The Oakland A’s have developed several outstanding relievers over the past decade and there are a number of promising bullpen arms in the A’s system right now who could be contributing to the big league team in a year or two. One such prospect is right-hander Austin House, who served as the Stockton Ports’ primary closer during the 2014 season. House may not be able to match the velocity of some of his 2014 bullpen mates, but his plus change-up and ability to work ahead in the count made him a very difficult pitcher to hit during the California League season.
A 14th-round pick in the 2012 draft out of New Mexico, House has served mostly as a reliever during his time in the A’s organization. However, in 2013, House spent half of the season in the Beloit Snappers’ starting rotation. The A’s always projected House as a reliever, but they wanted to give him extended innings to work on his breaking ball. House had an up-and-down 2013 season with Beloit, but he finished strong and ultimately posted solid numbers (3.97 ERA/ 72:43 K:BB in 99.2 IP).
This season, House returned to the bullpen full time. In 54.2 innings with the Ports, House posted a 3.46 ERA and a 79:19 K:BB. His GO/AO was 2.24 and he allowed just four homers. Serving as the Ports’ closer, House saved 19 games in 23 chances. He also spent a week with Triple-A Sacramento when they needed additional reinforcements. He appeared in four games with the River Cats and didn’t allow a run in seven innings of work.
House’s best pitch is his change-up, which has been referred to a major-league caliber already by A’s minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson. His fastball generally sits in the high-80s/low-90s, touching 93, but he gets good side-to-side movement and sink on the pitch when he wants it. House’s breaking ball is still his third-best offering, but it has improved a lot since he turned pro.
We caught-up with House during the Ports’ recent post-season run to talk about his 2014 season, his thoughts on what makes the Ports’ a unique minor league team and more…
OaklandClubhouse: You spent the entire year in the bullpen this season after splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen last year. Was that more comfortable for you to have just the one role this season?
Austin House: Yeah, it definitely helps to get a role and just stick with it. Last year was a little bit tough because I was bouncing back and forth, basically trying to find my identity. It definitely helps sticking to one thing and attacking the season that way.
OC: You had an outstanding K:BB ratio this year. Was there any one thing that you felt you improved on the most between last year in the Midwest League and this year in the California League?
AH: Just being consistent. Day-in and day-out throwing strikes and getting ahead of hitters and doing my best to put them away. If anything, the huge difference was just consistency. And that might play into having a role in the bullpen compared to being back-and-forth between starting and relieving in the Midwest League. So being consistent in my role and also being consistent as a pitcher, coming to the field every day and getting my work done. That translates to the mound and throwing consistent, good quality strikes, not the strikes that are up in the ‘zone and get hit around. Strikes down in the ‘zone and being a consistent pitcher day-in and day-out.
OC: You spent a little time up in Sacramento this season and pitched well. Scott Emerson [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] said he was there when you pitched and was impressed with how you handled the jump. What did you take away from that experience in Triple-A?
AH: Just getting experience against more advanced hitters. It’s still just 60-feet, 6-inches, but they definitely have a little bit more of an approach up there. Not to take anything away from the hitters here in the Cal League, but those [Triple-A] guys are a little bit older. They have seen every combination of a fastball, breaking ball and change-up from a right-hander or a lefty. Their approach is a little bit better.
I think going up there and throwing the way that I did gave me a little bit more confidence. Not that I didn’t have confidence going into Sacramento, but going up there and pitching well against hitters like that maybe gives you a little bit more confidence coming back down and facing hitters and the way they approach their at-bats. That definitely helped me coming into the second half and then competing in the Cal League.
OC: When you are pitching in the ninth inning with a lead, is there a different feel than when you are pitching in the seventh or eighth?
AH: There is a little bit different feel. There shouldn’t be technically. You should approach every outing the same way as you approach a save or a hold or if you have to help out the starting pitcher. But there is a different approach and a different feeling. You are a little more amped up. That’s something that you have to try to control. You have to teach yourself to treat every outing the same way, whether it is a save situation or a hold or a tie game. That’s something that you have to learn throughout your time in baseball, whether it is in high school, pro ball, whatever it may be.
OC: Is there one pitch that you tend to go to if you really need a swing-and-miss? Is it the change-up, or something else?
AH: Yeah, I rely heavily on the change-up for swings and misses. I know that, like Emo says, it’s more of a contact pitch, but for myself, I’ve used my change-up as a swing-and-miss. I think Emo has given me the okay to use it as a swing-and-miss if I ever need one. If I had to rely heavily on one pitch, it’s the fastball. I use that pitch to get ahead of hitters.
I think I am more of a contact pitcher. I have gotten away with a lot of strike-outs this year, but I would say I’m more of a contact pitcher. That just gets back to throwing a lot of strikes and getting ahead of hitters. The strike-outs will come with that. But three pitches or less is the right way to do it.
OC: It seems like this Stockton Ports team has had a great bond all year. What has this unit been like for you to play on?
AH: We have been fortunate. We all get along really, really well. Most of us here are from the 2012 draft class and we were the game group in Vermont and Beloit. We’ve kind of gotten to know each other well as a group. That has transitioned us into a more family-oriented group and that has really helped us here [in Stockton] and last year in Beloit. We enjoy coming to work to play with each other. It makes it really easy to come to the clubhouse and know what you are going to get out of every guy each day on a consistent basis.
I don’t treat my teammates as my teammates. I treat them as my friends and family. We look out for each other and that’s how we approach the game. That has really helped us achieve success, especially last year in Beloit. Coming into this year into the Cal League, we kind of knew we had the same team. Obviously we have some new faces here and there, but the core has kind of taken in those new faces and made them part of our extended family.
We have been fortunate to have Ryan [Christenson, Ports’ manager] and Was [John Wasdin, Ports’ pitching coach] our last two years. And Mac [hitting coach Brian McArn] as well. That helps us stay with that same core. We can’t be any more grateful to have those guys at the head of this club because those guys are just outstanding. They know how to approach the game. They get us ready in the right way. They let us be free enough that we can do what we want, but they are also stern enough that they let us know what we need to do to get ready. It helps us become family and the ballclub that we need to be.
OC: Do you have any goals for this off-season? Are you going to try to mimic what you did this off-season or try something different?
AH: I haven’t set any major goals, but you set minor goals throughout the off-season, whether it is to eat better, get in better shape, try to be in the same shape as you were last spring training, etc. I guess go about your business in the right way. The off-season shouldn’t be treated as an off-season. It should be treated as getting yourself ready for the next year, because it is a long season. Coming to the end of my second full season, I have come to realize just how long the season really is and how much of a grind it is on your body. You have to get yourself in good shape so your body can withstand the whole season of wear-and-tear.
Not too many goals. Just to stay in shape and be prepared for when spring training comes to get right back on the bull and ride it out.