The Phil Bickford Story has certainly had its plot twists for a career that hasn’t seen a pitch thrown above A-ball. Twice a first-rounder after a stint at two colleges (and an amazing summer on the Cape), would see him excel across two levels of the minors in 2016. That sure is a lot of twos.
So, it should come as no surprise that Phil Bickford was suspended for a drug of abuse (meaning recreational). It’s the — you guessed it — second time Bickford has failed a league sanctioned drug test.
The first time Bickford was popped was entering the 2015 MLB Draft. Bickford — who decided not to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays after they made him the tenth overall pick in the first round of the 2013 MLB Draft to attend Cal State Fullerton instead — was coming off of a solid summer in the Cape Cod Summer League and an even stronger performance at Southern Nevada JUCO.
That summer saw Bickford come out of the pen (aside from one start). He struck out 33 and walked just five over 20 innings pitched, recording eight saves behind a 2.25 ERA. Hearing his draft stock rise, he transferred hoping to get back in the first round of the MLB Draft. A dominant season in Southern Nevada — 9-1 with a 1.45 ERA and an insane 166-to-21 strikeout-to-walk rate over 86.2 innings pitched — did just that. He failed a test for marijuana entering the draft and that didn’t phase anyone. The Giants made him their 18th overall draft pick in 2015.
Bickford followed up a nice half-season Arizona League debut with a great 2016. After 11 starts in the Sally he was quickly promoted to the California League. Here is where he impressed me, as we all know some pitchers — especially those with the GO/AO rate that Bickford has shown — struggle in the hitter friendly confines of the Cal League parks. Bickford pitched well over six starts, posting a 2.73 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP behind a 36-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 33 innings pitched. He allowed just two home runs, but a 3.99 FIP and a career-low .237 BABIP against certainly hints that he may have had some luck on his side.
The 21-year old righty was then shipped to Milwaukee as the Giants bulked up their bullpen by adding Will Smith. The Brewers must be thankful the New York Yankees set the bar high for returns on relievers with the Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller trades, because they seemed to get a nice return in Bickford and Andrew Susac.
That is neither here nor there, however. Bickford had a nice campaign in 2016 pitching in three different leagues across A-Ball (the Sally, the California League and then the Florida State League). He finished 7-7 with a 2.93 ERA across 22 starts, posting a 135-to-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 120 innings pitched.
It gave me false hope of sorts that we could possibly see a rapid rise of Bickford in 2017, one in which he started at Double-A, pitched the second half in Triple-A and made a big league debut in September for a Brewers club that will very likely be out of contention at that point. The 50-game suspension certainly puts a damper on those hopes.
Any prospect enthusiast knows the deal with Bickford. It’s not his stuff that is cause for concern. His fastball is electric, hitting as high as 98 and usually falling in around 95. He can throw it with sink and a lot of movement. He has a solid — yet inconsistent — slider that he mixes in with a changeup. But it is his delivery — one that John Sickels describes by saying: his mechanics get wonky at times and harm his command within the zone, which could hurt him at higher levels.
This was sadly true for Bickford in 2016. Despite registering more than a strikeout per inning at each stop last season, Bickford saw his walk rate rise at each point in the season as well. It went from 2.25 per nine in the Sally to 3.27 in the Cal to 5.00 in the FSL. He pitched more than 25 innings at each stop as well, so these aren't the largest sample sizes but they aren’t microscopic either.
Bickford is someone that could benefit from repetition, both for his mechanics and consistency of his secondary offerings. The 50-game layoff will certainly hinder that. Bickford is still a very special talent, we will just have to wait a little bit longer to see it.