This off-season marked the return of Gil Patterson for his third stint as the minor league pitching coordinator for the Oakland A's. Widely considered one of the top minor league pitching coaches in baseball, Patterson left the A's after the 2012 season to take a similar job with the New York Yankees so he could be closer to his family in Tampa. When Garvin Alston landed a spot on the big league coaching staff for the Arizona Diamondbacks last fall, Patterson returned to the A's.
Through key additions from the draft and trades, the A's have significantly improved their minor league pitching talent over the past two years. Patterson got to see that talent first-hand this season. We spoke with him over the weekend about several pitchers he worked with this season both during the regular season and during the A's recently completed fall Instructional League. Below is part one of this interview.
OaklandClubhouse: How was your first year back?
Gil Patterson: It was very good. For the most part, like I never left. That’s a nice thing. David [Forst, A’s GM] has always been very good to me and Billy Beane [A’s President] was extremely kind before, even when I didn’t want to leave four years ago when my son needed care. They almost kicked me out and said, ‘you’re leaving. Be with your family.’ It was just like home. It was very nice.
http://www.scout.com/mlb/athletics/story/1723395-oakland-a-s-coaching-q-... OC: How was Instructs? Steve Connelly [A's minor league pitching coach] mentioned that you were able to bring in a few more coaches and break up the group of pitchers into smaller groups. Was that something that you had done with the Yankees or was that a new thing you tried for the first time this year?
GP: No, as a matter of fact, my last year here when Emo [Scott Emerson] and Garvin [Alston] took over, I started it here. There are pros and cons with everything, but we only have a small sample size – three or four weeks – to learn each guy [during Instructs]. Let’s say you have a group of five that you spend every day with. You can grow that relationship and things like that. Sometimes if you switch your group, you end up having to learn that relationship and that player all over again, and you don’t have a lot of time to work with during Instructs.
I asked the players at the end of camp if they liked it and most of them said that they did. A few of them did say, ‘you know something? With another coach, I felt like I might have gotten some additional information that might have helped me.’ So I think that next year we might once a week let each group of pitchers talk with a different pitching coach. Maybe they can add some more things to the mix. I started it my last year here and I did it in New York. From what I hear, [the Yankees] did it again this year. They did like it. It is a nice sequence.
OC: What were your first impressions of A.J. Puk?
GP: I guess the biggest thing that I was happy to see what that he was coachable. It even started in Vermont. You don’t know the personality [before meeting the player]. You know the talent, but you don’t know the personality. That was nice to see. He was coachable and a few of the things that we did with him mechanically there and in Instructional League he was really open to. He worked hard on those things and got better. That was probably the most refreshing thing to see. He’s very respectful. He might be a little bit on the quiet side right now, but there are plenty of guys who are quiet who are successful. I think his confidence grew as he went along. But the coachability aspect was excellent.
OC: Was it helpful to have a longtime teammate like Logan Shore there with him? Did they recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, or did that not really come into play?
GP: I think it helps to some extent. You look at situations where there are guys who pitch together a long time – like, say, [Barry] Zito, [Mark] Mulder and [Tim] Hudson – and they challenge and push each other, in a good way. Back in the Yankee days with [Andy] Pettitte and [Roger] Clemens or in Arizona with [Curt] Schilling and [Randy] Johnson. To have that on the club is a benefit. I think with these two especially being together for so long, it has definitely been a plus. It hasn’t been a negative.
Keith [Lieppman, A’s farm director] made us those tee-shirts last year that said ‘You give up your right to be average when you become an Oakland A’. That was one of the challenges I gave to all of the guys was that you can help out your best friend when you see him not living up to that sometimes. You can say, ‘hey, you’re being average today.’ You don’t want them in their face, but you do want guys comfortable with telling each other, ‘let’s go. Don’t be average.’ I think that [Puk/Shore] relationship, in particular, is going to continue to be a good one and help both of them.
OC: Do you see Shore as a candidate to use a cutter since he already is so effective using his secondary pitches to set-up his fastball?
GP: Yeah, we did that the last three days of Instructs. I couldn’t wait any more. We tried the slider. In his defense, the slider was getting a little bit better but it seemed like once we just said ‘throw it almost the same way as a slider, but throw it more without the smoothing.’ When he did, it came out more at 85 from 81 [where the slider had been]. The break was really sharp and late. We are starting to go in that direction with him.
Sometimes you start out to throw a cutter and it turns out to be a great slider. In this case, I think the combination of him throwing the slider and just adding a bit firmer wrist and making the ball faster helped him quite a bit.
OC: You mentioned during spring training that Daniel Gossett threw a pitch that you felt would become a cutter that would work for him. In talking to Steve Connelly, the cutter ended up being a key weapon for Gossett during the season. What do you see as a next step for Gossett for him to make that final leap to the big leagues?
GP: If he pitched in the big leagues and he continues on the path of what he did this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had success. Along those same lines, we were very happy with what we saw from Daniel Mengden at the start of the year. Of course, in the big leagues, it probably wasn’t as successful as we would have liked – as everyone would have liked, including himself. It’s tough to have tremendous success in the big leagues your first year. You go back to a Greg Maddux or a John Smoltz and they struggled their first years.
All that said, if you told me, that in May or June [of next season] that Gossett was up in the big leagues and having success, I would not be surprised. He’s athletic. He challenges the strike-zone. He’s got swing-and-miss pitches. He believes in himself. All of the qualities that you look for in a successful major league pitcher, he has. He was just great this year.
OC: You mentioned Mengden. When he did return to Nashville after his first call-up to the big leagues, what was he working on specifically? Do you think there is a key to what he’ll need to do to be more effective against a big league line-up a third time through the order? [Note: Mengden’s big league ERA was 3.89 from innings 1-3, 9.75 after that.]
GP: I think maybe the biggest thing was regaining the confidence that he had when he first came up. That was probably the main thing. The other thing was just the learning curve of ‘what do I do differently that second – and especially that third – time around a line-up’. It seemed like, in the small sample that I saw, that he was successful early in starts but would then, as you said, hit a wall. It almost seemed like he went away from his game plan as the start would go on. It’s always a question whether it is better to make the adjustment before the hitter makes it, or wait until the hitter adjusts. Sometimes you make the adjustment too soon and that gives the hitter the advantage. Rather than the hitters telling him that he needed to change, he would change before that point and the adjustments didn’t play as well, and maybe he should have used the fastball more later in the game.
OC: Is that something that will come with experience at the big league level, or is that something that can be replicated when pitching in Triple-A?
GP: I think if my impression from what I saw in that small sample size was correct, then Curt [Young, A’s pitching coach] and Emo [A’s bullpen coach] go back over each start with him, then that’s something that they would identify with him. They’d break down with him when the trouble started and then go over what the difference was when the trouble started. Was it quality of pitches? Was it sequencing? For me, it was probably more of the sequencing than anything else.
OC: Dillon Overton had similar struggles in the big leagues after pitching very well in Triple-A. Do you think he will need another pitch to attack big league hitters with, or is it more a matter of him learning the sequencing against big league hitters to find more success?
GP: I think that the sequencing is probably where the improvement will come. We did try to tighten up the curveball a little bit because even in Triple-A, it wasn’t as effective. If you don’t have a swing-and-miss curveball, you might need to use it behind in the count or at the start of an at-bat and throw it for strikes. He’ll definitely need to pitch in to both righties and lefties. His out-pitch is his change-up. I also think the more he pitches in the major leagues, the better feel he’ll get for it.
We would all like that fastball to come back a click or two more like it was before, but, looking back at Tommy Milone, I think we could get him to be like that. I certainly think him just gaining more experience will help. But even if he has to start next year back in Triple-A – even if Mengden has to start back in Triple-A – they will still be working on objectives that will help them at the major league level, but I do think the more Dillon faces major league hitters, the better he will respond.
OC: We had talked during spring training about Bobby Wahl and you predicted the season that he had. He didn’t get to pitch in the big leagues in September because of that muscle injury, but do you see him being ready to pitch in a big league bullpen at the start of next year?
GP: I certainly do. He didn’t have a whole lot of innings in Triple-A and, for me, you can’t ever lose by making a guy go down to Triple-A for a month or two to make sure that he maintains everything he finished with this past year, but if he made the club, I wouldn’t be shocked. I don’t really know who he would be in competition with at this point, but he really did excel and get better from where he was even in Stockton to start the year. But the way he finished up was tremendous. It would not surprise me if he made that club, but it also could come down to making sure that what we saw was true, but what we saw was pretty special.
http://www.scout.com/mlb/athletics/story/1723505-oakland-a-s-mln-covey-m... OC: During spring training we discussed Dylan Covey's mechanics and the challenges they present. He ended up missing most of the year with an oblique injury. He’s pitching well in the Arizona Fall League now. Were his mechanics overhauled during his rehab from the injury, or is he pitching now with roughly the same throwing motion he was using this spring?
GP: Quite honestly, he really is throwing with the same motion. I don’t want to say that he is stubborn [laughs], but sometimes that is a good quality. Ultimately, you are going to be evaluated and critiqued on the way that you perform and, if your way works and you are into your way 100%, then everyone is happy. The reason a pitcher wouldn’t perform is because he is falling behind hitters. The biggest objective is pounding the strike-zone. Since we were little kids, the first thing we wanted to do as pitchers is strike everyone out. The second thing we wanted to do was make sure that if they did reach base, it wasn’t via a walk. Dylan, for the most part, gets his share of swings-and-misses, so the main thing that we have to make sure is that he continues to pound the strike-zone, kind of like he is now [in the AFL].
I saw him two or three times before I came home and Lefty [Craig Lefferts, A’s rehab coordinator] sees him every game. When you watch him behind homeplate, you are happy that he is filling up the strike-zone. At the big league level, the quality of those strikes always has to improve and you have to hit your spots more, but I’m happy with where he is at right now. I think only time will tell if he can continue to repeat his delivery to a major-league standard.
It’s almost like what happened with Dellin Betances [with the Yankees] a few years ago. He wanted to start so bad and when Brian Cashman said, ‘Gil, I want you to fly to Triple-A and sit down with him and tell him this is what the general manager wants.’ He was so disappointed, but I’ll bet right now he’d never say he wants to go back to being a starter. No one really knows what will happen, but at least you know that Dylan is gifted with such an arm that it will play. Hopefully, he’ll be a starter for a long time, but, if not, maybe he can pitch in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings.
OC: Do you see Brett Graves being in a similar boat? He made some incremental progress as a starter this year, but do you think that he could be a successful reliever down-the-road should starting not work out?
GP: That is a great call. People with arms like his, you can certainly say that because it could play up [in the bullpen]. I was at a baseball camp this weekend and one of the other people there was the Triple-A pitching coach for the Yankees. Jonathan Holder [top Yankees’ relief prospect] was a starter for the last two or three years in their system and he was just okay. Then they moved him into the bullpen and – like it happens with guys a lot – his velo jumped three or four miles per hour. Instead of 91-92, it was 95-96. The cutter, instead of it being 85-86, it was 91. And he had a tremendous year in Scranton.
That’s right along the same thing that you are saying with Brett. With Brett and Dylan both, there is no way that I would go to Keith and David right now and say ‘let’s do this now.’ They would need to fail, and neither one of them has failed. But with his aggressive attitude, he’d do fine in both roles. I told Cons [Steve Connelly] earlier this year that I almost wanted to make Brett a Jake Arrieta. He did it one day in the bullpen and it felt good for him. We moved him over to the other side of the rubber and gave him a little more of an aggressive motion. Then he went out in the game and walked like three guys and he moved back over to the other side and got back to normal. And that was a lot to ask of him. In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have let someone else do that.
I think we still have a ways to go with him as a starter.
OC: What are your thoughts on Frankie Montas? Did you see him much in Arizona after the trade? Do you think he will have a chance to start, or do you see him more in a backend of the bullpen role?
GP: If he can maintain what I have seen in those three-inning stints over the course of six, seven or eight innings, then I certainly don’t see why he couldn’t remain a starter. His stuff is very firm. His slider/cutter is 91 but it has some big time bottom tilt. It’s late, it’s sharp, it’s hard. It could be a great swing-and-miss pitch for him. His fastball is a little bit on the straight side. However, it’s 99.
The biggest thing that Lefty and I and Ryan [Christenson, A’s Double-A manager and current Mesa Solar Sox manager] and Vince Horseman [Mesa pitching coach] have tried to get him to do step-by-step and game-by-game is first, stay healthy – which is the main thing – but second, work on fastball command. And that command has been there. Third, was working on a change-up. We’ve been having him throw more change-ups this fall. And fourth might be the ability to pitch in a little bit so hitters aren’t comfortable looking away. As you know, even at 99, major leaguers can hit 99 – we saw that with [Aroldis] Chapman in the World Series. So you have to do a few other things. One is working on the change-up and the other is to pitch more inside so as to not allow the hitters to get too comfortable looking for 99 away all of the time.
Going forward, in the short sample that he has had in the fall league, those are the objectives that we have had for him and he has performed very well and I think he’s got three more games there, too.
OC: Is he throwing any two-seam fastballs at all, or is he throwing mostly four-seam?
GP: It’s mostly four-seam. I have seen some twos, but at this moment, it’s not a Roy Halladay sinker, but he does throw it.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, when we discuss Heath Fillmyer, Sam Bragg, Joel Seddon, Corey Walter, Brandon Bailey, Nolan Blackwood, Abdiel Mendoza, Argenis Blanco and more...