PORTLAND, Maine — Aaron Kurcz isn’t very big.
He is listed at 6 feet, 175 pounds.
But looks can be deceiving.
The slender 21-year-old relief pitcher for the Portland Sea Dogs leads the Double-A Eastern League’s relievers in average strikeouts per nine innings at 13.2.
He has struck out 68 hitters in just 46⅓ innings thanks to his live fastball.
And he is in just his second full pro season after being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 11th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball draft.
“He’s a little guy but he throws hard and goes right after hitters with his fastball. And he’s obviously had a lot of success with it,” said Sea Dogs assistant general manager Chris Cameron. “He’s also very versatile.”
Kurcz was obtained by the Boston Red Sox as the player to be named later in the transaction that saw Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein move to the Cubs and become their president of baseball operations.
Kurcz, who is used in a variety of relief roles, is 3-4 with a 3.30 ERA and four saves. He has allowed 41 hits, including four homers, and has walked 24. Opponents are hitting just. 232 against him.
He pitched in the Eastern League All-Star game, striking out two in 1⅔ innings of scoreless, hitless relief.
Last season, he pitched for Daytona in the (high Class A) Florida State League and was 5-4 with a 3.28 ERA. He struck out 91 and walked 34 in 82⅓ innings. Opponents hit .222 against him and he was a Florida State League All-Star.
Sea Dogs pitching coach Bob Kipper said Kurcz’s fastball has “late life” on it.
“Once it gets near the strike zone, it hits another gear,” said Kipper. “He throws across his body. He throws from the three-quarter arm slot and that creates a level of deception with his fastball. Hitters don’t see it well.”
Kurcz explained, “I start on the third base side of the rubber to right-handed hitters and that has been good for me.”
Kipper said Kurcz throws 94-95 mph consistently and can hit 96-97.
He said Kurcz’s “very quick” arm speed compensates for his lack of size.
“There’s no question if you look at his body, it doesn’t match the stuff he seems to generate,” said Kipper. “He induces a lot of late swings and swings and misses.”
Kurcz, who is from Las Vegas, said he threw 88-89 mph in high school.
“It was nothing special,” he said.
But after his freshman season at the United States Air Force Academy, where he figured in 10 of the Falcons’ 14 wins with a 3-4 record and seven saves along with an 8.10 ERA, he embarked on resistance band work for his shoulder which not only strengthened his shoulder and improved his fastball, it enabled him to maintain his body frame.
He had intended to return to the Air Force Academy but had played in a good summer college league and threw the ball “real well.
“Some of the guys on my team told me I had a chance to play pro ball and that’s something I wanted to do my whole life,” said Kurcz.
So he transferred from the Air Force Academy to the College of Southern Nevada and, because it was a junior college, he was eligible for the draft after his sophomore year.
He went 3-4 with a 4.17 ERA and struck out 55 in 36⅔ innings at Southern Nevada.
He was selected by the Cubs in the 11th round and signed with them.
He appeared in 26 games in 2010 in low A ball and was 2-1 with a 2.05 ERA. He struck out 46 in 26⅓ innings.
Kipper said a reliable secondary pitch is the part of Kurcz’s game that is lacking right now.
“But he’s working diligently on his slider and changeup,” said Kipper. “He is developing a better feel for his slider. There have been times it has been a solid pitch for him. He’s taking a step in the right direction with it. His changeup can be sporadic but he uses it well at times.
“Is he getting better? Absolutely. He’s a real good worker. He’s very engaged in the game,” said Kipper.
“I struggled with my slider last year,” said Kurcz. “It was 77-78 miles an hour. I’ve worked on it with some of the guys on the team and I’m pretty happy with it. It’s up to 83-85 miles an hour, it has a shorter break and tighter spin. I’m starting to get a better feel for my changeup, too.”
Kurcz is enjoying Portland and pitching at the Double-A level.
“You’re facing good hitters in this league but that’s good because it forces me to work on my pitches,” said Kurcz, who will turn 22 on Aug. 8.
He likes his versatile role, which could involve getting one out for a save or three innings in middle relief.
He has pitched at least two innings in five of his last 10 outings.
“It’s good. Going one inning is nice but, at the same time, it’s good for me to get [more] innings in because I’ll have to work in my other pitches. And I’ll get a chance to see more hitters,” he said.