Oakland A's Coaching Q&A: Todd Steverson

The Sacramento River Cats managerial position has been a breeding ground for future Oakland A's coaches. The River Cats' first manager was Bob Geren, who joined the A's coaching staff in 2003 and is now the skipper. Geren's replacement - Tony DeFrancesco - joined the A's coaching staff this year. His replacement is Todd Steverson, who has moved quickly through the A's system himself.

Todd Steverson joined the Oakland A's in 2004 after five years as a coach in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, where he worked as a hitting coach with, among others, a young Albert Pujols. The former Toronto Blue Jays' 1992 first-round pick played seven seasons of professional baseball, appearing in the major leagues in 1995 and 1996 with Detroit and San Diego, respectively.

Steverson has had a rapid ascent through the A's system as a coach and manager. After spending the 2004 season as a hitting coach for short-season Vancouver, Steverson was named as the manger of the High-A Stockton Ports in 2005, and he took the Ports to the playoffs in both 2005 and 2006. In 2007, Steverson was promoted to manage Double-A Midland, where he compiled a 67-70 record. This past off-season, Steverson was on the coaching staff of the Phoenix Desert Dogs, which won the championship in the Arizona Fall League.

When Triple-A Sacramento manager Tony DeFrancesco was promoted to the Oakland A's big league coaching staff this off-season, Steverson was tabbed as DeFrancesco's replacement for the defending PCL champion River Cats. We caught-up with Steverson over the weekend for a Q&A…

OaklandClubhouse: How has your first month gone with your new team and the new level? I guess you are moving up a level every year now, it seems.

Todd Steverson: It's going well. It's the same game of baseball at every level. Obviously, you have more older players at this level and more experienced players. That is probably the biggest difference between the Double-A and Triple-A levels. You've got a lot of guys who go up and you are going to have some guys coming down from the big leagues who are interchangeable pieces [at the big league level]. Really, it is a maintenance thing at this level. We want to keep them maintained. We want to keep them fresh. We want to keep their game well-tuned because not one of these players knows when they are going to get called up to the big leagues.

OC: It seems like it has been a little thin for you lately with injuries and guys being called up. Are you having to mix-and-match your line-ups a little bit?

TS: Yeah, it's thin, but thick, you know what I am saying? Right off of the bat, we had [Jeff] Fiorentino go down with an injury. And then we had [Greg] Smith and [Kirk] Saarloos and [Dallas] Braden go up and [Joey] Devine went up. Richie Robnett never really had a chance to start playing. He had a procedure done. So right away, from the first week of the season, we were already down two outfielders and a handful of pitchers. But overall, our team hasn't really changed that much from what we started on Opening Day with, other than we lost a few guys here and there [to promotions]. We've added [Danny] Putnam and [Nick] Blasi and [Joe] Gaetti, but we haven't really added any infielders.

OC: I guess the infield has actually gotten healthier for you since the start of the year?

TS: Yep. We got [Kevin] Melillo back and Jeff Baisley didn't start the year playing, and now he is back. We also added [Lenny] DiNardo to the pitching staff, but really, the transactions haven't been as many as people would think. It's a long year, and it is still just past the first month of the season. There are still five months to go in the big leagues and four-and-a-half to go in this league. You hope to have your team stay healthy all year. That is the best chance you have to go out there and compete every day is to have good health on the team. If we stay healthy down here, if anything does go wrong at the big league level, we will be in a position to replace that player.

OC: For a good part of the year, you've had Gregorio Petit in the lead-off position. You've had Petit as a player at a couple of different levels now. Have you seen a progression for him in terms of his approach at the plate?

TS: Yes. Gregorio used to get a nice, stiff talking to about his walk-to-strike-out ratio. The weird part about Petit is, there are some players that pitchers just throw strikes to, and Petit is just one of those players. He picked his walks up last year when he was in Double-A before he was promoted to Triple-A. But as much as you are not looking to walk, it's tough because some guys have a difficult time drawing walks. Pitchers are just throwing them strikes. You are going to have your fair share of strike-outs because most hitters do, so that constitutes a bad walk-to-strike-out ratio.

Really, in Petit's case, it is more about cutting the strike-outs down than it is about looking to draw more walks. He has had the opportunity to lead-off and I have had him in a few different spots. His progression has been tremendous in terms of his maturity at the plate. His pitch selection is better and his thought process in terms of what he should be doing up there and what they are looking for out of him as a hitter is better. He knows he is not a homerun guy, but he has a little bit of pop. He needs to use the whole field to be a very successful player and he is starting to use the opposite field a lot more. In terms of his progression, I think he has done well in terms of where he is now and where he was when I first met him in '04.

OC: Is it helpful to have had players at different levels and to know their strengths and weaknesses going into a season?

TS: Yeah. It is easier to talk to them. When they are going bad, you've seen them go bad. When they are going good, you've seen them go good. Your verbiage with them is easy because you're not coming in out of the blue. You can say to them, ‘Ok, remember in '06 when you were doing this same thing? Remember when the hands were there?' And they can recall. It's a little harder with the free agent guys or guys who we picked up in trades because you don't know them as well. But for the majority of these guys [on the River Cats], I've either had them as a hitting instructor or I have had them as a manager, so there aren't too many things that I haven't seen out of them that I didn't know that they were capable of.

OC: Danny Putnam was supposed to start the year back in Double-A, but he joined the River Cats, I believe, just a few days into the season. It seems like he is a lot more comfortable at Triple-A this season. Is there anything that you have seen with him this year that was different from last year?

TS: Danny's life last year was a lot different than most other people's lives. He broke camp and went to Double-A with me and started off the season on fire and then was promoted to the big leagues. To go from thinking that the manager is calling you over to tell you that you are going to Triple-A and it is really the big leagues, is a lot different. It's a lot to go from thinking that you are going to be catching a plane to Sacramento to instead going somewhere where you are starting off your big league career and doing all of the things that you always dreamed about. That is a totally different mindset.

He played up there for a little while and got his feet wet. Then they sent him back down to Triple-A and he got hit in the hand and had a couple of injuries which really didn't allow him to keep up the pace that he had been on with Midland. He fluctuated back and forth [between hot and cold] all year, but pulled together for them, from what I understand, in the playoffs last year. He has really worked hard in the off-season and he really looks determined to get back to his old form.

OC: I noticed that you have moved a few guys around position-wise this season. I believe Casey Rogowski has played some outfield, in addition to first base, and Brooks Conrad has seen some time in the outfield and all over the infield. Is that something where you are looking to give guys as many experiences as possible so that they have a better shot of sticking in the big leagues?

TS: At the beginning of the year, you are kind of told what positions a player can play. I didn't know Conrad personally before this season and hadn't I watched him play before. The same with Rogowski. But you are told what positions they play and what the front office would like to see them play. Conrad, [Wes] Bankston and Rogowski [all natural infielders] have had the opportunity to play in the outfield, with Bankston seeing time also at third base and first base and Conrad all over the infield.

You don't try to move guys around the field specifically, but in terms of the outfield, I like to move guys around sometimes to get them a feel for every position because, as Danny [Putnam] can tell you, he had never really played centerfield – other than a rotation maybe in the instructional league or something like that – and coincidentally, I think it was about three or four days before he got called up [to the A's], I had played him in centerfield in Arkansas. So he got that chance to play out there in Arkansas and then all of a sudden, he's out there in the major leagues in centerfield. It isn't quite as scary for you if you have done it, even a little bit, before. I try to get all of the outfielders to play all of those positions, if possible. You look at Travis Buck, Buck was a left-fielder his entire minor league career and then he gets to the big leagues, and he is playing in right-field. You just never know where you are going to play.

OC: In terms of the pitching staff, Gio Gonzalez has had some ups-and-downs this season. It seems like his pitch counts have been high. Is there anything he needs to work on to get those pitch counts down?

TS: It is his first time in Triple-A level and we have faced some experienced line-ups. Colorado Springs, Las Vegas and the team [Friday night, Iowa], these guys have been around a while, up-and-down in the big leagues some of them. There are pitchers that these guys have faced who have good stuff also, so it is more about execution for him than it is about his stuff. In my opinion, he has great stuff. But the execution with great stuff makes it really great stuff. I think that has been part of the issue with him thus far. He's not executing with his stuff consistently. That equates to a lot of deep counts and a lot of pitches.

He's a very excitable kind of guy, so he has a lot of adrenaline out there. To mix adrenaline along with the stuff that he has and the inconsistency that he has had right now, it just hasn't been a good combination. But everyone can see what he possesses. It's just a matter of trying to harness everything that he possesses and trying to give him a good game plan for every outing that he can bring out there and execute with like he should execute to play in the big leagues. In my opinion, he should become a big leaguer with the type of stuff that he has from the left side. It's just a matter of learning himself. Maybe at the lower levels, some of the pitches that were getting fouled off or not swung at here were [being swung at and missed]. That is a different thing to deal with mentally for a pitcher. You have to learn to work with it. I think he is learning that ‘okay, the high fastball that I threw in Double-A or A-ball that they swung through, they are fouling that one off now. Or the breaking ball that I threw in the dirt in A-ball that they chased, they are not chasing it in Triple-A.'

To his own admission, he'd probably tell you that his breaking ball hasn't been exactly what it normally is. It has been a little bit inconsistent. But amongst him being inconsistent, he has been able to go five innings for the most part and battle through it and, for the majority of the time, only give up roughly three runs until [Friday] night. For the struggles that he has had up to this point, you've got to say that he has it in there because it seems to be mostly one inning that does him in. He'll dominate an inning, dominate the next inning and then he'll have his struggle inning.

OC: How about Dan Meyer? Do you think he is back to 100 percent after missing time with the emergency appendectomy this spring?

TS: I never saw Dan at 100 percent, so I can't really comment on if he is back at 100 percent. I will say that Danny has been much more consistent with his pitches. He has had a much more repeatable delivery than he has had probably in the past, and he is working hard at that. He knows that he has got to repeat his delivery. He is working on repeating his delivery and it seems to be translating over into the ballgame right now. He had his first outing, which was so-so, and that was coming off of the appendectomy. After that, he has had pretty much good outings.

He also used to be a high pitch count guy in a short amount of time. I think right now he is getting the most out of every pitch that he throws and is really starting to bring together his game back to the level that made him the prospect that we traded Tim Hudson for.

OC: How tempting was it to leave him in when he was throwing that no-hitter [in his second start]?

TS: Not very tempting. It was only the sixth inning and if we were talking about the eighth or the ninth inning, that would have been a totally different story. But we were talking about the sixth inning and he was out of bullets. It was a positive thing for Dan [to throw the six no-hit innings].

Sometimes you take pitchers out under their pitch count maybe by about five or 10 pitches because it is positive spot for them [to be taken out]. Because there are also going to be those times when you are going to need them to keep going when they are getting roughed up a little bit and they are going to go all of the way to their pitch count.

I like to see my pitchers get as much experience as possible in different situations and in different types of games. When the game is tight and someone is expecting to be taken out, I like to see how he bares down and approaches that situation. Maybe he's got it, maybe he doesn't. I converse with my pitching coach Rick Rodriguez and ask him ‘what do you think? Should we take him out or should we see how he deals with this adversity?' If Rodriguez tells me he thinks [the pitcher] is done, then maybe we'll get him out. But if you are never put in difficult situations during your career, you'll never learn how to deal with them when they finally do arise on you. Sometimes it may look like you are pulling them early or leaving them in too long, but there is always rhyme or reason behind everything that goes on in this game. Obviously, fans don't always understand it, but that's just kind of how it is.

OC: For you personally, having moved up a level each of the past two years, is that something that you take a lot of pride in?

TS: I have been very fortunate in the sense that I was able to come into this organization and start off as a hitting coach and then be anointed as a manager at the High-A ball level in my first managing season. I had been in the game awhile already as a coach and I got a chance to take on the Stockton Ports for a couple of years. It's obviously not very usual that a guy goes from managing Double-A for only one year and then goes straight to Triple-A. Hopefully I have exemplified the ability to handle situations at any level. I think that if that wasn't the case, then maybe I wouldn't be here.

I take a lot of pride in what I do. I take a lot of pride in how my players go out and play. They are like my children for the season. If you can imagine as a parent how you would want your kids portrayed through your family, that is kind of how I view my teams. How we play is a reflection upon myself and my staff. If we go out there and stink it up, then me and the staff stunk it up and we've got to do something to rectify it. If we are doing well, then I think you can say that we are on-track with what we are doing. But the game is ever-changing and you have to change along with it to the point where you don't change everything, but you kind of have to flow with the times.

OC: Is it fun to see guys go up a level and succeed?

TS: That is the best part about it. At this level, you often get asked ‘oh, they took your player, does that bother you?' But you have got to be happy for anyone who gets a chance to go to the next level. Do you really want somebody who is capable of playing in the big leagues in Triple-A all year? Or do you want to see that kid achieve his hopes and dreams by playing in the big leagues and being successful?

That is what we are here for, to help the kids move on and be successful. That's what I signed-up for, to help these guys move on to the next level. There is nothing better than to see a kid's face when you tell him ‘hey, you are going to the big leagues' or ‘you are going to the next level.'

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