After a Sunday doubleheader last July in Harrisburg with the Double-A Bowie Baysox, Branden Kline used the team's day off for a night away from the club with his wife, Sarah, and young daughter, Adalyn, before another bus off to another city.
He'd pitched well that day, but took the loss in extra innings after the Baysox committed two errors on a stolen-base attempt that allowed a runner to score from first without the ball being put into play.
That day, as Kline, 27, and his family walked through the tunnels of FNB Field trying to find an exit, a stadium employee asked Kline where he was ranked on the prospect lists.
Had he known Kline's story, he'd have known that three seasons of injuries had knocked him out of that spotlight. A Frederick native who was selected by the Orioles in the second round of the 2012 draft, Kline was pitching well to open 2015 with Double-A Bowie when elbow soreness landed him on the disabled list. He had offseason Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, and required two clean-up surgeries before he could get back into game action in 2018.
He spent 2018 in a bullpen role, where his big arm and some of the secondary pitches he honed while rehabilitating made him a late-inning weapon for High-A Frederick and Bowie. By the time the stadium employee asked whether he was ranked, it was clear he would be again before long.
With all that in mind, Kline, who was added to the Orioles' 40-man roster to keep him away from minor league free agency in October, spoke to The Baltimore Sun about how the measures of success change for players like him, how and why he's better than before, and how his injuries and subsequent return changed his outlook on life and the game.
It struck me when he [the stadium employee] asked whether you were ranked that your career has taken on a completely different set of measures. At what point did you kind of realize that your measures of success, after everything you've been through, were going to be different, and the flip side of that is that you were achieving them?
That's an interesting question. I've actually never been asked that. It's more of like a day-to-day thing, so from time to time, I can sit back and reflect on kind of everything I've been through. It's a tough story, but at the same time, it shows a lot of perseverance, and I've been able to use that in my day-to-day grind of whatever baseball work I have for the day. Whether that be in the weight room, in the training room, on the field, just being able to play catch and have fun doing that again is something I get to cherish every single day.
But obviously, to go back to that question of, 'Are you ranked?' For me, it doesn't matter if I'm ranked or not. Just being able to go out there and be part of the team, one of the guys, being able to compete at such a high level and have some success has been enjoyable. But at the same time, I'm still trying to learn. There's a lot of things I need to improve on, and I'm just looking forward to being able to do that each and every day without having to worry about something hurting.
And when did that point come last year, when you realized that you were going to be someone who still had the talent that you did, and it wasn't going to hurt, and the results were going to be there?
At the beginning of the year, everything felt good. Obviously, you're brand new. You're fresh. So at that point, it was still like everything was good. But it wasn't until like June or July, when I finally got back up to Bowie and I was there for a couple weeks at the time. Everything was feeling good, I was starting to get more into a routine, my velocity was staying the same, my slider and changeup were starting to come back, and that's when I was bale to kind of be like, ‘I'm kind of back. I kind of feel good, like my normal self again.’
So, it took about halfway through the season last year for me to get that feeling back, and then from there, it's like, 'OK, now it's time to go have some fun. Let's compete, and let's improve.' Because at the end of the day, it's not about worrying about if I'm healthy or not. It's about getting to the big leagues and getting better. That's why I was in Double-A last year. There's a lot of things I need to improve on, so I went into this offseason and tried to get a little bit better.
What were some of those things? Outwardly, at least watching, it looked like at least stuff-wise that on your day you could dominate out there. What was the next level for you?
It's just being more consistent, and there's still times where not only with fastball command — there's a difference between command and control, so being able to hit a certain target in a given situation, I really wanted to improve on that. I really wanted to improve on the ability to just throw my slider for a strike as well. That, I thought, made big leaps and bounds this offseason, so I'm looking forward to that here heading here into camp.
And then from there, it's more from the mental aspect. I know every year is going to be different. There's things I might have to improve on, especially going to different levels. Hopefully that'll be the case this year, and I'll go and have fun with it.
Do you feel on that front, with throwing your slider for strikes and that kind of stuff, do you feel like your stuff was better last year than it was before you got hurt?
That's a good question. I know it's been beneficial — I talked a lot about my changeup. My changeup has gotten superiorly better over the last couple of years. I think that's because I was able to be down here with Wilson Álvarez and some other guys, some other good pitching coaches. They talked about not only the mental side of the changeup, but also dumbing it down to the basics, like 'Hey, this is kind of how the ball is supposed to come out of the hand. This is how you take spin off it,' or, 'This is how you take velo off of it.'
Being able to dumb that down and use that as a weapon going into when I got healthy, I think that really not only helped with my fastball, but honestly it eventually gave me more time to hone and harness my slider, because that was kind of the last thing that came back. So, I would say that I thought I was better than when I originally got hurt, because when I originally got hurt, I still didn't think I had a really good changeup. Now it's actually one of my favorite pitches to throw. It's interesting to see how that all worked out.
And the same thing happened with Dylan [Bundy]. He spent three years down here and he came back with a changeup. I guess that's a worthy prize. You mentioned that you've been at this facility but never seen this [infield diamond] used. You spent a lot of time in Sarasota...
How did that impact you off the field? It seems like even though it's baseball every day and it's a baseball facility every day, it seems like people are on the cusp of not having baseball while they're here. It's that double-edged sword.
It's just the aspect of knowing that we all want to be in the big leagues, we all want to have 10- and 15-year careers. At the same time, it's not going to happen for a large majority of us. You're still able to have fun while you're here. Just like anything in life, as long as you show up and just try to work at it, get better at least one percent each day and just improve on something, then when you go home and lay your head down at night, you can peacefully know that you did everything you can, to do what you need to get better.
That's the way I kind of thought, at least baseball-wise. Obviously, I want to be a big-league baseball player. But during that time, it was like, if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen and I'll move on to something else and apply the same type of attitude to whatever I choose to do. Fortunately, like I've talked [about] in the past, the Orioles kept me around and stuck with me. I'm very thankful for that. I'm just glad to see how everything is starting to get to where it once was back in 2014, 2015.
In reality, you probably would have been here at big league camp after that year when you got hurt. I know you've got a family now, you've moved. How do you see yourself as different now than what that Brandon Kline getting his first big league camp [invite] would have been?
Definitely more patient, more understanding of what's going to happen and what things can kind of happen in life. Obviously, since I have a little one of my own, just being more of a parent than a baseball player. Back in probably 2014, 2015, 23, 24-[year old] Branden would have been like, 'I'm going to play and I'm going to come out here and throw the ball as hard as I can, and I'm going to go home and play video games until 10 o'clock at night.'
Now, it's like a little different world. I'm trying to take care of my body. I've got to make sure I get my family time in. I do have a little time to relax, but once I leave here, I leave everything here. Once baseball is kind of done for the day and I shower and I put my clothes on, then I turn into a dad, I turn into a husband. That's been the biggest change I can notice from when I was 23, 24. There would be times where if I had a bad day, I'd take it home and just think about it all day long. Now, it's done. It's in the past. I've got a different job or a different hat I've got to put on, and the next day, I do it all over again.
Do any of these guys recognize that change?
Maybe. The only guys who have known me the longest are probably [Mike Wright Jr.] and [Mychal] Givens. They probably still think I'm the same stupid guy. I don't know if they've noticed that at all, but it's fun to at least have a couple guys who have been in the organization and I've been around for a while. It's awesome to see the amount of success that have had at the big league level, and I'm looking forward to learning from both of them, both on and off the field, as we go forward.
Changing gears, have you had your meeting with [pitching coach Doug Brocail] and [bullpen coach John Wasdin] and all them?
What was the sense and the impression you got of the new coaching staff and front office's impression of you? Because they weren't here when you were drafted high, they weren't here for the rehab. What is your impression of their impression of you?
Really, what it comes down to is off the field, I think obviously they know I'm a good guy. I think I carry myself pretty well but then on the field, they know that I love to compete. When I get that ball in my hand, I get out there and try to get outs as quickly as possible.
In that meeting, it was just a sit-down, face-to-face of getting to know each other a little better than we already do. It was super relaxing, super laid back. That's the feeling and the vibe that I got from being in there. The amount of experience they have with Was, with Brocail, and [Mike] Elias and [Brandon] Hyde, it was super laid-back and chill. Really, for me, it just kind of shows you what they're going to bring into this organization, how 'Hey, we know we have a new changed front office and personnel, but it's going to be ... a relaxed scene, but at the same time we're out here trying to be professionals. We're going to get better on and off the field, and we're going to compete.' That's what I'm loving so far.