Enjoy the Ben Lively show while you can, California League fans. He might not be here for long.
The 22-year-old right-hander has been off-the-charts good as he begins his first full season of pro ball for the Bakersfield Blaze, who have emerged as an early powerhouse in the Cal League with a 24-8 record. Lively put together a monster April, earning consecutive California League Pitcher of the Week awards as well as being named MLB.com's Pipeline Pitching Prospect of the Month.
Factor in his most recent start, when he gave up two earned runs over a career-high 6 2/3 innings while striking out eight Modesto Nuts on Friday, and Lively is now 6-0 with a 0.76 ERA and 0.59 WHIP. Oh, and he has struck out 48 while walking just two in 35 2/3 innings of work.
"It's incredible," Reds director of player development Jeff Graupe said. "I don't know if I've ever seen anyone with a 24-to-1 strikeout-to-walk [ratio], but he's doing everything right."
Selected in the fourth round of the 2013 Draft after three years at the University of Central Florida, Lively looks like he could be on the fast track to a Double-A promotion. A call-up to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos would be extra special for Lively, who grew up in Gulf Breeze, Fla., about a 10-minute drive from the team's home stadium.
"Right across the bridge," Lively said. "I haven't pitched there since high school. I used to go to Wahoos games right before I'd go to summer ball in college or whatever, so all the people who go there are kids my age, everyone I grew up with. So, yeah, it would be really interesting to look up from the mound and see everybody."
Not so fast, though. The Southern League might be on the horizon, but the organization still wants to see more from their No. 13 prospect on the West Coast before making the call.
That's not to say a quick ascent through the Reds system would be unprecedented. The team picked southpaw Tony Cingrani in the third round of the 2011 Draft and he made his MLB debut a year later after he tore up Minor League competition.
At Cingrani's pace, Lively would spend a few more weeks in Bakersfield before wrapping up the regular season in Pensacola and becoming a September callup for Cincinnati.
"It's tough to compare anyone to Cingrani's path in the Minor League system just because it was so rapid," Graupe said. "I think expectations would become unfair of anyone to do that. But, that said, Ben is well on his way in his career and been attacking the challenges that are in front of him."
So what's made Lively so effective?
He said he has a much better command of his entire four-pitch arsenal this year. Lively usually relies on a fastball-slider combination, and he also has done a great job of mixing in his curve and changeup. But if there's a knock on Lively, it's that he doesn't have top-notch stuff, instead relying on a deceptive delivery with a low arm slot to fool hitters.
Not that the Reds mind.
"He does have four quality Major League pitches and he's able to locate them," Graupe said. "I think it's easy to kind of point to raw stuff, but pitchability is a major factor."
If and/or when Lively gets promoted to Pensacola, his friends and family might not recognize him. Despite a tweet in mid-April that he was going to go the whole season without cutting his hair, Lively is already having second thoughts.
"I might have to trim it up. It's getting a little ridiculous right now," Lively said. "I haven't had it this long since middle school. When I go out and run I can feel it flap against my back. I got my first comment about a week and a half ago -- we were playing in Stockton and I got the 'Goldilocks' yell."
Get your heckles in while you can.
"I think we'll evaluate these next couple starts," Graupe said, "and move him when we think the time is right."
Blazing bats: Lively has a lot of help down in Bakersfield, where through 32 games played the Blaze lead the league in runs (6.5 per contest) and team batting average (.291). Leading the charge is top Cal League hitter Kyle Waldrop, with a .391 average, four homers and 20 RBIs.
Big league flavor: Padres affiliate Lake Elsinore has had an influx of rehabbing big leaguers. Third baseman Chase Headley (right calf strain) and outfielder Carlos Quentin (left knee bone bruise) are on the verge of returning from the 15-day disabled list, while No. 4 prospect right-hander Casey Kelly is also recovering from Tommy John surgery with the Storm.
California call: Arizona's No. 3 prospect, righty Aaron Blair, has been called up to the Visalia Rawhide after a strong start for the South Bend Silver Hawks in the Midwest League. The 2013 supplemental first-rounder went 1-2 with a 4.04 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in six starts, piling up 44 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings.