Rockies Throw the Draft a Curve With Top Picks

Burt Hooton had a successful big-league pitching career.

His bread and butter was a nasty knuckle curve.

He learned during his days at the University of Texas when he came up to Boulder to pitch for the Boulder Collegians and was introduced to the pitch by the late Bus Campbell, who taught the breaking pitch to just about every young pitcher to come out of Colorado during his era.

And he did it at altitude, contrary to what has become a popular old wives’ tale in the baseball world, fueled in no small part by a stretch in which former Rockies exec Bill Geivett banned the curveball because he decided it would not break at altitude.

“Does it break the same in Boulder as it does at Dodger Stadium?” Hooton asked several years agoin the midst of a discussion on the curveball at altitude, “No, but it breaks. You just have to adjust your release point so it doesn’t break in hitter’s zone. But adjustments are part of the game. Every time you take the mound, you have to make adjustments. That’s part of the game.”

And for the Rockies, the curveball is, once again, a part of the game.

“I pitched here five years and the curveball was my out pitch,” said bullpen coach Darren Holmes. “Who says you can’t throw a curveball in Colorado?”

Certainly nobody at Coors Field. Not anymore.

They have a rotation in which the curveball is a part of each pitcher’s bag of tricks, including Jon Gray, who didn’t throw one when the Rockies selected him as the third player taken in the 2013 first-year player draft but now finds it often is a better pitch than his slider.

It is a staple for Chad Bettis, who had a curveball that was his second best pitch when the Rockies drafted him in the second round out of Texas Tech, only to be ordered at one point not to throw the pitch by the same man who then proclaimed Bettis didn’t have enough pitches to be in the rotation.

Kyle Freeland, born and raised in Denver, has a curveball in his arsenal, and so does German Marquez, a fourth member of the rotation.

And for anyone not paying attention on Monday night to the first day of baseball’s annual first-year player, Ryan Rolison, a left-hander from the University of Mississippi and the Rockies first selection, No. 22 overall, sports a full arsenal of pitches. And a curveball that is a crucial part of his game focus.

The Rockies also selected high school first baseman Grant Lavigne from Bedford (N.H.) High School with the 42nd pick in the, and right-handed pitcher Mitchell Kilkenny from Texas A&M with the 76th selection, compensation for the loss of free agent pitcher Greg Holland.

“Rolison’s money pitch is one of the best curveballs in the draft, which combines power and depth,” according to the scouting report on MLB.com. “He also works in the low 90s and can reach 95 miles per hour with his fastball.”

Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt agreed with the report, adding, “The guys on our major-league staff have shown you can throw the curveball at Coors Field.”

Schmidt said the Rockies have had their eye on Rolison since high school and were interested in him out of high school, but he was adamant about going to Mississippi, so the Rockies decided to continue to monitor him.

A draft-eligible sophomore because he turns 21 on July 11, Rolison was projected as a top 10 pick before the college season began after earning Freshman All-America honors, and then stood out among the pitchers in the Cape Cod League last summer.

“We like his feel for pitching and his competitiveness,” said Schmidt. “We have watched him since high school.”

Lavigne, a left-handed hitter, who has hit .588 with six home runs 25 RBI and 17 stolen bases in 17 games, was selected the New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year for the second time in three years.

The Rockies are looking for him to become the first high school position player out of New Hampshire to sign and get to the big leagues. The state has produced three high school pitchers who made it to the big leagues, including right-hander Chris Carpenter, the No. 1 pick of Toronto in 1993 out of Trinity High School in Manchester.

The others were right-hander Rob Woodward, a third-round pick of the Red Sox out of Lebanon High School in 1981, and left-hander Jeff Locke, the Braves second round selection in 2006 out of A. Crosby Kennett High School in Conway.

“We saw him last summer in showcases,” said Schmidt. “The kid has a natural feel for hitting. He has the ability to use the whole field, and has power.”

As a junior at Texas A&M, Kilkenny was 8-5 with a 3.34 ERA, striking out 92 with only 24 walks in 97 innings over 16 starts. Kilkenny, 6-3, 205, was a reliever as a sophomore. He faded a bit toward the end of his junior season. Schmidt said, “Having been a reliever before, I think he got tired.”

He opened the season as the Sunday starter for the Aggies, but by season end was starting the Friday and Saturday games.

“He has a tall, rangy body,” said Schmidt.