PAWTUCKET — Kyle Weiland did more than raise a curious eyebrow. The right-handed pitcher began besieging Notre Dame pitching coach Sherard Clinkscales with a series of self-doubting questions stemming from his mound troubles surfacing during his 2007 sophomore season.
In a year’s time Weiland went from collecting numerous Freshman All-American honors as a lockdown closer to posting a 5.66 ERA in 13 appearances, all while bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen. To go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a relatively short period of time led a confused Weiland directly into the arms of Clinkscales, the hope that his flaws were correctable.
“Kyle got hit hard that year. On 0-2 counts he would throw a 95-mph fastball away and the guy would hit it down the right field line. He was like ‘Coach, what am I doing?’” said Clinkscales by phone. “What do you say to him? You say ‘Go get ‘em.’ I thought that was a challenge from a confidence standpoint.
“Everyone knew Kyle had a mid-90s fastball and a breaking ball while trying to integrate a change-up,” Clinkscales went on. “I think there was a book on him, if you will. A lot of teams were sitting back, whether he got down 2-0 or 3-1, and knew he was coming with the fastball.”
These days Weiland is pitching free and easy while serving as the de facto ace of the PawSox’ pitching staff. In his first foray into Triple-A the 24-year-old Albuquerque, N.M. native has emerged into an unhittable strikeout artist, averaging 9.7 punchouts per nine innings. His 93 strikeouts in 86 1/3 frames are good for second among all Class AAA pitchers while International League opponents are hitting just .203.
Just this week Weiland, regarded as one the top pitching prospects in Boston’s system, turned in one of most dominating pitching performances in recent PawSox history. Rochester couldn’t come close to registering solid contact, witnessed by the one hit Weiland was nicked for in eight innings of work with 12 strikeouts.
PawSox players and coaches were still raving about Weiland’s untouchable showing the following day, saying that the atmosphere in the dugout took on a more serious tone as the strikeout total began nearing Nolan Ryan territory.
Needless to say, the good fortune Weiland is encountering these days is a far cry from the last two years he spent in South Bend, both under the watch of Clinkscales. The pitching repertoire was still there, yet as Clinkscales recalls, it was a matter of his pupil trying to make sense of his “undefined role” with the Fighting Irish.
Such uncertainty stemmed from Notre Dame converting Weiland from a reliever to a starter, an alteration based on the belief that he possessed enough plus pitches to get through the lineup multiple times. A year earlier he had saved a school-record 16 games. Instead of leaving Weiland alone, the Irish opted to explore possibilities. A broken collarbone, the result of slipping on an icy patch on campus – “I almost died,” was Clinkscales’ initial reaction – was the first of many twists and turns Weiland endured. Everything, however, paled in comparison with the uncertainty that was slowly but surely gnawing away at his self-assuredness.
Was Weiland better suited as a starter or a reliever? In no time the plug was pulled on the rotation experiment, a few subpar outings – one such occurred against Big East opponent Cincinnati on April 7, 2007, when Weiland allowed four runs on seven hits in four innings – resulted in him moving back to the bullpen.
“If we would have defined his role more and just stuck with it, I think Kyle would have been fine. He’s a good kid who wanted to do well for himself and our staff, but I think he got frustrated because he couldn’t find his rhythm,” acknowledges Clinkscales, a strikeout ace himself at Purdue before getting selected by Kansas City in the 1992 supplemental round. The Indianapolis native spent a decade as a major-league talent evaluator with the Braves and Devil Rays prior to serving as Notre Dame’s pitching coach from 2007-09. This month will see Clinkscales take over as the Associate Athletic Director at N.C. State after spending 2009-11 as the NCAA’s Assistant Director for Championships.
With his unforgettable sophomore season in the rearview mirror, one that included 27 walks in 41 1/3 innings, Weiland went to the Cape Cod League determined to work on his changeup – per the recommendation of Clinkscales. The struggles extended into his junior campaign as Weiland, back to full-time relieving, posted a 5.04 ERA in 26 games, spanning 30 1/3 innings.
Was Clinkscales worried that two consecutive mediocre seasons would impact Weiland’s draft status? Hardly.
“If Kyle had the year he did during his freshman year, I think he would have been a top-15 pick,” he said. “Even through the struggles he showed the scouts the plus breaking ball, the 96 mph heater and a good change every once in awhile. It was all there. He just couldn’t put it all together.”
After being selected in the third round of the 2008 draft, the Red Sox opted to have Weiland start. Normally pro teams favor scaling back a pitcher’s workload the summer after getting drafted mainly because he’s coming off a spring season where he’s likely been maxed out. As a junior Weiland threw so few innings that the Sox felt it was necessary to get him on a starter’s plan almost immediately.
“I thought it was a great call by the Red Sox organization to put Kyle out there as a starter,” Clinkscales said. “More than anything Kyle needed repetition, knowing every five days that he would be getting the ball.”
Clinkscales cast aside his personal feelings for Weiland when asked about his former student’s anticipated role in the majors, be it as a middle reliever or as a backend-of-the-rotation piece – two spots he could possibly fill as soon as this summer, depending on what shakes down in Boston. Needless to say his opinion of Weiland changed as the 6-foot-4, 195-pounder progressed through the farm system as a rotation mainstay (He’s made 67 consecutive starts since 2009).
Putting on his evaluation cap, Clinkscales replied, “I always thought Kyle’s quickest way would be as a reliever based on that breaking ball. Looking at his progression, I think he could be a solid No. 4 or 5 starter, absolutely. The development of his changeup would allow him to get through the lineup numerous times.”
To date Weiland has not repeated a class level in the minor leagues, a feat unmatched by Clay Buchholz. Looking back, were the struggles that defined his topsy-turvy Notre Dame stint worth it?
“If there’s anything that I was able to give Kyle, it’s helping to get him through that adversity. He would question himself a lot,” said Clinkscales. “Working through adversity in college and in the big leagues is a little bit different, but hopefully everything he went through will help a little bit moving forward.”