A conversation with Gary Lance

PDXBeavers,com had the pleasure of catching up with Portland Beavers pitching coach Gary Lance during the Beavers season opening homestand. With the large number of new faces on the Beavers pitching staff this year, Gary graciously shared his thoughts on the pitchers dotting this year's Portland roster.

Portland fans are becoming familiar with Tim Stauffer, when Stauffer is successful, what?s working for him?

Location.  The number one thing that Timmy has to have is a repeating delivery, staying within himself so that his stuff works for him.  He gets in trouble when he tries to throw the ball faster than he can.  His left side opens up and he releases it too soon, and the ball is up in the zone consequently.  If you think back to the major league (exhibition) game he pitched against Seattle, that was absolutely perfect.  He trusted his stuff, he was throwing with a lot of confidence.  He got Ichiro out twice, real easy, and this is one of the best hitters in all of baseball. He was well within himself, well-located, late moving pitches.  He?s got a good sinker.  When he?s successful, he?s strike one, moves to the edges.  Next hitter, strike one, moves to the edges.  Changes speed, keeps them off-balance.  That?s when he?s successful.

On Opening Day, Stauffer seemed to struggle a bit with his location.  What was wrong that night?

To be honest with you, the day started with him not feeling very well.  We?re all human beings.  There are certain days when we just wake up on the wrong side of the bed.  But a big league manager, and even a manager here in Triple-A, they don?t really care how you slept last night.  They just want to know how you?re going to get hitters out for me today.  He didn?t start the day feeling very good, as opposed to the start against the Seattle Mariners.  But that?s OK, those are the games where I come into play, when we try to keep the team close, which is what he did that day.  He gave us a chance to come back and we won that ballgame.  Everything was off with his timing.  Pitching is timing, pitching is rhythm.  And things were off that day, because he didn?t feel real good.

Mike Thompson is a guy that was outstanding in Portland at the end of last season.  He looks like he?s picked up right where he left off.  What?s making him so successful?

Same thing, a lot like Stauf.  They?re not going to light up the radar gun and they?re not going to impress you if you?re a scout who?s looking for a 98 mph fastball.  That?s not the way these guys are.  These guys are what we call true pitchers.  They have late movement, they throw the ball where the hitter doesn?t want it and they change speeds when he?s looking for a fastball.  That is what Mike has done.  That game on Friday night, I was talking to (Beavers catcher) Jason Hill and he said (Mike) didn?t throw a single pitch straight.  And that is the ultimate compliment for someone like Mike Thompson and anyone who doesn?t throw 95-100 mph.  You have to throw a pitch that moves.  Otherwise, these hitters are too good.  They?re going to track it, they?re going to wait on it and they?re going to hit it hard.  It doesn?t matter velocity, if it?s going to move and move late and the hitters have initiated their swing, the ball?s moved, it?s not where it?s supposed to be.  Bam, ground ball for an out.

Mario Ramos made his Beavers debut last night.  He?s been in Triple-A for several years now, what were your initial impressions of him?

I like Mario.   He?s even more of a pitcher, and has to be, than those other two guys we?ve just talked about.  He?s lefthanded which is a plus.  He?s got experience which is a big plus.  He and I talked and I asked him, what?s keeping you out of the big leagues?  Obviously we?re all here because of something we?re not doing.  The thing with him I think, after seeing him very little in spring training because I was in big league camp and he wasn?t, I think he needs to throw more changeups.  His changeup needs to get better, and it was real good last night.  It needs to have late dip to it, he needs to have aggressive hand speed with it and I think he needs to throw twice as many in an average game as he?s ever thrown before.  That was our intent going into last night?s game and he did.  He doubled his amount of changeups.  I thought he did real well after the first inning heebie-jeebies.

Seth Etherton makes his Portland debut this afternoon.  He?s a guy who?s had a lot of success at the Triple-A level; tell us a bit about him.

He?s a true craftsman.  He has a lot of pitches, he knows how to pitch.  He has a (Greg) Maddux-like sense of what the hitter?s looking for.  Very cranial, he?s a very smart guy.  Has a very good awareness of his surroundings.  He doesn?t get hyperventilated, he stays within himself.  He sees if a guy is diving and then he?ll throw a four-seam in on his hands.  He has a good feel.  He sees if a guy jumps up on the plate trying to get an outside pitch, he will then come inside.  He?ll change speeds if a guy is in the front of the plate.  He has a good sense of what?s going on around him and he?s a true craftsman.  He has a big looping curveball that he uses very effectively.  He has a palm ball, which is maybe his trick pitch that will get him to the big leagues.  Not many people have a quality palm ball anymore.  Great pitch, hard to learn, so guys abandon it and that?s why not many people throw it anymore.  He?s got a real good one and if it?s on, he?s got great handspeed and there?s no way the hitter can time it.

The last guy in the rotation is another newcomer to Portland, Eric Junge.  What should we look for with him?

I don?t know him very well.  I was in big league camp with him, but he was a reliever and I saw him one inning at the most.  They want him to start with us, so we?ll do that.  I don?t know much about him except that he?s very tenacious.  He?s from New York, he?s very aggressive and he takes that New York attitude up to the mound with him.  You?re not having my wallet, this is my money and you?re not going to take it from me.  Very aggressive, very hyper on the mound.  Throwing with a lot of confidence, heck, if you think you can get someone out, that?s half the battle.  He?s got a very good fastball; he works between 90-94 mph so he?s one of our starters that?s got a very good fastball.  He throws a cutter, mostly he sticks with the fastball, works both sides of the plate.  And he?s got a changeup.  Now as a starter he?ll obviously use that more and more.  We?ll see how that develops.

You?ve mentioned the changeup a few times.  I?ve seen that the organization is really emphasizing their guys throwing more changeups in the minors this year. 

Well, the new regime that?s in town definitely wants more changeups.  To me, I?ve always considered it the second best pitch in baseball, after a fastball that sinks.  I?ve always loved it, particularly the less velocity you have, obviously the more important that pitch becomes.  Yes, the new staff wants that, I?ve always thought that, ever since I became a pitching coach.  We?ve got guys this year that maybe don?t throw as hard as some of the guys we had last year, consequently we need to throw more changeups and make that fastball look even faster.  We?re pushing changeups with everybody; any hitter will tell you they hate a changeup, so obviously if they hate it, let?s throw more of them.

We?ve talked about the rotation, let?s talk a bit about the bullpen.  Let?s start with Jon Adkins, the Beavers closer right now. 

Atkins has always been a starter [in the minors] and we?re going to try him this year as a reliever.  He?s got really good stuff and we?re going to find out how it works [in this role].  So far, it?s been great.  His demeanor has really been better.  Initially he was a little too hyper for a closer; we?re trying to work on that.  He has the stuff.  Yesterday?s changeups that he threw for strikes, one was a strikeout, was the best he?s ever thrown.  That has to do with relaxation and letting the hand come through in a relaxed mode and the hand just manipulates the ball and some really good stuff happens.  Hopefully we can maintain that.  He?s got a good sinker and a slider.  I think it?s going to pan out really well for him.

Most of the bullpen has plenty of Triple-A and some major league experience.  One of those guys, Aquilino Lopez, just came over from the Phillies system.  What do you know about him right now?

Not very much because he came to us late.  I haven?t seen him throw that much.  I do know that he throws strikes.  He?s got the demeanor, he?s got confidence and that?s a tremendous help.  He?s got a slider, changeup and a fastball.  The slider is repeatable, but not right now particularly sharp.  I think it?s going to tighten up and be really good.  He?s got a great arm in that he can throw day in and day out.  And I like his changeup.  I think he?s going to be really good for us.  He?s in the middle [relief] right now; I?m not sure where he?s going to end up.  These guys can switch around, one month they?re one place, one month they?re the next.  We?ve got a lot of experience out there, [Jason] Anderson for one has been a closer before.  We?ll see how it works out, but I like Lopez, he?s really going to be really flexible for us.

You just mentioned Jason Anderson, he?s had plenty of success at Triple-A but has started the season with a couple rocky appearances.  What?s he struggling with right now?

As a matter of fact, I just looked at some video with him.  Even in big league camp I saw that he wasn?t using very much lower body.  It?s been pretty much an upright delivery, isolating the arm, and that?s really hard on the arm.  We?re working on trying to incorporate a total body delivery, using a lot more legs and see if we can?t get him a little help with his arm.  I think that will help him be more consistent with his release point, and consequently better stuff and better results.

One guy who looked sharp against the Mariners and again on Opening Day was Ryan Meaux.  What do you like about him?

His confidence and his curveball.  He?s got tremendous breaking stuff.  It?s tremendous for a young guy to do so well against lefthanded hitters.  Lefthanded pitchers see righthanded hitters so much in their life; they?re not very good when a lefthanded hitter steps up.  [Meaux] is the exception.  He nails them and that is a tremendous value to him to be such a young guy that a manager can put in the game and know that he?s going to get the lefthanded hitter out.  That?s what I like about him.  He also has an underrated fastball, not velocity-wise, but he has very good command of it, he keeps it down and he uses it very well to set up the breaking ball.

The other lefty in the bullpen is Erick Burke.  We?ve seen him now a couple times in Portland, and is another guy who?s posted strong numbers in the past at Triple-A.

He?s gotten off to kind of a slow start.  A lot of that has to do with the lack of consistent work in big league camp, which is where he was.  Sometimes when we start the Triple-A season, a lot of those guys come down late from the big league camp where they really didn?t throw that much to start with.  Unfortunately, it?s the nature of the sport.  We almost have to have a spring training session the first two to three weeks of our season.  I think that?s where he is right now.  Obviously, historically, he?s turned it around and had a good year so that?s what we?re looking for from him.

Jack Cassel was here in Portland last season, released before the season began, resigned a couple days later and picked up the win yesterday.  That?s a great story, how is he right now?

He?s doing very well.  Yesterday was a big feather in the cap for him, having just returned to us.  Jack has a very heavy, hard, late-sinking fastball.  That?s his major league attribute.  We?re working on a consistent, repeating breaking ball.  Whether you call it a slider, slurve, curve, whatever.  I told him today, I don?t care what label you put on it, as long as it can repeat itself and it?s effective.  So we went to work on that.  I think his arm is a little high right now.  I think we need to get his arm back where we had it four years ago when he was much more consistent with not only the sinker, but the silder or slurve and the changeup.  Now that maybe the smoke has cleared, he?s going to be a tremendous help to us.

Going back to big league camp, two guys that has great big league camps and earned a ticket to San Diego this season were Scott Cassidy and Brian Sweeney.  You saw them both this spring, what did you think?

Well, Scott I love.  You have to the way he came in last year and was just like a machine.  He would go out and it would be strike one every time.  I think that?s his number one tool and they love him in the big leagues as well for that very reason.  It?s almost funny that we would even talk about such a thing; you would assume that a Triple-A, big league pitcher would easily be able to throw a first pitch strike.  But it?s amazing today that we don?t always do that.  Scott Cassidy does that.  He comes in and I don?t care if it?s Barry Bonds or anybody, he?s going to throw a first pitch, fastball strike.  We eliminated the curve that Boston had him throwing last year, taught him a slider and brought in the changeup that he had never thrown and those two pitches have really complimented his fastball well to where he?s in the big leagues right now, where I think he belongs.  Brian Sweeney, gosh, if I had a son, it would be Brian Sweeney.  Hard working, dedicated, level-headed, consistent pitcher that is not going to light up the radar gun and impress you, but he will go out there and give you a blue-collar, nine-to-five great working day, day in and day out.

We?ve talked a lot about the changeup, I know you?ve been impressed with Sweeney?s changeup in the past.

His changeup has really come around, as has his curveball that we started on last year.  He?s the kind of guy that needs to throw all four pitches and all four pitches with consistency.  None of those pitches are major league average, but you put all of those slightly-below major league average pitches together and you?ve got an above average repertoire of pitches.

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