They say that I hide the ball real well and then it's on you," he said. "Guys always joke with me, they say I throw a rise ball because I'm so low. I can throw it so low and it stays on the same plane."
Winkler now has a three-fastball mix to work with -- a four-seamer, a sinker and a cutter. His fastball command has long been a strength -- teammate and No. 2 Rockies prospect Eddie Butler referenced it as a point of inspiration during his breakout 2013 campaign. With three well-controlled pitches that all look the same until they get a few feet from home plate, Winkler has hitters late on his hard stuff despite topping out in just the low-90-mph range.
"I think that all comes back to the deception and hiding the ball well, that low three-quarters and just everything about my mechanics," he said. "That's the way I've thrown my whole life. It's something I will keep doing obviously. It's worked for me so far."
Winkler also went to his slider as a strikeout pitch often Tuesday. He picked up a few strikes -- including a looking punchout of Los Angeles' top prospect Kaleb Cowart -- with back-door sliders in the first inning, which catcher Tom Murphy ran with the rest of the game.
"Murphy noticed right away I was hitting that back-door slider real well," Winkler said. "They have a lot of lefties, so if I can paint that back-door slider well and was getting a couple calls on it, I'm going to keep going back to it."
The results have been spectacular for Winkler so far, but he also said it was the first outing in which he's been pleased with his fastball command this season.
"Everything was in sync," he said. "I was getting down the rubber fine and I wasn't falling off, was going straight to home. Basically, mechanics and that feel was better. I think my fastball command, I don't know, I'm a perfectionist, I guess."
Arkansas didn't fare much better in Game 2, even with Winkler off the mound. Drillers starter Carlos Hernandez tossed 3 1/3 three-hit innings and the bullpen followed with 7 2/3 one-hit frames in a 1-0 victory in 11 innings. Rockies' No. 14 prospect Cristhian Adames plated the winning run, scoring Tyler Massey with a ground-ball single.
Travelers right-hander Drew Rucinski tossed six two-hit frames in the nightcap, striking out six without a walk. He sports an 0.86 ERA in four starts this season.