SHOREWOOD – By at least one measure, Tony Bucciferro was the most successful pitcher at any level in affiliated minor-league baseball during the 2013 season.
Some would say Bucciferro still barely registers, if he registers at all, as a prospect. Others think that even without the prototypical “stuff” of a future big-leaguer, Bucciferro’s command and approach give him a real chance at reaching, and succeeding at, baseball’s highest level.
Early in the 2013 season, Bucciferro thought his big-league dreams might be irreparably broken. A shoulder injury limited the Minooka Community High School graduate to seven innings at rookie-league Bristol after the White Sox drafted him out of Michigan State in 2012. He was kept at extended spring training after the White Sox broke camp in 2013.
Bucciferro finally made his season debut June 4 for low-A Kannapolis in its 58th scheduled game of the season. Three appearances into his season, Bucciferro had a 6.17 ERA and was sent back to rookie ball. After two appearances at Bristol, he was promoted back to Kannapolis – where he gave up four earned runs in 4 1⁄3 innings and was demoted again.
“I did good in extended and then my chance and I blew it,” Bucciferro said. “I threw pretty awful the first couple, I think three starts, I did terrible. Absolutely terrible. And then when the draft came, I got sent back to rookie ball. Did good. Came back up for another start. Did awful again. Absolutely terrible. Right there, my confidence went.”
But after pitching six scoreless innings in a July 12 start for Bristol, Bucciferro was brought right back up to Kannapolis, and that time, he stuck. He made successive starts on July 20 and 26 in which he threw seven innings and allowed no earned runs.
In all, Bucciferro made 13 appearances, 12 of them starts, for Kannapolis. His 3-5 record was deceiving for a pitcher with a 2.50 ERA and a 71-5 strikeout-walk ratio.
“When he got comfortable, he could have been our second-best pitcher,” Kannapolis manager Tommy Thompson said of Bucciferro. “He went deep in games consistently and kept us in games almost every time out.”
Between the two levels, Bucciferro walked only six batters in 90 2⁄3 innings. Per the statistically-focused baseball website Fangraphs, his 1.74 fielder independent pitching was the lowest in the affiliated minor leagues for anyone with at least 80 innings pitched. Fangraphs defines FIP as “what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average.”
Avoiding walks is a top priority for Bucciferro. His four-seam fastball tops out at around 91 miles per hour, according to Fangraphs, and his two-seamer is a bit slower. Bucciferro also throws a slider and a change-up.
“Seeing that I had only six walks, I mean, I can’t believe I was able to do that,” he said. “I would say don’t expect that from me every year, because that’s hard to do, but my approach to hitters is, especially [because] I don’t have overpowering stuff, is I can’t afford to let people get on base for free.”
Doing it differently
Not only does Bucciferro pound the strike zone, he also frequently does so in an atypical manner. Fangraphs cites his willingness to throw inside to left-handed batters much more often than right-handed pitchers typically do as a reason he only walked one of the 152 left-handers he faced in 2013.
MCHS pitching coach Jim Lamping said Bucciferro’s current approach to pitching started forming during his high school career.
“Mentally, he’s probably the best pitcher I’ve ever coached. He just has a good idea of what he wants to do with the ball and he executes all of his pitches,” Lamping said. “And he knows his limitations. He knows what he can do. He gets ahead, and by doing so, he gets guys to swing at his pitch. If he pitches a complete game, he’ll likely have gotten 21, 22 ground-ball outs.”
Bucciferro said he does not necessarily enter each start with a specific game plan. He and his pitching coach – with the Intimidators in 2013, it was Jose Bautista – may discuss how to attack certain hitters. Advance scouting in the lower minors, Bucciferro said, is not what it is in the majors, so detailed breakdowns of unfamiliar opponents may not be available.
As an appearance plays out, however, Bucciferro is always formulating new plans of attack – inning by inning, hitter by hitter and even pitch by pitch.
“I take it as every at-bat is a new game,” he said. “You look at hitters’ tendencies. You look what’s successful that you pitch earlier in the game against them. There’s so many things that come into play, like, ‘Are they trying to pull it? Are they trying to drive it the other way? Are they sitting on my fastball? Are they waiting me out, or are they aggressive?’ There’s so many things in play to a hitter. As for me, it’s like, ‘Am I smarter than this hitter? Am I able to go in and out on him?’ With my command, I’m able to put the ball pretty much where I want to in a way.”
Bucciferro admits he has a smaller margin for error than pitchers with more velocity might have. Ensuring every pitch he makes is properly thought out and executed can be draining.
“If you’ve got decent stuff, the rest of it’s all mental,” Bucciferro said. “A lot of people can’t keep the focus. After the game, if you throw six, seven innings, and you’re focused every pitch, you’re so mentally drained. It was the same way in college. I’d just need to just rest. I can’t even go out. ... You’re physically tired, but you’re more mentally tired.”
The trap many pitchers fall into in difficult moments is to try and throw as hard as they can. Bucciferro said that trap caught him early in 2013.
“I was trying to overpower people, and I can’t do that,” he said. “I was trying to be what other pitchers are, but I can’t be that. I had to pitch to my strengths.”
The road ahead
Bucciferro will turn 24 on Dec. 27. For a baseball player, 24 is a much more advanced than it is for someone in almost any other profession. He learned as much – and started to feel some desperation – during the 2013 season.
“I was like the fourth-oldest, fifth-oldest [player] on the low-A team, so I needed to do something,” Bucciferro said. “Hopefully I did enough.”
The odds of a long big-league career remain long for Bucciferro, if not as long as they were a year ago. Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs have both released their lists of the top 10 prospects in the White Sox system; he was on neither.
If Bucciferro were to reach Chicago, he would buck the trend of big-league staffs being increasingly comprised of power pitchers. Even today, Lamping said, there are room for some anomalies.
“I really feel Tony’s gonna make it to the majors,” Lamping said. “There are still enough good pitchers in the big leagues who throw high-80s or low-90s, and he’s that type of pitcher. ... I think of him as a right-handed Mark Buehrle.”
All but one of the appearances Bucciferro made in 2013 were starts, but during his debut the year before, his injuries helped relegate him to a relief-only role. He did earn one save for Kannapolis this season.
“I’m sure his pitchability – he started, he closed some and he’s pitched in relief, so he’s shown he can be very versatile – would be good for any level,” Thompson said. “I’d imagine he’s going to compete for a starting job, and if not, pitch in the bullpen at [High-A] Winston-Salem.”
Winston-Salem is Bucciferro’s short-term target. He knows continuing his 2013 success is critical to him reaching his long-term target of Chicago.
“Well I wanna break camp in high-A this year. That’d be ideal. We’ll see. I’m gonna have to fight,” Bucciferro said. “You’re not owed anything, especially in the minor leagues or professional baseball, and especially if you’re a senior-sign, 14th-round pick. You’re not owed anything. Every path to the big leagues is different. Who knows what happens in the following years.”