BRADENTON -- Every once in a while, Robbie Kilcrease takes the mound with his cap sitting crooked on his head.
Is it superstition?
A fashion statement?
A tribute to a former teammate?
Turns out, it's none of the above.
"I don't try to," Kilcrease said, referring to the way he occasionally wears his hat. "I get that a lot."
Consider it just another quirk for the Bradenton Marauders' most unconventional player.
Guys who go undrafted out of college typically aren't as successful as Kilcrease has been this summer. Lefties typically don't get righties out as frequently as Kilcrease. And pitchers aren't typically as comfortable pitching with the bases loaded, a minefield Kilcrease has walked with a deft touch.
But that's Kilcrease, 24, whose surprising success has been a constant during a rough season for the high Single-A Marauders.
"No matter what the situation he's thrown into, he competes," Bradenton pitching coach Justin Meccage said. "And he has a special weapon not everybody has, and that's his change-up.
"I think the mentality of competing every time out no matter the situation is the kind of thing that separates him."
Left-handed relievers usually serve one role: retire a left-handed hitter and get out of the way.
Not Kilcrease. He has stockpiled 40 2/3 innings over 25 appearances and has been successful against lefties (.138 in 29 at-bats) as well as righties (.198).
It's Kilcrease's change-up that keeps righties off balance, Meccage said. And Meccage said adding a slider to Kilcrease's mix will make him even more valuable coming out of the bullpen.
"You have a guy that's gone
from being a two-pitch guy -- fastball, change-up -- to a three-pitch guy," Meccage said. "You don't have to mix and match as much as probably some other guys."
On the surface, Kilcrease's numbers are terrific -- 1.35 ERA, .189 batting average against and a groundball/flyball ratio of 2.09 -- which is important while pitching in cozy McKechnie Field, which averaged more than 1.4 home runs per game during a three-year study of minor-league parks by Baseball America.
But the deeper stats are more telling. Kilcrease has allowed two of 15 inherited runners to score, and opposing batters are 0-for-8 against him with the bases loaded.
Three times, Kilcrease has inherited a bases-loaded jam, and only once has he allowed a runner to score.
Kilcrease dropped his arm slot last season, which is one of the reasons he induces so many ground balls. But he attributes his success as a reliever to what goes on between his ears.
"I just go out there with my foot on the pedal. You can't ease into it when you're a reliever," Kilcrease said. "You have to go out there, and it doesn't matter who's on base, you have to get the first guy out you face. That eliminates half the inning right there."
Not bad for a Texas native who signed with the Pirates as a free agent in 2011 after posting a 5.97 ERA in 58 appearances at Texas Tech.
"I didn't have a very good college career, and I talked to a bunch of professional guys and everything, and they said I would get an opportunity to play professional baseball, whether I was drafted or not," said Kilcrease, who had a 2.80 ERA in 43 games with low Single-A West Virginia last year. "It's something you dream of and you push, and you just try to get to this level. There's so many kids out there who want to be in my shoes or anybody else's shoes on this team. It's a blessing, for sure."
Kilcrease has done everything but start for the Marauders and has converted all four of his save opportunities. It's a part of his game that could help him move up in the Pirates' organization.
"He's really pretty versatile, and that's what we kind of create with our guys, that ability to pitch in the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth," Meccage said, "because you just never know in the big leagues. You might be a sixth-inning guy right now, but in the big leagues, you might be a ninth-inning guy."
While Kilcrease's role has been in constant flux this year, he said his job remains the same. And it's one he plans on doing, crooked hat and all.
"My role is to get people out," he said. "That's all it is; wherever (they) put me, I just go. ... I'm having a great time."