Oakland A's Coaching Q&A: Scott Emerson, P3

In the final part of our mid-season Q&A with Oakland A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson, we discuss the art of throwing strikes and several A's prospects who do just that.

Click here for part one of this interview and here for part two.

OaklandClubhouse: Stockton closer Austin House spent a little time in Triple-A earlier this month when the River Cats were short a few pitchers. Do A-ball pitchers take a lot back with them to A-ball when they spend time with the Triple-A club like that?

Scott Emerson: Yes, definitely. I got to see him there. Rick Rodriguez [Sacramento pitching coach] was on vacation, so I was the River Cats’ pitching coach in Fresno when he was there. I got to see him for two games. He did a great job. He looked like he belonged. He was aggressive. He threw strikes. He changed speeds. I think he’s got that ability to throw strikes and change speeds with that change-up. That change-up is a plus pitch for him. He looked very comfortable out there in Triple-A.

It’s a great experience for those players. They get to be with the older guys and see up close what they do on a consistent basis. He’s done a great job all season. He had a couple of rough games early in the year, but I’m actually looking at his numbers right now and he’s got 63 strike-outs in 42 innings with 15 walks. And his hits are under innings pitched. Those are good numbers right there.

OC: How much, if at all, do you drop ERA out of the equation when evaluating guys, especially in the lower levels, and focus instead on those stats you just mentioned?

SE: You know, I don’t know why people decided ERA doesn’t matter anymore. It’s an indication of something. You look at guys with 6 or 7 ERAs, they generally aren’t pitching that well. If you look at the rest of their numbers, their hits are generally above innings pitched, they might have high walks.

I like looking at hits to innings pitched and strike-outs to walk ratio and swing-and-miss rate. If you can get guys to swing-and-miss at the lower levels, you’ve got good enough stuff to probably go to the next level. Because we know the higher up you go, the swing-and-miss rate isn’t going to be as good anymore. Or generally not as good. Also strike totals are important. Pitch f/X is out there, as well as Trackman, and you can track every movement of the ball nowadays. I think it is important to see how guys put the ball into the strike-zone. Can they put the ball into the strike-zone enough? That’s a good indication.

OC: It seems like the A’s have always looked to get strike-throwers when bringing pitchers into the organization. Jake Sanchez, the pitcher the A’s acquired for Michael Taylor, looks like he fits that mold well. Is that what you have seen from him so far with Stockton?

SE: Yeah. I haven’t had the fortune to see him yet, and I’m not sure I will have that fortune this year. But talking to John Wasdin, the Stockton pitching coach, he said that this guy is a strike-throwing machine. He is coming out there and he’s putting it over the plate and coming right after hitters. That’s something that we like. It’s not fun watching guys not throw strikes. You can’t pitch in the big leagues on a consistent basis if you don’t throw strikes.

Some of these power arms will get to the big leagues and they’ll showcase him and his velocity. But if you want to be a contending team, you’ve got to realize you need pitchers and not throwers. The first indication is a guy who can put it over the plate. He’s not afraid to get hit. I think a lot of guys don’t throw strikes because they are afraid to get hit.

OC: Do you feel like Omar Duran was maybe one of those throwers before this year? It seems like this year he is finally getting the ball over the plate more than he has at any other point in his career?

SE: Yeah. I think so. We gave him a simpler approach to his delivery. A play-catch approach with an aggressive finish. Like you said, he’s thrown a lot more strikes and he’s got a lot more confidence now. Confidence plays into a huge part of pitching. If you’ve got a lot of confidence, you tend to get away with some of the mistakes you don’t when you don’t have that confidence. He’s gone out there and he had a very good debut in Double-A the other day. He’s worked hard at it. This guy has been around a long time and he has worked hard at his craft this year to make that necessary adjustment and change. I couldn't be more happy for him.

OC: The Midland staff as a unit has really pitched well this season. You spent a lot of time coaching in that league. What is the key to succeeding as a pitcher in the Texas League, in your opinion?

SE: I think a lot of credit should go to Don Schulze, the pitching coach there. He’s on top of it. The guys are prepared every time they take the field, from the scouting reports to the work on the field, these guys are a constant working machine. I think Don has the ability to push these guys to maximize their potential and he’s done a great job doing that.

The Texas League, like you said, can be a grind. I think when I had Vinny Mazzaro, I think he made eight starts against Corpus Christi alone. I can be tough to pitch against the same team over and over again. You start to lose your effectiveness because the hitters start to know what you’ve got. They’ve seen you enough and they can game-plan against you better. Now it becomes, ‘now you have to execute your pitches because they know what’s coming. If you are going down-and-away, you have to get it down-and-away. You can’t leave it just a little bit up.’

The Texas League is a grind to where you are facing the same teams over and over again and it gets to be Groundhog Day. It’s a tough league to pitch in. I think the Cal League is, too. Sacramento can be a pitcher’s park and the Midwest League has some thicker grass, which can help out some sinkerballers, but the Cal League is really tough. It just seems like the wind blows out everywhere and the infields are fast. It’s like playing on astroturf.

OC: Chris Jensen has been consistently effective for most of the season. Is he that classic groundball-type pitcher?

SE: I think you hit the right word with him: consistent. He’s kind of like Seth Streich. You know what you are getting. He goes out there. He’s going to give you six or seven innings. He’s going to throw strikes. He’s going to put it over the plate. He’s going to change speeds. We worked on his breaking ball a little bit last week to try to change his approach to it and add a little more depth to it. I didn’t get to see him pitch after that, but the reports were that the breaking ball added a little bit more depth. So that was good.

He’s a good student. I like the way he competes. You never really see him sweat. He’s cool, calm and collected. And he’s going to throw a bunch of strikes and change speeds. If he can get that breaking ball to be a little bit better, that’s really going to help his future.

OC: Nate Long started the year in the bullpen, but he’s been a starter for Midland since roughly mid-April. Have you been surprised with how effective he has been able to be as a starter after being a reliever for much of the past few seasons?

SE: Yeah, I think his durability has been excellent this year. This guy has taken the baseball and he’s a Texas League All-Star. He’s gone out there and I think he’s got 19 or 20 starts this year. He just takes the ball when you ask him to take the ball. He’s done a great job. We saw him three or four years ago and thought ‘this guy doesn’t have electric stuff, but he can pitch.’ I think he has matured into that guy who can really pitch.

He can move the ball around to both sides of the plate and he has a really nice change-up. He’s a guy that you like to watch pitch because he throws strikes and he keeps hitters off-balance. He’s done a really great job.

OC: Seth Frankoff bumped up to Triple-A. He had a really rough first few outings, but he has pitched well in his last three or four outings. Is it just a matter of making that transition for him, or are there things he is working on?

SE: I think it is the transition. You get up to a level to where you realize that there is only one level to go. When I was in Fresno, I had to tell him, ‘hey, you are here for a reason. You earned this. You need to go out there and pitch your game.’ Like you said, he’s had a couple of really good outings and hopefully that relaxes him a little bit and he can go out there and pitch.

He’s got really good stuff. His ball moves. He can change speeds. He can cut it. He has a good cut-fastball. He’ll show an occasional curveball. I think it is just that he needs to get familiar with Triple-A and realize that most of these hitters are major league hitters who are just stuck at Triple-A. He’s got to put it over the plate, like anywhere else, or they are not going to swing. When he does that, he’s got really good stuff. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. He’s just got to put it over the plate and challenge the hitters.

OC: Is it about making that same transition for Tucker Healy? His walks are up since he got to Triple-A.

SE: Tucker went from Stockton to Midland to Sacramento, so he’s seeing the progress of what he has to do to get major league hitters out. They are not going to swing as much at the higher levels. They have seen you before. I try to tell the guys that if you don’t execute your pitches and throw strikes, the scouting report will be that they have seen you before. This is who you are. I would compare Frankoff a little bit to Michael Wuertz when he had him a few years ago. He throws a lot of off-speed and a lot of breaking balls. Well, the hitters know that. You have to execute those pitches because if they are looking for it and it’s just off the plate, they are good enough not to swing.

I think the maturation process of learning that these guys are good and that I have to make my pitches is important. I think they are doing that and they are going to have to do that over the course of time and understand that ‘I am going to have to put the pitch where I have to put the pitch to succeed.’

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