At his house in northern Maryland, Christian Binford keeps the trophy that recalls a moment of both mortification and acknowledgment. James Shields gave the trophy to him last spring in front of the entire Royals organization. It was filled with ice cream.
“It’s not on display,” said Binford, a 22-year-old pitching prospect. “It’s not on display.”
The first, and almost assuredly only, edition of The Points Award was handed to Binford by Shields last spring. When he was a boy, Binford played catch in his backyard. His father awarded him points for accurate throws. If he collected enough points, his dad rewarded him with ice cream. Even in his youth, Christian operated with pinpoint control. He racked up the points and reaped rewards in frozen dairy.
It is a charming little story. The problem is, Binford grew to stand 6 feet 6, became a professional baseball player and one day told this story to a reporter. Shields heard about it, and concocted an idea to enliven a team meeting. He found a trophy and had a goblet installed at the apex. Into the bowl he scooped piles of cookies-and-cream.
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As the players gathered on a field outside the clubhouse, Shields began a speech. Binford soon realized he was the subject of Shields’ soliloquy. Then Shields marched over to Binford and offered him his prize and a spoon.
“And I ate it,” Binford said. “Nine a.m. I ate it.”
A year later, Shields resides in Padres camp and Binford is attending his first big-league spring training. Only one of the two men will play a role in the Royals’ future. Along with Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte, Binford joins a group of appealing pitching prospects expected to amass in Class AA and Class AAA this season. The pack could also include Kyle Zimmer, if he’s healthy, and Brandon Finnegan, if he doesn’t make the big-league bullpen.
Binford, a right-hander, may own the most impressive statistical resume of the bunch. The organization deemed him its minor-league pitcher of the year for 2014, when he posted a 2.69 ERA as a starter with 130 strikeouts in 130 2/3 innings and a 7.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
His calling card is his ability to throw strikes, a skill that translated at the proving ground of the Class AA Texas League last season. Binford made only eight starts for Northwest Arkansas, so he could repeat the level at the outset of the season. Assistant general manager J.J. Picollo stressed that this likely would be a temporary assignment, and suggested that Binford was already capable of contributing to the major-league club as a long reliever.
“If he started the year in Class AA, it’s not slowing him up at all,” Picollo said. “He’ll be in Class AAA before long. He’ll be fine. We don’t want to sell him short, either. If needs to be in Class AAA on April 9, he will be.”
Binford is polished and precocious, but his skills are a tad prosaic. He profiles as a fourth or fifth starter. He admits he lacks a singular, standout pitch. He underwent Tommy John surgery in high school, and his fastball velocity resides in the upper 80s. Baseball America has never considered him one of the game’s top 100 prospects, and the publication likely never will.
“I could care less about prospect status,” Binford said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all about performance. If I would have listened to that, I would still be in High-A right now. You just have to make yourself stand out. You’ve got to do something that everybody else isn’t.”
For Binford, that skill was always filling up the zone. He has walked 51 batters in 315 2/3 professional innings, and five of those free passes occurred during his ineffective relief stint with Class AAA Omaha in September. His reliability carried him to Minneapolis last summer, where he was Kansas City’s lone representative in the Futures Game.
Binford brushed shoulders with the most hyped talent in the game. He wondered if he belonged. He still contributed a clean inning.
“Warming up in the bullpen, guys were chucking 95 and 96 (mph),” Binford said. “I get up there and I’m 89 (mph). But I got out of the inning in eight pitches. That’s what I try to do. I want to make that inning as fast as possible. Get in, get out, show them what I can do, and that’s it.”
Binford displayed a similar gift during the Royals’ intrasquad on Sunday. He dispatched three batters in 13 pitches. His lone blip was a leadoff walk in four pitches to third base prospect Hunter Dozier. Binford responded by striking out Bubba Starling, the player the Royals drafted in the first round in 2011, the same year they drafted Binford in the 30th. When Matt Fields grounded into a double play, Binford’s work was done.
Early in camp, pitching coach Dave Eiland tinkered with Binford’s delivery to streamline his movement and increase the downhill angle on his pitches. Eiland wonders if the changes could accelerate the velocity of Binford’s fastball.
“What I’ve seen, I like,” Eiland said. “He’s a strike thrower. He’s got movement. He’s much more downhill, better angle now, once we moved his hands a little bit.”
Eiland may not work with Binford again for the rest of the season. Binford will depart big-league camp when cuts begin this month. But his consistency in three seasons suggests he can contribute in the majors in the near-future.
And not just as a mortified minor-leaguer eating ice cream for comic relief.
“At the time, I was embarrassed,” Binford said. “I was like ‘Oh, my God. He’s calling me out.’ But looking back, it’s like, you know what, he actually recognized me. That’s kind of a cool thing.”