Oakland A's Front Office Q&A: Billy Owens, P2

In Part Two of our conversation with Oakland A's Vice President of Player Development Billy Owens, we discuss several Stockton Ports' stars.

Part One of this interview

OaklandClubhouse: Matt Olson’s walk-to-strike-out ratio is nearly 1:1 (82:93) and his K-rate is down (roughly 4%) from last year while his walk rate is up (6.3%). He’s also already surpassed his homer total from all of last year. What sort of improvements has he made to his swing and his approach this season?

Matt Olson leads the Cal League in HR and BB

Billy Owens: Matt Olson is another guy like Daniel Robertson who fits into that baseball rat mentality. He eats, drinks and sleeps baseball. He is a smart kid. His father played college baseball. His brother played in the Ivy League [pitcher at Harvard]. Matt was signed to Vanderbilt. Matt has baseball in his genes. He’s a 20-year-old kid and he had a really good year last year. The Midwest League is a notorious pitcher’s league because it is so cold in the first half, but he threw up about 23 homeruns and he walked a lot last year. I thought the numbers were pretty good for a kid just coming out of high school.

Then he went to Instructional League and worked on a few things. He’s kind of a deceptive athlete. This is kind of lofty praise, but I remember watching the Twins in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s and their first baseman was a guy by the name of Kent Hrbek. He was a guy who could really play first base. He had a lot of pull power and he was patient. Matt Olson fits that mold of a Kent Hrbek who can do a lot of different things. Matt can hit the ball over the wall. He has 82 walks now and the numbers will keep on climbing. The swing is getting shorter.

At first base, he is as good a defensive first baseman as there is in minor league baseball. This guy can do something spectacular at first base every night, whether it is a 3-6-3 slick double-play, or ranging on a pop-up that you don’t believe most first basemen can make. The agility at first base is spectacular. And he’s a good enough athlete that he has played a couple of games in right field and left field.

He’s an exciting player and one of several exciting 20-year-old players out there in Stockton. Another is Renato Nunez, who played in the Futures Game. He has already 21 homeruns. His strike-out to walk ratio is a thing that is definitely improving. He started to realize how pitchers were attacking him and what he had to do to combat them. He has really shrunk the strike-zone. Really the last six weeks or so, he has taken off because he is finally getting quality pitches to hit.

Renato Nunez has a 900 OPS

Renato has probably the purest swing of anyone in the organization at this point, just from a balance and aesthetics perspective. He has just a pretty swing, and he has just produced. He led the Rookie League in doubles a few years ago and last year he hit 19 homers and drove-in 85 runs. I think he was trying so hard to hit 20 homeruns that he got to 19 and some of his numbers just deteriorated that last month. But that was a good learning lesson for him. His strike-zone discipline has gotten dramatically better this year. He worked on that in the Instructional League and the off-season. Marcus Jensen, our hitting coordinator, does a tremendous job, and he was able to help Renato out with that. Julio Franco, the guy who signed Renato, knew the poise and knew the maturity of the kid. And he’s really taken off.

That Stockton team is fun to watch. Seth Streich is another kid who has really taken off this year. Rich Sparks, our scout in the Midwest, was adamant about taking Seth in the draft that year. There is nobody in baseball who creates better relationships with his players than Rich Sparks. He is tremendous and he knew the kid’s make-up and he knew how tough he was. Rich liked the slider and the strike-zone ability. And Seth has aptitude. After that first half last year in the Midwest League, he got things worked out and took off. He really worked with Scott Emerson, our pitching coordinator. He is definitely pounding that strike-zone. The breaking ball is good. The change-up is solid. He’s made a very good name for himself this year in the California League.

Seth Streich has 104 Ks in 102 IP

OC: Has there been any concern about Seth’s elbow this year after he had to miss the final few weeks of last season with the elbow strain?

BO: We are just monitoring it. I think after the first game or two of the season, there are going to be things to monitor with players. There are going to be programs and staying on top of things on pretty much every player. Everybody has something that they have to maintain during the year. Seth Streich has really asserted himself since the start of the second half last year and he is really throwing the ball well this year in the California League.

OC: Really quietly Aaron Shipman has put together a nice year this year with Stockton. He’s missed some time with injury, but when he has been in there, he has been a sparkplug either at the top or the bottom of the Ports’ order. Do you think he is finally comfortable with what his talents can do in professional baseball?

BO: Ship is a kid who has always had a good strike-zone. He needed to get stronger at some point and he has bought into going into the weight room and improving his nutrition, so he has gotten stronger. He has asserted himself more on the field to the point where he understood that there is a time and a place to go 3-2 and get 10-pitch at-bats, and there is also a time to ambush the pitch. I think he has been able to balance that out to the point where if the pitchers are going to lay it in there, he’s going to take a swing at it, versus always trying to go too deep into the count on every opportunity.

Aaron Shipman has a .414 OBP

There is a maturity aspect. You don’t know when some of these guys are going to break out. Our major-league team reflects that. I remember I saw Brandon Moss play all the way back in high school versus Jeff Franceour. It was Loganville HS versus Parkview HS in Georgia. Moss was signed by the Red Sox and he won a minor league batting title and that was all the way back in 2003. Now Brandon Moss is going to his first All-Star Game 13 years later in 2014.

We try to put these timetables on some of these kids on how they are going to grow and how they are going to mature and who is old or young for what league and it is good in theory and it is good to talk about, but the bottomline is that if you go around our roster in the major leagues, everybody has a story about some perseverance. Whether it is Jesse Chavez or Josh Donaldson or Yoenis Cespedes coming from Cuba or Coco [Crisp] doing his thing and really becoming a five-tool centerfielder and Josh Reddick coming over here and playing that defense. Everybody’s got a story of when they matured and when they became a very good player, whether that is in the major leagues or whether it is in the minor leagues like with Aaron Shipman. Ship is hitting .290 right now, getting on-base and he is still just 22-years-old.

OC: How do you think Nolan Sanburn and Michael Ynoa have taken to their bullpen roles in Stockton? Do you see those as their roles moving forward?

Nolan Sanburn has a 2.92 ERA

BO: Nolan Sanburn, it’s just a matter of being out there. He throws 95-miles-per-hour. He has an outstanding breaking pitch. Good change-up. This role allows him to be on the field, take his reps and pitch late in the game in important situations. Getting that experience and having that firepower has allowed them to grow as people and has allowed them to improve their secondary pitches. Because the velocity is there.

Michael Ynoa, the other night I was watching the game and he topped out at 102 miles per hour. He is 98-to-102, straight downhill. The strike-out numbers are there. He’s 22-years-old himself. The breaking ball is solid and the change-up is very good. But if you look at his innings for his career, I would say that even though he signed at 16-years-old, he probably has less than 200 innings for his career. It’s a learning process. There isn’t a certain timetable of when you are going to breakthrough. Brandon Moss is going to enjoy Minneapolis and he’ll tell you how difficult it was to get to where he is at.

Stay tuned for the final part of this interview, when we discuss Low-A Beloit and some of the 2014 draft class.

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