Pitching development has been the backbone of the Oakland A's franchise since the team moved West. When the A's lost minor league pitching coordinator Garvin Alston to a big league bullpen coach job with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the A's front office wanted to ensure that they could maintain the pitching program that has been in place since the mid-1990s. They turned to one of the men who helped to build that program, Gil Patterson, who had two previous stints as the A's minor league pitching coordinator -- in 1996 and then again from 2008-2012.
Patterson was the head of the New York Yankees' minor league pitching program from 2013-2015. He has more than 30 years of experience coaching pitchers at the professional level and was the Toronto Blue Jays' pitching coach in 2003 and 2004. A first-round pick in 1975, Patterson reached the big leagues at age 21 with the Yankees. Arm injuries cut his promising playing career short, but he has developed into one of the most respected minor league pitching coaches in baseball.
I spoke with Patterson on Tuesday about his return to the A's and his impression of several pitchers heading out to A's full-season affiliates this week.
OaklandClubhouse: How is it being back with the Oakland A’s?
Gil Patterson: It’s great. It’s almost like I never left. Everyone was very supportive. You know as well as I that you can’t go wrong working for Keith [Lieppman]. Dan Feinstein [A’s Assistant GM], Rob Naberhaus [A’s Director of Baseball Systems] and David Forst, who I have the relationship with, have all been great. It’s good. We are combining the old way of pitching and looking at things with the analytics. That’s an important part of getting guys better. That’s what it is ultimately about: getting guys better and winning a championship. You have to tie both ends together and I enjoy that.
OC: Did you spent a lot of time talking with [former A’s minor league pitching coordinators] Garvin Alston and Scott Emerson about the pitchers in the system, or did you look at them with fresh eyes this spring?
GP: What I did was have each pitching coach [in the A’s system] send me their thoughts on their pitchers – things they did well, things they thought they could get better with and where they thought they should go level-wise. It’s not that I didn’t get with Garvin and Emo, but I figured that the pitching coaches that were with the pitchers all year could give me an even better insight.
OC: Zach Neal was originally set to move into the bullpen for Nashville this season. If Eric Surkamp is promoted to Oakland, will Neal move back into the Sounds’ rotation?
GP: I think so. We have plenty of options. Chris Jensen has certainly proved that he wants the chance to pitch in Triple-A and I’m sure he will get that, but Zach Neal has proven he can start in Triple-A. It’s interesting because you certainly wouldn’t mind seeing what Neal could do out of the bullpen too. It’s a double-win for us. If it resolves itself and Zach stays in the bullpen, good for us. And if not, and he has to make some starts, then good for us again because we all know what he is capable of doing. I really enjoyed being around him this spring.
OC: Sean Manaea was in big league camp all spring. Did you get a chance to work with him at all, or was it more seeing him in action in big league games?
GP: I don’t think he needs Gil. [laughs] He looks very, very solid. Our job here in the minor leagues is to get everything going for him: executing pitches to the mental side and being a tough competitor and being relentless to controlling the running game to making all of your PFPs. When he is in Nashville with RickyRod [pitching coach Rick Rodriguez], we will continue with that, but he looks very impressive in the short time that I have seen him.
OC: Dillon Overton will be in Nashville, as well. Would you characterize him as a crafty lefty at this point, or do you think he has the potential to be more than that?
GP: It’s funny. I have seen some analytical reports on [Astros’ ace] Dallas Keuchel, someone who is not a hard-thrower but has had significant success. It’s almost not fair when you start comparing someone to Dallas Keuchel, but all I will say is this: Dillon pitches in, he can locate and he’s got a great change-up. Those things right there say something about what he can do. I think he is going to be awfully fun to watch and I’m glad to be a part of it. Who knows? Maybe a cutter will be in his future.
OC: Dillon was a guy who had Tommy John surgery and there are several guys in the system who have had it. Is your experience with arm surgeries something that you use to help guys get through that rehab and back to where they were before it?
GP: I think me getting to the big leagues at 21 and then having eight arm surgeries and never getting back again certainly tells a story that sometimes you can possibly help someone relate and possibly understand the big picture. Even Jarrod Parker, and what he is going through. Things like that are important to be able to share with pitchers to relate to them and let them know that you are there for them. It’s not an easy road at all. I think everything that we can do as a staff and an organization to help somebody is important.
You try to give them every resource you can. That’s why back in the day we used bring Dave Stewart in and have him talk and then we would bring in Bob Welch and have him talk. Even Dallas Braden would come over and teach our left-handers about controlling the running game and pick-off moves. In all avenues, everything we can do to try to get our guys better, we do.
OC: You had Pat Venditte while you were in New York and just missed having him here. I always thought it was a good fit for you to work with him since you learned to throw left-handed after all of the surgeries on the right arm. What was it like working with Venditte?
GP: Is there a guy who loves the game more than he does? He would come out early with the side guys and throw left-handed. Then he would come out with the bullpen guys and throw right-handed. I was so glad he got to the big leagues last year. The only thing that Venditte and I did together was that I made him have both arm angles low. He used to throw over-the-top right-handed. All I said to him was that a sidearm guy – given your velocity – would be more effective. When he made it to the big league team – this is the kind of guy he is – he sent me a text and told me how thankful he was to have been able to work with me. That speaks volumes about him.
OC: Speaking of sidearm guys, Andrew Triggs was added late in camp. I haven’t seen much of him yet. What kind of weapon can he be?
GP: It’s funny. I remember it was four years ago the Yankees had Dan Otero. He’s sitting in the lockerroom and Cash [New York GM Brian Cashman] calls me and says he can’t go on the field. I said, ‘why not?’ And he says, ‘we have Sam Demel’. Sam and I went back to the Oakland days before he was in Arizona. Poor Dan. Here was a guy who did at least two out of the three things that we all like to see: he doesn’t walk anybody and he gets groundballs. Would you like a few more strike-outs? Yeah, you would, but what a great bargain it was for Oakland to get him on waivers a few years ago.
The same thing with Triggy. I see him doing the same things that Dan did. I see him getting a ton of groundballs. He might not strike-out a ton, but he can spin a breaking ball, cut fastballs into lefties and sink it away to righties. I see him being a big help, not only in the minor leagues but the big league club, too. As you know, the first 13 are never the only ones that stay there all year. And what a pleasure to be around him. He is a true professional.
OC: The Midland staff is an interesting mix of guys who were with the team last year and rising prospects. Raul Alcantara was a guy you had a chance to work with before you left for New York. Where do you think he is at in his progression back from Tommy John surgery?
GP: I would love to see him more. He was around my last year here. It was his first year with Oakland. The progress he has made since then with the Oakland pitching coaches – Emo and Garvin – has been tremendous. I know he went through the surgery for a year, but he is now sticking his landing, he’s got an outstanding slider, an excellent change-up and life on his fastball. I think this is just the beginning for him. I think there is a bright light for him at the end of the tunnel.
I’m not 100 percent sure where the destination will be – whether it is in the rotation or the bullpen. We have challenged him this year, just as I am sure he was challenged in the past, to be a complete pitcher. Not be a thrower, but be a pitcher. Compete, all the things that you want. Our goal is to make sure that Was [Midland pitching coach John Wasdin] stays on top of him every game.
When I interviewed for the Diamondbacks’ pitching coach job, one of the things that Tony LaRussa said Dave Duncan did was with every pitcher from game-to-game he tried to make that pitcher better from one outing to the next. When he said it like that – it’s not like anything we don’t do – but it made sense. If a pitcher’s biggest deficit was first pitch strikes in one outing, then the next game, we emphasize that and often the next game it is seven-out-of-10 first pitch strikes.
Just talking about Raul and our pitching coaches, the biggest thing is just to get our guys better. It doesn’t have to be Gil’s way. Be creative. Sit with them, get them working on specific things to improve on.
OC: Raul has always had a reputation for being a big charting guy. Is a big thing for him this year to learn how to translate the information he collects into in-game improvement?
GP: Yes, without question.
OC: Keith mentioned that the organization is still going back-and-forth over whether Sam Bragg should be a starter or a reliever. What do you see with him that you think would translate to starting as opposed to the relief role he has been in?
GP: I think the biggest thing is: what’s the biggest priority? A starting pitcher or a reliever? It’s developing starting pitching, of course. Being on the outside looking in, I just suggested it and they went with it. I was happy with that. You can always go back to relieving if starting doesn’t work. I must have asked five pitchers if they had heard of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Not one pitcher knew who Betances was or Miller. Not one. And one guy is getting $40 million and the other set the record for strike-outs by a reliever. [laughs]
When I went back to the Yankees, Betances kept saying ‘Gil, make them start me. Make them start me.’ It took me awhile to convince Cash but it turned out well because he was able to develop more of his arsenal and he became a better reliever down-the-road for it.
My point to Sam was this: the strike-outs are ridiculous good, the walks are okay and the groundballs are okay. But the strike-outs are high, so I’m thinking maybe we have lightening in a bottle as a starter. We can always throw him back into the bullpen. Let him start and let’s see what we have starting-wise. David Forst and Keith were supportive and so we are going to go for it. I see a guy who can spin a breaking ball, has life on his fastball and we did work on his change-up some. The guy struck-out 11 guys per nine [innings], so it’s worth a shot. If he can’t maintain it, we can put him back in the bullpen and what have we lost? But we have a chance for something special.
OC: Dylan Covey is another starter on that staff. He’s been an enigma during his career because he has a power arsenal but he’s never put up power pitcher numbers. Is he starting to use that four-seam more rather than relying just on the two-seamer to get groundballs?
GP: Dylan knows what the challenge is and knows what he wants to do. He’s ready to meet that challenge of pounding the strike-zone, getting low walks, getting some groundballs and getting swings and misses on breaking balls.
OC: Daniel Mengden is probably one of the most unique pitchers I have seen in a long time, from delivery to his mustache. How did he look this spring?
GP: I see him helping us going forward at any level. Part of me wants to say he’ll be in the big leagues by June or July. He is good. He’s really, really good.
His delivery has some deception to it and then when you see the stuff come out, it’s not like it’s 88-90. It’s 93-95 with a tremendous cutter, a good change-up and a good breaking ball. He’s really, really good. Sometimes we all make statements we wish could take back [when predicting a player’s future], so you have to be careful with what you predict. It’s always easy not to say anything and just say ‘oh, he’s going to have a good year,’ but Mengden is very special for me.
OC: I saw Corey Walter in Stockton last year and it is remarkable how quickly things have come together for him as a groundball pitcher. Trey Cochran-Gill seems like another one of these extreme groundball guys. Do you think they can fill a Chad Bradford-like role of being the guy who comes in with runners on base to get a groundball?
GP: When you asked about stepping out on a ledge with Sam Bragg, I wanted to do the same thing with Corey Walter, but his innings were so low last year, I couldn’t take him to 130 innings. But I tell you what, he’s got a dive-bombing sinker at 92-94 and tight, little slider. I love the kid. I think going over to big league camp and throwing in some of those games – I know he walked three in a row in one outing – but I think he is just going to learn from that. I think when people go over there and struggle, it’s a great learning tool. I think he’s going to help us going forward in a big way.
Cochran-Gill is the same way, maybe not quite in the extreme. You can even throw Aaron Kurcz in that mix. His strike-out totals in his career are just ridiculous, but so are his walks. It is true that the more you strike-out, the more you can walk, but not in the minors. You can do that in the big leagues a little bit. You can walk three and strike-out 12, but in the minors, you better walk one and strike-out 10. That was the challenge to Aaron. With Cochran-Gill, I would like to get a little more swing-and-miss with him and fewer walks. He walked a lot in Double-A last year.
When I first met with all of the guys at the start of camp, I told them that our pitching philosophy wasn’t any different than it was when they were six. They looked at me like I had two heads, but I said, ‘what did we want to do when we were six? We wanted to strike-out every hitter. And if they ever got on base, what was the last way we ever wanted them to get on base? We wouldn’t want to walk them. And if they did hit the ball, where did you want them to hit it? On the ground.’ So there you go, you just developed a pitching dynasty. Obviously it gets more complicated after that, but the basic philosophy is that simple. You need to pound the strike-zone. If you don’t pound the strike-zone, how can I help you? I can’t help you if the count is 2-0.
That’s the key for all three of those guys. That was why I was so happy that Tucker Healy made the Triple-A team. He was doing just that.
OC: Healy has always had really high strike-out totals, but it seemed like last year he had his best year even though his strike-outs were down. Do you think it was just a matter of him locating better?
GP: Yes. With all of the information we have now, you can go in and see where their misses were and where their strikes were. You would love to see him down-and-away to righties and up-and-in to lefties. You don’t want to see him too scattered. The nice thing with Healy is that he has worked on his change-up this spring and he’s gotten better to make it a weapon against left-handers. With that slider and that arm angle, he should be able to handle righties okay.
I was just so happy to see someone put together the year that he had and be able to move up. I think that is the nicest reward.
GP: Wait until you see Gossett’s cutter. Oh my gosh. It was actually him who came up to me to ask if he could learn it. He had heard that I like to teach the pitch. I told him, ‘you know what, if you can prove to me you can throw your other pitches for strikes, let’s go for it.’
Those three are really good kids. They really feed off of each other. I’m not taking anything away from anyone else, but it’s like when Zito, Mulder and Hudson were in Oakland. They feed off of each other. Hopefully, them being together will get them to raise the bar for each other and get us to a World Series. That’s a nice little group going forward to challenge each other. If one goes seven innings and allows one run, then the next guy aims to out-do that. The nice part of that is just the challenge of going out and competing.
I wonder as an organization – and this is just me thinking outside of the box – but send those three back to Beloit and let them go 5-1 with a 1.25 and then move them. Ultimately, I think they are going to be fine in the Cal League because I do think they are better than last year and maybe that is the way to do it – challenge them in a new environment. If you look at their last five games in Beloit last year compared to their first five, you can already see how much better they are. The three of them have been tremendous this spring. Small sample size, but all three are awfully good. They are competitive. They want to learn and they are just stubborn enough. I like it.
OC: Casey Meisner was awfully young for High-A last year but he held his own. Is he continuing to make progress this year?
GP: Yes, he is. When I was with the Yankees last year, Meisner was in a game against the Tampa Yankees (with the Mets) and they left him out there for a really rough start. And he took it like a man. He competed. I tell you what, he wants to learn. We are in the process of teaching him a cutter. I like him a lot. There is a lot to work with there.
I wish he was able to keep that head online a little longer. He was telling me, ‘the Mets said the same thing.’ I said, ‘well, you’re like a giraffe. You keep bringing your head to the left.’ [laughs]
OC: How has Zack Erwin looked in his first spring training?
GP: Erwin is good. I think there is more in the tank. This spring his velo was a little down. He was telling us that he was in the low-90s [with the White Sox], but this spring he was more 89-90. We are going to try to tighten up his slider, but I really like him. He has a great angle to the plate and an outstanding split-finger. It’s a swing-and-miss split.
OC: How is Bobby Wahl’s health at this point after the surgery last year?
GP: He’s been tremendous. He’s going to Stockton to start, but it’s almost like the Sean Doolittle story. Couple of weeks in Stockton, couple of weeks in Midland, couple of weeks in Sac and then the big leagues. If Wahl did the same thing, I wouldn’t be totally surprised. That was a special rise, but Wahl is good. We just want to make sure that Wahl is in a less stressful situation at the beginning of the year. He had limited innings this spring, but he raised the bar in each outing. We are extremely happy with his progress. Lefty [A’s rehab coordinator Craig Lefferts] did a great job and the training staff did a great job getting him ready.
OC: There are a lot of pitchers on the Beloit staff to start the year. Are you going with tandem starting pitchers on that staff?
GP: Yes, there are going to be eight of them. Dustin Driver – Angel Duno. Kyle Friedrichs – James Naile. Xavier Altamirano – Evan Manarino. Boomer Biegalski – Jesus Zambrano. You’ve been around and you’ve seen how effective that arrangement can be. We are going to give it a go. If four, five or six of those guys step up and perform, that would be great. If they all perform, all the better. Hey, if you’ve got eight guys with 125 innings in one season, that’s a good development year.
OC: I can’t remember who it was, but someone gave Biegalski a Justin Duchscherer comp for his approach and secondary stuff. Does that sound like a good comp to you?
GP: That’s a good call. The change-up is a major-league change-up. We have to tighten up the breaking ball. The breaking ball is probably the first priority. His change-up is a major-league change-up, he’s got a good angle and we gave him a two-seamer this spring that has some movement. He’s got to get that breaking ball a little bit tighter, but he’s a good competitor and just a really good kid overall.
OC: Naile really emerged last year and got a lot of buzz, especially with his slider. Was that pitch still impressive this spring?
GP: Yes, and he can sink it too. He’s got a really good sinker/slider combination. In 2014, he had zero innings because of Tommy John surgery. Last year, if I remember, he had over 120. So that’s a big jump. I’m not sure what the right number is. ASMI says to increase a guy 30, 40 innings a year, but even that seems to change at times. If you have 150 and then you have zero because of Tommy John, what do you give them the next year? It’s hard to say. The Yankees were careful with Michael Pineda and they even gave him time-off and it still was an issue, so you never know.
But Naile had a great season last year and a very good spring.
OC: Zambrano has always seemed old for his years. He’s not a particularly hard thrower, but he is very clean with everything that he does. What are you hoping to see for him this year?
GP: If he can maintain that delivery and increase his velocity, watch out. I remember years ago I would talk to Eric [Kubota, A’s scouting director] and Grady [Fuson, A’s Special Assistant to the GM] and I’d say, I was 17 and 170 throwing 85, how could someone know that I’d be throwing 95 three years later? How do you tell that?
The only thing that concerns me some is that he isn’t taller with a whippy arm, but I guess it doesn’t matter what size you are. Sonny Gray’s arm whips through the ‘zone. It’s fast. I don’t know what Sonny threw at 18, 19, to compare him to Zambrano. Zambrano’s arm isn’t fast through the ‘zone, but if you were asking me what I am hoping for from him this year, I would say the addition through maturity of adding a few more ticks of velo. If you get that, then you might have something special and someone who can pitch for you for a long time.