PEORIA, Ariz. – On the mound, in the clubhouse, on the practice field, it’s difficult to discern the mood of Kanekoa Texeira. His demeanor never seems to change. He wears a facial expression of contentment mixed with boredom parlayed into a sort of half-smirk, half-grin.
Angry? Same look.
Happy? Same look.
Intense? Same look.
On the mound, frustrating hitters and getting easy ground ball outs? Same look.
So, if somehow he manages to make the Seattle Mariners?
Most likely the 24-year old Hawaiian will wear the same look.
And don’t rule out the possibility of that happening. With his un-flinching mound demeanor and his propensity to get ground balls and get left-handed hitters out, Texeira could make the 25-man roster out of spring training.
Not bad for a guy who has never pitched above Double-A and was selected from the New York Yankees in the Rule 5 draft during the offseason.
“He’s been impressive,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “We’ll see where it ends up. It’s a little bit early yet. There’s pressure on all personnel decisions, but when you have a Rule 5 guy, there is some other challenges. We’ll run it to the end and see what happens.”
Because he is a Rule 5 pick, Texeira must be on the Mariners’ opening day roster and remain on the 25-man roster for the entire season, or he must be offered back to the Yankees for $25,000.
The Mariners also could work out a trade for Texeira if they want to keep him in the organization but not put him on the big league roster.
Usually, of the yearly Rule 5 major league selections, only a handful actually make a big league roster coming out of spring training, and most are offered back to their original teams well before opening day.
Thus far into spring training, Texeira is proving to be the exception. The right-hander has made six appearances, pitching 62/3 innings and allowing just four hits and one earned run, walking three and striking out four.
For manager Don Wakamatsu, the results are impressive, but the way Texeira has gone about getting those results also is impressive.
“For a guy that hasn’t pitched at a very high level, he’s pretty impressive, maturity-wise,” Wakamatsu said.
A year ago at Double-A Trenton, Texeira pitched a career-high 101 innings in 41 appearances, including six starts. He had a 9-6 record with a 2.84 ERA, struck out 88 and walked 43.
“He had a great ground ball rate, he could pitch multiple innings, and he struck guys out,” Zduriencik said. “It’s a nice, unique combination that we liked.”
Another angle that stood out to Mariners scouts was Texeira’s splits. Right-handers hit just .234 (44-for-188), and lefties hit just .238 (46-for-193). More importantly, of those balls put in play by left-handers, the ratio of ground balls to fly balls was 5 to 1, something highly unusual for a right-hander.
“What stood out to me was the opposite-hand 5-to-1 ground ball rate. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like that,” said Tony Blengino, Seattle’s special assistant to the GM and statistical guru.
In past statistical studies, ground balls were found to have vastly lower run value than fly balls or line drives. Coupled with the Mariners’ solid infield defense, Texeira could be extremely effective.
“For me, the opposite-hand split tells you a lot about a guy. If a guy has good enough stuff, he can learn how to get his own hand out,” Blengino said. “If you have something to get the opposite hand out, especially in a groundball manner, that’s a gift.”
Of course Texeira posted those numbers in Double-A, so there will be some change.
“Is he going to have a 5-to-1 again? No, that’s an outlier. You probably do regress to the mean,” Blengino said. “But if you regress to 2-to-1, it’s still pretty good.”
So how exactly does he get those ground balls?
“If you just watch his arm, he’s got what they call a quick arm, and he’s got late action because of that,” Wakamatsu said. “If you look at his sinker, it breaks later in the zone.”
Texeira also uses a cut fastball on lefties.
But none of that means much to Texeira, whose mellow demeanor seems to embody his native Hawaii.
“I just try to let the ball hit the bat and not let the bat hit the ball,” he said. “That’s my philosophy. I like ground balls, and I like throwing strikes.”
It’s that simple. It’s that mentality he takes to the mound.
“Some guys just innately have that,” bullpen coach John Wetteland said. “You see it in his delivery. We talk about the mind controlling the body. He’s a guy that allows that to happen. He doesn’t get in the way of it and try to do too much.”
If Texeira gets a spot in the bullpen, it would likely be as a versatile multi-inning pitcher, which the Mariners think suits him.
“I’m sure that he’s a guy that could go three,” Wetteland said. “He’s such a strike-thrower that it’s going to keep his pitch count down.”
And what does Texeira think of it all? It’s tough to tell.
“I’m good either way,” he said of his status. “It’s a big opportunity for me, Hopefully, I take advantage of it.”