Let’s go back a few months: The calendar read August but when the 2014 Arizona Fall League rosters were announced, it felt more like Christmas to some. Ok…to me. The Mesa Solar Sox, home team of prospects from the Angels, Blue Jays, Cubs, Nationals, and the Oakland Athletics, included four teammates from the 2012 Arizona League A’s, namely Daniel Robertson, Matt Olson, Addison Russell and Boog Powell. The four were part of a lineup better known as the Swingin’ Baby A’s: a name they earned from scoring 353 runs on 569 hits, 138 doubles, 47 home runs, and led the league in almost every offensive production category. Yeah, they were kinda good. I was excited to watch them play together again.
In addition to those position players, Oakland named four pitching prospects to the Mesa roster. Drew Granier, Austin House, Tanner Peters and Ryan Doolittle completed the group of seven prospects wearing green and gold in the Arizona Fall League. The four right-handed relievers were all drafted out of college – Doolittle 20th round in ’08, Granier and Peters 32nd and 16th rounds respectively in ’11, and House 14th round in ’12. They’ve also had their share of injuries and comebacks, but then again, what professional hurler hasn’t?
I sat down with the foursome during the last week of the AFL season. The interviews were conducted during batting practice, in their natural environment, the bullpen. We chatted about topical items such as the pace of game initiatives, the way they learned they were selected to play in the AFL, which member of the bullpen is the most eclectic, and how the Lion King played a role.
First, let’s take a look at each pitcher:
The 26-year-old’s 2014 campaign began with six games in Stockton before he spent the rest of the season – and post-season – with Double-A Midland. He finished the regular season with a 3.23 ERA, 1.41 WHIP in 47.1 innings. He also threw 2.1 innings in two post-season games as a member of the Texas League champion RockHounds.
For the Mesa Solar Sox this fall, Doolittle appeared in eight games for a total of 13 innings pitched. He gave up 10 hits, 3 runs (2 earned), ZERO home runs, ZERO walks, and struck out 11. His 0.77 WHIP was the lowest on the team, and tied for second in the league. Of the 3 pitchers (starters and relievers) who did not walk a batter, his 13 innings pitched were the most.
Doolittle was the fourth and final Oakland pitching prospect named to the Mesa roster. The younger brother of big league closer Sean Doolittle, Ryan was entering his free agent year and re-signed with the A’s at season’s end. “Little Doo” as he is known, thanks to his Twitter handle @LittleDoo, stood out from the beginning of the AFL season. This was due in part to his high yellow socks with green stirrups, and, in part, his microscopic WHIP was among the top-3 lowest for relievers.
Scott Emerson, the A’s newly promoted bullpen coach who spent the past two seasons as the organization’s pitching coordinator, had this to offer about Doolittle’s performance this fall: “He had an outstanding fall league, where he showed that he could pitch against higher competition. Ryan is an outstanding competitor who attacked the strike zone with a much improved breaking ball.”
The July 4th trade that sent Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily to Chicago immediately left a need for a starting pitcher for the A’s at the Triple-A level. The Midland Rockhounds’ sent starter Drew Granier to pitch in Straily’s spot. After the game, Granier returned to Midland for the remainder of the season. Including the four innings in Triple-A, Granier threw 130.1 innings in 27 games – 25 as a starter. He posted a 4.90 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP.
According to Scott Emerson, “Drew just has to command pitches a little bit better.” As a member of the Mesa Solar Sox, the newly transitioned reliever did just that. He threw 14.1 innings in nine games. Though his ERA was high, 6.91, two games at each end of the season helped blow it up a bit, while the games in between were much more consistent and resulted in an ERA of 4.00. In a hitters’ league, such as the AFL, this more closely matches the production of this Cajun reliever.
Emerson continues, “Drew is a true competitor who has all the weapons and wants the baseball. He showed us a spike in ‘stuff’ pitching in short stints.”
Once again, the July 4th trade of Dan Straily allowed for House to appear as a reliever in four games in Triple-A in July. Before and after his time in Triple-A affiliate, House was part of the High-A Stockton bullpen. Combined, he threw a total of 50 games. In the California League, he posted a 3.06 ERA and 1.18 WHIP and an impressive 12 K/9 – most among qualified pitchers in the league. Under pitching coach John Wasdin, the Stockton staff led the hitter-friendly California League in almost every pitching category, including: lowest ERA (4.08); WHIP (1.33); Strike-outs (1,254).
House credits Wasdin with his continuous improvement the past two years. As part of the Mesa Solar Sox bullpen, House had a 4.76 ERA and 1.62 WHIP after 11.1 innings in 9 games. Like his teammate Granier, House’s fall league numbers were impacted by a couple of blow-up appearances at the end of the season. Without the two, he would boast a 1.28 ERA.
“Austin is another outstanding competitor who proved he's got the stuff to get out high-level hitters.” Emerson said.
As Emerson explains “Tanner missed most of the regular season. We wanted him to go out there and prove he was healthy, and he did a great job.”
Peters, who started the season with Double-A Midland, made three starts (17 innings pitched) before heading to the DL. He spent the rest of the season in Arizona, rehabbing at Papago under the careful guidance of rehab pitching coordinator Garvin Alston. Peters faced batters during 10.2 rehab innings in 7 AZL games towards the end of the regular season.
After 27.2 innings during the regular season, Peters headed to the Arizona Fall League. Just like his teammates, Peters had two games where the batters got the best of him. But, after having missed so much time during the season, it was to be expected. Peters’ performance in 14.1 innings for the Mesa Solar Sox produced 15 strike-outs, and he posted a 3.77 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP.
Emerson was very encouraged by the 24-year-old’s Fall League numbers: “He threw strikes. Struck out 15 guys in 14 1/3. Yes, we look forward to seeing what he can do next year.”
YOU’RE HEADED TO MESA!
Kimberly Contreras: How did you learn you were selected to play in the Arizona Fall League
Austin House: [Stockton manager] Ryan Christensen brought me in the office. I was excited. It was going to be fun. Has been fun. Is fun.
KC: It has been fun watching you…all of you.
Drew Granier: I was in Midland after one of the games. Got called in the office by Nuke [Midland manager Aaron Nieckula]. He always gives speeches and told me the good news. I’ve always heard good things about the fall league so I was excited.
Ryan Doolittle: I was the last, I found out about four days before, found out through my agent. I had to wait until I signed my contract, since this was my free agent year. Worked out good deal, a good contract and all fell into place. I’m so happy to be here. I love being an A; I love being here.
Tanner Peters: I was still at AZL; Emo told me. He sort of told or asked me if I would like to go, explained what the fall league is, but I knew what it was, of course. He said it would be a great opportunity to get in my innings after having missed so much of the season.
“THE SHOT CLOCK” a.k.a.: PACE OF PLAY INITIATIVES
RECAP: When searching for an answer to why there are lower television ratings for MLB games, those surveyed cited “games take too long” as a reason for not watching more (or any) MLB games. Though this was several years ago, the “complaint” has lingered to the point where outgoing MLB Commissioner Bud Selig felt strong enough to address as one of his last duties before retiring. Selig assigned a committee of MLB “who’s who” to implement measures that would essentially trim the fat during games and, if found to be successful, could be implemented next season at the major league level, just as the new Instant Replay rules were tested in the AFL in 2013.
The Pace of Play Initiatives presented by committee chair and Atlanta Braves president, John Schuerholz, and committee members: MLBPA leader and former MLB player Tony Clark, as well as MLB VP Joe Torre, MLB commissioner-elect Rob Manfred, and Red Sox brass Tom Werner and Michael Gordon were the following:>
1. Pitchers: 20-second pitch rule (with two LARGE digital countdown-clocks on the field behind home plate.)
a. Automatic change to the count (Ball added)**
2. Pitchers: 2 ½ minute limit pitching change break
a. Automatic change to the count (Ball added)**
3. Batters: Must keep 1 foot in the batters’ box at all times
a. Automatic change to the count (Strike added)**
4. Managers/ Players: Limit of 3 time-out conferences
5. Pitchers: No-pitch intentional walk
a. Catcher stands and holds up 4-fingers, signifying intentional walk; batter takes first base.
**Each point with noted exceptions
Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (SRF), home of the Salt River Rafters, was the only facility with the 20-second time clocks (or “shot clocks” as they were known). It was also the only facility where Instant Replay technology was available. The four pitchers from Oakland took the mound at SRF, but there were many opposing pitchers who did not. The Rafters pitching staff, of course, had more opportunity to be comfortable with the presence, and the pressure, of the shot clock.
NOTE: I saw a handful of “Ball 1’s” added to a count, but I never saw a batter receive an automatic “Strike 1”. Neither did anyone else I asked. Completely unofficial stat, but still worth noting. Pitchers have 3 initiatives where limits are enforced and penalized; batters have 1…and it’s not enforced. Yeah, that seems fair.
For more information: http://m.mlb.com/news/article/97181194/pace-of-game-initiatives-to-be-tested-at-afl
KC: Let’s talk about the shot clock and the Pace of Play Initiatives. Since you’ve all pitched at Salt River Fields, you’ve experienced all the time limits, including the two shot clocks; and your staff, though not any of you, was penalized with an automatic “Ball 1” for delay of a mid-inning pitching change – the crazy Tuesday night televised game, when Tony Renda was ejected, and the game ended on an over-turned call from Instant Replay. Remember that? [All nod in agreement.] Share with me how you felt using the shot clock and what you think about the likelihood of these initiatives becoming adopted by MLB:
TP: I don’t think it really affected me. I don’t know. I get the ball, get back on the mound, get my signs and go. It’s obviously on your mind, yes. Maybe if you’re not getting signs real quick and you see the clock, you get out of your rhythm. I don’t know, but it didn’t bother me.
AH: Didn’t bother me either. But…like it happened to [Rafters / Diamondbacks pitcher] Jimmy Sherfy the other night when we were playing them. He got rushed. Started throwing breaking balls, rushing to just get rid of it. It was good for us; worked to our advantage, but you could see how much it affected him. And it’s his home park, too.
DG: The pitch clock (Shot Clock as Mordecai calls it) doesn’t bother me. Hardest part for me was time limit coming out of the bullpen. You gotta pick up the pace; and get out there quick.
RD: For me, personally, I’m the same as Tanner: once you get out on the mound, you’re focused so I don’t really see it. I get my sign, make the pitch, get the ball, get back on the rubber and do it again. But as far as it speeding up the game: I think it could actually slow it down.
KC: Really? How so?
RD: Because you see the clock, or clocks – both of them - ticking down. And some guys will stress if they aren’t sure, then they’ll feel pressured when they see it getting close, so they’ll step off the mound, or throw over because it’s at three seconds, then the clock resets. Then they can do it again. Panic, step off, clock resets, re-do.
AH: I like the intentional walk change. I’m always afraid of a wild pitch or something happening. I really like just putting up the four fingers!
[The others agree.]
RD: Batters in the box. Haven’t seen them enforce it. Most will stay in the box, and they can call time out, but still haven’t seen it called yet. I just really like the fact that it’s [batters’ routines after every pitch] being brought into the discussion. The decision-makers are paying attention. That’s good. That’s a real positive!
MILITARY APPRECIATION GAME
Saturday, November 8th, Mesa Solar Sox at Surprise Saguaros. Televised game on MLB Network; Tanner Peters’ first start since April 17th, 2.2 innings, gave up 4 hits, 2 earned runs, walked 3 and struck out 2 batters. Drew Granier and Austin House each took the mound for 1.2 innings and were tapped for 2 earned runs each, as well. Padres’ slugging prospect Hunter Renfroe sealed the 11-4 loss for Mesa with his grand slam off Austin House.
KC: Ok…let’s talk about Saturday night. First: Tanner you learned you were going to be the starter for Saturday’s game a day or two before. Since you’ve been in the bullpen this fall, and were on the DL or in the AZL all summer; the last time you started a game was April 17th; did you realize it had been six months?
TP: Well, I know I did three games in Midland in April, then some games in rookie ball but that was… different. Everything has been in relief.
KC: How did you feel before the game? Were you nervous? About anything? Game being televised; your first start in six months?
TP: The thought that whole day, was good, focused. I was pumped up, but also calm and ready. Then, for whatever reason, when I got out there (on the mound) it was a different story. It wasn’t the cameras or the crowd or anything. It was just an off-day. Only way to explain it. That place (Surprise Stadium) is pretty dark no matter how much light is on it. Nothing bothered me; just a bad day.
KC: Regardless of the outcome, it was great to see you in the game, as always, and really, you each only gave up two runs.
KC: Austin - Hunter Renfroe’s grand slam… I don’t like saying it out loud. It’s everywhere.
AH: It’s ok, it’s all part of it. I threw what I thought was a really good pitch, and the guy is a good hitter, what can you say?
KC: Yes, he won the Bowman Hitting Challenge (the home run derby) before the season started. That’s what this guy does. He hits bombs.
KC: How about you Drew? How’d you feel?
DG: I felt good, came in, 1st and 3rd . Got a punch out, ended the inning. Then came back out and had an easy inning. Then for the 3rd inning, kinda got back to some old ways; walked, gave up hits. Grateful O’Grady came in and cleaned it up for me. I knew I was going to be first in relief, so I was ready. Fastball command was good; everything was until I started to throw a little harder, try a few things. But I felt good.
KC: Ryan, you were in the pen; you didn’t see any action that night.
RD: No, I just hung out and watched my boys play.
The first week of November saw the arrival of a group of loyal A’s fans; most of whom traveled from Northern California. Season ticket holders for Stockton, Sacramento (probably not going to be renewing those…ahem) and Oakland. Their respectfully loud and proud presence was felt by everyone in the stadium. There have been other fans this fall, who come to cheer and loudly support their team, but not with the heart, passion, or good behavior that the Oakland fans did. The AFL is a different environment but this group of fans left a positive impression on everyone; I heard them used as an example by another group of fans. All seven of the Oakland boys were as happy to see the fans as the supporters were to see them. It was great!
KC: Nice transition to my next topic: the wonderful fans you guys – all of you – have. Specifically: the group that’s been here the past few days. You know them from Stockton, and you were all so happy to see them. Almost as happy as they were to see you!
Ryan, after Saturday night’s game, when the final out was made and you were walking in from the bullpen, I saw the big smile on your face when you saw them waiting in the stands behind the dugout to cheer you as you approached.
RD: Yes, I was so happy to see them! They were definitely the reason I was smiling: it was because of them! It was great to see and talk to them again. They are – practically all of the Oakland fans are – so supportive! They make us all feel so good!
All 4: They are great fans, they support all of the A’s teams so much!
DG: It’s crazy/ good how much they love to watch baseball!
TP: After the game, I checked my phone and saw all the things they were saying [on social media]. After a day like we had (Saturday) they are always there for us. It really makes a difference.
[All 3 enthusiastically agree.]
RD: At Salt River, last week, I was in the game and they started the A’s chant, you know, “Let’s Go Oakland”…. I…I got chills. I really…I got the chills. I’ve been to the Coliseum, I know the atmosphere there, I know what it’s like; and that’s what they brought to us – it was great! It’s almost college football-esque to me. So when I heard 7-8 people chant, clap… it was great. I had to step off the mound the first time. Really great to hear; so appreciated. I wanted to throw 100…
The A’s fans travel well during the season anyway, but to see them come out to see maybe seven of us, maybe none, but they’re still at the games. They spent their time and money to be here…that’s cool. So cool.
KC: Those who traveled here have been counting down their trip since late summer. I suggested they come a little earlier next year and they said they made their vacation plans around the big league club possibly being in the World Series. These are dedicated fans. They are a small group that is very much a representation of the type of support you all have.
[Each one expresses great appreciation… all at once.]
FACIAL HAIR AND MECHANICS
Three of the four have facial hair. House had longer, flowing hair, but it is now short. The new “do” looks very nice; more mature; it fits him. Granier had the beard, then it was just a mustache, then the full beard returned in seemingly record time! Hard-hitting reporter that I am; had to find out why!
KC: You’re all relievers, so of course, I have to ask you at least one hair-related question. Austin: you had the “flow” going the last time I saw you, and now it’s gone. Why the change?
AH: Yeah, had to cut my hair. When I wasn’t producing, I couldn’t have it like that; so I cut it off and started doing better.
KC: Considering the outstanding year you had in Stockton, I’m guessing you’ll never have long hair again! Now, Drew: beard then no beard, then beard again. What’s up?
DG: Well, I only had the mustache for a few days because of my Halloween costume: Freddie Mercury of Queen. Had to get into character with that. Then I shaved it all off the next morning. I’ve always been a beard guy. Plus, it’s No-Shave November: let our beards grow to show support for the fight against cancer.
AH: I started that [no shave November[ for a little bit, but it was pathetic … no. Not good. Just couldn’t grow.
RD: I’ve had this…for a long, long time.
TP: I’m learning to embrace the reliever role: growing mine out a little. Can’t really get the full beard going though, like Drew has. He’s trying to teach me to embrace my inner “Cajun reliever.”
DG: Yeah… I keep telling him to let it eat. [His beard; let it grow.]
KC: Ryan: I’ve been asked why point your elbow to the batter as you get set. Is it like aiming; like you do with a putter as you line up a shot?
RD: Well, I’ve actually been doing the elbow thing since high school. It’s just the way I come set; it’s comfortable and it’s all I know to do. Sometimes I use it to help focus, but for me… it’s just comfortable.
WHEW! Hard-hitting topics out of the way!
BATTERYMATES AND THE BULLPEN
Relievers are known to be full of personality; one member of the Mesa bullpen was traded during the fall league season, and just as he pitched an inning for his old club. The Angels sent Mark Sappington to the Fall League, then he was traded to the Rays (Peoria Javelinas) for Cesar Flores, who was not participating in the Fall League. Sappington remained with Mesa but wore his new team’s jersey.
KC: Let’s talk catchers: there are no Oakland catchers on the roster, so how is it working with someone brand new? Do you have time to even get comfortable throwing to any of them?
RD: They are all great. All of them; they have all called really, really good games, too.
[All agree, whole heartedly!]
AH: I’ve usually had Sevie [Nationals catching prospect Pedro Severino]; just how it’s worked out. His arm is amazing; unbelievable! He’s thrown out runners for all of us. All three catchers are great, though!
RD: I really like them all. They have a tough job: to come in and have a staff of pitchers that you don’t know. The first time I ever threw to Ochinko [Blue Jays prospect, Sean], first time ever, was in a game. I ran out to the mound and he was there waiting for me asking “What do you throw?” So, I told him, ‘Fastball, change up slider, split change up’ and he called a great game. He caught a great game, too!
TP: Yeah they’re all great and they’re all here for a reason.
DG: Tough to get comfortable working with one, because they rotate and we do, too. They just all do such a great job keeping it all together. All three are great. They have a tough job; have to get to know each pitcher right away. Tough.
KC: Catchers are leaders; they have to take charge; have strong personalities. Since we’re on the subject: let’s talk about the personalities in the pen. The four of you are all different, where do you fit in?
AH: We’re pretty laid back about everything, but we’re also always ready. Very much the Oakland A’s way of things. Everyone, we are always ready. Our guys have been the ones coming in early in the game, in long relief, and sometimes with little notice. We’re “the dogs of the bullpen”; that’s a testament to our pitching coaches; that’s what they prepare us to do mentally and physically. Get in, do the job, and get off the field.
KC: What are some other personalities? Who’s the most outgoing?
All 4, almost in unison: Sappington, definitely!
KC: Ok, who would be the quietest?
All 4: O’Grady [Chris, from the Angels]
KC: Tanner: Are you sure you’re not the quietest in the group? [Peters nods]
RD: Yeah, Tanner is another one. He’ll stay quiet, but he’ll respond if you call on him or whatever. But when he does say something, it’s good. Sometimes with a good, one-liner.
DG: You should see Austin imitating Tanner. They warm up together and he does it exactly and it’s so funny! If you want to video something, that would be good to do!
KC: Duly noted. So that makes Austin the…
RD: The pot-stirrer…
KC: Maybe he’s the ‘antagonist’? [Laughing – they agree.] What about Drew?
RD: He’s the protagonist – the sweet southern boy.
LEGEND OF LION KING
Batting practice is wrapping up and the rest of the team is leaving the field, so we need to finish, but not before I learn the origin of the chants from Disney’s “The Lion King” that have been heard coming from the bullpen.
DG: Sappington: that’s his thing. Just a group thing. He has no fear; he’ll do anything. Did you see the one time he picked up someone in the chair? So dead out here: Sapp will stand in the tunnel, where it echoes.
RD: I know at least one of the guys’ parents recorded the game and played back being able to hear it on TV. It’s great they do it all the time.
DG: Sometimes the dugout will call down for it. Add a little energy to the place.
AH: Sappington’s the one who thinks of and does these things: he’s so great. We were afraid when he got traded that he would have to go home or switch to another team here; we didn’t want him to go. He was a big part of our chemistry or “fung shui, or whatever it’s called” It’s an energy and we didn’t want to be without it. We were pretty excited that he stayed.
Each and every A’s prospect on the Mesa roster had a great Fall League season. The performance of the relievers was like a jewel in the desert. With continuing good health, the sky’s the limit for Ryan Doolittle, Austin House, Drew Granier and Tanner Peters.