Daniel Winkler is walking hitters at about the same rate as in his first two pro seasons, but he also thinks he's throwing more strikes early in counts. So far, it appears that's making all the difference.
The Rockies prospect allowed one run on one hit over six innings Friday night for his California League-leading seventh win as Class A Advanced Modesto defeated High Desert, 3-1.
Winkler (7-2) tied a career high with nine strikeouts and walked two batters. The Mavericks' lone hit off him was Kevin Rivers' inside-the-park home run in the fourth inning. The 23-year-old right-hander dropped his ERA to 2.57, which ranks second in the hitter-friendly Cal League, where he's struck out 75 and walked 19 in 63 innings.
"Right now, I'm just relaxed and trying to throw first pitch strikes," Winkler said, "basically flood the strike zone with pitches and make them beat me."
A year ago, Winkler posted a 4.46 ERA in 25 starts at Class A Asheville. He struck out 136 and walked 47 over 145 1/3 innings but allowed 152 hits, in part because he faced so many 2-0 counts while being too fine early in at-bats. He began correcting that late last season and has continued that in 2013 with stellar results -- he's yielded only 39 hits in 63 innings.
"In the past, I really haven't been walking a lot of guys," the Illinois native said. "My walk rate was probably about the same, but I was picking a lot more. I was giving hitters more credit than they deserved, and this is a great league with good hitters, but I want them to beat me.
"I don't want to get them in fastball counts, where they know a 2-0 fastball is coming. I want them to not know what's coming, whether it's a fastball or a sinker or a slider. In the past, I've been in 2-0 counts and throwing fastballs and stuff like that."
Part of the reason Winkler's hit rate has dropped so dramatically are factors out of his control. After all, there's only so much a pitcher can control once a hitter puts the ball in play. But when Winkler gets ahead and controls the at-bats, it allows him to more effectively use his sinker or his putaway slider to induce weak contact.
"Last year was a tough year for me," admitted Winkler, a 2011 20th-round Draft pick. "It was my first full pro season and I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. I think that's why I was picking.
"I worked more on just throwing first-pitch strikes and taking one pitch at a time. I took that into Spring Training and I talked to our pitching coach, Dave Burba, and he noticed I was picking a lot in Spring Training, too. He's given me the confidence to attack hitters and let them beat me."
They haven't had much success beating Winkler this season. He's boasted a fastball-sinker-slider repertoire since college and still primarily attacks with that trio. His fastball sits in the 88-90 mph range and can tick up to 92, while his slider has been a strikeout pitch since he was drafted.
This year, he's making a more concentrated effort to improve his circle change, a pitch he hopes can succeed more on deception and movement than on actual change of velocity.
"They've always said my change was too hard and I need to throw it slower," Winkler said. "I didn't know how to. Now, I think, I'm just trying to throw it with movement instead of throwing it slower. It might only be 5 mph slower, but it still has depth I like."
Nelson Gonzalez followed Winkler with two perfect innings and Scott Oberg picked up his 11th save with a scoreless ninth.
Will Swanner, Colorado's eighth-ranked prospect, went 2-for-3 with a solo homer, continuing to pull himself out of an early-season slump. The catcher hit .150 with a .465 OPS in April but batted .257 with an .816 OPS in May, bringing his overall average to .208 and his OPS up to .658.