When Scott Emerson earned a promotion to the big league staff as the Oakland A’s new bullpen coach, A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman didn’t look far to fill the role of minor league pitching coordinator. He tapped longtime A’s minor league pitching coach Garvin Alston to fill the role. Alston moved from the position of A’s minor league rehab coordinator into the pitching coordinator role.
Alston brings with him 10 seasons of experience coaching in the A’s system. He spent four years as a pitching coach with the A’s, first with Low-A Kane County and then with High-A Stockton. During that time, Alston worked with several future major leaguers, including Vin Mazzaro, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Ryan Webb, among others. In 2009, he transitioned into the rehab coordinator role. In that capacity, he worked with A’s minor league pitchers coming back from injuries and helped position players moving to the mound, including Sean Doolittle.
Alston also has plenty of pitching experience of his own to impart on A’s minor leaguers. A prospect in the Colorado Rockies’ organization for several years, Alston pitched at every level but the Rookie League and made six appearances in the big leagues.
I spoke with Alston on Tuesday about his transition to his new position, what he learned from his time as a rehab coordinator, how individual pitchers were faring, and more…
OaklandClubhouse: I think you’ve had pretty much every job a pitching coach could have on the minor league side of the organization now.
Garvin Alston: I have. It’s been fun.
OC: What do you think will be the biggest difference being on the pitching coordinator side of things now rather than being the rehab coordinator?
GA: It’s going to be difficult because I have grown so close with the guys in rehab. As the pitching coordinator, you have to pull back a little bit and let the coaches coach. I think this year is going to be about paying attention to how the coaches do their job and getting the message to them.
OC: Did you talk a lot with Emo [former A’s pitching coordinator Scott Emerson] when you guys made the switch?
GA: Yes, we talked every day for about 10 days straight. We talked quite a bit. He gave me all of his information. I talked to Gil Patterson and Ron Romanick. I got a lot of input from a lot of guys. I’m just going to use everything.
OC: I saw Heath Fillmyer throw earlier [Tuesday]. He’s got a lot of movement and it sounded like he was hitting 96, 97.
GA: He is, yeah. I believe he topped out today at 97 and averaged 95. We have a bunch of guys here who are throwing hard. Jordan Schwartz [Monday] when he pitched topped out at 96. The arms are here. Now we have to get them the command and teach them to pitch.
OC: A couple of those guys like Fillmyer and Schwartz were position players before converting to the mound in college. Is there a different way that you approach working with a guy who hasn’t really pitched all that much?
GA: Yes. There is different approach. You give everybody the same basic information, but what you have to do, in my book, is you give them information as if they were a hitter. So, for me, I’ve been around all of these hitting guys and Sparky [A’s hitting coordinator Greg Sparks] has been helping me, but basically baseball is baseball, but I am going to use more hitting terminology with them and then introduce them slowly into the pitching stuff.
OC: Is it sort of similar to when you worked with Sean Doolittle or Jeremy Barfield during their conversions to the mound?
GA: That’s correct. The one good thing I would say about working with Sean for four months was that Sean had a good background with pitching. He pitched in the ACC with Virginia. He was pretty awesome. He had a good background. His brother Ryan also pitches, so with certain guys, once you know their background and understand what their knowledge is, you can teach from that.
OC: How is Dillon Overton doing this spring? He was one of your rehab students for about a year after he was drafted.
GA: He’s doing wonderful. He pitched two or three days ago and the change-up is amazing. The fastball velocity is coming. The breaking ball and the feel for that, he’s with everybody else right now in terms of the feel for that, so I anticipate that getting better. He looks phenomenal. I’m very happy with where he is at right now.
OC: Do you think he will be able to go out at pitch a full starter’s workload, or will he be on a modified schedule?
GA: I would hope he’d be able to get out. There shouldn’t be anything holding him back right now. Hopefully he can really start his pitching career this year.
OC: Was there anything that you picked up from your years as a rehab coordinator that has changed your approach to being a pitching coordinator or a pitching coach in general?
GA: Absolutely. What I learned from rehab was a change in philosophy. We changed the name from rehab to prehab. We are using certain aspects of the rehab program for the young pitchers who are just starting up and getting going as far as arm care. For me, if we can prehab them, they won’t get to rehab. That has been my outtake from it.
GA: They should be healthy enough to break, but whether they go out or not [at the end of camp], that will be a decision that comes from up top. That’s going to be a conversation that we are going to have here, I believe, in the next few days. We’ll know more by Thursday or Friday morning exactly what is going to happen.
OC: How is Raul Alcantara doing with his progression from Tommy John?
GA: He actually threw a bullpen [Tuesday] and it was amazing. I got the film of it already. He was outstanding. The fastball command was outstanding. [Tuesday] was the first day he threw breaking balls off of the mound. He is looking very good.
OC: So he’s about 11 months out from surgery now?
GA: I believe he’s about 11.2, or something like that. He’s ahead of schedule. He’s feeling great. There have been no set-backs, per se.
OC: Arnold Leon has been in the organization a long time. He missed almost two seasons after having Tommy John surgery, but last year I believe he threw 210 innings between Triple-A and the Mexican Winter League. Is he one of these guys who is at a point where he’s operating like that surgery never happened?
GA: At this point in time with him, he’s feeling great. He’s to the point now [with his health], he’s just a regular guy. We allowed him to go out there and do what he needs to do, especially during his off-season. Of course, we are always monitoring his innings pitched and things of that nature. He feels good and we feel good about him. As of right now, he’s right on course.
OC: With Chris Bassitt coming down from big league camp and Sean Nolin possibly joining Triple-A Nashville when he is healthy again, it seems like the organization has a lot of upper-level pitching depth. Is it going to be hard to figure out which pitchers will fill the Nashville rotation and which ones will go to Double-A Midland?
GA: More of that information comes from up top. I take my cues from what they believe and what the front office wants. I’ll chime in and give them my opinion, but whatever they want us to do, I’ll do.
OC: Nate Long has been around the organization a long time. Last year, it was amazing to see him go from being slated for the bullpen to throwing 160 innings as a starter. Have you ever seen someone handle that change that easily before?
GA: No, not at all. It’s pretty amazing what he did last year, especially not really having a home. First being in the bullpen and then starting. Whether it is pitching in the bullpen or in the rotation, pitching in Double-A or helping out in Triple-A, whatever it is, Nate has been wonderful. We appreciate him for that. It’s unfortunate sometimes when guys don’t have a home and stick in one place, but he took the role and he did it and he did it at a high, high level.
OC: That Midland staff was almost put together with string, but they basically marched right through the Texas League, which is pretty impressive.
GA: They did. I think that is a testament to the coaching staff and the players. They went out there last year and said, ‘you know what? This is our team.’ They banded together and put the wins together for a championship. It was awesome.
OC: The organization has always seemed to value groundball pitchers and Chris Jensen really fits that bill to a tee. Did he just slide right into the program last year?
GA: He sure did. That’s one of the reasons why we acquired him. He’s got an opportunity to be really good. There are some things he has to figure out – and he will – but right now we are very, very happy with where he is at. Hopefully he can continue along that path.
OC: I saw Kris Hall tweeted out that he was working with those bubble sensor things that you see when they are building video games to track his mechanics. Is that something that you guys are adding to the program as you try to build better mechanics for pitchers?
GA: A little bit, yes. It was brought to our attention by a company I believe is called Motus. They are building this arm sleeve to help with a few things. They also have a biomechanical department, so the question was thrown out there and they said, ‘yeah, we do that.’ They came out and I believe they did eight pitchers. [Monday] I received my first email in regards to the players’ results. I’m waiting to see his.
OC: He’s an interesting guy. He almost struck-out two batters an inning last year, but it seemed like he’d run into these innings every once in awhile that would just balloon up on him. Is that a matter of him learning to be able to make in-game adjustments?
GA: It is. His consistency with his delivery. We’ve talked to him a few times about it, and he knows. Just controlling the energy. If he can control his energy, he is a guy who is going to take off and do great things. His numbers, if you look at them, he’s good. We just need him to be more consistent, that’s all.
OC: Is it the same with Bobby Wahl? It seemed like last year, even as a starter, he’d have four good innings and then the fifth inning would blow-up on him.
GA: Yes. I think with Bobby last year, unfortunately, he had a bunch of nagging injuries. Because of that, he wasn’t able to get on-track and get going. Bobby has been a darling of spring training. He has been throwing the ball really well out of the bullpen. We are happy with where he is at at this point.
OC: Is it fun when all of the coaches are here together during spring training to have some of the coaches who maybe won’t see certain pitchers during the regular season get a chance to get a look at them during spring training?
GA: Absolutely. It’s fun when all of the coaching staff gets here, from the Triple-A staff all the way down to Rookie ball, we share ideas and talk to each other. It’s fun just to be around each other and talking to each other. Just having that atmosphere in the clubhouse, it’s a fun situation here.
OC: He hasn’t been down here in minor league camp yet, but is it crazy as a pitching coach to see Pat Venditte throw with both arms?
GA: It is. It’s bizarre to see him go out there and do that. When I saw him in spring training, I was like ‘wow, this is really happening.’ It’s a credit to him to be able to do what he does, and at a high level. Good for him.
OC: He looks a little like Huston Street from the right-side the way he squares up like that at the end of his motion.
GA: He does. That’s a good call.
OC: Brendan McCurry only throws with one arm, but it seems like three with all of the different arm angles he can take. He has continued what he did last year during his breakout pro debut?
GA: Absolutely. There is nothing is going to change with Mac. Mac came in an unexpectedly had a tremendous year. Going back to his college season, I believe he only gave up four runs all year. Maybe three. For him to do what he did, he’s pretty solid.