Christian Binford has been focused on hitting his spots since his Little League days. His father came up with a game where he'd put up his glove and make Binford try to hit it. If the young righty connected and earned a certain number of points, he'd get some ice cream.
The Royals got wind of the ice cream-based pitching system, prompting Kansas City ace James Shields to present Binford with a trophy during Spring Training called the "Points Award."
The top of the trophy was a bit different, though -- it was a goblet of cookie dough ice cream, which both honored Binford and made him laugh, especially coming from a pitcher like Shields, who's always had top-notch control.
"That's my living," Binford said. "That's where I absolutely live. I don't light up the radar gun. Control is my big thing."
Binford still does the points game in his own form. He'll work on trying to hit certain spots, and the righty has focused on that for so long that he said it's become muscle memory. He throws five different pitches and can get into the low 90s on the radar gun. He can strike out batters, ranking second in the Carolina League through Monday's games with 42 punchouts.
But Binford doesn't want strikeouts and speed to be his calling cards. For the big right-hander, it's all about the control.
His statistics certainly show that. Binford, Kansas City's No. 11 prospect, has a 2-1 record and a 2.04 ERA through his first six starts with Class A Advanced Wilmington this year. The 6-foot-6 right-hander's got those 42 strikeouts -- with just seven walks -- and 26 hits in 35 1/3 innings.
His numbers have remained consistent in this manner throughout his Minor League career. Last year, with Class A Lexington of the South Atlantic League, Binford went 8-7 with a 2.67 ERA but struck out 130 with only 25 walks in 135 innings.
Two years ago, Binford finished 2-3 with a 2.03 ERA pitching for Rookie-level Burlington in the Appalachian League. He struck out 31 with just four walks in 40 innings after the Royals took him in the 30th round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
Wilmington pitching coach Steve Luebber said many young pitchers are primarily trying to get their fastballs over and throw breaking pitches that are around the strikezone. Binford uses his variety of pitches to make batters think and get strikes.
"The fact that he's throwing strikes with all of his pitches is a big thing," Luebber said. "That's why his hit totals are [low]. They can't sit on one pitch."
The control issues became even more important after he underwent Tommy John surgery during his sophomore year in high school. Binford revamped his mechanics and really pushed hard to master control and command. He's certainly got all the tools, but such strong control makes him that much tougher to hit.
"I can't make that many mistakes at 89 to 91 [mph]," Binford said. "I needed somehow to separate myself. So far, it's been working out."
Still rolling: Salem second baseman Reed Gragnani started hot in April and has hardly cooled off in May. He hit .365 last month and has a .357 average this month, a big reason Gragnani remains on top of the Carolina League with a .362 average overall through Tuesday's games.
Every hit counts: Myrtle Beach got only five hits Sunday but still generated offense in a 6-1 victory over Potomac. David Lyon (two-run homer), Chris Garia (RBI triple), Nick Williams (RBI force-out), Odubel Herrera (RBI fielder's choice) combined to drive in five runs, with the other scoring on a passed ball..
No offense, no problem: Wilmington is still looking for some offense, but the Blue Rocks remain in second place in the Northern Division despite the problems. They have just a .210 team batting average, last in the Carolina League, and also rank last in homers (11) and other offensive categories. However, the Blue Rocks are first in team ERA, a big reason they're still in contention.