Pitching project continues

BY JACOB SHEYKO | APRIL 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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In 2012, Blake Hickman was drafted out of high school as a catcher. Nearly two years later, he’s shedding the catcher’s mask, chest pad, and shin protectors and trying to make it as a pitcher.

Hickman doesn’t have splits that will blow anyone away — 17.1 innings pitched, 4.67 ERA, and an opposing batting average of .286.

But for someone with less than a year of college pitching experience, it’s less about what he is and more about what he may become.

“He’s a work in progress,” Iowa pitching coach Scott Brickman said. “Every week, he’s getting better and better, but it’s one of those things where we’re trying to take slow steps forward on a weekly basis and watch him grow.”

Hickman finished his high school career at Simeon Academy in Chicago as one of the top catching prospects in the nation. As a result, he was drafted in the 20th round of the 2012 MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs, an offer he turned down to come to Iowa.

In his freshman year at Iowa, he enjoyed relative success, starting 29 games — 25 at first base and four at catcher, and hitting .220.

But in the following summer, while playing for the Waterloo Bucks in the Northwoods League, Hickman dipped his toe in pitching for the first time since high school, where he closed some games because as he said, he threw hard.

Returning to Iowa under first-year head coach Rick Heller, Hickman has become almost exclusively a pitcher.

“I know, for my future, it’s going to end up on the mound,” Hickman said.

“That’s what I talk to my parents and all my friends back home, ‘How do you feel about jumping on the mound after being drafted [as a catcher]?’ I’m not the only one that’s gone from catcher to pitcher.”

The kid who threw hard in high school can push the mid-90s with his heater, combining it with a biting slider and an improving changeup.

But as can be the case with the most experienced pitchers, he sometimes struggles with control, be it walks, leaving the ball up in the zone, or falling behind a hitter and running up his pitch count in the process. 

“You can’t overpower everyone, “Hickman said. “I can run it up there pretty high, but if it’s straight and up, then anybody can get the barrel to it and hit it hard.”

Hickman still practices as both a position player and a pitcher, making his transition a slow and arduous one. But even in this season, there have been signs of improvement, glimpses of Hickman’s potential. In his last appearance, he provided three innings of scoreless baseball, striking out 3 while doing so.

Heller hasn’t provided a strict schedule or situation for Hickman to consistently take the mound on. Instead, to gain experience, Heller throws Hickman out in as many situations as possible.

“Whatever his role evolves into, it’s going to be a big one,” Heller said. “So why not see if he can be a starter? If he can’t, then at least he’s prepared to come in late in the games.”

Opponents don’t really know what to expect when Hickman takes the mound, or even when, but if he ever puts it all together, they can expect to see a whole lot more of him.

“There’s no ceiling,” Brickman said. “Eventually, as we project out into the future, with him being a sophomore and possibly being here for two more years, he’s a guy that we think can go out there and be a starter for us going into the future.”

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