Jan. 13, 2014
By STEVE COTTON
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- For Kevin Shackelford, the beginning came at what looked like the end.
In his third season of professional baseball, the Marshall alumnus was struggling as a pitcher for the 2012 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Milwaukee Brewers’ low Class A Midwest League affiliate, and wondered if his career might be over.
Not much more than a year later he’s on Milwaukee’s 40-man roster, one phone call away from “The Show.”
“In the Minor Leagues you have what we call the ‘Phantom DL,’” Shackelford said. “It’s a disabled list where they stash people even when they’re not hurt. You keep working out with the team, but you’re not on the active roster.
“They put me on that. It’s your final chance. I was on the verge of being cut.”
Shackelford had been drafted by the Brewers in the 21st round of the 2010 amateur draft as a project. He became a reclamation project for Wisconsin pitching coach Dave Chavarria.
“We moved my arm angle up so I’m more over the top, and it resulted in a better sink and tilt,” Shackelford said. “Then we developed a good slider with some bite.
“It was the turning point in my career.”
He not only avoided being cut, but Shackelford earned a promotion to the advanced Class A Florida State League’s Brevard County Manatees to start last season, then a midyear call-up to the Huntsville Stars in the Double A Southern League.
Everything fell into place in Huntsville, where as a relief pitcher Shackelford went 1-1 with a 0.92 ERA in 20 games. He earned six saves while striking out 25 batters in 29 1/3 innings of work.
“The mechanics started to click,” Shackelford said. “No matter what pitch I’m throwing, my mechanics are locked in the same. That’s what allowed me to not only throw strikes, but to throw the strikes where I want them in the zone.
“For the most part I kept the count in my favor, and when you’re ahead in the count it’s making the hitters go after the pitches you want to them to.”
With better mechanics leading to consistent success, Shackelford’s confidence grew with each appearance.
“You have one good outing and you feel good and you try to build on that,” he said. “You have another good one and you feel even better. It keeps going and you look up and you have a long string of zeroes that you’ve put up and you feel like you can keep doing it.”
Shackelford wasn’t the only one who noticed that string of zeroes.
“We have end of the year meetings before we go home for the offseason, and I sat down with (Brewers Assistant General Manager) Gord Ash,” he said. “I was the last pitcher to get called in.
“Gord asked what my offseason plans were and I said I was just going home to work out and be ready for next season. He said, ‘Well, how would you feel about going to the AFL?’
“In the back of my mind I wondered if it might be a possibility because I’d pitched so well, but you still don’t expect that when you’re a later-round draft pick.”
The AFL – Arizona Fall League – is a place for baseball’s top prospects to hone their skills in October and November in front of Major League scouts and executives. The six AFL teams are each comprised of highly regarded players from five MLB organizations.
Even against those deemed as the most Major League-ready prospects, Shackelford more than held his own. He pitched in 11 games, logging a 1-1 record and 3.09 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings.
Then came Nov. 20, the deadline for Major League teams to set their 40-man rosters.
“I knew it was the deadline day and when I saw a Wisconsin number pop up on my phone I wondered if that could be it,” Shackelford said. “It was Reid Nichols, Milwaukee’s minor league director, and he told me I was on the Brewers’ roster.
“It was the best feeling ever. At that point you know they are totally serious about you and you’re just a phone call from going up to the bigs. If you’re on the 40-man, you know they’re even thinking you have a chance to make the team out of spring training. You’re in the big league plans.
“That was as exciting as Christmas when I was 5 years old.”
That it took Shackelford until his fourth year of professional baseball to blossom shouldn’t be surprising since he spent his whole career, including his first two seasons with the Herd, as a catcher.
“I only threw four or five times in high school but that was just here or there and I had no idea what I was doing,” the Charlotte, N.C., native said. “I was 95 percent a catcher throughout my entire life.”
Back and knee injuries that made the rigors of squatting behind the plate problematic led to Shackelford shedding his catcher’s gear during Herd practice one day and a walk to the other end of the bullpen to see if his powerful right arm could be of use there.
“I just got on the mound and threw a bullpen session,” Shackelford said. “(Marshall Coach Jeff) Waggoner walked up and watched for a couple minutes and said, ‘Why didn’t you ever let me know you could pitch?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know I could.’”
His 2010 Marshall pitching line (1-1, 7.50 ERA, 4 strikeouts, 11 walks in 19 innings) wouldn’t turn any heads.
“I was just learning to pitch. I got shelled,” he said.
But when his fastball lit the radar guns at 95 MPH in an appearance against Rice at the Conference USA Tournament, all the scouts began scribbling in their notebooks.
“The scouts saw a lanky guy (now 6 feet 5 and 215 pounds) with a live arm, and with a fresh arm since I’d never been a pitcher,” Shackelford said. “I was someone they could make into a project and teach how to pitch and someone who might have a good upside.
“The Brewers called my name and tossed a little money my way, and I ran with the chance.”
Four years later, and now on the 40-man roster, any call Shackelford receives from the Wisconsin area code could be the one that summons another former Marshall baseball player to the Majors.
This story previously appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of the Herd Insider.