The old saying goes that you can “never have enough pitching”. While the Braves have certainly put that axiom to the test in drafts past, it does remain true that one of the most volatile commodities in the game of baseball is pitching, so it is a good idea to bring in a decent bit of real pitching talent via the draft each year whether those players are starters or, in the case of our next interview subject, relievers.
The Braves selected Kasey Kalich out of Texas A&M in the fourth round of the 2019 draft and he has a chance to become a mainstay in a major league bullpen pretty quickly. The 21 year old righty features primarily a mix of a fastball that runs in the mid to upper 90’s and a wipeout slider that has historically been where he has gotten a lot of his swings and misses. He also possesses a curveball that he has begun reincorporating into his arsenal as a pro that has good shape and is a nice change of pace breaking ball that plays well off of his harder slider. Assuming the hiccups in the minor leagues are minimal, Kalich projects pretty easily as a guy that should see time in the later innings of games with a chance of being the guy used in the highest leverage situations.
Kasey has been a busy man this offseason, but he was gracious enough to take time out of his schedule to chat with me about his journey to professional baseball, his acclimation into the pro ranks, and what his goals are going forward. Enjoy!
First things first, let’s start at the beginning of your involvement in sports growing up. When did you start playing baseball, were you always a pitcher, and did you play any other sports growing up?
Well, I started at a very young age. Pretty much as soon as I was walking, my dad had a baseball in my hand. He loved the game and he inspired that into me. Really, started playing non-stop year-round since I was like eight until I was like 15 or 16...maybe 17. I was never always just a pitcher. I didn’t really start just pitching until junior college where I was focused mainly on pitching. Before that, I was a third baseman and a first baseman.
Baseball has always been my #1 sport. I played football for three years and basketball my whole life. My granddad actually played basketball professionally back in the 1970’s with the Knicks, so he always loved the game and he kind of pushed me to play it as well. I didn’t really start playing football until 7th grade and I stopped playing when I was a freshman in high school because that was when I thought that baseball was basically going to be my future.
You obviously played baseball in high school, but rather than getting drafted right out of high school, you decided to go the junior college route before transferring to Texas A&M. Coming out of high school, was the draft a realistic possibility for you and what ultimately led you to choose to go to college and play ball there?
Coming out of high school wasn’t really a possibility. I just wasn’t filled out and I wasn’t one of those guys that started to see a spike in ability. I had some offers from some small DI schools in Texas like Texas A&M - Corpus Christi and Sam Houston State, but my main focus was going to Texas A&M because that was my passion since I was eight years old. I went up for a visit and talked to Coach Childress. He basically said that I was not exactly where we need you to be, but we do want you to be here one day so you should go to a junior college. If you have a good first season while being in there, we will pick you up. If not, we will see how the second season plays out. I said I was perfectly okay with that.
So I went to JuCo and had a great time in college. A lot of people shoot it down and say “I don’t really want to go there, I want to go to a big school”, but honestly junior college is one of the best stepping stones and probably one of the best decisions I ever made. So I played a full season in junior college, had a lot of fun, and it is a lot like minor league baseball because it is a grind year-round. You play a fall season and you play a spring season. After being there for a year, I played in the Texas Collegiate League for a team out of my hometown while I worked and about halfway through that season, Coach Childress reached out to me and gained interest. I guess they had lost a couple of pitchers that wanted to go to a junior college because they didn’t get enough playing time at A&M. That happens a lot. After he started pursuing me, I kept playing in the TCL and eventually it came up where they gave me an offer to go play and I took it.
From there, things just kind of skyrocketed for me. Being able to get into a program with a great training regimen, great facilities, and great people around you, I was able to maximize my efforts to get better and was able to see a spike in how I play and get that upper level that you need to be able to perform in the SEC. After that one year of college and being a draft eligible sophomore, I took advantage of what I had out in front of me and decided to come to Atlanta.
You have spoken elsewhere about the mechanical changes you made that helped give you success at A&M and ultimately had you as one of the more highly regarded relievers in the draft. What were those mechanical changes?
Just from looking at film and looking at what I was doing in junior college, I had a tendency to use my upper body more than my lower body. It caused me to not have quite as good velocity on my fastball and not as good of command. It also didn’t allow my pitches to play up because a hard slider coming in backdoor is hard to get when you don’t have front-side leverage and you don’t have anything working lower body to move you down the mound and get that extra reach and extra spin on the ball.
Getting to A&M and in front of Coach Childress, within the first couple of weeks, we were trying to make changes and shift my mechanics to more of a front-side leverage and stay back on my back leg to be able to fire down the mound. It wasn’t exactly clicking. I went to a kind of a side arm delivery as well as going over the top because I still didn’t have good velo. It was kind of like what coach did with Nolan Hoffman. Hoffman took the sidearm and ran with it and did phenomenal, but it still wasn’t working for me.
Then, when we were matched up against Rice, I just decided to raise my arm slot a bit during pre-game warm-ups. Just raising my elbow up an inch to an inch and half up from where it was, that night it all synced. From there, it was just bread and butter. That is when I saw a big change and when mechanics just started clicking for me. That night is when I started consistently being 94-96. Just raising my elbow a little bit did so much. In a game where failure is so abundant, you make one small or minor adjustment and you run with it, and it just works.
Now let’s talk about your pitch mix. You are labelled as a fastball/slider guy with your slider being your out pitch. However, you have also mentioned in the past that you were wanting to add your curveball as well as a changeup to your mix and we have seen reports that you have started to incorporate the curveball a bit. How are the changeup and curve coming along and what made you think that you need to add those two pitches?
Well, my whole life I have been a starter. A&M was the only time I had ever relieved for a whole season. So, I always had that fastball/slider/curveball/changeup mix. Looking at the big leagues, you see a lot of guys coming out of the pen in the bigs and no one really throws a changeup. In talking with some of the coaches in low-A, they were asking me “why do you need a changeup?”, “what guys in the big leagues or in Triple-A coming out of the bullpen do you see throwing changeups?”
So, we did end up throwing the changeup completely out of the equation, but I did start throwing the curveball again and I was able to find it. I think I was able to use it in three or four of my last outings and it was one of my better pitches.
You didn’t play a ton in pro ball this year which isn’t unusual for draft year guys, but from your limited experience, what has been the biggest adjustment that you have had to make?
I would say probably command. A lot of pro hitters are a lot smarter and more selective on what they want to hit so you can’t really miss spots. It isn’t like throwing darts...you don’t want to force a pitch to go where you want it to be, but you want to have a general area and have the command to get it there. If you can’t do that, you are going to get hit around.
Even in college and in the SEC, you have to have command, but up here is a different ballgame. Hitters up here, a lot of times hitters seem like they sold out on one pitch so if they can find it and find it in the right spot, you are going to get torn to shreds.
We know that all of you guys get, in a certain sense, homework from the organization as to what they want you to work on in the offseason. What have you been focused on and are you seeing the results you wanted to see going into the 2020 season?
Mainly it has just been physique, because I had to tone down and slim up a bit while getting stronger at the same time. I put on a significant amount of weight coming into pro ball and I wasn’t at a playing weight that I was comfortable with which made it hard adjusting because when your weight fluctuates, you have to make adjustments mechanically to do what you are trying to do. During the offseason, my biggest thing was training, eat properly, and getting back down to a playable weight which I did achieve. I also strengthened my legs and my core. I found in the offseason that I had lost strength in my lower body and that is where I generate most of my power. Going into 2020 and to be able to perform, I had to regain that power, get back that mass, and change my body physique to be able to perform at my highest level.
Being a reliever is really hard. You never truly know when you are going to be called upon and the situations can range from lower leverage situations against the bottom of the order to bases loaded, no out against the best hitter in the league in a tie game late. As a reliever, how do you keep yourself ready and consistent on the mound regardless of when you are called on?
Actually, for me, not knowing the situation and not knowing what I am going to be put into that night is probably the best thing for me. I love not knowing what I am going to be getting into when I am called upon. Whether that is a challenge or not in a tie ballgame in the bottom of the 8th, and you just need something to keep your team in it with the bases loaded or runners on second and third. Not knowing what the situation is going to be is what I love most about relieving because it doesn’t give me any time to think. I think that a lot of trouble guys get into is that you start overthinking what you are going to do instead of just trusting your stuff that got you there. Knowing that what got you there has been working, why change it?
For me, I don’t see a problem not knowing the situation in the late innings. It allows me to just go out, perform, and play rather than to try and out think or outsmart somebody.
Every player has their eyes set on the long-term goal of making it to the major leagues. However, we also know that many of you have shorter term goals to help you get there. What are your goals for the 2020 season?
Definitely to not walk a lot of guys. Starting off, even just being in pro ball for like half a season, I think my walks per nine ratio was like 4.35 and for me, that is just not it. I definitely want to keep my walks down and I definitely want to have higher command of my pitches and have a better strike percentage. One goal for me this season is to just move up in the ranks, perform the way that I know I can, and make a name for myself.
Make sure to give Kasey a follow on Twitter at @kaseykalich31