OaklandClubhouse: I thought I’d start with some of the younger guys on the big league 25-man roster. It has been awhile since we have had a group of homegrown position players to talk about on the 25-man roster. Ryon Healy, in particular, has made a strong impression. What do you think the key has been for him to make the improvements he has made this season?
Billy Owens: Ryon is a gifted hitter. He has a short stroke. He has the ability to use all fields. If you think back to the development stage, after his first 250 at-bats or so in High-A ball, he really established himself after that. Last year, he hit better than .300 in Double-A and had the highest line-drive percentage in the second-half of the year that year. It carried over into this year. He hit close to .340 this year and really killed the ball at Triple-A. I think his average settled at .318, but he was hitting close to .340 there, too, before he had a small slide towards the end of his time in Nashville.
In the big leagues, he is really starting to assert himself now. He had two doubles [Sunday] and his average is above .280. He is controlling the strike zone well for a kid with that level of experience. He’s aggressive. He’s a natural hitter and he is adjusting well to the big stage.
OC: Are you surprised with how well he has adjusted to playing third base after not playing there everyday in the minor leagues?
BO: A long time ago I coached in the Northwest League when Garrett Atkins went through there. Atkins was a UCLA product, a Pac-12 guy like Ryon who was playing predominantly first base in college. He has similar physical attributes. That year [in the Northwest League], the Rockies had Atkins test the waters a bit at third base. Similar profile. Ryon had been going between third base and first base in the minor leagues, but every time Ryon played third base, it was a similar profile to Garrett Atkins, defensively.
Ryon kept on getting better [at third]. He got better to the point that managers in our system really liked him over there at third base. Through hard work, desire and a strong throwing arm, he has made himself viable at both corner positions.
OC: Bruce Maxwell is a player we have talked about since he was drafted in 2012. He is still getting settled at the plate in the big leagues, but he has done a good job handling a big league staff behind the plate thus far. Looking back on the defensive player he was when he was drafted, have you seen other players make that much of an improvement behind the plate in such a relatively short period of time?
BO: It’s hard to get a comparable as far as where he was. Bruce came out of the draft as a bat-first guy. He had only dabbled at catcher his last year in college. You were drafting a hitter at that time that had put up ginormous numbers at Birmingham. Right away, he took a lot of pride in improving his skills defensively. Seeing him at short-season, the bat still played, he controlled the ‘zone, but the catching was going to be a work-in-progress.
The next year, the glove got a lot better. It wasn’t where it is now, but you could see him make strides. Probably from Double-A on, his throwing arm was above major league average. The exchange was quick. He’s got really big hands and he receives the ball extremely well. He’s a very good target and a natural behind the plate.
His transition from a profile standpoint is pretty remarkable. This was a guy who was supposedly a bat-first player who was going to have to work at catching. From a hitting perspective, honestly, he is a guy who always controlled the strike-zone. He never really hit for any damage in the minor leagues until this year. Some guys, like Ryon Healy, have short swings and can hit a lot of different pitches in different parts of the ‘zone. Bruce Maxwell pretty much has always controlled the ‘zone. He’s a big man. All of a sudden that size translated into 10 homeruns in Triple-A this year. The fact that he controlled the ‘zone always bode well for him. He got a walk yesterday in St. Louis. He’ll acclimate himself fine at the plate. He’ll be able hit in the big leagues eventually.
OC: I would have been hard-pressed to project Max Muncy as a second baseman during his first two years in the system. He’s looked surprisingly agile at the position. What kind of player do you think Muncy has transformed himself into these past couple of years in adding third base, second base and the outfield to his resume?
BO: Max is definitely another kid with a unique profile. He played some second base in college. His last year at Baylor, he was mainly a first baseman, but his first two years at Baylor, he definitely played some second base. He’s another young kid who has always controlled the ‘zone. His walk-to-strike-out numbers were very strong throughout his minor league career. I believe he led the Texas League in on-base percentage a few years back.
He was a strong defender from the outset. At first base, he was outstanding. He showed a strong throwing arm. Muncy was so good defensively at High-A ball that it gave you aspirations that he might be able to play other positions. The next year in Double-A, he was able to get 20 or so games at third base. Kind of dabble at it. Max was able to see guys like Brandon Moss and others get playing time with us through their versatility. He was able to take a few gloves home and work on his defensive versatility. We are blessed with the best third base coach in the world in Ron Washington. The fact that Muncy was willing to take on the extra positions to add to his profile was helped by Wash being there to walk him through different things.
Max has even played a few games in right field in the big leagues this year. He has a very high baseball IQ. He’s a very instinctive defender and he’s a deceptive athlete where he is sneaky agile and fairly quick and he catches the baseball and has a strong arm. He has the ingredients to be versatile. You don’t often see that in a guy who came into pro baseball as a first baseman.
In the past, I have compared Muncy to a Kevin Millar when he broke in and had played a lot of third base in the minors then played some outfield. Different kind of hitter, but in the modern day, you have Steve Pearce, who was mainly a first baseman / third baseman in college who has become a lefty masher who has been able to play both outfield corners and both infield corners. Max has added versatility to his profile and that is definitely giving him an opportunity at the major league level.
OC: Injuries were part of the reason that Chad Pinder was called up when he was, but what do you think he was able to take from his experience in Triple-A this year when he got to the big leagues? He had more ups-and-downs this year than he did last year. Did he make adjustments that you see him bringing to the big leagues?
BO: Chad has always been an offensive player at every level for us. He hit the ball very well in Stockton and last year he was the Texas League Player of the Year. Nashville is an excellent venue, but it definitely plays as a pitcher’s park. You aren’t going to have a huge average there generally, but he hit .250ish and banged 14 or 15 homers – which is a very good number for a middle infielder especially in a big ballpark. Defensively, he had his ups and downs, but he has shown throughout his minor league career the ability to play at all three infield positions. He’s spent the bulk of past two years at shortstop.
He’s kind of like a young Marcus Semien. He’s shown the attributes to be able to play in the infield and he’s kept on working to get better. Where he lands permanently defensively is yet to be determined, but he’s made himself a viable major league player, for sure.
OC: It has been an interesting last week or so with the A’s starting rotation dominating playoff contending teams in Cleveland and St. Louis with several pitchers that weren’t even regulars in the Triple-A rotation for much of this year. Injuries are never something a team wants to deal with, but has it been helpful for you guys to be able to take a look at guys like Andrew Triggs and Zach Neal as starters?
BO: Yeah, it illustrates that baseball is a 24-7, 365-day a year evaluation process. Andrew Triggs, we’ve seen him all the way back to his college days at USC. The Kansas City Royals drafted him and the Baltimore Orioles picked him up. He has that unique lower slot and from that lower slot, he is able to induce a lot of groundballs.
He started some in college and in the lower levels of the minor leagues, and through our outstanding pitching coordinator Gil Patterson and our excellent big league pitching coach Curt Young, he has been able to reinvent his change-up a little bit. He’s always had that lower slot and he could sink the ball and be tough on right-handed batters, but bringing back that change-up has given Andrew a chance to be successful versus left-handed batters, as well. With his starting background and our need this year, he has been able to give us a couple of pretty good starts.
Zach Neal is a kid who we picked up from the Marlins. He was a release kid and we signed him three or four years ago. He’s been outstanding in our minor league system as far as throwing strikes, filling up the ‘zone and throwing that sinker over the plate. He pitched outstanding earlier in the year in Triple-A. Like most, he got his first taste of the big leagues and was humbled a little bit by it, but he kept on throwing strikes and got another opportunity.
He got back to the big leagues and fared better and now, in his last couple of starts, he’s proven that he will throw strikes. He will challenge and he has proven that he will make adjustments like he did there in St. Louis. It’s good to see. Zach is a hard-working kid. He’s fearless and he is going to throw strikes. For him to get an opportunity this year has been exciting to see.
Ross Detwiler, he’s a kid who was a very high draft pick of the Washington Nationals. He always had pretty good stuff. He bounced around after his Nationals’ experience. This year, it seems like his curveball has gotten better. In Triple-A, his strike-out percentage was a lot better than it has been the past few years. His breaking stuff was a lot better. He has always thrown his fastball pretty firm, up to 93. With these injuries, it creates an opportunity where we might be able to find a diamond in the rough.
OC: Ryan Dull reminds me a bit of Huston Street in his stature and his ability to miss bats, throw strikes and induce softer contact in the later innings despite not throwing very hard. Do you see similarities between the two?
BO: Huston Street is pretty unique. Rest in peace, his father James Street was an All-American baseball player at Texas and he started for the Longhorns in the game that President Richard Nixon declared the Longhorns the National Champions in 1970. Huston Street had unique bloodlines and he was a tremendous athlete and his slider was phenomenal. He was able to get past all of the odds.
Ryan Dull has sort of done the same thing. He was a late-round pick who has performed at every level. When he got to the big leagues, he performed the same way that he did in the minor leagues. He throws a natural sinker that he can control in the bottom of the strike-zone in all quadrants. The breaking ball is deceptive and he’s absolutely fearless, unflappable on the mound.
His major league success has definitely not surprised his minor league managers and pitching coaches. They have been singing Ryan Dull’s praises for the past couple of years, talking about how much they love giving him the ball in tough situations. He’s definitely not a surprise in the system. He throws a ton of strikes. The major leagues are always a game of evolution and there is constant adjustment, but the fact that he is fearless, unflappable and he is going to throw strikes bodes well for his future in the major leagues.
OC: Daniel Mengden and Dillon Overton aren’t currently in the A’s rotation, but they both spent time there earlier in the year. What do you think are their next steps to being able to replicate what they have done at the Triple-A level in the big leagues?
BO: It’s less than 1% of players who are brought up to the big leagues and not eventually sent down again, at least for a little while. You are told about the big leagues, but you’ve got to see it for yourself. The game is faster. They make so many more adjustments. You have taste it first and you normally get humbled by it at some point. But both pitchers were very confident. They definitely threw strikes.
Mengden came over from Houston in the Scott Kazmir deal and he was aggressive right away. He got to the big leagues and made three or four really good starts. Then the league made an adjustment and the next couple of starts weren’t as good as the first three or four. Now he’s back in Triple-A putting up outstanding numbers. He’s fearless, as well. He’s going to throw strikes and eventually he’s going to make enough adjustments to succeed in the major leagues.
Dillon Overton, the same thing. He’s a kid who overcame Tommy John surgery. Pitched well in the system. He was able to have a very strong season in Triple-A. Like anything else, the major leagues are a whole different animal. He got up there and saw that mistakes that you can get away with in Triple-A, go over the fence in the big leagues.
Now Dillon has been able to work on a few things, notably probably throwing that fastball on the inner edge a bit more and perhaps getting something cutting inside so that he can open up the outside part of the plate. After some trials and tribulations, I think both Daniel Mengden and Dillon Overton will both get over the hump and be successful major league pitchers.
OC: How would you assess Sean Manaea’s rookie season?
BO: Sean has been outstanding, especially considering that he had only three or four starts in Triple-A. His learning curve was mostly in the major leagues. He came over to us with a unique ability to miss bats. I believe he had the highest strike-out total ever in the Cape Cod League. He led the Carolina League in strike-outs. The year that we got him in a trade for Ben Zobrist, he missed few starts that year, so he wasn’t in the leaderboards for strike-outs, but he had highest strike-out rate in Double-A that year. Then he went to the Fall League and it was must-see TV watching him in the Fall League every five days.
He was great in spring training. Had his three-or-four start tune-up in Triple-A, saw the major leagues and was able to make some tune-ups on the fly during the first half. Now he is settling in as a solid major league starter. With his stuff, his swing-and-miss ability and his unique arm angle and his velocity, I think he has a chance to pitch closer to the top of a major league rotation than the back of one.
Stay tuned for the next several parts of this interview, when we dive into prospects at all levels of the Oakland A's minor league system. To sign-up for a premium account with OaklandClubhouse and get access to that content and much more, click here.