Pitch puts Middleton on Angels’ radar
By Jarrid Denney | For The Register-Guard
It’s safe to say that Keynan Middleton generated a bit of a buzz last month in his debut for the Salt Lake Bees.
The former two-sport star at Lane Community College had a strong outing for the Los Angeles Angels’ AAA affiliate, with four strikeouts in two scoreless innings of relief in a 4-2 victory over Reno on Aug. 8.
But what got the biggest notice in that effort was a single pitch. In the eighth inning, Middleton unleashed a fastball that was clocked at 102 mph on the stadium radar gun.
According to MLB Statcast, only three pitchers in Major League Baseball touched 102 mph this season — Aroldis Chapman (105.1), Mauricio Cabrera (103.8) and Arquimedes Caminero (102.2). The 22-year-old right-hander clocked one in a minor league stadium where the average attendance is 7,195.
“Shoot, you’re in AAA. You’re a guy with his stuff, there’s not a whole lot of guys like that in baseball,” Salt Lake manager Keith Johnson said.
Middleton was drafted by the Angels in the third round of the 2013 MLB draft after just one year of playing basketball and baseball for Lane. In his fourth season as a pro, Middleton has begun to reach the potential that the Angels saw when he was that draft’s highest-selected junior college player.
This past season, Middleton soared through the Angels’ minor league system, moving from advanced-A ball (Inland Empire 66ers in San Bernardino, Calif.) at the start of the year, made a brief stop at AA (Arkansas Travelers of North Little Rock, Ark.), and finishing the season at AAA Salt Lake, where he has become one of the Angels’ most coveted prospects.
After seeing mixed results as a starter and battling injuries for the first three years of his pro career, a move to the bullpen has allowed Middleton to thrive. He struck out 88 in 66 innings this season and has added a changeup and slider to a fastball that has always been his best pitch.
“This year, going to the pen actually helped me figure things out and helped me going into situations where you have to use all your pitches,” Middleton said.
At Lane, Middleton’s fastball registered in the 94- to 95-mph range, but he said that he was only throwing with his arm and had no lower body mechanics.
A three-sport star at Milwaukie High, Middleton’s first love was basketball. He was the Titans’ starting shooting guard during his lone winter at Lane, and led the team in three-pointers while shooting 39 percent and averaging 12 points. But Middleton never focused on baseball.
“He walked on our campus and was sort of a freak athletically,” Lane coach Bruce Chavka said. “He just made it all look effortless … The really cool, amazing thing that he did was being able to balance all of it with academics and baseball and basketball. Not everybody can do that.”
Chavka said that if Middleton had focused solely on basketball, his second-best sport, he was capable of playing at the low Division I level. Middleton chose to pursue baseball but often questioned if it was the right decision.
“The last couple years, not having the success baseball-wise, I’m like, ‘Dang, should I have kept playing basketball?’” Middleton said. “It was definitely hard; it was really frustrating to go out there every night when I didn’t have all my stuff … If there was a day when I couldn’t command my fastball, all hell broke loose. “
His coaches at Inland Empire worked with Middleton to overhaul his mechanics. He added a twist to his windup that he said is similar to San Francisco Giants star Johnny Cueto.
He gained confidence in his changeup, his shoulder stopped hurting and his velocity began to spike.
“He’s been a guy with electric stuff,” Johnson said. “Obviously his fastball is electric, but a guy who can land a slider and changeup with that repertoire, he’s gone right through our system.”
Mechanics and success aren’t all that have improved Middleton’s outlook. Before his third season, Middleton and his wife, Nicole, had a daughter, Kamrynn, who is 18 months.
“The best drive that I have is having my daughter and having to provide for a family. It literally changed my life,” Middleton says. “Now I think about baseball more … I’m more locked into the games. I’ve just matured a lot on and off the field this past year.”
Middleton didn’t earn a September callup from the Angels, and a spot on a major league roster may be a ways away. But if Middleton’s meteoric rise during the past five months is any indicator, nothing is out of the question.
“It feels unreal,” Middleton says. “Definitely.”