* Blake McFarland, one of eight Toronto Blue Jays prospects playing in the Arizona Fall League, is not only a talented pitcher but an impressive artist as well. The 26-year-old specializes in animal sculptures made out of recycled bicycle tires. ….

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By Alexis Brudnicki

PEORIA, Ariz. – Blake McFarland is an incredible artist.

That’s just one way to describe the 26-year-old. But he’s not only an impressive sculptor, painter and innovative creator, he’s also one of only eight Toronto Blue Jays prospects currently playing in the Arizona Fall League.

But back to baseball in a moment.

Between seasons, McFarland takes to the hobbies that he believes will someday occupy the majority of his time, when his baseball-playing days are done. His latest creations are awe-inspiring animal sculptures made from recycled bicycle tires that words cannot describe accurately to do the artwork justice.

Sculpture“These tire sculptures are by far the most detail-oriented and fondest art pieces he has ever created,” McFarland’s personal website reads. “It takes over a month to create one sculpture due to the amount of detail put into each piece…

“Blake portrays the animal’s structure and fur using tires with different treads and widths. It is safe to say that Blake has finally found his niche in art, one he is extremely passionate about and is looking forward to what the future brings.”

Inspired by a Korean artist who crafts something similar, the San Jose, Calif. native first experimented in his sculpting using car tires. Reinforced with steel, those didn’t work. McFarland tried motorcycle tires and found the same results. Finally, he discovered that bicycle tires would accomplish exactly what he wanted, and their use would be environmentally friendly.

“There are bike shops everywhere and they actually have to pay to get rid of their old tires,” McFarland said. “They have them stacked up six feet tall of just old tires that they have to pay to get rid of, so I just go there and take hundreds at a time.”

The intricate pieces take up to 70 hours apiece, with the 6-foot-5, 230-pound hurler spending a few hours a day during his time away from baseball on his artwork. His website showcases completed works from his first sculpture, an already-sold jaguar, to a life-size cougar McFarland is very proud of. Also on display are a bear, a baboon, a baby panda and a human torso, all fascinating in their detail.

“I wanted something a lot different,” McFarland said. “I fell in love with doing the tire stuff. And now I’m actually using cork, doing wine cork bottles and taking the natural stains of the red wine and white wine and making a mural picture out of the different shades of the wine.”

During his free time in Arizona, between outings with the Mesa Solar Sox in the prestigious fall circuit, McFarland has started to experiment with cork, and he expects to have some pictures of his new venture on his website in a few weeks. It is likely he will return to his tire art when he gets back to California for the winter.

“It’s definitely different,” McFarland said, comparing his art to his sport. “It’s a lot different. I’d say it’s more relaxing than anything, just taking time off and it occupies me during the off-season.”

Back to baseball now.

After graduating from San Jose State and signing as a free agent with the Blue Jays, the right-hander went right to Vancouver for the Canadians’ first championship season as Toronto’s short-season affiliate in 2011. Since then he’s found varied success on the mound, his best year coming most recently when he split time between the Dunedin Blue Jays and New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

In Double-A this season, his fourth year in pro ball, he posted a 2.04 ERA over 19 games and 35 1/3 innings. He walked 15 and struck out 37 over that span.

“My first couple of years were definitely a learning experience,” McFarland said. “The Blue Jays and all of the coaches really worked with me and really helped me to define my game. I’m pretty much a completely different pitcher from when I started and hopefully I keep progressing as time goes.”

What has transformed him into a completely different man on the mound?

“All the pitches I throw, the grips have changed,” McFarland said. “I used to be a two-seam [fastball] guy and now I’m strictly [throwing a] four-seam. Last year I learned a splitter and that’s probably my main pitch right now, the splitter, so that really changed my career at the beginning of last year.”

The righty worked on developing his split-finger fastball in Dunedin to start the season, and is continuing to figure out his pitching repertoire as time continues.

Rick Langford worked with me on that, our rehab pitching coach in Dunedin,” he said. “He’s awesome. He helped me out a lot [with the splitter]. Then the four-seam, and I’m working on a cutter right now, so hopefully that continues to progress.”

During his time in the Fall League, McFarland is looking forward to using his cutter as much as possible, to gauge how hitters react and adjust accordingly heading into next season. Already enjoying his time in Arizona, the pitcher was excited just to get the opportunity.

“[Blue Jays pitching coordinator] Dane Johnson called me about the AFL and I was really excited,” McFarland said. “I thought I had a slim chance of coming. I found out after the season ended so I was kind of in the dark for a week but when I got the call I was really, really excited and I’m honoured to be here.”

So far, so good for McFarland, who has thrown only two innings in two games for the Solar Sox, allowing no runs, two hits, walking two and striking out two over that span.

“It’s a great league,” he said. “I’m having a good time, getting to know every other player, and all of these players are good. It’s basically like a team full of all-stars so it’s really fun to be around.”

– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis