JUPITER, Fla. — By the end of his first week at High-A Palm Beach last year, Kodi Whitley was gone, promoted, shipped swiftly to Class AA Springfield, where he got to find his footing for two months and then, before the Texas League became too familiar, he was on the go again, headed for Class AAA Memphis.
He had 16 games there, collected a couple of saves for the Redbirds, and when their season ended, he didn’t. Stuff back in a bag. Whitley back on a plane.
Have fastball, will travel.
All of those miles traveled in 2019 – through three different levels, four different leagues, and dozens of different bullpens – has Whitley inching closer the destination the Cardinals expect from him this year: A major-league debut. Whitley, a righthander, didn’t have an ERA higher than 1.85 at any level last season, and he never pitched at a league where he had fewer strikeouts than innings pitched. In 50 appearances for Cardinals’ affiliates this past season, Whitley went 3-4 with a 1.60 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings. He went nine-for-11 in save opportunities, running his career total to 20 saves.
At the Arizona Fall League, the finishing school for prospects, Whitley had a 1.64 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 11 innings.
He walked one batter.
Whitley, 25, was the Cardinals’ 27th-round pick out of Mount Olive in 2017, and it was during the next season, at Low-A Peoria, that he shifted gears. He made two starts that season for innings, and the rest of his 41 appearances came in relief. He saw a jump in velocity, and then the swift jump from level to level to level because he did something that accelerates any promotion: He threw strikes and was stingy with walks, uncannily so.
In 156 2/3 pro innings, he has a 2.01 ERA – and he’s allowed almost as many runs total (48) as he has walks (49), and 26 of those came in one season as he sorted out his mechanics. In his short-burst, high-leverage spots, he suppresses both.
This spring, at major-league camp, he's struck out eight of the 15 batters he's faced, and true to his approach he's walked one batter in four innings.
The Cardinals see Whitley as a swift-moving reliever who could serve in the fixer role held previously by pitchers like Seth Maness and Matt Bowman. Only with more horsepower.
In the Cardinals clubhouse this week, Whitley sat for a Q & A with the Post-Dispatch, the complete transcript of which is presented here:
DERRICK GOOLD: As much as you moved around, did you always have a bag packed?
KODI WHITLEY: To be honest, I never unpacked last year. I just kept my stuff in the suitcase all the time. My mom always gets on me because even when I go home, I’m so used to doing it, that I won’t unpack for like a month. You get used to it. I definitely stayed ready last year. And then after the year ended, in Memphis, I went to Arizona (Fall League) as well. A lot, a lot, a lot of moving last year.
DG: Luggage got a lot of use. Did you have to replace it?
KW: Oh, no.
DG: It survived.
KW: It did survive.
DG: Are you pretty nimble then, not carrying a lot of stuff, not packing a lot?
KW: Not much at all. The necessities. Just kind of make do.
DG: As you’re moving around and up the system last year, and the success started building, what else did you gain?
KW: It was definitely a good ride for sure. Started in Palm Beach. Spent a little short time there, and then went to Double-A. I was able to continue that success there. Ended up in Memphis at the end of the year and arrived with just that confidence that your stuff will play across all the levels was something good to see.
DG: Is there something you found early on that carried you, a change you made? You start in Palm Beach with a chance to hop the fence and build on the momentum from spring training..
KW: Just trusting my pitches in the zone. Getting outs in the zone. Once I started doing that more, that helped me at the higher levels of getting guys out in the zone instead of trying to get guys to chase all time. I threw a lot of strikes and trusted in my stuff.
DG: Because of the movement on your pitches?
KW: Mmm-mmm. Coming in I threw a fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup, and now it’s just four-seam fastball, slider, changeup. That’s it. Limited it. Broke it down. I used to kind of throw a sinker before but I quit doing that and just went all four-seams.
DG: The four-seamer is what people were talking about, the horsepower, the movement.
KW: It has a little bit more jump on it.
DG: Gives it a little deception.
DG: When you go through the levels, what did you find the challenge was at each stop, the difference in the hitters?
KW: The higher you go up the older guys get, the more patience that they have, the better approach they have to hitting. It’s just something you have to get used to. You have to kind of figure out individually – you see a lot of guys, so you can’t really have a scouting report on every guy but you just kind of have to trust your stuff and go after guys. But know that the higher up you go the better approaches you’re going to see. You’re not going to be able to get away with pitches in the middle anymore. And if you get behind in counts, you’re going to get hurt. It’s all about getting ahead early, throwing a lot of strikes, and just knowing they’re smart hitters, too.
DG: You have to find that alley over the plate, right – so you’re not stuck trying to tease them off the plate, out of the zone and my stuff is good enough to do that vs. over the middle, where no stuff is good enough?
KW: You do.
DG: What’s behind the velocity increase, too?
KW: My first year in Peoria it was low-90s. Toward the end of that year, had a good jump. I got up to the mid-90s. And last year I was able to get up to 95-96-97 – sitting mid-90s, not just hitting it. That helps a lot with the velo and weak contact. It just kind of helps you where you don’t have to be as perfect when you have a little bit of velo like that.
DG: Touched 98 mph the other day. Is that just filling out, getting stronger?
KW: Getting stronger. I did a lot of work during my year in Peoria with mechanics and stuff like that. Moving better. I felt like my timing got better, just everything kind of synched up and it worked out. It wasn’t like I was trying – this is my goal to throw this hard. Just cleaning up some mechanical stuff, it just kind of came along with that, out of nowhere.
DG: Is this a case of where you got to a point where you’re weren’t just using your arm, but you started utilizing your lower half, by engaging everything to help the arm?
KW: Your whole body.
DG: And that’s where the velocity comes from then.
DG: How did you learn the four-seam that you have, learn to rely on it?
KW: I’ve always thrown it my whole life. Most pitchers have, right? That’s how they start. Throw a four-seam fastball. I just used to throw the sinker as well, and we had to cut that out. Just four-seam fastball. I started having a lot of success with that instead of the sinker, and once I saw the success, I pretty much said, ‘Look, I don’t want to throw the sinker anymore because it wasn’t working.’ There is a reason why the four-seamer worked, so let’s build off of this.
DG: That was as a pro, right?
KW: Yes. I used to just throw the sinker every now and then to lefties and stuff like that. Now, never. Never. I never grip that pitch anymore.
DG: How about the shift to relief? What role did that play?
KW: That’s probably one of the reasons the velo jumped. I didn’t have to go out there worried about throwing six or seven innings and feeling like I had to pace myself. I know that I’m going to have one or two, possibly three innings, at most. I can go out there and let it go, not worry about pacing myself and all that.
DG: Were you at all reluctant to make the move to full-time relief?
KW: I mean, every pitcher in this locker room has started their whole life. It’s definitely a change. You just have to get used to it. The biggest deal was being able to pitch every day and getting the arm ready for that. It’s training your arm to do that.
DG: Sometimes when they come to a pitcher and talk to him about moving, there’s this internal calculus, right, about how it could be a quicker way to the majors.
KW: Yeah. That’s one of the fastest ways to get there. You see guys make debuts every year because they need a reliever, or stuff like that. Why not do that? Why not?
DG: It probably goes back to what you were describing about throwing strikes, but what’s the mentality been like as you made that switch to relief, as you got to be more aggressive with strikes and challenging hitters? Maybe all of that fits together.
KW: Just being aggressive. As a reliever you want to come into the game and start throwing strikes. You can’t get behind guys. You can’t wait. Especially if you’re going to be in big situations. You don’t want to walk guys. You don’t want to always be behind in counts, and then put them in hitter-friendly counts. Work ahead. Trust your stuff.
DG: What’s the fastest you’ve thrown then?
DG: So you touched that here in spring – pretty sure that’s what the scoreboard said.
KW: I don’t know. I didn’t check.
DG: Have you utilized the tech around here, too – the Rapsodo, the cameras?
KW: I love that stuff. It’s been big for me.
DG: When did you start?
KW: Back in 2017.
DG: On your own, or here with the Cardinals?
KW: With the Cardinals.
DG: What did you learn about yourself?
KW: Stuff you can’t see from a TV. That stuff just shows exactly what is going on. There are no ifs or buts or wondering. It shows what it really happening.
DG: Gave you an appreciation for your four-seamer.
KW: Yeah, it did. When you see a pitch – how it works, stuff like, why it works – that makes you trust it more. You can actually see it on paper. You get confidence from that.
DG: How’s this camp going for you so far then?
KW: It’s been great. It’s been good. Getting around all these guys, learning from them, and really seeing how they carry themselves, how professional they are. I’m trying to learn as much as possible, watch as much as possible.
DG: And you get a chance to see how your stuff plays at the next level, again.
KW: That’s another big thing too. Get to see if you can still get outs.
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