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Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman discusses the Nashville Sounds

This week we caught-up with legendary Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman for a mid-season check-in on the progress of the A's minor league system. In the final part of the interview, we discuss the A's Triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds. OaklandClubhouse: Turning to the Nashville squad, the world got to see Ryon Healy’s production during the Futures Game. [ed. note: Healy was promoted to Oakland two days after the interview] It was impressive to see him turn around an Alex Reyes pitch like that. You mentioned last year that you were starting to see him get some loft on those line-drives and send them out of the park. Did his power surge this season surprise you, or did you see it coming last year?

Keith Lieppman: Not surprised at all. He really had a big year last year and then he came to spring mini-camp and really was committed. He spent a lot of time working in the off-season and was dedicated to what he does. His purpose was to come in and hit for power, but then, we helped him readjust it. The power was going to come by using the whole field. That’s something that he does naturally. He’s giving solid at-bats and is using the whole field, but the power is really just part of the whole process. There’s no one way to pitch him now. He gets good pitches to hit and has a very good plan at the plate. He can take you out to right-center or to left-center. 

He’s been really good with the adjustments that he has made. He’s a legitimate candidate to play in the big leagues.

OC: How comfortable do you think he is over at third base as compared to his experience at first base? KL: I think he can play either position. He’s probably a little more comfortable at first, but he is very adequate at third base. He’ll continue to progress with that, but he has done a good job. He doesn’t get the full opportunity to play there regularly with Renato Nunez and moving guys in and out. Tyler Ladendorf has played there and Arismendy Alcantara and Max Muncy. Probably everybody has stood on that part of the field at one point in Nashville [laughs]. It’s a rotating field. You come there and get to play different positions.

It’s complicated to spread out the playing time. A lot of the decisions will come from Billy [Beane] and David [Forst]. They have some ideas about how things should play out, but it is a complex problem. We have to create a matrix that has some sort of form to it that will say, ‘we will play this guy X amount of days, but let’s play him this many times at third and this many times at first and this many times in the outfield.’ It’s quite a process to watch this all come into play.

OC: Max Muncy is one of those guys who has had to move around a lot. While doing that, he has improved at the plate this year. Have you been happy with how he has handled all of the moving positions?

KL: Absolutely. That is part of the description that you make to the player prior to when you start to move them. You describe the benefits of versatility and the benefits of embracing this rather than using it as a reason you aren’t hitting. This is just a good place for these guys to understand that this is a good chance for them to improve their opportunities to play in the big leagues. They are capable of playing all of those positions. They just have to get over the fact that playing all of those different positions shouldn’t impact their ability to hit.

That’s what all of these guys have done. They are all good hitters. They all have very good ideas about their approach. That is what has moved them through the system. Now, as good athletes, they are capable of playing a number of different positions – whether it is Alcantara or Ladendorf or Matt Olson at first or right field  -- he actually could play third if he had to. We have all kinds of guys who can do a lot of different things.

In Muncy’s case, even more so, second base, third base, first base and outfield. That’s the ultimate utility guy.  OC: He looked surprisingly good in right field in the big leagues. It surprised me given how little time he’s had out there.

KL: He hasn’t really had a lot of time at any of these positions. He’s learning on the job. He has a great attitude. He’s been a guy who has embraced everything that has happened to him. What is great is that he has put the work in to get that done.

OC: How would you describe Chad Pinder’s season thus far?

KL: He’s overcome probably the first time that the game has stopped him. I was talking about that earlier where everyone finds that spot where the game catches up to you and you have to start adjusting. I think I was there during the opening series and they were playing Oklahoma City. They were throwing him change-ups on 3-2 counts and starting off at-bats with change-ups. He saw some pitches and situations that he hadn’t probably ever seen before. He didn’t expect to see the pitches that he got. He comes with a reputation. Teams know who he is and they immediately and aggressively went after him with their best stuff. He has to continue to make those adjustments along the way.

At about the halfway point in the season, we are really starting to see him develop more selectivity and discipline. The more he continues to get better with that, the better he is going to be. He is very talented. He had some defensive issues early that have been resolved. His throwing angles and understanding the position. But that’s all part of the process. He went through a similar adjustment period defensively as Marcus Semien. Semien had to make those big adjustments and Pinder is in that same category, too. He’s continuing to get better.

OC: Matt Olson and Renato Nunez have struggled this year playing their age 22 seasons in Triple-A. What has been the biggest challenge for them this year, do you think?

KL: I think part of Olson’s struggles – especially his rough start – were that he had a couple of mechanical issues with his swing. He is really focused on trying to improve those. He’s just having to deal with facing really good pitchers while doing that. That first series, they had to face this Oklahoma staff with really good lefties. They had a whole bunch of left-handed relievers – a couple of them are with the Dodgers now – and they faced them the first four games and then again eight days later. They had tough competition right away. They got off to a rough start and then had to readjust along the way. That has been a little bit more challenging for those guys.

They are too good to be kept down. They are going to find a way to overcome this. It’s the first time I’ve really ever seen either one of those guys frustrated during the course of a game with their performance. But they are resilient. They will keep coming back. They are grinders. They are in a good scenario where we understand that there is a process to this. They want to be in the big leagues and they are probably trying to rush too fast to get there, so this is a good time for them to continue to improve their skills. When the time comes, they’ll be ready.

OC: Joey Wendle’s plate discipline seems to have taken a step back this year. Do you think that is what has held him back this so far this year?

KL: I think it creates a lot of issues for him because he is so good with his hand-eye coordination. He can put a lot of balls into play but that doesn’t do him any good if the balls he puts into play are the balls he hits .200 on. Learning how to narrow down the balls to swing at is really what he is working on. It isn’t an easy skill to learn when you have that kind of hand-eye coordination. You don’t want to take their aggressiveness away. That’s always the issue with a guy like Wendle or Pinder. They are good at what they do [making contact and being aggressive], so you want them to make little refinements at a time. You don’t want to say you can’t swing there. They are both working at it, but it is a process.

Wendle has really turned around his game defensively. He’s turning outstanding double-plays and making good plays on defense. He’s probably the most improved defensive player on the field for them.

OC: Bruce Maxwell has been red-hot lately. We have spent the past few years talking about when his pre-game power would translate into games. It seems like that has finally started to happen. Are you guys excited by what you see from him?

KL: Absolutely. That was the projection that we saw originally. The guys who scouted him early, this is who they thought he would be. He spent so much time learning to be a good catcher that this feeling of how to become a really good hitter was kind of put on the shelf because he wanted to help build a relationship with the pitchers and learn his trade behind the plate. He knew that would be what really carried him in the long run to be an everyday player. Now the bat is catching up. The bat is what we liked originally and then he became a really good catcher and the bat became sort of secondary. Now the offense has come together and he now has a chance to be a good big league catcher. A left-handed hitter with power.

You can see that his average has come up. He’s got patience at the plate. He’s had a nice little shift in how things are going. He worked really hard during the off-season and it’s all really paying off for him. Pitchers like to throw to him. He has a good rapport with them and things are trending positively for his future in Oakland.

OC: Jaycob Brugman, like Ryon Healy, had to repeat at Double-A to start the year because of a roster crunch, but he has taken advantage of his opportunity since being promoted to Nashville. Do you like him out of that leadoff spot, or do you see him eventually being more of a six- seven-hitter? 

KL: I think it is great for him to be up there [in the leadoff spot] because it is teaching him to do certain things. But, again, this is a guy who has some pop. He’ll hit a homerun and he has good numbers: his on-base percentage and OPS are good. He’s high in the organization in those kind of numbers. He also runs well, plays good defense in centerfield. He’s really the guy you are looking for. He’s very versatile.

He’s a little like our bench coach in the big leagues. He’s Mark Kotsay-like. You’re seeing those kind of abilities in this kid. I think we all feel very strongly about him. Once he got the opportunity, he has hung in there. He was over .300 and he is pretty close to that now [.303 going into Tuesday's games]. Not that average is everything, but he does a lot for the team. He’s been a spark. Once he got there, he was the kind of guy that they were looking for to get them going. He’s been a part of that unit that is starting to win some games there.

OC: It’s looking pretty Sacramento-like there right now.

KL: It was. They ran into a cold streak going into the All-Star break, but they were on a really big run there for quite awhile. [ed. note: going into Tuesday’s doubleheader, the Sounds are 52-43 and hold a 4.5 game lead in the American South.] It’s amazing they have been able to do what they have done with different pitchers and players moving through there every single day. It’s a revolving door and they have hung in there really well.

OC: Now in the second year in First Tennessee Park are there adjusted expectations for how players perform based on how the ballpark plays?

KL: I think early, it is a really pitching-oriented ballpark. It becomes more even as the weather warms up a bit, but early in the season, the pitchers definitely have the advantage. As the summer goes along, the hitters tend to catch up. You understand a little about the fluctuations you might see with performance, but it’s a great place to play. The guys really enjoy the facility and the city. It’s really an outstanding place for us.

OC: You mentioned the pitching and there has been a lot of movement between Oakland and Nashville on the pitching staffs. Both Dillon Overton and Zach Neal got opportunities in the big leagues. What did they take back with them to Nashville that they can build of off for their next turn in the big leagues?

KL: You see the areas that you need to improve on and you recognize what you were capable of doing that got you called up in the first place. You stick with what got you there and then you make little adjustments based on how you did there and what you need to improve upon. Both of those guys are really aware of who they are and what they need to do perfectly to get it done.

You start to pattern yourself after guys who pitch like you do and I have seen Dillon in sort of that same category as John Lamb in Cincinnati. Once Dillon learns how to execute and emulate people who are succeeding with similar stuff in the big leagues, he’ll be able to make it work. He, at times in the big leagues, was very good. He has the heart and make-up to do it. His velocity, if it rebounds to what it was like in college, you have a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in the big leagues. He has pitched very effectively.

Neal has done a good job of handling the roles that he has been put in.

OC: Is Jesse Hahn showing any improvement with his command since he was sent to Nashville?

KL: There were some issues that [A’s pitching coach] Curt Young and Gil and [A’s GM] David Forst and [A’s manager] Bob Melvin identified that they wanted him to work on. Ever since he came down, he has been a sponge as far as trying new things. Being more aggressive with his fastball inside. Trying to use his change-up differently. There are things that he has really made an effort to try to improve on. A lot of what he is doing right now is just working to get it right. Numbers and the competition aren’t as important as him just figuring things out because once he gets it right, he’s going to be a really good big league starter for us. He’s just using this time to work on a few issues that he really needed to work on. He’s been good. A lot of guys would just stick to what they had been doing, but he understands that if he makes these adjustments, he’s going to be that much better.

OC: This time last year we were talking about Ryan Dull flying under-the-radar a bit. Dull and Tucker Healy have been linked together since the draft. Now it seems like Healy is taking that step forward that Dull took last season. Do you think Healy is close to being ready to make that jump to the big leagues?

KL: Yeah. He is always in the conversation, especially with the amount of movement that we have had there. I think that this stage, there is no need to push him right now. Just to keep consistent with what he is doing is probably the most important thing for him. I think everyone is aware – as we were with Ryan Dull last year – that they are killing the league. That they are the best at what they do. In Healy’s case right now, there is no rush to have to move him at this particular time. As the season goes on, there may be opportunities there, but right now just let him keep going and pitch him in different roles. Continue to close a few games. He’s set-up and closed. The more experience he can get in those situations, the more he will be able to improve his game. 

OC: How has Aaron Kurcz looked since he received that second opportunity in Triple-A?

KL: Much better. He is commanding his fastball. He was sort of side-to-side with his delivery. Now he is better able to use his mechanics. He is 94-95 and he has a sinking fastball. His slider was a little big and slurvy. Now it is a lot tighter. He’s really been excellent in the role that he has played there. I’m very impressed with how he handled going down to Double-A to start the year. He made several adjustments there and once he got it, we moved him back up and he has taken it and has run with it. Like I said, we have really good bullpens at both Double-A and Triple-A. There hasn’t been a lot of movement between those two groups, but we are starting to really acquire a lot of good arms.

OC: Daniel Mengden made a quick move through the minor leagues to reach the big leagues this season. Did his rise remind you at all of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder or Barry Zito’s rise through the organization?

KL: Mengden was in A-ball last year and I don’t remember having that kind of a move that fast. That’s flying, what he did. To go that quickly is incredible, really. To have success in the big leagues like he did is incredible, too. He really came back this year and it was very noticeable in spring training and in his early starts what kind of stuff he had. We were all raving about the velocity, the command, his change-up. Everything was in place. He was pitching like a big leaguer in the minor leagues. A lot of people recognized it and our staff recognized that he was capable of pitching in the big leagues. That’s where a lot of the information about him got back to Bob Melvin. We all felt strongly that this guy had the stuff to compete. It’s all there.

OC: Now it’s the fun part of the season when you get to see what openings emerge and who stays and who goes.

KL: You want to reward people who have had good first halves. We like to reward people with promotions, but a lot of our moves were initiated by injuries early. That led to people settling into places where they are playing well. There’s not a whole lot you can do with that Triple-A roster. There’s guys that are developing and there are plenty of guys who can be taken from there to help in the big leagues. That group sort of stops all of the movement anywhere else in the system because you have pretty good established players in Double-A and they aren’t able to move because the guys at Triple-A are right there.

We are at a little bit of a standstill, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The way we work and the way we plan with our players’ goals, we go through an inventory of the things that they did in the first half. What they did well and what they personally want to accomplish in the second half. Our managers are meeting with those guys and going over what they want to work on to improve their skills, not necessarily to help the team win, but personally to help them be better players. A lot of that focus will be directed in the second half and it doesn’t matter what level they are at. They will still have to improve different aspects of how they prepare mentally and physically.

The key is to understand that you don’t have to be at Triple-A. Certainly, you’d get to experience the different level, but really it’s more about whether you improve yourself wherever you are playing.

OC: At the end of the year, is there sort of an exit interview where they assess whether they reached those second half goals and what they need to work on during the off-season?

KL: Yes. We’ll typically do that every six weeks. We’ll get feedback back-and-forth. For instance, I mentioned Richie Martin earlier. He’s getting a lot of feedback from coaches and instructors like [A’s minor league hitting coordinator] Jim Eppard, or [Stockton hitting coach] Tommy Everidge or myself. They are constantly being evaluated on what they are working on. We are all aware of what the other is saying and they aren’t being given mixed messages about exactly what they are trying to accomplish. We are all there trying to help them understand exactly what it is they are trying to accomplish and then give them idea about how to do it. Ultimately, the player has to figure it out. We can talk all day, but the player is the one who has to go out in the field and perform. But a big part of our job is trying to find ways to help them figure it out.

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