The Oakland A's have a well-deserved reputation for being an organization skilled at developing major league pitchers. A big part of that development is thanks to the coaching of the A's minor league staff, starting at the top with A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson.
"Emo", as Emerson is known around baseball, spends the season traveling from affiliate to affiliate. We caught-up with Emo as he was preparing to leave on his next trip to discuss some of the newest pitchers in the A's organization, his philosophy on pitching, as well as several pitching prospects at all levels of the A's organization. Below is part one of that conversation.
OaklandClubhouse: Let’s start with the new pitchers that have been added to the system through this year’s draft. Have you been pleased with what you have seen from the new draftees?
Scott Emerson: Tomorrow I am actually going up to Vermont again. I have only seen [third-round pick] Brett Graves pitch one inning, and that was his first pro inning when I was out in Phoenix. Tomorrow him and Daniel Gossett [second-round pick] are pitching together. That’s going to be an exciting day. Two young arms, guys that have good fastballs, can spin a breaking ball and have a good feel for a change-up.
I know those guys were our first couple of pitchers taken in the draft and you can see why. They have good ability. I have been very impressed just watching Graves throw one bullpen and one inning in a game. The same with Gossett. They both bring a professional maturity with them that is good to see right out of the chute. They are professional and they understand what is going on. They have an idea of what they are doing with their stuff and their routines. That was good to see.
OC: Is the idea this year to keep them on a three-to-four inning limit each outing given how many innings they threw this year already in college ball?
SE: Generally, you look at their innings from the year before and you want to bump them up 15-20% from the innings range the year before. Gossett is pretty close already. I can’t say off-hand, but I want to say that we are giving him about 30 innings this summer.
Graves actually is well under his innings from last year, so he will pitch a little bit more to get his innings up to where he was last year. The plan with Graves is to build him up like any starter we have built up in spring training in the past and then if we can get him up to 90 pitches by the end of the season, that would be great.
With Gossett, we are going to limit him to two-to-three innings each outing because he threw a lot more innings this spring than he did the year before, so we are going to keep his innings down. He is actually going to have 30-to-40 more innings this year than he did last year, but we are going to closely control these last 30 innings to make sure everything is alright.
SE: Strike throwers. I saw them in mini-camp. The one thing about Seddon was that he had pitched in a game [for South Carolina] about a week before mini-camp. So it was like he got drafted, pitched and was sent to mini-camp all in one week. The process was already underway with him. We didn’t want to slow him down. I think he threw one bullpen, threw in a sim game and possibly threw in another sim game, tossed an inning or so in Arizona and then we sent him out to Beloit. McCurry was pretty much the same.
You’ve got two young relievers who pitched at high-profile programs and we thought that the Midwest League would be a good transition for them. Seddon had a little hiccup [Monday] night, but those guys have been throwing the ball really well.
OC: Branden Kelliher is one of the youngest pitchers in the system right now, but it looks like he has hit the ground running in Arizona. Is he a similar pitcher to fellow Washington state native Dustin Driver, or is he a different pitcher than Dustin was last year?
SE: I think that would be a good comparison. Branden is another guy who I was impressed with. He came in with a routine and had an idea of what he wants to do with the baseball. His work habits are great and he has done a great of integrating himself with the system and the guidelines and the program. I think he’s done a good job.
He’s got a good future. He has a fast arm that moves through the ‘zone well. Like any young pitcher, they want to come out and throw 100 miles per hour. Velocity seems to be what everybody loves. But as soon as he sees that every hitter in the big leagues can hit 100 miles per hour if they know it is coming, once he understands how to use his velocity to move the baseball, he has a good chance to shoot through the system.
OC: I know he’s not a 2014 draft pick, but Dillon Overton [2013 second-round pick] is really making his pro debut now after recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has put up good command numbers so far for a pitcher at that stage of his rehab. Are you excited about where he is at in his rehab at this point?
SE: Yeah, Dillon Overton has done a great job. He is a true strike-thrower. He doesn’t have his velocity back yet on a consistent basis, but that’s understandable. What has impressed me is his ability to go out there and pitch. I got to see him twice during my last trip to Arizona and he was able to come inside with the fastball. He’s got a good change-up and he’s got a good breaking ball.
I think after having the surgery, once you come back, you have to pitch with your command until your velocity gets there. I think at times it makes these guys better pitchers because they start to learn to command the baseball. Then all of a sudden, that velocity comes back and he has that added element of command and velocity. He’s a smooth left-handed pitcher, a good competitor. He throws strikes. I think he’s got 28 strike-outs in about 19 innings. That’s a good sign that he is throwing strikes, mixing up his pitches and not getting predictable. He’s done a great job of controlling his delivery. Him and Garvin Alston, our rehab coordinator, have worked hard on his delivery throughout this process. He looks to be on-track.
OC: Did you have a chance to see Heath Fillmyer [fifth-round pick] when you were in Arizona?
SE: I saw him throw a sim game my last day there. Quick arm. Fast arm. He is a converted guy. He has what I call a ‘beautiful canvass.’ He’s really raw. He’s like a pitching coach’s dream. As long as he buys into what we are trying to accomplish with him – he’s got to understand his game as well; that it doesn’t do any good to throw 97 miles per hour if you can’t throw it over the plate or change speeds.
A lot of times position players are converted to the mound not because they are good pitchers, but because they have good arms. We have to turn them into good pitchers. When he understands how to make his arm work and how to use his pitches – because he has a good change-up and the ball has some late bite to it on the breaking ball – now it is just about learning the craft and becoming that pitcher instead of that thrower.
When he does that, he’s got a chance to be really good because that arm moves really fast.
OC: When you say that his arm moves really fast, what does that impact? Does it impact movement on the pitches or velocity or something else? What does that show you as a pitching coach when the arm is quick?
SE: It can offer a lot of deception. When that arm goes through the motion fast, when you go to throw a change-up or a breaking ball, the arm is coming through fast, but the ball is coming out a little bit slower. So that arm speed offers a little bit of deception. And that deception is key to hiding the ball from hitters. Hitters want to time the baseball, and we want to disrupt that timing. When the arm is moving fast, it looks like a fastball and all of a sudden it dies out as a change-up. That’s an added bonus.
When I say ‘arm speed’, I mean deception and it also involves trunk speed and driving the ball down the slope of the mound and having that ability to offer that deception. I call it arm speed, but without the trunk speed, you won’t really have arm speed. The guys that look like they are playing a game of catch sometimes look like they are playing a game of catch to the hitters, too. They can be easy to see. The guys that are looking like they are trying throw hard but under control are harder to see. That is one thing that we try to preach – be fast with every movement that you have, but it has to be under control. When you can do that, then the body parts are moving faster and the ball is going to move faster. But that is also going to offer deception to the hitter.
It’s like someone running up to you – sprinting up to you – and then they stop right in front of your face. You are going to flinch a little bit. When that one guy walks up to you and just stops, you aren’t flinching. That’s the analogy that I use. You are sprinting at the guy and then stop in his face, he’s going to be wondering ‘what the heck is this guy doing?’ All of a sudden, that guy is moving because you are getting into his space.
OC: So the hitter is reacting more to the movement of the delivery than the actual pitch?
OC: It seemed like about 10 years ago the organization had a lot of pitchers with very deceptive deliveries. Is that something that you still look to create as an organization?
SE: I don’t know if I would call it that we are trying to create a lot of deception. We are just looking to get these guys under control, balanced, down the slope of the mound and not side-to-side, which hides the arm. If you stay lateral down the slope of the mound longer, you are going to hide the ball better.
If you fly open, especially when guys land, if their knee is outside of their body when they land, generally their head is going to go that way and their arm is going to be seen by the hitter a little bit earlier. Now if the hitter sees the ball earlier, he is going to be able to track the ball longer and now he’s got an advantage. Whatever his advantage may be and to what degree – obviously three-out-of-10 is a superstar [for a hitter]. If you bail out and you show the ball earlier, you make that guy a .300 hitter off of you, whereas maybe the guy that hides the ball longer or keeps his delivery closed longer, maybe that guy is a .200 hitter off of him.
I would say as a hitting guy, you beat up on the guys you are supposed to beat up on because the great guys you probably aren’t going to get hits off of anyway. We are trying to get these guys to be the guy who can hide the ball and use what we call our elements of pitching – which is being able to locate the ball, change speeds, have movement on it and have some velocity. Those are the sort of things that we are preaching to these guys.
Some guys are going to have bad deliveries and command the baseball and some guys are going to have good deliveries and they can’t command the baseball. Sometimes it comes down to a mental thing. It’s like how some guys with bad deliveries never get hurt and some guys with good deliveries get hurt. How do you explain that? That’s a whole other subject.
Stay tuned for more of this Q&A, during which we cover several pitching prospects, ranging from Jesus Zambrano to Austin House to Seth Frankoff to Tucker Healy to Nate Long to Chris Jensen to Seth Streich, and much more...