Selected out of New Orleans last year, Epping was shipped to the Eugene Emeralds where he ended up pacing the league in runs scored with 53 while stealing 17 bases in 22 attempts.
The concern, however, was his 66 strikeouts in 68 games, leading the team in that dubious category. It was compounded even further since he was the leadoff hitter and it was his job to make contact, use his speed, and reach base as often as possible. A few more pokes, therefore, could have been the difference between sitting in extended and making a full season club.
We caught up with Epping days before his call up to the Fort Wayne Wizards:
Is is a little disappointing that you are out in extended spring training and not in Fort Wayne?
Mike Epping: I wouldn't say it was disappointing. Everyone coming into spring training is hoping to make a team and working towards that. Whenever it didn't happen, I wouldn't say I was disappointed. I was excited about the opportunity to be here and spend some extra time – practicing extra time before games. It has been a really good experience and I have been able to progress in a lot of areas.
You mentioned progressing in a number of areas - is there something specific?
Mike Epping: Just working with the hitting coaches, Mus (Tony Muser) and Rid (Greg Riddoch) and all the coaches, working on my swing and I have been able to develop a little more power. I have three home runs. I am hitting more in the middle of the order now and working on that mainly.
One of the things we have talked about in the past is cutting down on some of the strikeouts. How have you progressed in that area and how do you cut down on the strikeouts?
Mike Epping: I have been working more counts and going into it thinking to take strike one just to see pitches. You are not worried about your stats (in Arizona) so you are able to work on some things. I have gotten better in that area, but I still need to work on it.
Is it hard to lay off that first pitch when you are aggressive by nature?
Mike Epping: Yes – it depends. It is not just take the first pitch – if it is there you go after it. It is having that eye.
Talk about last year. What were your impressions now that you have had time to look back on it?
Mike Epping: I would look at it as a success. I led the league in runs scored and that was my job. It looks like I will have a little bit of a different role this year. That just depends, as things change as we move throughout the year. It looks like I won't be leading off this year. But to go through that and getting to know a lot of the fans – it has been great.
You stole 17 bags last year. Is that another focus for you and I know things will dictate that based on where you hit in the lineup but do you want to be more aggressive on the bases?
Mike Epping: Definitely. In spring training I had seven or eight and I think I have about that many now – the ninth one on Saturday. That definitely is a big part of my game and it is just another thing that will help me keep progressing.
In August last year you tapered off a bit. Was that the stress and exhaustion from a long season, followed by another long season – it almost never ends for prospects coming in from college.
Mike Epping: You hate to make excuses but it was definitely a long year. Playing everyday in college and then going right into it and I was lucky enough to play pretty much every game. I would say it did wear on me. Going into the off-season, I was able to prepare more for full season and being here has helped me with the heat and being here for spring and another two months in extended I felt like my body has been able to hold up.
Defensively, things have seemed to come pretty naturally for you. Do you still look at it and say I can improve on ‘this' – and what is ‘this'?
Mike Epping: All aspects of the outfield. The best outfielders, even those in the major leagues, still have things they work on. Getting shorter routes – it is like stealing a base, you want to take the shortest route and the same thing goes for chasing a ball. You can get all the reads you want but can always progress and have a quicker first step. Mainly working on the all-around game.
How difficult is the language barrier with so many Latin players in extended?
Mike Epping: We really do have a great group of Latin players this year and I really get along with all of them. It helped that Jackson Quezada was around and he was a little bit of a buffer since he knew the language pretty well and I got to know them and I enjoy being around them because they have things I can learn and they can in turn learn from me.