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Q&A with Oakland A's minor league pitching coordinator Garvin Alston, part 4

On Saturday, the Oakland A's 2015 player development program officially ended in the U.S. with the conclusion of the A's fall Instructional League. On Monday, we spoke with A's minor league pitching coordinator Garvin Alston about the 2015 seasons for many A's pitching prospects. Inside, the final installment of this four-part interview.

To read part one of this interview with Oakland A's minor league pitching coordinator Garvin Alston, please click here. To read part two, please click here. To read part three, please click here.

OaklandClubhouse: Tucker Healy had a nice year in the Midland bullpen. He didn’t strike out as many guys as he has in the past, but he went more than two months without giving up a run. Was he more aggressive about pitching in the strike-zone this year?

Garvin Alston: Since we got him from day one, Tucker has been a phenomenal pitcher with his fastball. His issue has been having a consistent breaking ball. He became a little bit more consistent with his breaking ball, especially with strike one. That helped him tremendously. But his stuff is for real. There is no denying his fastball command and the action on his pitches and where he pitches from in his delivery. With that being said, I think that was more his understanding of who he is and why he needs to pitch the way he pitches that contributed to his success.

OC: Jake Sanchez had his first full year in the organization this year and had a nice season with Midland. He is currently pitching in Mexico for the winter. What did you see from him and what kind of pitcher do you think that he can be?

GA: That’s up in the air. For me, he’s a groundball pitcher. Contact, get the ball down. For where his arm slot is at in his delivery, for me, he’s going to get a lot of groundballs. Do I think he is a starter or a reliever long-term? I think the verdict is still out on that one. He did a solid job this year. He put up some quality innings and went through stretches where he was dominant. But he also went through stretches where it was tough for him to get out of the second or third inning.

The one thing that we were talking with him about during the season was for him to control his emotions. When he walked a guy or gave up a hit – or whatever it was – his energy level would get too high. Once his energy level got too high, his balls would flatten out and he wouldn’t be as effective as he could be.

OC: Was there anyone else that you felt made significant strides this year that you are looking forward to seeing what they can do in 2016?

GA: The first person I would say is Corey Walter. I was there with the rehab guys the year before. I saw him come in [to Arizona for draft mini-camp] and I made a slight adjustment to his delivery immediately. He came up afterwards and said, ‘that’s it. I can feel it now.’ I said, ‘okay, just don’t forget it’ and then he was off to pitch in Vermont. I really thought that he would forget it. He never forgot it. It was an adjustment with his hip, which helped him a little bit with his [pitch] movement and also helped him with his velocity. He went from being a guy who was throwing 88-89 to being a guy who was throwing 90-94.

Again, once this season came up, there were a few people who will remain nameless [laughs] who said, ‘G, you are crazy to send him to Stockton. He’s going to get his butt kicked.’ I said ‘I don’t think so. This guy has good velocity and a good slider and he sinks the ball. We are talking about Stockton, California, where the guys like to hit homeruns. I think there is something there for him where he can be okay.’ Now, in the beginning of the year when he was getting his butt kicked, I was a little skeptical, but I didn’t want to change it. I said, ‘hey Keith, let’s stick with him a little bit more.’ Then boom, it clicked in with him and he understood.

With Ricky Rod [Stockton pitching coach Rick Rodriguez] being there, oh man, we were able to calm him down and give him a pitching plan that helped. That allowed him to perform at a high level.

OC: Joel Seddon on that staff went back-and-forth between bullpen and starter. Looked like he may have faded at the end of the year because of fatigue, but it seems like he has a sneaky quality to his stuff that makes him pretty effective. Do you agree?

GA: Yes, definitely. I think the best thing about Joel was that when he was in college, he got to close at the University of South Carolina. He got to understand pressure situations pitching late in games in a big conference. Once we got him, from day one, he was strike-one, strike-two. He was so good in the strike zone that we actually had to teach him to go outside the strike zone.

In helping him, it’s really up to him as to how his future is going to unfold moving forward in regards to being a starter or a reliever. I believe he can actually do both. I think he can contribute at the big league level as a starter, like a Jesse Chavez almost. He can start for you but he can definitely be a bullpen guy that you can count on to go multiple innings. To me, he has put a lot of value on himself by being able to do both.

He doesn’t have a big arm, but, again, he’s effective because of his strike zone abilities and being able to sink the ball and being able to throw a slider behind in the count – and he came in with a very good change-up – those things were in place for him already. What we need to do is put together a plan for him. Again, Rick Rod was able to work with him and get him going in a good direction.

OC: Sam Bragg had a nice season out of the Stockton bullpen, as well. Is he making progress spotting his pitches better?

GA: He’s my sleeper. I haven’t put my thumb on it yet, but I have seen him in real-game situations 10 or 12 times and every time I have seen him – except for once – he was pretty dominating. He’s my sleeper. You go and look at the numbers and you see a guy who can touch 95 from time-to-time and I believe he touched a 96 this year. He sat 92-93. But his best pitch is that breaking ball. He can really spin that breaking ball.

Again, it’s going to be a wait-and-see on his future. Some guys that have stuff don’t have heart and some guys that have heart don’t have stuff. We’ll wait and see if he can combine the two in regards to his stuff and his heart and get things moving.

OC: Jose Torres and Carlos Navas had breakout seasons for Beloit out of the bullpen and got up to Stockton at the end of the year. How are they looking at this point?

GA: I will start with Torres. Last off-season I received a phone call from [former A’s coach and pitcher] Ariel Prieto, who was coaching in Venezuela. He said, ‘G, you know this kid [Torres] is throwing 95, right?’ I said, ‘where?’ [laughs] He said, ‘no, in the game he is throwing 95.’ I said, ‘okay, that’s good.’ Then Ariel says, ‘just to let you know, he hated starting.’ I said, ‘what do you mean he hated starting? Everybody wants to start.’ He goes, ‘no, he hated starting.’

Torres was always down here as a starter and he felt that he couldn’t throw the ball hard [in that role] because we needed more innings. As soon as he went into the bullpen, boom. He took off. He thought, ‘I can pitch. I can really let it go.’ With that story and everything going forward, he had a very successful year.

Now, are there things that he needs to learn and get better at? Yes. His breaking ball needs to be better. We finally taught him a slider. He was throwing a curveball before. With him learning how to throw sliders now, if he can get those close to the plate, that’s going to be important. I watched him in Beloit one time throw one pitch under 94. He was at 95-96 and then he threw three sliders for strike-outs. I brought him in and said, ‘do you understand that you can throw your breaking ball like that every single time and it will work off of your fastball?’ He says, ‘yes, I do.’ He just hasn’t quite put it all together yet but you can watch him be brilliant at times.

Carlos Navas, again, it was kind of like the same scenario. Carlos was a starter and then we put him in the bullpen [in 2014] and we saw a spike in velocity. He went from being a guy who threw 90 to throwing 92-94. The kids on his team said that he had the ‘invisaball’. It wasn’t like it was extremely hard, but hitters were just swinging through it. We took away his curveball and gave him a mixture of a curveball/slider. It is something that he was comfortable with. He already had a change-up that was developing, so he has three pitches coming out of the bullpen.

I’m very happy with how they did and I want to keep moving them forward.

OC: How would you assess your first year in this new role? What did you enjoy about it and what are you looking forward to pursuing in the second year in this role?

GA: The first thing that I enjoyed about it was the communication. The communication between the front office and Keith Lieppman and even Emo [A’s bullpen coach Scott Emerson]. We talked to be able to bridge the gap a little bit between the big leagues and the minor leagues so that we could have a good understanding of what they were looking for in the big leagues. That was the one thing that I truly enjoyed, those conversations.

The next was seeing these plans that we put together as a unit and saying ‘yes’ or ‘no, we are not going to go that route.’ Seeing guys get better, like Carlos Navas, and putting him in the bullpen and saying ‘okay, let’s go ahead and change his grip.’ Or with Torres, ‘let’s go and change his breaking ball.’ That was the one thing that I saw was awesome [building the plans and executing them].

The travel [laughs] will be the only downside. Being away from my family was hard just because I am a family guy. That was the only downside. Other than that, every aspect of it I really enjoyed. This is something that I have always wanted to do. Being a big league pitching coach is something that I definitely, definitely want to do.

But being a pitching coordinator is definitely something that I have talked about at length with Gil Patterson and Ron Romanick when they both were here [as pitching coordinators]. They both told me, ‘just wait and prepare and be patient and have a plan in place for when that opportunity comes.’ And I did. I was ready for it, which is why I think we were a little bit successful this year. Anything that I had in my brain, I told to Keith and Keith said ‘that sounds like a good idea, or we should wait on that.’ I was definitely always in his ear, using him as a sounding board to test things out. Also the same with Grady Fuson.

It was fun in that aspect and knowing the things that I need to do for next year. Being prepared, that was the one thing that I really learned from Marcus Jensen [A’s assistant hitting coach and former minor league hitting coordinator] was how to be prepared. When he was down here as the hitting coordinator, we talked at length about being prepared and having things ready just in case this one thing happens, you have a back-up plan. It was long nights at home and on the road typing up reports. I’m the worst typer in the world. I type with two fingers. But I got through it.

I can’t wait for next year to come. I will be adding some things to what the coordinators before me have done and put my signature on certain things.

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