Oakland A's Prospect Q&A: Dusty Napoleon, C

On Saturday, February 13, Oakland A's catching prospect Dusty Napoleon was a featured speaker at the Society of American Baseball Researchers (SABR) meeting of the Chicago chapter. Our Kane County Correspondent David Malamut conducted an interview with Napoleon, which also included an audience Q&A session. Inside is a transcript of that interview.

Q&A with Dusty Napoleon with David Malamut

David Malamut: What did you do this off-season conditioning-wise?

Dusty Napoleon: I started getting after it again in roughly October. Our season ended in mid-September . I worked out about four-to-five times a week, and then didn't start hitting or throwing until mid-December.

DM: Growing up in the Chicagoland area, did it help you or hinder your progress in your baseball career?

DN: Being from the Midwest, it is definitely a disadvantage from being down South or out West. I think it definitely made me tougher and stronger to play in the cold weather.

DM: What kind of toll on your body did catching and playing quarterback at New Trier High School take on your body?

DN: Playing football helped me out as far as playing catcher, just the daily grind of working out and taking the hits, and I think catching is a lot easier than playing football.

DM: You hold the school record for touchdown passes and passing yards at New Trier. Did you get recruited to play football?

DN: Yes, I got looked at by Illinois, and Northern Illinois – they actually wanted me to play both there – and a couple of smaller schools out East, but I knew I wanted to play baseball and I knew that if I went to school to do both, I knew that baseball would've slipped by and I wouldn't have gotten as far.

DM: Playing at the University of Iowa for three years, what was the experience like? What did you learn, and how did that translate into pro ball?

DN: Growing up I always wanted to play in the Big Ten. I was a huge Illinois fan growing up, my dad went there, my mom grew up in Champaign, so I always wanted to go to Illinois, but it worked out that I went to Iowa. The Big Ten definitely prepared me, a lot of people look down at the Big Ten as far as a baseball conference, but it is definitely growing.

DM: What is the biggest difference hitting with a wood bat compared to a metal bat, and how much harder is it to hit for power with a wood bat?

DN: With wood the sweet spot is a lot smaller, with a metal bat you can get away with getting jammed and get those little flares into the outfield. With a wood bat the bat will break and you will be an easy out. As far as the power thing, you get the power swing going you can hit it just as far as with metal. In my opinion the wood bats are the ways to go, the metal bats are no good, too dangerous.

DM: What was draft day like, and was Oakland your first choice?

DN: Draft day was interesting. The first day I didn't expect to get drafted in the top five rounds, I was hearing any where from the 10-25th round. I only talked to Oakland once before the draft started. When the 15th round started I was listening to it on the Internet, I kind of gave up. Well I had a game that day playing in Madison, WI, I was like ‘oh well it isn't going to happen,' then I got a call from the A's [asking] in 17th round, ‘would you still sign if we took you in the next couple of rounds,' and I was like ‘yeah of course,' and then they took me and the phone didn't stop ringing after that.

DM: Going from Iowa to playing in Vancouver, what was the transition like? What was it like to play in Canada?

DN:Vancouver is a great town, it's a nice city. I had a awesome host family, which made the transition a lot easier, from going to Iowa City, then going to Vancouver. It was a good experience but a lot of travel. We were the northern city in that league, and taking 14 hour bus rides, it was definitely an eye-opening experience.

DM: How was playing in front of your friends and family the last two years in Kane County?

DN: It was fun, not many people get to do that. I was lucky enough to get that experience. It was fun, my dad coaches in the summer and the spring, and he came out to pretty much any home game he could make it to. My mom was there all the time, it was a lot of fun.

DM: What is your approach at the plate?

DN: I'm a real patient hitter. I don't like to chase a lot of pitches. I'm not a first pitch swinger, just kind of wait and work the count, a lot of people think I'm up there waiting for walks. I'm not, I'm just patient, I have a real selective approach.

DM: What was your advice for kids learning to play baseball?

DN: Don't be afraid of the ball. I teach lessons to little kids and a lot of them step out. I pretty much just tell them to keep your eye on it, and don't try to do too much.

DM: How difficult has it been playing catcher, first base, then playing two games at third and a game in left, plus two games pitching?

DN:It made the season a lot more fun. Playing different positions, helping the team out any way that I could. Coach Scar [Steve Scarsone, the Cougars' 2009 manager], he tried to get me in there anyway he could. It was good, makes you more valuable.

DM: What was your strategy on the mound in your two games this year? You didn't give up any runs in two innings of work?

DN: We were getting beat pretty bad in both those games. It was kind of something to make baseball fun. Everyone was down, and [so I tried] to make baseball fun again, instead of everyone getting upset because we were losing. I thought the eephus pitch for the strike out [was his best his pitch]. I had like five different arm angles. The curveball wasn't very good. I was just trying to mix it up, Petey Paramore was our catcher. He was having a hard time calling the game.

DM: What are you looking forward to next year?

DN: To get an opportunity to play somewhere. It really doesn't matter where. It's a win-win for me, if I go back to Kane County I'm close to home, but hopefully I end up in Stockton and advance my career going forward.

DM: What is spring training like?

DN: My first spring training I was really nervous. I didn't know what to expect. You were meeting new people, Billy Beane walks in and you're like, ‘this is really cool, but we still have to go out and play.' We have all the scouts out there, everyone evaluating you every day. Now it is normal. I know the guys, I feel comfortable around the guys, the coaches and the instructors, now I can just go out and play.

DM: What are your thoughts on your former teammate Grant Desme's decision to retire from baseball?

DN: When I first heard about it, it kind of took me by surprise, but not really, because I knew he was a real devoted Christian. I knew he followed the bible, and read the bible before every game. He always wrote scriptures on his tape, on his hat. I knew he wanted to do that one day, but I didn't think it would happen this soon. If you were talking to him you wouldn't have know he was having the success he had, and being one of the best prospects in the game. I just wish him the best of luck. I just know it was a hard decision for him to make. I talked to him after he made it and he definitely knows what he is doing.

DM: What is your favorite Midwest League stadium, playing-wise and food-wise?

DN: I like Kane County but not counting Kane County, I would probably say Fort Wayne's new stadium is real nice. It is brand new. They have a nice Jumbotron screen in right field. And also Grand Rapids is pretty cool. For the food I would have to go with Grand Rapids. They have that burger, the monster burger. I didn't have any, though, those are just for the pitchers.

DM: How are the bus trips?

DN: I don't mind the bus trips. I stay up late anyways. It's fine. I can sleep on buses. When we win, they are good, everyone's in a good mood, playing movies, the coaches come back and talk to us, just to try to keep it like a family environment.

DM: What was your major in college?

DN: Health and sports studies. I tried to get into the school of education but I didn't get in my sophomore year, then I got drafted my junior year> eventually when I do go back to school I will get into education. I want to be either a high school or most likely a college coach.

DM: Do you call the pitches in the game, the pitch out and throws to first?

DN: The catchers call pretty much I'd say 95% of the pitches. Pretty much every pitch called is by the catcher. A lot of the pitchouts and picks are by the manager. We have the freedom to call pickoffs at any bases but the coaches are the ones that call most of them. They call it and give it to us and we relay them to the pitchers, especially the pitchouts, they pretty much call all of those.

DM: How much of the pitching is the scouting report?

DN: A lot. Before the series starts we have a meeting with all of the pitchers, all of the catchers and the pitching coach, and we will go over the stats for the team we are facing for the last 10 games. Then if we have spray charts of where they hit the ball, then we will go over all of that and then talk about how we will pitch guys after we have seen them more than once. After that the starting pitcher, starting catcher and the pitching coach will go over the roster again, and that happens before every game.

Questions from audience

Q: Why would it be a disadvantage to players coming out of the Midwest?

DN: Because in California they play all year long. Their season starts in like January [and goes] all the way until November, so they are playing 10 or 11 months out of the year, and then in Chicago you can only play so much. Who knows? We can sometimes get snow in May, so you are pretty much inside all of the time. It's a small disadvantage, but it's just getting the amount of at-bats. As a kid, you say get 200 at-bats, and [if] you're playing all year round, you're getting maybe 400. It's just the more progress you could make.

Q: Are you a Cubs fan? What do the Cubs need to contend?

DN: I don't know. They need to get younger in a lot of positions. I do think that [Lou] Pinella is good for them. I think his time is done now. I think they need to move on. I think it's also a mental thing. Once the playoffs come, they all get tight and lock up. It's in the papers, they haven't won since this. It does get to the papers. Some players say they don't read the papers. You need guys that are bonded tightly together, that say, ‘we don't care, we are just going out there and playing, instead of guys that are worried about other stuff.' One tight family. We had that the first half of the year in Kane County. We didn't care what was going on, we were going to go out there and winning the series every time. It didn't matter, once you get part of that and know what that feels like, it is real special.

Q: How do you feel about steroids?

DN: Looking back on the era, I would say it's tough. It's hard to blame the guys that were doing it. I think it is wrong, but you look to the guy next to you and he is battling for the same position as you, he is taking steroids and he is doing better then you. It's to a point that it's [like] ‘woah, that's millions of dollars that he is taking from you, because he is cheating, and I need to do the same thing.' I think that is like a domino effect to everyone else doing it. And now if I found out a guy was doing it, I would never do it, just because of all of the side effects, getting caught, all that stuff, it is not right. You're cheating.

Q: Would Mark McGwire get into the Hall of Fame if you had a vote?

DN: I think I would.

Q: How do you rate the quality of baseball in the Big Ten?

DN: I think it's going up a lot, especially with the new starting date. They have a national starting date, so the teams that are in the warmer climates, when we go down there when I was playing, we would be playing teams in Louisiana and their record would be like 8-2, or like 10-3, and we would be having our first game out there, so its definitely trying to even the playing field out. But you look every year, and the Big Ten will have guys drafted in the first round or top five rounds, it definitely getting better. I think the big difference is the bullpen arms. You get the guys that are down east in the SEC, you get guys coming out of the bullpen that are a lot stronger than the guys coming out of the Big Ten.

Q: With your hitting philosophy, I take it you don't mind falling behind in the count?

DN: All my life I've hit with two strikes pretty well. I read a thing by Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn. Your chance of getting a hit goes up drastically by seeing more pitches, instead of just seeing one pitch and going at it. If you see all the pitches he's got then you know this pitch does this, this pitch does that, he can't beat me with that, or if this guy has a really good curveball, and I might not be able to hit it, then I've got to swing early in the count, so it just makes my percentages better.

Q: If you see a pitcher for like the third time, would you key on something?

DN: Exactly. It's like playing a little game too. The scouting report on me is that this guy likes to take, take, take, so then I might not take here because then he might groove me a fastball, and also situations matters, if I'm up and nobody is on base then I'm going to work the count a little more. If there is a guy in scoring position, a guy on third and less than two outs, I want to make sure I drive him in, so I'm going to try to swing early in the count to try to get something out in the air, something I can drive.

Q: Have the coaches been supportive of your selective approach?

DN: In the minor leagues, yes. With the A's they definitely want you to see pitches, they are not saying you've got to walk, you got to walk, you have to have a 10 percent walk ratio to your at bats. They want me to swing more, that's easier for me than what they tell a lot of people who they want to swing less, we want you to see more pitches. All and all they have been supportive though.

Q: How did you wind up as the mop up game pitcher? Did Scarsone ask at the start of the season?

DN: Pitching coach Jimmy Escalante, that was my third year with him, so catching bullpens before the game, and I always put it in his ear, if you ever need someone, I'm ready to go. Finally the time came, and it was actually between me and Matt Ray, another kid on our team. Scar came up to us, and he was like ok which one of you wants to do it, and we both do. And he is like, and give me your best reason why you want to go out there. I just battled harder for it, so I went out there. I did good the first time so it was a no brainer that I was going out there the second time.

Q: Do the A's give instructions on not swinging for the first pitch?

DN: In Vancouver and especially down in Arizona in the Rookie League, those are the first year players. They want to make sure you get their system down, so definitely in Vancouver our manager would say first time down the lineup no one swing at the first pitch, or first time down he lineup take until you get a strike. That's more the lower levels. In Kane County you sometimes get it, but you're old enough where you have been through the system already for a year, and after that you're pretty much on your own, unless you have, like a couple of guys this year, had 85 at bats and no walks, so they pretty much told them ‘you're taking until you get a strike for this whole game.' It sometimes makes hitters mad, but if you don't do it their way there going to dictate to you like that.

Q: With a name like that, does Dusty stand for something? Any good nicknames in baseball?

DN: I did win the best name in the minors last year. When I was born my dad would just sit there and try to think of good baseball names, stuff that rhymes. Actually my first name is Michael and my middle name is Dustin. Good nicknames, there really aren't any, just stuff that happens throughout the year. When Dusty Baker was in town they made those shirts "Dusty be Trusty," and I have a bunch of those.

Q: What kind of pitch sequence do you like to work with?

DN: It's going to vary from hitter to hitter, and it's going to vary depending on whoever is pitching, too. We had a couple of guy who were hard throwers. I would try to go inside more on those guys, get in on those guys hands. Guys who have like five different pitches, we had a guy this year named Shawn Havilland, who just liked to throw up a lot of off-speed pitches, to use off-speed pitches to make his fastball look harder, then come inside in and out. I just like to call pitches that are the strengths of my pitchers. You look at the scouting reports so much, but you always fall back on what does my pitcher do best. That is what you're going to go to.

Q: Going back to nicknames, I think the Cougars led the minors. They had two Dustys: Dusty Coleman was the other one. Where did he get his name?

DN: His name, it's weird. He actually is one of my better friends on the team, too. His name is Dustin Michael Coleman, it's the reverse of mine.

Q: What football skills best translate to baseball?

DN: Being a quarterback, a lot of it is mental, knowing the game plan, looking and reading defenses, knowing what coverage they're in. Being catcher is the best position I could be in. As a catcher you have to know the game plan. I have to know, whoever comes up to the plate, I have to know our advanced scouting report in my head right away. I have to remember those things, and I have to look at what is going on when the ball is hit out in the outfield and I have to direct traffic, knowing where guys are going, the mental side of things. People don't think there is contact, you just have to play with the mental side of things, and not get all worried about getting hit again.

Q: When they talk about the catcher's need to work on his foot work [what does that mean]?

DN: It's definitely throwing to second, it's definitely arm strength. A lot of guys have good arms and rely on their arm strength, so it's pretty much all footwork going toward second base is what people are talking about. If you don't have a good foundation with your feet, then everything up with your arms and everything is going to be all out of sorts, so if you have good footwork, you make a good throw to second. I don't have the strongest arm but my footwork is ok, so it definitely makes my arm look a lot stronger than it actually is.

Q: Is there a similarity between being a quarterback and having good footwork?

DN: When you throw it, you really have to use your feet. My arm actually got a lot stronger in high school playing quarterback, throwing the ball all the time. I actually use that in the off-season, just a little bit, to get my arm stronger. Footwork is definitely a big thing.

Q: Thoughts on instant replay in baseball?

DN: In baseball you kind of have to have human error sometimes. Everything is not going to go right all the time. If you have to stop the game to see if someone is safe or out, that's just part of the game, an umpire might've blown that call, you just have to bounce back from it. You have to adjust to the umpire's strike zone sometimes. That's just part of baseball, and I think if they go to a robot ump, that would just be terrible. It wouldn't be the human factor that you need in baseball.

Q: What percentage of the balls and strikes are wrong?

DN: I would say at the level I'm at there are a lot of bad calls made, sometimes worse than every 10th pitch. We get some guys that if I'm setting my whole body off the plate, and the guys hit the spot, it's a strike, and you can't hit like that. I'll be up there at the plate my first at bat and I'll be able to tell right away, or the first inning I'm catching, if this is going to be a long game or not. I definitely get a lot of the calls being a catcher, trying to talk with the umpire, trying to get him to be my friend. I try to be nice to him so that when I'm back there or when I'm hitting, he can give me those borderline calls that he is not giving the other guys.

Q: Isn't that also because this is low minor league umpires?

DN: I'm older than a lot of the umpires, 23 years old and a lot of these guys are 20-21 years old. It does bother me though a lot that a lot of these umpire never even played baseball. and they are back there deciding and making terrible calls that are affecting guys' futures, if they go up they make more money or not, and you never played the game you don't know what's going on. That does bother me, there trying hard they are doing the best they can, so you kind of sometimes have to take the umpires out of it, and just play the game.

Q: How much talking do you do to the ump to lobby for pitches?

DN: Ask him a question, where did you have that one, he says it was a little out. I thought it was there, small talk. Just throw the ball back and don't say anything. Small talk with him throughout the game, and if I really think he missed one, [I say] ‘hey, I think you missed that one,' so he doesn't think that I don't talk to him at all. I don't have credibility with I'm, then he doesn't know what kind of guy I am.

Q: Are the umps consistently wrong?

DN: When we come back from the dugout and [I] tell the hitters too he's giving two inches off, or he is giving three inches in, so you kind of got to look for it and not be surprised if he ring you up on that. That's another thing, taking pitches kind of got me in trouble with some of these umpire. I think I have a pretty good idea of the strike zone, I don't strike out that much. If I take a called third strike and I have a problem with it, it probably was a ball, and the thing that gets me the most is when I get called out on a third strike and I come back to catch the next inning, and he be like ‘hey Dusty I'm sorry, I missed it.' The umpires that are really bad I kind of just start swinging early, so that I wont get called out.

Q: Can you see the pitchers arm angle from behind the plate and how to fix it?

DN: The big thing I see is where his upper body is going and then where he is stepping. A lot of guys that if they are stepping away and their arms are dragging. They are going to leave balls up, just small things that catchers do. If he is doing that, I'll say hey, then tap my front side, so he knows I got to stay closed. There are visual things that you can pick up on that he is doing, and the pitching coach in the dugout has a different view than I do so we both see different things to help out the pitcher if he is struggling.

Q: What was your best game at Kane County last year?

DN: It was early in the season. I was struggling pretty bad. I went 0-15 then got a hit and got a hit the next day and then on Mother's Day, I went like 3-4 with two doubles.

Q: Do you talk to hitters much during the game?

DN: Sometimes, playing these guys more than once, you kind of get a feel for how the guys are, if they will talk to you or not.

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