Low Class A NotebookTigers’ McDowell is emerging from his famous uncle’s shadow
By Joe Bush
August 29, 2002
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill.–Like uncle, like nephew?
Not quite, but that didn’t keep Kevin McDowell from trying. Now that the West Michigan lefthander has stopped trying to throw as hard as Sam McDowell, he’s forged his own brand of success.
The 2001 15th-rounder out of Bucknell had a seven-win streak. In 12 starts, the nephew of one of baseball’s all-time strikeout artists posted a 1.90 ERA and 9-3 record. The Tigers named him the organization’s minor league pitcher of the month for July, when he went 5-1, 1.28 in six starts.
Pitching for the Indians, "Sudden" Sam McDowell dominated the American League from 1965-70. He won five strikeout titles–including seasons of 325 Ks in 1965 and 304 in 1970, making him one of five pitchers in modern history to fan more than 300 batters in a season at least twice. He won 20 games in 1970, led the AL in ERA in 1965 and in shutouts in 1966, when he tossed back-to-back one-hitters.
The lefty finished his 15-year career with 2,453 strikeouts and is in elite company. His 74 double-digit strikeout games is fourth behind Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton. His 8.86 strikeouts per nine innings is behind Ryan and Koufax.
Changing It Up
Like his uncle, Kevin McDowell has had control problems (Sam led the AL in walks five times and wild pitches three times), but this season–his second after Tommy John surgery in March 2000–he has discovered the joys of easing up a bit.
"I had a tendency to overthrow," said McDowell, who hadn’t missed a start a year after splitting time between the bullpen and rotation. "My control is a lot better than it ever was."
While Sudden Sam overpowered batters, Kevin features a newly learned changeup as his best pitch. A two-pitch guy in college and last summer, McDowell worked with Tigers instructors, including Jon Matlack, to find a comfortable changeup grip. They settled on a loose, four-finger set-up.
"I’ve always had a curveball," McDowell said. "I never had a changeup."
McDowell and his new toy had struck out 117, walked 61 and allowed 152 hits in 161 innings. Not spectacular, but clearly–with 11-6, 2.64 numbers–effective.
"All year he was throwing the ball real well," West Michigan pitching coach A.J. Sager said. "About a month in, he really got into a comfort level. You look up, and six or seven innings in, if you don’t have the lead, you’re still fighting for it. It’s really almost like clockwork."
McDowell is much improved since April, cutting down his walks and tightening his curveball.
"It’s just become sharper," Sager said of McDowell’s curve.
"One of the hardest things (after Tommy John) is control and throwing the curveball," McDowell said. "I was walking a few too many guys early. I’m feeling a lot better. I trust all my pitches."
Listen To Mom
As luck would have it, McDowell had it written into his contract that he would finish his education in the fall of 2001 after his pro debut, when he went 2-4, 2.72 in 46 innings for short-season Oneonta. "Mom wouldn’t let me go without it," he said of the degree, so any kind of fall ball was out. But it was probably for the best, because "my elbow really needed a rest."
He graduated from Bucknell in December with a degree in business management, then turned back to baseball with modest goals. "I just wanted to be in the starting rotation on one of the teams," he said. "They haven’t taken me out yet."
McDowell is one of the trio of lefthanders at the top of the West Michigan rotation that helped the Whitecaps clinch a wild-card playoff berth in the first half and compete for the Eastern Division title in the second half. He, Chad Petty and Matt Coenen were a combined 38-24.
Sager says McDowell didn’t begin doing anything drastically different from when he had a record of 4-6. He tops out at 91 mph, then throws the curve and changeup for strikes.
"He still is throwing at the same velocity; it’s just more under control," Sager said. "He started to mix his pitches. He started trusting his stuff more. He’s got a good idea what he’s doing out there."
The Pittsburgh native grew up torn between the Pirates and the Indians–because of Sam–and besides his uncle is the only lefty in his family. That biological fact is at least as important as the confidence with which he pitches now.
"You start getting results," Sager said, "then you start expecting them instead of hoping for them."
By Joe Bush
• Quad City shortstop Seth Davidson and third baseman Michael Sandoval each drove in five runs for the River Bandits in a 22-hit, 23-2 pounding of Burlington.
Davidson cracked a grand slam in a seven-run third inning; strangely, it was the only home run for Quad City. He also singled home a run in the sixth. Sandoval drew one of the River Bandits’ 13 walks and scored in his first at-bat of the third and later in the inning nailed an RBI single. He hit two-run doubles in the fifth and sixth innings. It was the most runs in a Midwest League game since Beloit topped Clinton, 23-10 in 1998.
• On the same night, Burlington lefthander Mike Stodolka tossed a three-hit, 3-1 complete game over Fort Wayne, while Clinton righthander Chris Barlow threw a two-hit shutout at Wisconsin, 11-0. Stodolka gave up a run and one extra-base hit, fanning four and walking one. It was the first complete game of his three-year career. The fourth overall pick in the 2000 draft won his third straight start to improve to 8-12, 5.41. Barlow, the son of ex-big leaguer Mike Barlow, gave up a pair of walks in his gem to improve to 1-4, 3.57 in four starts with the LumberKings. Overall, the 21-year-old–who started his career at short-season Vermont–was 2-7, 3.13 in 12 outings. He was selected in the ninth round of this year’s draft out of Le Moyne College.
• Fort Wayne third baseman Greg Sain drove home the winning run in the 11th inning and finished 5-for-5 with two doubles and three RBIs in a 9-8 victory at Burlington. Sain singled home first baseman Joe Hastings with two outs in the 11th to help the Wizards win for just the fourth time in 53 games when trailing after eight innings.
• Wisconsin righthander Phil Cullen broke the humerus bone in his pitching arm while warming up before a start. Cullen, 22, was taken by ambulance to Appleton Medical Center. "Being a pitcher, it’s scary to think that something that shocking can happen," Timber Rattlers pitcher Dan Head, who accompanied Cullen to the hospital, told the Appleton Post Crescent. "He felt it and said, ‘My arm is broken,’ Rattlers pitching coach Brad Holman said. "That’s not something that happens to pitchers very often."