At this point, the Baltimore Orioles might as well put University of Virginia pitching coach Karl Kuhn on the payroll.
Just about every year, a few notable pitching prospects arrive in Spring Training with newfound velocity, and then they go on to ascend the prospect rankings. In Baltimore, last year's breakout star was Tyler Wilson. This year, it's looking like it might be Branden Kline. Kuhn is behind both players' rise.
First, for Wilson: After working in the upper-80 mph range with his fastball for most of his career, the then-24-year-old suddenly found himself sitting 91-94 mph last year. He dominated at stints with Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, winning Baltimore's Minor League Pitcher of the Year award.
The secret to Wilson's velocity increase was a new offseason regimen with an old friend. The right-hander spent the 2013-14 offseason trying out a heavy-ball workout routine with Kuhn, for whom Wilson played from 2009-11.
Kline -- also a UVA product -- kept close tabs on Wilson's performance last year. He saw the velocity uptick in Spring Training, and he knew about Kuhn's heavy ball program. Having seen how things worked out for Wilson, Kline decided to give the program a whirl this offseason.
Things have worked out well. In the past, Kline worked mostly 90-94 mph with his fastball, but this spring, he's routinely sat 93-97 mph. He thinks the heavy ball program is entirely behind the velocity spike.
"I actually got intrigued by it last year," he said. "I had kind of asked [Wilson] questions about it in Spring Training [in 2014]. How was it? Do you like it? Some of the minor details that went into it."
Kline said Kuhn customizes the program for each pitcher. The UVA coach takes radar gun readings of his pitchers throwing baseballs of varying weights, then builds a throwing program using those balls based on the readings. Players build up over the course of the 6-8 week program, with the hope that they gain three or four mph on their fastballs, like Kline did. This offseason, Kline was in a group of 12-15 former UVA products working with Kuhn in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The program doesn't promise a velocity uptick for all practitioners, but Kline said nearly everybody at least got more consistency from their heater. He went into the program hoping that his 90-94 mph fastball would be more of a 92-94 mph heater when he finished. That he ended up adding three mph to his peak velocity was an unexpected surprise.
The right-hander also thinks the heavy ball program has improved his other pitches. In particular, his slider has more velocity and bite this year, he said.
Kline's pro results prior to 2015 don't stand out. He pitched sparingly in 2012 after signing, then missed most of the 2013 season after suffering a fractured fibula in May. He returned in 2014 and logged 143 1/3 innings, mostly with Class A Advanced Frederick -- there he managed a 4.08 ERA and struck out 7.4 batters per nine innings. It was his first full, healthy season as a professional and gave him time to polish his control and secondary pitches.
"Last year, it was more about the mental side of the game," Kline said. "It was my first time pitching over 100 innings. Being in a long season, everybody talks about the grind and whatnot. I got to experience that first hand last year for the first time. Pitching every fifth day, I was happy with the results."
In addition to the mental stuff, Kline also improved his changeup and the command of his three-pitch mix (fastball, slider and changeup). The right-hander made strides learning how to be more pitcher than thrower, and now that he's combined the polish with some extra velocity, he's off to a strong start in 2015.
In his season debut Sunday, Kline struck out 10 in five innings, allowing three hits, two walks and no runs. He said he got swings and misses with all three pitches over the course of the game, noticing that hitters had to sit on his fastball more because of the boosted velocity.
"When I got in trouble [Sunday], I was able to throw some fastballs and get guys to swing out of the zone a little bit," he said. "At the same time, I was able to throw the slider and the change for strikes and then pitches that looked like strikes but would've been balls, but they got swings and misses."
Reviews have been positive, with Fangraphs' Kiley McDaniel labeling both his slider and changeup as present above-average pitches. Currently ranked No. 21 in Baltimore's farm system, Kline could rocket up the team list and into top-100 range if he can maintain his improved stuff this season.
Cardinals RHP Alex Reyes, Class A Advanced Palm Beach: Reyes will be featured more in-depth here next week, but here's a little tease: The 20-year-old struck out 10 over 4 2/3 innings on Opening Day last week, and Palm Beach pitching coach Randy Niemann confirmed the New Jersey native hit 100 mph with his fastball. Niemann said Reyes' average velocity for the start was 98 mph. That's a notable jump for the Cardinals' No. 3 prospect, who worked mostly at 93-95 mph last year.
Rays LHP Blake Snell, Double-A Montgomery: The 2011 first-rounder (52nd overall) has struggled with control the past two years, but seems to have addressed that. On Opening Day Snell struck out ten over six scoreless innings and didn't walk a batter, then followed that with five scoreless frames and eight strikeouts in start No. 2. That second start included the rare four-strikeout inning. The southpaw has a plus fastball and three above-average pitches. If he's going to keep them around the strike zone more consistently, he could leapfrog Brent Honeywell and Taylor Guerrieri as the team's best pitching prospect this year.
…And one not
Twins RHP Alex Meyer, Triple-A Rochester: Fans in Minnesota are clamoring for Meyer to get to the Majors, but the 6-foot-9 Kentucky product has yet to consistently dominate at Triple-A. Control is his biggest problem, and that showed in his first start, when he walked six over five innings. If Meyer can't improve his command and work ahead of more hitters, he might be destined for the back-end of a big league bullpen long term.