Q&A With Ron Romanick, Part One

Much of the Oakland A's success over the past 10 years can be attributed to the organization's ability to develop home-grown pitching. Over that time-frame, Minor League Pitching Coordinator Ron Romanick has over-seen the A's minor league pitching program. We recently spoke to Romanick and in the first part of this two-part series, we discuss the A's development program.

Ron Romanick may not be a household name among Oakland A's fans, but he has had a lot to do with the success of the franchise over the past 10 years. Romanick joined the A's as the organization's Minor League Pitching Coordinator in 1998 and quickly developed a structured pitching program. Since he arrived in Oakland, Romanick has over-seen the development of a number of pitchers who have developed into stars at the major league level, including Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Aaron Harang and Huston Street.

Romanick, who pitched three seasons in the major leagues for the California Angels in the early 1980s, oversees the development of all of the A's minor league pitchers.

We caught-up with Romanick this week for a wide-ranging interview. In this first part, he discusses the philosophy behind the A's pitching program, the reason the organization emphasizes the change-up and more...

OaklandClubhouse: How would you describe your role within the organization?

Ron Romanick: My official title, they have me as the Minor League Pitching Coordinator. Basically, my job is to develop the minor league pitching program and I have had a lot to do with the hiring of the instructors [minor league pitching coaches] over the years. I have been with the organization about 10 years and [his responsibilities] have really evolved over the years. I came over from Seattle [in 1998] and the A's didn't really have a structured program in place and the new big league pitching coach [Rick Peterson] had brought some new statistical stuff over with him. He was actually the coordinator himself for about a month. Then all of a sudden because of a firing situation, he got the big league job and I was hired to bring the A's what I did over in Seattle – I skeletoned their program over there, I was there for seven years – and it has evolved every year.

The neat thing about Oakland is that they are very progressive. My boss, Keith Lieppman, and Billy Beane, who is everybody's boss [laughs], wanted continuity and structure to the pitching program. They had a pretty good hitting program in place that Billy and Sandy Alderson had put together a long, long time ago and it has evolved with the selective hitting approach over the years and the A's wanted to have something similar to that on the pitching-side. That is kind of what I did in Seattle and I have built on that with continuing education and being willing to try new things.

We just don't stay pat on things, you know. There are new technologies out there and what I mean by that is there is new information out there about how to do things: from nutrition to conditioning to how often to throw to how you throw. You have to pay attention to what is out there, assimilate it and try to bring it together for something like 85 to 100 pitchers.

There is also the aspect of understanding the life-style of a minor league player. It is a little bit different than the life-style of a major league player, obviously. Once the season starts, I travel with the pitch development-side and work on the structure of the program and the bullpen routines and what type of pitches are we throwing and what we are trying to accomplish at every level. There is, of course, the emotional-side to the game, as well, that has to be accounted for. We have programs within programs and there is a continual conversation slash maintenance program at play throughout the season. I am constantly on this cell-phone with the instructors at each level at a minimum two or three times a week and I travel to the different locations to see the pitchers live.

OC: Are there individual throwing programs for every pitcher in the system or are the programs more on a level-by-level basis where you have one program for Low-A and another for Triple-A?

RR: We profile every guy. When a pitcher comes into the system, we do a history on him. Our medical coordinator does a health history on the pitcher to start. I have actually been at the last two drafts, which has been very good for me. They break-down about 100 pitchers who are eligible for the draft and I get to see them all on videotape. Then I talk to the scouts about the regional guys that they really like. Obviously, it is fun to see the top-50 guys because they are all horses. You want to see a Cadillac or a Mercedes, here you go. It is fun to see that kind of talent. Then when we get [the picks into the system], I have a little bit of a medical history on them and I have talked to the scouts about them.

Then when they get either to Vancouver or Kane County or here [Arizona Rookie League] – usually those three places – you do a profile on them. You find out what pitches they have, and you find out what health issues they might have had, when they threw last and then you kind of let them go pitch. Once they've pitched a little, you introduce them to our throwing program. You really don't do a whole lot right away because there is some learning involved. You don't necessarily know what kind of program they came out of, so you don't want to kill them with too much information right off the bat.

The professional season has a completely different cycle than the college season so they have to get used to it. On top of that, over the last couple of years, we have drafted some high school pitchers, which is something we really hadn't done in past years. High school pitchers are in a totally different place than college guys. You have to treat them a little bit differently. We did that in Seattle, we took a number of high school kids every year. We have started to do that here in Oakland the last three years, so the program changes for them. And the pitchers themselves kind of tell you what they need and where you need to take them. A lot of them come to the Instructional Leagues for more learning and then when they re-cycle into spring training, you start to build on what they learned in the Instructional Leagues.

At every level, there is a checklist that the pitchers need to do – other than the stuff that you see in the papers, such as the guy has a good record or a low ERA or a lot of strikeouts or a low number of bases-on-balls; all those things you see in the papers are nice but there are other things that we require them to do to move up. For instance, there needs to be pitch development and a certain level of mental and emotional maturity and a certain amount of success at a particular level before we start to evaluate them for a move to another level. There is a lot more involved than those basic numbers that we do.

One advantage I have going around the organization is that one week I'll be filling in at the big league level and the next week I'll be in Rookie ball, and the next week I'll be in Double-A, so I get to see what plays up and what doesn't and that has a lot do with where the guy is going to perform and where he is not going to perform. You can see a train-wreck coming from a mile away. The guy might be 8-0, but he can't do a couple of things and if you move him up a level, he's not going to be 8-0 at that next level and he's going to get it handed to him. So those are some of the things that I am talking about. There is more to our evaluation of the pitchers than the win-loss record and a low ERA. There are a lot of factors involved in that.

OC: When I have spoken to a number of pitchers in the system, they have mentioned that the change-up is a big part of what the organization emphasizes in their development. What is it about the change-up that you think is so important to a pitcher's development and how long does it normally take a pitcher to develop that pitch?

RR: It takes longer. You don't see it in college much because of the aluminum bat. I've coached in college before and I know a lot of the college coaches and it is more of a side-to-side game where you are pitching away from contact with the aluminum bat, unless the guy is just a plus-thrower and he can throw in the low-90s and up. To me, there is a little bit bigger strike zone [in college], as well. Unless a guy has what I call a Bugs Bunny change-up, where it stops and backs up, they won't throw it. It takes longer to learn how to throw it. Some teams go right away to a split-finger or forkball and that is a really easy pitch to learn. For us, the change-up is good because it is really easy on the arm and it allows you to pitch inside to contact. You don't have to throw a change-up to the edges of the plate.

The magic number for me is 12 miles per hour. If you can throw a change-up 12 miles per hour off of your fastball, just like Johan Santana does, you'll be in good shape. If you watch Santana on TV, he'll throw his fastball at 93 and then throw the change-up 81 and then maybe throw an even better change-up at 79. He doesn't even throw it down. He throws it right down the middle of the plate and they can't hit it because of that separation. That is what we try to teach first because it is thrown just like a fastball. It's actually healthy for your arm. Then we move on to the breaking ball, which can be a curve or a slider or a slurve, there are a bunch of different ways to throw a breaking ball. Those are your core pitches and then you can go to your finish pitches, which would be a splitter or a cutter or some type of a shorter slider. Those are what we would call finish pitches and they are easy to add later on down-the-line.

But to have three pretty good core pitches is key. Our better arms, we treat them all like starting pitchers because to pitch in the American League, you need that third dimensional pitch. You just can't live with only two pitches unless you are just a guy who has just superior stuff, such as a 95 MPH fastball with movement and a breaking ball that is a plus-breaking ball. There is not many of those guys around. Because of the DH and what have you, you need a third pitch to get you through that line-up a second and third time. You need that third pitch and we start with the change-up because when working off of the fastball, the separation change-up is the hardest pitch for a hitter to hit.

It takes longer [to develop]. It does. It takes awhile to get the feel for it and to get totally what it is about and because it is easy on the arm, it is a really easy sell to the pitchers. We have them throw it every day in our throwing program. We just stay with that and then we move on to those other things.

You know, the other thing is that if you don't learn it right away, you probably won't ever learn a good straight change-up because there are only so many pitches that you can throw in a game. And if they don't learn it early, they just won't throw it in the game. That's what you find usually coming out of college. You ask guys if they have a change-up and they'll say ‘yeah, but I never really use it because I pitch away from the aluminum bat.' [laughs] So we emphasize learning that pitch here. There are other organizations that go with the breaking ball first and that's their philosophy. We just choose to go with fastball command and a good straight change-up first. We also work on developing different fastballs, a four-seam and a two-seam.

OC: Are there pitches that you really shy away from having a pitcher throw early in his development because they are hard on the arm, such as the split-finger or other pitches?

RR: Yeah. The breaking ball, you take a look at it and you ask: is the guy throwing it right, is it harmful? A cut fastball is a little dangerous for me because if it is not thrown correctly, it can cause some problems. Don't get me wrong, it is a great pitch for guys in the big leagues. But, again, you have to get other things down before you add a pitch like that. There are so many myths on how to throw that. For me, it is easy to learn, if a guy is going to have one, he can pick it up very quickly. But you really have to be able to locate the fastball on both sides of the plate and maybe have a four-seamer and a two-seamer and not be afraid to pitch to contact before you can add a finish pitch.

That is the huge thing, pitching inside to wood bats to contact for outs is something that you just don't see in college with the aluminum bats. When you are pitching to aluminum bats or even those compressed wood bats, you don't get good feedback because a guy gets jammed and he hits a ball into the hole instead of with a traditional ash wood or maple bat where the bat would end-up in pieces, which would give the pitchers the right feedback with the pitch. That is what we try to stress, that you can pitch inside and that you can pitch to contact in professional baseball. And that is why we choose to prioritize pitching inside first, in addition to the straight change-up.

OC: I know you touched on it earlier, but now that you have had a few high school arms like Vince Mazzaro or Trevor Cahill come into the system, how do their programs differ from the programs of a four-year program guy like a James Simmons?

RR: These guys [high school draft picks] that come here, they have never paid an electric bill, many of them have never had an ATM card. We are really lucky because we have host families in the lower levels so that they don't have to be out on their own completely. The guys that went to college, they know how to handle themselves and how to be out on their own and do laundry and deal with all of that stuff. You've got to allow for that difference. The other difference is with weight training and conditioning. You don't know when they are coming from high school whether they can build their muscles correctly. There is a lot of misinformation there, so we tend to start slowly with that.

When you look at a high school kid, their brains are different than a college kid. [laughs] They know that. When you look at an MRI or a CAT scan of the brain, the teenaged brain is physically different. Our human resources guy showed me the scans. You wonder why teenagers do crazy things, and it is because their brains are physically different and it changes when they are in their mid-20s. How these kids learn at 17, 18, 19, 20 – and with the Latin kids, it is the same thing because we sign them at 17, 18 – they don't process information even remotely the same way as somebody who is 22, 23, 24. If you know that, the way you teach them and communicate with them has to allow for that because it is a physiological fact that they are just different animals. So you start a little slower that way.

Then with their bodies, it's different too. I just copied an article about Tiger Woods in Men's Fitness and in it, Tiger finally gave out some information about his workout program which has been really secretive. If you look at his body now, he's got have put on something like 30 pounds. He used to have a 29 inch waist and be 158-160 pounds when he first joined the Tour and now he is at 185 pounds with a 31 inch waist and it is really neat the way that he has done it because he has got the flexibility of a gymnast and he looks like, pound-for-pound, one of the best athletes in the world. Also, he did it the right way. So I clipped the article out because he has evolved and he's 32 now and it is very, very interesting the whole picture of how he developed. It's very similar to the high school kid where you look at this skinny little kid and you won't recognize him in three or four years. He is going to grow up in professional ball instead of going to college, so you have to allow for that.

OC: I know that when Rick Peterson was with the organization, there was a lot written about pitchers being filmed by [the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI)] to get them checked for good mechanics and health. Is that still be done within the organization?

RR: When Rick was here, they [ASMI] basically did two guys [Tim Hudson and Barry Zito]. And it was volunteer, so there wasn't a lot of that. We have been able to send a couple of guys every year to do this video analysis. So it is not a lot and they mutated their program over the years. They just switched over to Parameters for Elite Athletes. I have followed that pretty closely. I have a good relationship with them and I went to their seminar a few years ago, Oakland paid for that, so that I could do more on that.

Their program has changed significantly in terms of what they are looking at since when Rick was over here. They are scientists. They don't develop programs. They want you to tell them what you are looking for so that they can tell you whether or not it is going to work. That is what I have learned from them, to say this is what we think we are doing to be successful and have them test it to see if we are right or if we are wrong. That's what they tell you.

We are only allowed to do it with a couple of guys. The first year that I went with Rick, guys were paying their own way. I think it was Hudson and Zito who paid their own way there. And since then we have been able to get some funding to keep that going. [ASMI] wants you to tell them what you are looking for and then they send you the data back and then, in turn, you can adjust the program. That's kind of how that works. It isn't the sort of thing where they can tell you what throwing program we should use or what lifting program. But they can tell you the torque ratios and the stress levels if they are good or bad and that information helps you develop your program.

It's helpful because it helps you combat what I call urban myths, which is valuable because you can weed out some of the things that you thought were useful that were actually not doing anything for you physically. You cut out a lot of the wasted time because the old way is not always the best way. When I played in the big leagues, I came out of a high school program and we lifted weights. But when I was in the big leagues, we could not lift weights during the season, so you looked like a wet noodle by the time August and September came around. Now if you don't lift all year round and during the season, you can't survive. That is something that has developed over the last 10 or 15 years, so [not lifting weights] is another urban myth that went away. You have to lift correctly now, but back then, they would say, we aren't going to let them lift at all because we don't want to get people hurt, but that is not the right thing to do. I never liked the old school thing, where if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's not right way to do things. You have to move forward or someone else will and you'll be left behind.

Be sure to check-back for the second part of the interview, which will cover the development of a few of the A's top pitching prospects, as well as the debate about whether Dallas Braden is throwing a screwball and the injury status of prospect Jared Lansford.

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