The 2016 draft was a watershed moment for the Braves’ farm system in a lot of ways. Across a series of trades, international free agent signings, and the success of the 2015 draft, the farm system was very much on the upswing and among the best in baseball. Further, the draft strategy that the Braves employed in the 2016 draft of using their sizable draft pool to sign several highly regarded prospects solidified the system as being the deepest in the entire league.
The top of the draft was headlined by the selections of Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, and Kyle Muller, three of the top prep arms available in the entire draft. We are very fortunate that one of them, Kyle Muller took time out of his busy offseason to chat with us today.
Kyle was drafted with the 44th selection in the 2016 draft out of Jesuit College Prep in Texas. The Braves were able to sign him, with his low to mid-90s fastball, plus curve, and developing changeup, away from a strong University of Texas commitment. The Braves’ faith in Muller’s abilities was rewarded in a big way, as he was dominant in the GCL with a 0.65 ERA to go along with 38 strikeouts in 27.2 innings in his first taste of pro ball while holding opposing batters to a paltry .144 batting average against. Kyle and I covered a wide range of topics including his journey to the pros, how his first season of pro ball went, and what he is working on going into the 2017 season. Enjoy!
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you start playing baseball? Were you always a pitcher? Did you play any other sports as a kid?
I started playing baseball around the same time a lot of kids do. I started off with tee-ball, moved to machine pitch, and then moved to kid pitch. I have been playing as long as I can remember, really. I started pitching right when we got to kid pitch, but you know back then you were just trying to throw it to the catcher at that point.
Growing up, I played all kinds of sports. I played soccer for a little bit, but then I played football, baseball, and basketball all the way up until my sophomore year in high school. I played football and baseball my sophomore year and then focused on baseball from there for my junior and senior year.
You played high school ball in the Dallas area. At what point in you development did you realize that turning pro was a realistic option for you?
For me, it kind of clicked going into my junior year. That sophomore year summer, I started getting a lot of interest from colleges and I got invited to the Area Code Games as an underclassman. You are around all of these big name guys and getting questionnaires from all of these big league teams. I was going to play football my junior year, but my summer coach laid it out for me. He was like, “Dude, you are this tall, you throw this hard, you are left-handed... it just screams pitcher.” That hit me and I decided I really wanted to make something out of this. I decided to give up football going into junior year and that is when I started putting my heart and soul into baseball.
It was pretty widely known that before the draft you had a fairly strong commitment to play at the University of Texas. Going into the draft, how likely did you and your family think that you were going to end up playing in college? Were you getting a lot of the type of interest you were looking for before the draft?
Education has always been a pretty big part for my family. I went to private school K-8th grade and went to a private high school, so that has always been big for us. For me, my dream was to be a professional athlete. It didn’t matter to me which sport, so when I started focusing on baseball... I wanted to be a professional baseball player. Being able to start that as soon as possible... for me, I wanted to go pro. Coming out of high school, that is what I wanted to do. At the same time, it would have to be… I mean, that is a life-changing decision as an 18-year old. It was something I really had to think about. Just knowing that if I had the right opportunity with the right organization and the circumstances were in my favor, I was ready to suit up and play pro ball.
You pretty famously became part of the Braves’ strategy of using a large draft pool to sign the equivalent of three first round talents with their first three picks. When were you aware that the Braves were interested in you and when did you think that signing with the Braves was going to happen?
I didn’t really know at first so as the draft is going on, I remember watching and that was a nerve-wracking day. I was just going through waters, just downing them out of nervous energy. I found out that the Braves were going to pick me at 44 right at pick 38. I got a call from my agent and he just said, “Let’s just hope that you fall down to them and then today will be a good day.” Every pick in-between then... I was nervous because I knew I was going to get picked and there was something good for me at 44, but at the same time you don’t want to get picked before that point. Once it happened and the Braves selected me, it was just awesome. I remember there was a YouTube video where I was crying and I was just so happy to be there with my parents. That is what you dream about... being able to live that out and having all of your hard work pay off like that, it was amazing.
As for before the draft, it wasn’t as much interest from the Braves going into the draft. I had gotten some stronger vibes from some other teams. I wasn’t really looking at the Braves as an option because I didn’t know they were thinking about picking me. I didn’t know until I got that call right at pick 38.
So you sign with the Braves and go into your first pro season down in rookie ball. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make as a pitcher as the season went on in the GCL?
In high school, you are not always facing the best teams. There are just some teams that are just not as talented. As a pitcher, you can get away with a lot more facing those types of teams. Being able to throw with real velocity, you can get away with throwing a pitch down the middle to an average high school team and they will either swing and miss or roll over it. In pro ball, you can’t do that because if you throw it down the middle, they were going to hit it. I don’t throw 100 mph like Syndergaard or Aroldis Chapman. I am in the low 90s and that is pretty common especially now. Being able to locate to both sides of the plate and not miss over the middle was really important.
Let’s talk about your fastball for a minute. Your velocity took a pretty big jump your senior year into the mid-90s. Was that a specific focus for you your senior year? What changes mechanically or physically did you have to make to achieve that?
That was a big thing for me. I had the frame and everything, but if I could show that I could throw hard with that then it would be the perfect formula. So I sat down and mapped out what I wanted to do and just went after it. I was working out six days a week just trying to put strength on. I was really skinny so I was trying to bulk up a little bit. Mechanics-wise, my mechanics can be off a bit because my arms and limbs are so long. Being able to keep my upper body in line with my lower body is huge and I am still working on it. I have to work hard to be cleaner and get out in front a lot faster. Between that and all of the lifting, eating right, sleeping right... just taking the next step and taking care of my body. You can do a little bit just playing in high school, but that isn’t where you get better. It is when nobody is watching you. I was in at 6:30 am working out before I would go to class and then get some food. Anything I could do, whatever I could do… I would do. I ended up putting on 20 pounds before my senior season and cleaned up my mechanics. I didn’t do any of the weighted balls or anything like that… I just put on the strength, cleaned up my mechanics, and the velocity just came.
Your curveball flashed plus in high school and certainly served you well. Do you see yourself sticking with a standard curveball or do you see a potential transition to maybe a power slider in your future like some other young pitchers have recently?
When I throw, I have a pretty high arm slot, so for me I think a curveball would be better just because of the way my arm works. For that side to side movement, I started throwing a cutter just to have something I can get in to righties and away from lefties. So now I have pitch that moves to the left, right, up, down so I get that extra variety of movement to get that edge. Right now, I am just trying to make that curveball consistent, put a little more on it, and throw it for an out pitch.
I didn’t throw the cutter in high school or the GCL last year. I was just fastball, curveball, changeup and just worked with what I had and see how it played. This offseason, I throw bullpens up at Oklahoma with Skip Johnson. He was UT’s pitching coach and that was where I was committed and he was a huge part of that. Being able to come work with him, we have been able to work on the curveball and start playing around with a cutter a little bit. I am liking it a lot and think it will help me get to that next level.
By many accounts, throwing a good changeup is one of the hardest things for young pitchers to learn. How has your changeup been coming along and in your first season in pro ball how often were you throwing it?
Like I said, in high school you could just get away with just throwing hard. You could just let it loose and you were good. As we got deeper in the [high school] playoffs and once I got into pro ball, those guys have seen velocity and they were going to be able to time me up. I have had that changeup in my back pocket, but I hadn’t thrown it outside of bullpens. Once you get that feel for it, because a changeup is a feel pitch, and you can keep that same arm speed and same release point but just change the grip, you make it die a little bit.
Being able to repeat everything with just a different grip is just something you have to play with and the more you use it, the better you get at it. In the playoffs, I used it a bunch, especially when my curveball wasn’t on. If I didn’t have it, I would have just been a fastball guy and they would have been able to time me up. In the GCL, I found myself using my changeup more than my curveball. My changeup ended up being my second best pitch… better than my curveball.
Let’s say you are ahead of a batter 1-2 with a guy on second base with two outs. What is going through your mind and how do you generally approach the rest of that at-bat?
There are a lot of things that I am thinking about. It would depend first on how I got to two strikes. Was it on offspeed, was it on fastball, was he late, was he early, is he pulling off the ball, is he staying closed, is he left-handed, is he right-handed? You start looking at all those little things but for me, 1-2, I am not trying to throw a low ball or a ball in the dirt or wasting a pitch. You are already ahead, you are 1-2 and as a hitter you are in defense mode and you are just trying to put it in play and stay alive. Once you get to 2-2, you start getting a little more comfortable and once you get to 3-2 it is either a strike or you are on base. On that 1-2 pitch, I am trying to get an out. For me, I would just go with what is comfortable and it definitely depends on the situation, but if I had to choose I would try to go fastball.
What is the area that you need to improve upon the most going into 2017? What sorts of offseason work are you doing to make that improvement?
Last year in the GCL, I walked more people than I wanted to. That was the result of me not commanding as well. In high school, some kids were just free swinging and helping you out a bit, so you have to be a lot better about your strike zone as a pro. In order to do that, I have to be more efficient with my mechanics and be able to get my arm out on time and use my body as efficiently as possible and go as deep into games as possible. Last year, I would collapse really hard on my back side and that would throw off my wind-up. I would step across my body a good 6-12 inches and I couldn’t clear my hips to get through. That meant I was fighting myself the whole time and I would have to try harder to throw as hard as I normally do. If you try to throw as hard as you can every time, you are going to be gassed in a couple innings. Realizing my role as a starter, I have to be as efficient as possible and conserve energy but hit the same speed. That is what I have been working on this offseason so far.
Members of the 2015 draft class are pretty close to one another and many will be developing together for years to come. Are you close with a lot of the guys from the 2016 draft class? Who are you closest to?
It is extremely similar. With Ian and Joey, I played on the same Tournament of Stars team with them so we had all played in the tournament before and we knew each other going into the draft. When we all got drafted together, it was awesome to be able to go through our first pro season together when we weren’t used to things yet and being able to figure things out together. Bryse Wilson, another pitcher, was tight with us as well and we were all close until Joey and Ian got moved up. If you wanted to find one of us, we were all together. It seems very similar to how a lot of those 2015 guys are.
Last question: On your Twitter you have a video pinned of you performing a pretty epic bat flip (or at least a good bat toss) after you got a hold of a pitch. When you hit your first homer as a pro (not if), are we going to see the bat flip return?
I would love to, but I think I would have to save it for a walk-off type of situation. I don’t feel like being a rookie or however old I am when I hit it and just bat-flipping... as a pitcher and you get bat-flipped on, it just sucks. I kind of feel the pain being a pitcher as well, so it would have to be a really hyped up situation to whip that out again.