San Francisco Giants prospect Michael Kickham started his big league debut with a perfect first inning that included a strikeout and two groundouts.
Unfortunately for Kickham and the Giants, the rest of his night didn't go very well. Kickham was knocked out after allowing four runs on four hits and four walks (one intentional) in 2.1 innings of work.
The Oakland A's were a tough first assignment for Kickham. Control was his biggest weakness in the minor leagues. He walked 136 hitters in 318.2 career innings in the minors. The A's are the second-most patient team in baseball with a 10.4 percent walk rate. Thus, they were a particularly difficult challenge for the wild Kickham.
Kickham showed good stuff on Tuesday night. His fastball sat between 90-94 miles per hour. He flashed an outstanding slider that induced four swing-throughs. His changeup and curve were also effective pitches.
All four of his offerings showed good tilt. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, Kickham is a big, physical lefty who can drive the ball downhill. He was able to keep the ball around the knees for the most part, which helped him get four ground-ball outs and three strikeouts. The A's swung and missed at eight of his 65 pitches.
The problem for Kickham was his lack of control. In addition to the four walks, he fell behind 3-0 in the count to Derek Norris in the second inning. After a strike, Norris drove a low-and-in fastball for a two-run homer that set Kickham's night down the wrong path.
Kickham was not helped by manager Bruce Bochy's decision to intentionally walk Josh Donaldson to load the bases in the third inning. Donaldson is certainly having an outstanding year. However, Kickham's lack of control made loading the bases a recipe for disaster—particularly when Jed Lowrie and his .389 on-base percentage was up next.
Kickham proceeded to walk Lowrie on a close 3-2 pitch. He then left a fastball up and out over the plate to Nate Freiman, who blasted it for a two-run single to end Kickham's night.
Kickham showed premium stuff, but his lack of control was a huge problem. His inability to throw strikes and consistently get ahead in the count ultimately doomed his debut. Given Kickham's track record of struggling to command the ball in the minors, it doesn't seem likely that he'll suddenly find the strike zone against the tougher competition of Major League Baseball.
He nibbled at the corners too often against the A's instead of challenging them with his outstanding repertoire. He also showed some issues with his delivery.
Kickham lands extremely upright, which forces him to rely on his arm more than his legs. His lack of leg drive and high finish could be part of the reason for his lack of control.
The Giants are trying to defend a World Series title. They don't have the luxury of developing prospects at the professional level. Unfortunately, Kickham may have to continue his development in the big leagues since the Giants lack any clear alternatives.
Chad Gaudin has starting experience, but he's desperately needed in the bullpen with setup man Santiago Casilla possibly out until the All-Star break, per Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com.
Gaudin has also struggled as a starter in his career. He's put up a 4.72 ERA over 409.2 innings in the rotation. Lefties have hit .293 off of Gaudin during his career, while righties have hit just .240. His platoon splits make him a better fit as a reliever, where he can be used predominantly against same-sided hitters.
Veteran right-hander Shane Loux has more experience and polish than Kickham. He's currently 5-2 with a 4.09 ERA at Triple-A Fresno. If the Giants decide that Kickham needs more time in the minors, the 33-year-old Loux seems to be the last in-house option available.
However, Loux has only struck out 17 hitters while walking 18 in 50.2 innings this season. Therefore, he might not prove to be a palatable option, either.
The Giants chose Kickham to replace the injured Ryan Vogelsong because he was the best among few options. The fact that the Giants concluded he was their top alternative does not guarantee he'll have success.
After one start, it looks like Kickham needs more time in the minor leagues to work on his control.
The Giants just don't have a lot of time to wait around for Kickham to figure things out. With a fastball that gets up to 94, he should challenge hitters in the zone more often. However, his delivery might not allow him to develop better control.
Vogelsong's injury has put the Giants in a quandary. They don't have many options within the organization to replace him. Kickham has the most promise of the potential replacements, but do the Giants have the patience or the ability to get him to deliver on that potential right now?
It may be too soon to answer that question. The results in Kickham's debut, however, were certainly not good enough for a team trying to win a division.
The Giants need more from that spot in the rotation, and they need it immediately.