What a difference 60 feet, 6 inches makes
Brewers prospect Shackelford converts from decent catcher to MLB-caliber pitcher
PHOENIX -- Oakland A's righty Dan Straily remembers clearly the handful of times he saw his Marshall University catcher climb up on a bullpen mound. When the catcher is 6-foot-5, and he sheds his gear and throws harder than half the pitching staff, you tend to take notice.
"Position players all think they can pitch," Straily said, "but he was one of the guys who actually could do it. So when I saw that he converted to pitching, I wasn't really shocked.
"When I saw he got drafted as a pitcher? Yeah, then I was shocked."
The converted catcher was 6-foot-5 Kevin Shackelford, and the drafting team was the Brewers, who spent a 21st-round pick in 2010 on a pitcher who had only been pitching for a few months. Less than four years later, Shackelford is an intriguing bullpen prospect coming off a stint in the prestigious Arizona Fall League and soaking in his first big league Spring Training camp.
Which begs the question: How did this long, lean, strong-armed kid end up behind the plate in the first place?
The answer was simple: Someone asked.
"I guess it all started in Little League," said Shackelford, whose Brewers faced Straily's A's in the Cactus League on Tuesday. "Daniel Bard, who was with the Red Sox, his dad was my Little League coach, and he was a catcher growing up. He was a catcher in the Red Sox organization.
"I was pretty good at it, so everywhere I went, they needed me behind [the plate] because I was better than everybody else. In high school, my coach said, 'I'd love to put you on the mound, but you save too many runs behind the plate.' "
Shackelford doesn't remember allowing a single stolen base during his senior season of high school in Charlotte, N.C.
"I just continued to thrive at it, being a catch-and-throw guy," he said. "I loved it."
He still loved catching in college at Marshall in Huntington, W.Va., but knew he did not hit enough to advance far at the next level. During his sophomore year, he slipped a disk in his back that led to pain, which led to changes in his catching mechanics, which led to right knee surgery.
So Marshall's coaches, including head coach Jeff Waggoner, pitching coach Joe Renner and assistant Tom Donnelly, who had seen some of those impromptu mound sessions, began discussing the idea of a switch for Shackelford's junior season.
He was on board.
"He was struggling with the hitting and it was like, 'Let's try to give this kid a chance,' " said Donnelly, the son of former Brewers third-base coach Rich Donnelly, who is now with the Mariners. "We knew he had one of the best arms we'd ever seen, catching-wise. We knew there was something in there that possibly could be special."
Said Shackelford: "I knew I was inconsistent at first. There was definitely a learning curve."
He struggled to the tune of a 7.50 ERA that first season, with only four strikeouts and 11 walks in 19 innings. But the learning curve arched in the right direction, to the point Shackelford was producing some eye-opening radar gun readings during the 2010 Conference USA tournament. Donnelly remembers seeing 94 mph fastballs. Shackelford thought the number was more like 96 mph.
Scouts, including the Brewers' Dan Nellum, took note. Shackelford signed and reported to the Arizona Brewers that summer and began his climb through the Minor Leagues. He was struggling at Class A Wisconsin in 2012 so he added the secondary pitches -- a heavy sinker and a slider with bite -- that would propel him to prospect status, and after honing his mechanics at Class A Advanced Brevard County in the first half of 2013, he was promoted to Double-A Huntsville and took off. In 20 appearances and 29 1/3 innings at the higher level, Shackelford posted a 0.92 ERA and six saves, earning a spot in the Arizona Fall League. In November, the Brewers added Shackelford to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.
Somewhere along the way last fall, Donnelly and Shackelford had lunch.
"I remember asking, 'What's been the difference?'" Donnelly said. "He told me he finally trusted in himself to just throw strikes and let his stuff work. I think that's the big key. He's not fearful."
Straily was a year older than Shackelford, and was already off in the A's system when Shackelford moved to the mound.
"The thing is, it wasn't like he was a bad catcher. He was a good catcher," Straily said. "He probably could have made it to pro ball as a catcher, but I don't know if he could have made it to where he is now as a catcher. Though, I wouldn't put anything past the kid."
Shackelford will begin the season back at Huntsville or at Triple-A Nashville, depending on what role the Brewers have in mind for him. One National League scout has already predicted he will pitch for the big league Brewers at some point in 2014.
Straily sees some benefits to his old teammate's unconventional career path. As a "pitcher's catcher," Shackelford had the experience of thinking along with a pitcher and having a plan, plus the knowledge that hitting is not easy.
There also could be physical benefits. Instead of growing up firing fastballs as hard as he could, Shackelford did not pitch until he had an idea what pitching was all about.
"Think of all the bullets he saved," Straily said.
"I don't have the wear and tear of a normal 24-year-old who has been pitching his whole life," he said. "I'd like to think I am in a different category."