RICHMOND — Once a Scrapper, always a Scrapper. At least for this summer. That was the message Kyle Crockett heard shortly after arriving in Ohio's Mahoning Valley for the first stop of his professional baseball journey.
"They told us … probably no one would move up for the rest of the year," Crockett said. "And a couple days later they moved me up to Lake County, and a couple weeks after that, they moved me up here to Double-A, which was a big surprise."
Crockett has defied expectations with the same M.O. that marked his careers at Poquoson High School and the University of Virginia: uncommon poise, on the mound and in the clubhouse, and superb control of three pitches.
A slender left-hander with sneaky, but not overpowering, velocity, Crockett has thrived in three stops since the Cleveland Indians chose him in the fourth round of June's draft: the Class A short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the Class A Lake County Captains and the Class AA Akron Aeros.
The Akron promotion was the most notable and took Crockett to Richmond last week, where family and friends saw him pitch a scoreless inning against the Flying Squirrels — gotta love those minor-league mascots.
"He's wasting no time," said Poquoson coach Ken Bennett, among those who visited Crockett in Richmond. "I expected him to move pretty quickly. I just didn't expect it this quickly."
Relaxing in the Aeros' dugout prior to a game, Crockett was as measured and understated as he is on the field. No matter that in 19.1 professional innings he has allowed one meager run — that calculates to a 0.47 ERA — while striking out 27 and walking three.
"I'm pretty much going out there and doing the same thing I did in college," he said, "and it's been working out for me."
In three seasons at national power Virginia, Crockett pitched to a sterling 1.97 ERA, developing into the Cavaliers' closer this past season. He's worked solely in middle-to-late relief since, pitching beyond one inning only three times in 16 pro appearances.
In his most recent outing, Friday at home against Reading, Crockett (1-0) threw two scoreless innings to earn his first victory.
The bullpen is fine by Crockett. He knows Major League managers covet southpaws they can summon in a pinch to retire left-handed hitters.
"I see myself more as a set-up man, seventh, eighth inning," Crockett said. "Or just go in there and get one or two lefties out at a time."
Akron pitching coach Greg Hibbard believes Crockett can do just that.
"If he makes a bad pitch or misses up in the zone, he does a good job of collecting his thoughts," said Hibbard, a former big-league pitcher with the White Sox, Cubs and Mariners. "Just very mature looking. … He throws 90-93 (mph). He's got some good velocity. I really like the way his fastball kind of climbs on the hitters.
"On early looks, hitters haven't been able to really square his fastball up on fastball counts. That means he's got a good late release out of his hand when he does throw 90 miles an hour.
"There's some criteria that he already has for this level. He commands his fastball, throws three pitches for strikes. … He's grown up, he's mature. You add all those things together, and that's what you're looking for in a Double-A player."
The most welcome and challenging transition for Crockett has been teaming with catchers to call his pitches — fastball, slider and curve. In college, coaches call pitches from the dugout.
"We want to see what they'll do," Hibbard said. "We want them to learn. We want them to understand. … They have to learn from their own experiences."
Another change in the pros: Clubhouse attendants clean your cleats. The first time a worker reached for Crockett's, the rookie said he could clean them himself.
"This is my job," the attendant assured him.
But the coolest part?
"Probably the best thing is not having to do the tarp," Crockett said with a wide smile. "When it rained (in college), pulling it on, pulling it off, was ... kind of miserable."
That Crockett didn't mention his signing bonus, $463,000 according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, or any lavish purchases speaks to a low-key approach, humility even, that has served him well.
"He hasn't really fit in yet," Hibbard said. "You're not going to see him standing up holding court. He's over there tucked in a corner by himself. … Maybe that's just his personality, too. … He kind of leads by example, not by his mouth. That's a very professional way to handle yourself and go about your business."
"That is the young man I coached," Bennett said. "Even-keeled would be an understatement."
The lone run Crockett has yielded came as he pitched for Lake County on July 27 against the Great Lakes Loons. Shortstop Corey Seager hit a home run, the first long ball Crockett had allowed since the lone one he gave up at Virginia, as a freshman.
So over 27-plus months, Crockett pitched 145.1 innings without a home run. That's a remarkable stretch in wiffle ball, softball or good ol' country hardball.
Crockett laughed when I hazed him about finally allowing a homer.
"I knew it was going to happen eventually," he said. "These are good hitters. I got behind in the count and there was a really good hitter at the plate — he hit two more home runs the next day. I just shook it off and went after the next guy."
Akron's season ends Sept. 2, after which the Indians may send Crockett to an instructional league. If not, he'll return to Poquoson and work on bulking up his 175-pound frame, the better to add velocity to his pitches.
The biggest unknown about Crockett: How will he respond to getting cuffed around, when an opponent rocks him for, say, five runs and six hits in an inning?
"It just hasn't happened yet," Bennett said. "He's been throwing so well."
Crockett stays in touch with Bennett and Virginia coach Brian O'Connor, and former Cavaliers teammate Will Roberts, an Aeros starter, has made him more comfortable in Akron. But while appreciating his past, Crockett relishes the future.
"It was tough to leave (Virginia)," he said, "but it really wasn't that tough a decision to take the offer. I was ready to play pro ball."