Oakland A's Front Office Q&A: Farhan Zaidi P1

Heading into their series with the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland A's are 9-9 and three games behind the Los Angeles Angels for first place in the AL West. The A's began the season with their sights on a division title. We spoke with A's Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi about the team's start. In part one, we discuss the defense, the rotation, pitch counts, Twitter, Rich Harden and more


OaklandClubhouse: How would you assess the team up through this point in the season?

Farhan Zaidi: On the one hand, we are certainly pleased with the great starting pitching that we've gotten. On the flip side, we are feeling a little fortunate that things aren't worse because obviously if it weren't for them, our record could certainly be worse. The defense has been well-below expectations, and nobody is really producing offensively. Certainly no one is off to a hot start. The bullpen has struggled a little bit.

The other thing that is just hard to control is our hitting with runners in scoring position. I think we are hitting around .210 or .215 right now [.216 through Wednesday]. Even though that feels like it has been an issue with this team the past few years, last year I think we wound-up hitting about – I'll look it up – .240 with runners in scoring position. The difference between hitting .210 and hitting .240 with runners in scoring position for us right now is five or six base-hits in games where those could have made quite a bit of difference. That's the sort of thing that we think will pick up.

I think we are in between sort of being a little frustrated that we haven't been able to make better use of the starting pitching and feeling lucky that we are where we are, which is that we haven't really dug a hole for ourselves. On balance, I think there is a little bit more of a feeling of frustration because of the expectations for the team, but it's early. I don't think anyone is overly concerned. The positive is that we think the team has another gear and hopefully we shift into it soon and start playing better and hopefully get some separation from .500.

OC: Any explanation for why the defense has been so poor to start this season?

FZ: I think in the first couple of games, it was more of a flukish thing. Then when you get off to a poor start like that, guys can sometimes get a little bit tight and might be a little too over-anxious to make the right play or the clean play in the field. It can snowball a little bit. Our defense has been a lot better the past five or six games. We've had a few errors here and there sprinkled in, but it has generally been something like Brett Anderson tripping over the mound. Things like that are going to happen. Errors are never going to go to zero. But the infield has played much better and the outfield has made a number of nice plays – like David DeJesus' two plays [Wednesday versus Boston]. I think our defense is starting to emerge as the strength that we all believe that it is.

We were doing fine defensively in spring training. I don't think anyone anticipated that we would get off to a bad start [in that area], but when it happened, it snowballed a little bit. I think these past few games it has been better.

OC: Talking about the starting pitching, the strike-out numbers have been impressive, especially for Trevor Cahill. Did he make any adjustments to up his strike-out totals or do you think it is more of a function of him getting more comfortable in his third year in the league?

FZ: I think he's making a little bit more use of his secondary pitches. When he throws more sinkers, he is more of a contact-pitcher and that's what he is trying to do. We obviously don't want him to get totally away from that and pitch inefficiently. Getting deep into the game, like he has a couple of times, obviously has a lot of value. But I do think that he is using his change-up and his breaking ball more. At times when he needs a strike-out, he can go to those pitches, and that is very, very valuable.

Trevor is an interesting case. I think everybody knows what his Fielding Independent Pitching [FIP] stats are and how his ERA and numbers like that exceeded expectations based on his peripherals. At the same time, the gap between his peripherals and his raw numbers, it is very easy to see that gap being filled by potential. There is no reason that he can't have the kind of season that he had last year by becoming a better pitcher and growing into his potential. Which is what I think we are seeing this year.

That is some of what we were considering when we decided to have the conversation about signing him long-term. Even with the gap between his peripherals and his traditional numbers last year, we still had a lot of confidence in his ability long-term to grow into a top pitcher in the league.

OC: There were a lot of comparisons made between Cahill's contract and the one that Clay Buchholz signed maybe a week before. Was Buchholz's contract a factor at all in the negotiations?

FZ: With those contracts – because they go through arbitration years – there are so many comparables. If you look at Clay and Trevor's numbers on paper, their 2010 numbers and their career numbers are very similar. I think it was an instance of two teams working with two similar pitchers looking to do the same structured deal with the same comparables out there. There were a few deals done last year – Ricky Romero and Jon Lester – and we were basically working with the same group of comparables. So it's not surprising that we ended up with deals as similar as they are.

OC: Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez are off to terrific starts. Now that they are entering their third seasons, are you seeing a maturation process with both of them?

FZ: Yeah. I think the biggest part of the maturation for both of those guys is not trying to strike everybody out. These guys, they want the team to win and they want wins for themselves. They know that the best way for them to get those wins is to go deep into games. I think they recognize that we have a good defense and that we play in a good park for them. If they can pitch to contact a little bit and mix in a few of those under 10 pitch innings, they have a much better chance of getting into the seventh and eighth innings. They have done that a few times this year.

You might see the strike-outs go down – hopefully you'll see the walks go down. The one stat I expect to see improvement in this year is the innings pitched per start. They have a chance to be more efficient pitchers and get deeper into games this year. That will give them a better chance to get wins and will obviously increase the team's chances of winning.

OC: Brandon McCarthy has been something of a revelation at this point. Is he doing what you saw during winter ball or did he make some additional adjustments after joining the organization?

FZ: I think Ron Romanick [the A's pitching coach] has done some good work with him. They talked about making a couple of minor mechanical adjustments and Ron also worked with Brandon on his change-up. Our big thing was that we knew what Brandon's track record was. And that goes back not just to what he had done in the big leagues, but even as a prospect in the minors. When you look at guys who have had 4:1 strike-out to walk ratios in the minors [like McCarthy did], those guys tend to be successful at the big league level.

We've always sought those guys out, whether it was Dan Haren or when we moved Dallas Braden up the ladder even during times when he wasn't necessarily viewed as a top prospect. Guys who miss bats and don't walk a lot of guys tend to do very well. They might morph into different types of pitchers. I don't think anyone would think of Dallas as a strike-out pitcher. It's a little bit of the same thing with Brandon. These guys who have good enough stuff that they struck-out a lot of guys at one point and certainly will get some strike-outs at the big leagues and at the same time pound the ‘zone and use a few different pitches, those guys seem to do well.

With Brandon, it was the track record and seeing him in winter ball and seeing that he was healthy. That was enough for us to make an aggressive push to sign him.

OC: It's hard to mention McCarthy without thinking of his Twitter feed and his funny exchanges with Anderson and others. It seems like the A's organization is well represented on Twitter with player participation. Is that something that the front office tracks? Is there a team policy about Twitter?

FZ: I think it is great that players have a way to connect more directly with fans and for fans to have more access to players. We take it for granted because we are around these players all of the time and have access to them, but I think back to when I was a fan and I think it would have been a pretty cool thing to get these tweets about what guys are doing on the road or what guys are doing on their off time. As long as it is done in a way that doesn't compromise these guys personally or the organization, I think it is great. As a front office, you have to have some awareness of what is going on from the standpoint of fulfilling our responsibilities to the organization. But I think it is a great thing.

OC: Was McCarthy a free agent target because he is a Premier League soccer fan?

FZ: I know that he and Billy [Beane] have bonded over that common love they have. It's kind of nice to have another guy around who is interested in soccer but if I think back, I don't believe it was part of the recruiting process on either side. [laughs]

OC: When David Purcey was added to the roster this week, Rich Harden was moved to the 60-day DL. It seemed like there was this impression that that move meant Harden was likely to miss the entire season, but I don't get that sense based on the fact that he is supposed to throw again soon. The move was more about needing a roster spot than about a change in Harden's status right?

FZ: Yeah, it was more of a procedural move. Rich had been building up to being able to throw off of the mound and he got to the point to where he was going to pitch in that simulated game and he had a set-back. Not from a physical standpoint. He just didn't feel he was ready. At the same time, when that happens, you have to take a few days off and build back up in the throwing program. It was more of a situation of doing the math of how long it will take him to get built back up.

We've also learned that it's not the best idea with these guys to rush them through their rehab. To have them make one or two appearances [in the minor leagues] and then come back up isn't the best idea, especially for someone like Rich, who didn't have any sort of spring training at all. There is certainly no additional update or reason that he was put on the 60-day DL. It was more looking at the timetable that he was going to have to have a few appearances once he went out on his rehab and realizing that he probably wasn't going to be ready for another month or so anyway.

OC: When he does go out on a rehab assignment, do you anticipate him being built up as a starter or as a reliever or will that be roster-based decision at that time?

FZ: It will depend on where we are with the staff. When we were getting to the point where we were looking at [sending him out on a rehab], I believe his rehab assignment was going to begin around now. We were thinking we were going to use him as a reliever. That, of course, was before Dallas got hurt. If Rich was on a rehab assignment at this point, who's to say we wouldn't just say ‘let's build him up as a starter to have the option of using him as a starter depending on how Dallas' recovery goes.'

The throwing program and everything and even the first couple of rehab appearances are the same whether he is a reliever or a starter. I think we won't have to make that decision for another two or three weeks.

OC: Tyson Ross has now moved into Braden's spot in the rotation. Are you concerned at all since he has only thrown five innings since spring training and hasn't made a start yet? Will he be on a pitch and innings limit early on?

FZ: I don't think he's fully stretched out but I don't think it is a huge concern. He had some longer appearances in spring training and it hasn't been that long since he had some longer outings. I don't think he's going to be able to go over 100 pitches, but he should be able to give us, hopefully, five or six innings.

OC: There have been a number of starters who have gone well above 100 pitches already this season. Are you concerned about that work load long-term?

FZ: I think part of our ability to do that has been because of these off-days and that we have kept everyone on-turn and have been able to give everyone extra days' rest. That has definitely helped us use starters deeper into games and have higher pitch counts.

The pitch count philosophy isn't based on looking at how many pitches a pitcher has thrown in one start. You have to look at what he has done over two-start or three-start or four-start stretches. Certainly those guys who have gone over 110 pitches will have to be watched a little bit more closely in the second and third starts they make after that, but I think that the extra rest that these guys have gotten and the way they feel physically right now, it's not a big concern.

Stay tuned for the second half of this interview, in which we cover David Purcey, Chris Carter, Jemile Weeks, Adrian Cardenas and more.

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