(All videos by Kimberly Contreras)
Last off-season, longtime Oakland A's minor league pitching coach Garvin Alston took the helm as the organization's minor league pitching coordinator. The former Colorado Rockies prospect joined the A's as a pitching coach for Oakland's Low-A affiliate in 2005. He spent four seasons as a minor league pitching coach before taking over as the A's minor league rehab coordinator in 2009. Over the years, Alston has had a significant role in the development of several pitchers that reached the big leagues, including Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Vin Mazzaro, Ryan Webb and Sean Doolittle.
On Saturday, the A's concluded their annual fall Instructional League camp. We caught-up with Alston on Monday to discuss how that program went and to check on the progress of several A's pitching prospects throughout the organization. In part one of this interview, we discuss several pitchers who were at the "Instructs" program, including Heath Fillmyer, Dustin Driver, Bubba Derby and many others.
OaklandClubhouse: How was the Instructs program for you given that this was your first year as the minor league pitching coordinator? Did it change as compared to when you had your other roles in the organization?
Garvin Alston: It did. The one thing that was a little bit different in talking with Emo [former A’s minor league pitching coordinator and current bullpen coach Scott Emerson] and Liepp [A’s director of player development Keith Lieppman] is that the program sort of runs itself but a pitching coordinator’s voice can be heard [during Instructs]. During the season, it is more about the team pitching coaches and coaching them up so that they can build a relationship with the guys, but in Instructional League that was the first time that it was my voice. ‘This is what we want to do, this is our plan.’ Really instill that for the majority of the new players that were there and the returning players that these are the concepts we need them to understand and things of that nature.
OC: Liepp had mentioned in an email that Heath Fillmyer and Dakota Chalmers had done a much better job of spotting their pitches during Instructs. What did you see from them during the camp and what did they improve on?
GA: With Heath Fillmyer, it began when I went into visit with the Snappers in late July. We had had conversations because his stuff was just way too good for him to be having the kind of season that he was having. Granted, it was just his first full season and he was just understanding how things work going out there for the first time, but it should have been a little bit better. I sat with [special assistant to the GM] Grady Fuson and we had long conversations about him. I told him that I had ideas that I’d like Fillmyer to try. Grady said, ‘you’re the coordinator. Put them in play.’
We started then. In doing so, Heath took to it and began to understand exactly what I was trying to do. Maybe a week-to-10 days later, he started to get the rhythm of the changes that we made. He actually had a really good last six weeks of the season. I believe his ERA was something around 1.10. He pitched extremely well and then he carried that into here [at Instructs]. He was able to locate and his velocity was in the mid-90s. The best part about it was his off-speed pitches, which were a lot more in the ‘zone than before.
OC: For Dakota Chalmers, this is his first taste of professional baseball and he is coming out of high school, so I imagine there is a lot to work on. What have you seen from him in his first few months as a pro?
GA: He’s raw. No ifs, ands or buts about it. For me, he has four pitches that could be quality down-the-road, but I decided to take one pitch away at this present moment just so he can concentrate on three. One of the concepts I have been implementing here is that everyone wants to have four pitches and everyone wants to throw them in every ‘zone, but, in doing that, you don’t get anything accomplished. I would like them to choose two pitches and then work on a third pitch and concentrate on three quadrants of the strike-zone and master that. Once you are able to do that, now you are able to go ahead and add a fourth pitch or a finishing pitch. But until that point, if you can’t throw a fastball down-and-away or inside and command it, then what are we doing?
That’s been the idea, especially with the young players. Forget about trying to throw five pitches and to all quadrants of the plate. Pick two pitches that you can master and a third pitch that you can go ahead and control and go from there and see where you are at.
OC: What stage is Chalmers at in that process?
GA: It started off with his foot. When he came to us, he was an over-thrower. He wanted to light-up the radar gun. His front foot, which is his landing foot, was playing more towards the left-handed hitter’s batter’s box. That was the first item that we talked about. ‘Let’s be sure that we are getting a little bit more closed so that our energy is going towards home plate.’ He kind of picked up on that pretty well because that had been a problem of his before he got to us. Whoever his pitching coach was in high school – or if he had a pitching coach guy – he worked with Dakota on that, which is awesome. So that was an easy reminder for him to get back to.
The next thing is understanding how to deliver your energy during a baseball game. Granted, he has only been going two-or-three innings at a time, but he’s 100% percent all of the time. I’m trying to dial that down a little bit so that he can live at 93 miles per hour and be able to command the ball better, which he did. He’s a very bright kid. He’s eager to learn. He has a lot of pitchability.
A lot of people say, ‘oh, I can help you with a breaking ball.’ I disagree. You either have it or you can learn how to throw a cutter. For him, coming in he had a breaking ball that was pretty good, but it was inconsistent. All we did was in his program we have sequences and in his sequences, he knew that he was about to throw this breaking ball because of the count. It became a lot easier for him.
I told him, ‘it’s no different than in the season when you pitch. Because you have to throw the pitches that you want to throw and they have to hit your pitch not because of what the situation is or who the batter is. Because your stuff is too nasty.’ He’ll learn as he gets older and goes up the ladder that, ‘okay, now I have a plan that the pitching coach put together’ and now he understands that the pitches are good. He’s not just reacting; he actually has a plan.
OC: Bubba Derby had probably the best pro debut of any of the A’s pitchers drafted this year. What was he working on during Instructs?
GA: I was just going back over Bubba Derby’s numbers for the year. Granted, he had a phenomenal ERA and a phenomenal hits-to-innings-pitched. He was as advertised. One thing we did work on was his percentage of strikes. It was right on the cusp of 60, 61%. We shoot for a high number here when looking at fastballs for strikes. We noticed from watching film and sitting down and talking to him that his hands were a little bit more east-west than north-south. That’s what we talked about in his first outing down here. He kind of understood now that if he goes more north-south, he can be more around the plate.
His problem is that his ball moves A LOT. We just need to understand that his starting point needs to be here rather than where it was before to help him be in the strike-zone a lot more.
OC: Derby isn’t quite six-feet tall. Is there a concern because of his height about whether he will be able to handle a starter’s workload, or is that not something that you worry too much about?
GA: No, we don’t worry too much about that. One thing that he does do is throw at a great plane down hill when he throws his pitches. As long as the plane is there – granted, it’s not going to be the same as if he was 6’2’’, 6’3’’ – but he still has a chance. He is a guy who can live at 90 miles per hour up to 93 miles per hour, depending on the day. For us right now, it’s kind of a wait-and-see about where he fits [long term], but he has shown us that he can definitely be a starter, go out there and get quick outs.
OC: Boomer Biegalski signed late so he didn’t have a chance to leave Arizona. Sounds like he is kind of a crafty right-hander. Where is he at with his development coming out of Instructs?
GA: To me, he’s like a sleeper. He is a guy who throws tons and tons of strikes. Like you said, not a big arm, but he has secondary weapons. That change-up makes it seem like he throws with more velocity. I would put a grade of 6 [on the scouting scale] on his change-up. It’s so good, it allows his fastball to play up two or three more clicks. To me, just watching the way he works, when his fastball location is on, he is extremely difficult to hit. Guys do not see him well. He has a little bit of deception with his delivery.
Fastball location, without a doubt, was the first priority for him here to get better at. He did a phenomenal job with that.
OC: Arm strength obviously isn’t an issue for Dustin Driver. He had a full healthy season this year after missing most of last season. Did he make progress from where he was at in spring training?
GA: Absolutely. Actually, if I had to give an award for the last three weeks of the season, he’d get it. Something clicked in with him. He has this delivery where he has this kick-out thing with his foot that was throwing him off. We have been trying to work with him all season and talk with him all season to say, ‘look this action with your foot is allowing you to be up in the ‘zone and your pitches to be sporadic. We need to get that taken care of.’
Finally, we tried a different approach with him. Understanding that he was very athletic in high school, we said, ‘let’s go back to that athletic delivery.’ We tried something different with his foot underneath his body. His next game, he was amazing. He was 93-97 and, I believe, of the 15 fastballs he threw, 14 were strikes down in the ‘zone. Actually, he pitched in the last game here on Saturday and he was 93-98 and he was throwing strikes. For whatever reason, the last two weeks of the Instructional League were productive for him and it bodes very well for him. Hopefully when spring training gets here, he can carry on what he learned [in Instructs].
OC: Chris Kohler was in a similar situation as Driver last year, missing the entire season with an injury. This year he had a bit of a leg issue in Vermont, but do you think he was able to make progress in the innings he was able to throw?
GA: You know what? We are close. We are close with Chris. Chris understands the concepts, but he has not yet put it all together. The one thing that we were kind of concerned with is that his velocity dropped a little bit. So that was one thing that we were concerned with. Right now, Chris is actually working on his lower half to get that stronger and – most importantly – to get more flexibility in his legs so that he can drive the way that he was able to in high school.
His breaking ball, for whatever reason, has left him and that also has to do with arm speed. We are going back to the basics with him. Breaking him back down and trying to get him back up again. He gets it. We have talked to him at length about him understanding the concepts. He says, ‘G, I get it. But, for whatever reason, when I get on the mound, they just aren’t clicking in.’ It’s going to be a wait-and-be-patient scenario with him, but I think that once it does click in, things will get back to normal quickly for him.
OC: Is Branden Kelliher is a similar spot where he is learning new concepts but hasn’t been able to translate those concepts to the field yet?
GA: I would agree with that. Unfortunately for him, we actually scrapped his whole delivery during Instructional League because it wasn’t working. Granted, we were getting big numbers – 94 [MPH], 96 [MPH] – but they were nowhere near strikes. We tried to switch the tables on him and said, ‘hey, we don’t want a thrower anymore, we want someone who can pitch.’
We started to remake his delivery. I actually used Sonny Gray’s delivery as a starting point and he kind of liked it, so now he is getting used to the new delivery and getting used to where his hands should be and everything else. He has shown flashes of being really good, but he kind of goes back to what he knows when his energy level gets high and he falls right back to where he was before.
OC: Jordan Schwartz spent a lot of this season breaking down his mechanics and trying to build them back up again. Where did he end up at the end of Instructs?
GA: Again, the same thing with Schwartzie. I’ll put him in the category of being better the last two weeks than what he was before. The main purpose of him being down here was to get him a delivery that he is comfortable with and can throw strikes and be competitive with.
The one thing that Jordan did that I thought was exceptional was that he was able to deal with this whole year and still have a great attitude and come to the field every day and be willing to learn. He still has a ways to go, but he is a lot better than he was when he broke camp [in spring training] this year.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, during which we discuss several other promising young pitchers who participated in the A's fall Instructional League, including James Naile, Brendan Butler, Mike Fagan, Armando Ruiz, Oscar Tovar, Matt Stalcup and more...