TigsTown Q&A: 'Hens Pitching Coach A.J. Sager

AJ Sager was a 10th round pick of the Padres in 1988 spending 12 seasons in the professional ranks, including parts of five seasons in the big leagues. He retired from playing following the 1999 season, after compiling a 12-15 Major League record and 5.36 ERA. He has spent the last several seasons working as the Pitching Coach for the West Michigan Whitecaps and Erie SeaWolves.

TigsTown: Not too long after the season ended it was announced that you'd be moving to Toledo for the 2008 season; how did that process go down?

AJ Sager: Well, it was really kind of a surprise. It was something I had wanted to do at some point; I mean professionally it's moving in the right direction, and then personally, I live in the Toledo area – a little bit south of it. Everybody knows how hard this business can be on the family; I have a five-year old daughter. You're pretty much out of the picture for seven months out of the year; so this was something I had always hoped would happen at some point. I can't say as though I was necessarily looking for it to happen right away. I was extremely excited and a little bit surprised that it did!

TT: Now you played in Toledo as well; how's it going to feel to come back in front of those fans?

AJ: It will be good. I'm from the Columbus area but I came up here to play college football about 25 years ago now. I played football at the University of Toledo for four years, and then played baseball for one year. So the people around here, most of them know me more for football than baseball; because I was a quarterback and whether you're good or bad, everybody knows who you are! There are a lot of familiar faces. Plus I've lived in the area for about eight years and my wife is from here, her family is from here, so there will be a lot of familiar faces. I did come back in '96 and played for the Mudhens for just a couple of months before being called up to the Tigers. I've kind of been in and around this area a lot with my athletic career. It started with football and ended with baseball – or I should say in the middle with baseball, now I'm back as a coach. I guess in some respects its come full circle.

TT: Sounds like it should be pretty exciting this year.

AJ: Yeah! We're looking forward to it. And again, professionally, you always want the challenge and the higher you go, the more of a challenge it is.

TT: Now, speaking of those challenges, what are some of the challenges you are looking forward to at Triple-A that you didn't have last year at Erie or the year before that at West Michigan?

AJ: Well one of the challenges, and this isn't a negative thing, it's just different. This will be the first year in four years I haven't worked with Matt Walbeck. I had a real good relationship with Matt and a real good understanding as far as what he expected out of me and what I could expect out of him in relation to the pitching staff. So I think the first challenge will be getting acclimated to a new manager – Larry Parrish. I've known LP for a long time. He was a Tiger coach when I was a player up there. I have a lot of respect for his knowledge, and he's a really solid guy. It's a challenge, but one I'm looking forward to. From a playing standpoint, or a player-coach standpoint, I guess I don't really know. I was interested last year, moving to Double-A what the big difference would be, and it was different; the game moved faster, you're a little more involved in game planning and not so much the basics and fundamentals that you talked about a lot at A-ball. This will just be an extension of that experience. A little more involved; trying to get pitchers ready so if the need arises at the big league level, I have some answers for ‘em.

TT: Does your role with Toledo come attached with any additional responsibilities throughout spring training or the fall instructional league?

AJ: No. It will be like last year. With Double-A and Triple-A the responsibilities are a bit different as far as you go to big league spring training, whereas in Class-A, you don't. When you're Double-A and Triple-A coaches, some of your players are going to be in big league camp, so I think it gives Jim Leyland and his staff a little bit of help in terms of numbers and they have extra coaches around. Plus, you are likely to see some of the guys that are likely to fall down into your situation. So it won't be different than last year, other than I think the Triple-A staff stays in big league camp a little bit longer. I guess there will be a little more exposure to that. But last year we had a couple of players – Andrew Miller and Jair Jurrjens – who went from Double-A straight to the big leagues. It won't really be something new; it will just be a lot more likely to happen. We'll have players that they will call down and ask for opinions on who can go up and give the big league team the best chance to be successful. So not necessarily a different responsibility as much as one you'll have just more frequently.

TT: You mentioned briefly working with Jim Leyland down in spring training. Have you had experience working with him in the past, and what are some of the things you may be looking to take away from the time you have with he or Chuck Hernandez during spring training?

AJ: I haven't. Last year was the first year I've really had working around either one of them. Of course, I've known of Jim Leyland for a long time because of everything he's done, but also because he is a Perrysburg (Ohio) guy, which is where I live now. People down here are very proud of what he's accomplished, and rightly so. But I've never personally gotten to know him, and I don't know that I could say I got to know him at all last year, other than being around him, being in his meetings, etc. You get a real sense of how much he really knows about baseball, and how much he really knows about how to treat players and get the most out of players. There's a whole lot to learn and I'm trying to learn all I can when I'm around him, because there is no way I'll learn everything he has, but you try to take away as much you can. Chuck Hernandez was great last year; a very, very humble guy with no ego at all. He was very open for questions, and shared a lot of information with me. It was a real comfortable situation where you felt like you could ask questions without having an ego in the way. He was just what I thought to be a very nice, knowledgeable man.

TT: Have you been given any indication as to which of your pitchers from Erie will be joining you with Toledo next spring?

AJ: No, they haven't. If you look at production, I think you can kind of guess a couple that could come this way. Obviously a couple of those that may have been probable to come this way have left the organization. Which is fine, that's all part of it, but it does shake up the names maybe you thought you could write in pen, I think there is a lot more pencil writing going on now. I look at an Ed Bonine – he won 14 games for us last year, and went about everything the right way. I would expect him to be ready for the challenge. A few guys out of the bullpen; Ian Ostlund who was back and forth a little bit, Jeremy Johnson was back and forth a little bit, got a taste of some success at Triple-A. To be real honest with you, I don't know. That's just kind of looking at what Toledo had last year that is coming back and what we had last year, I think you could probably come up with four or five names that we could likely have. Some of those guys from the Toledo situation – Jordan Tata, Virgil Vasquez – they're going to try and make a run to make the big league staff, so you don't want to ‘pen' them in, but you might be able to pencil them in. I think this year there are a whole lot of questions at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, that we'll hopefully have answers for. With all the trades that went on, there's just going to be more questions.

TT: You mentioned those trades; several of the pitchers you worked with last season have since departed – Badenhop, De La Cruz, Jurrjens, Miller, and Trahern to name a few; which one was the most impressive in your eyes?

AJ: I think they all were in certain spurts. Andrew Miller is the one that jumps out at you, because he's such a special kid first of all. He wants to learn, very intelligent. Normally you don't have to tell him anything more than once. Then you just look at the baseball talent; a left-hander with an electric arm and a good breaking ball. He's a little bit erratic right now with his command but that is certainly to be expected. I would expect him to be just fine as he moves along. Really all of them, you know Dallas Trahern got off to maybe an 8-0 start for us last year. He just really came out of the gates running last year and certainly showed a lot. Burke Badenhop I had two years ago in Class-A ball when he was the Tigers' Pitcher of the Year, and we had him for about a month last year. He just never missed a beat. He is a very productive pitcher. Jair Jurrjens, the same thing. He had kind of an up and down year last year, then he got real consistent for us for a stretch there and the opportunity at the big league level provided itself and he went up and pitched pretty well there. The Marlins and Braves certainly did their homework because they got good players coming that where, but its certainly hard to argue it's a bad deal for the Tigers when the players we got are going to provide immediate help with the big league club.

TT: Last season you had the luxury of having Alan Mills in your bullpen, who several pitchers have described as a second pitching coach for them in Erie. What type of dynamic existed between Alan and the pitching staff, and how much of a help was that to you?

AJ: Tremendous man! That's the first thing. I knew Alan from playing against him. I never met him, but we played around the same years. I had heard before he came here from Jon Matlack (Tigers Roving Pitching Instructor) what a tremendous guy he was, and he came in and was everything he said. He's such a productive pitcher that shored up our whole bullpen. The other thing, he was a very non-assuming guy considering everything he'd accomplished in the big leagues. He worked hard and set a very good example for the players; answered questions. But at the same time, he fit in very well, which is hard to do. When you've been where he's been, with an age gap of a decade plus between him and most guys; but he was out there clowning around with them. They joked with him and razzed him just as much as they did anybody else and he gave it back. It was a real interesting dynamic to see, and for me it was such a help. He told me when he first got there, ‘Treat me just like everybody else.' He didn't try to become a coach. If he had experiences to share, he would share them. If I asked him to speak during our pitching meetings, he would do it. He wasn't anybody that came in there pounding his chest because he knew a lot of stuff, even though he did. I was really a lot better pitching coach, and we were a whole lot better team for having him around.

TT: Obviously he's taken the reigns as the Pitching Coach at West Michigan next year, do you think they can expect a lot of the same or do you think he'll step up with a little bit of a different mentality this year in that role.

AJ: I think he'll be the same. I've talked to Alan; he called me when he was considering it. I'm certainly not the most experienced guy around but I have done it for six years and having worked at the same level he is, my advice to him was to do what you've been doing; just share information and treat guys with respect. Everything else will happen. Once the players – it won't take them very long – but once the players realize that you are there for their best interest, then to me that's when you're a good coach. If you have good information and put your ego aside to help others, that's going to be Alan coming right out of the gate. I think he'll do just fine in that situation and I very, very highly recommended that whenever his career ended – whenever he decided that would be – that he consider getting into this profession. A real good person and like I said, real good information, a good communicator, and absolutely no ego. He has confidence, but he doesn't have an ego. He'll be just fine.

TT: There's a big difference between being a confident guy and having a huge ego.

AJ: A lot of guys – whether they are playing or coaching – they're trying to show everybody what they know, almost as a validation and it doesn't work so much. They don't care what you know until they know that you care. Alan certainly has that trait.

TT: Talking pitching philosophy for a minute; what is your approach to helping each pitcher reach their potential? Is it very player specific, or are there some general guidelines or tips that you try and apply to everyone you work with?

AJ: It's a little bit of both I think. Where I might be a little different than some, I try to be very personalized with each pitcher. I don't make a whole lot of group statements. I try to see what the next step for the individual is and also get to know them as a person, know what makes them tick, and know what their real goals are. Some of these guys are in this almost absolutely to get to the big leagues, and will do almost anything to get there, and there are some that are here because they have some talent. I think once you get to know what their real hunger is and what works for them, you have a real chance. The overall philosophy I've always had is just that we always throw strikes. We try not to give anything away. We don't want to walk hitters. You don't want to commit errors from the pitching position. You want to be able to hold base runners and not give them stolen bases. If they have to earn everything they get, then you have a really good chance. I've been real fortunate the last four or five years, we've had a lot of strike throwers that don't walk many guys. I think that's what the overall philosophy is. We want to be aggressive when we're on the mound. If they hit us, they hit us, but it won't be because we're falling behind in the count and walking guys. A lot of guys they pitch away from contact. They try to make guys swing and miss. You find out you're better off if you try and get contact on your terms. That's a hard thing because sometimes you don't even realize that you are doing it; you think you're making great pitches and its ball one, ball two. That's the philosophy.

TT: Many organizations have very strict protocols for how they handle pitchers at various levels, including strict pitch counts, innings limits, usage patters, etc. Having worked at two levels of the Detroit system, and moving on to your third, what types of controls are passed down the ladder for you to implement?

AJ: I'm real fortunate; with Jon Matlack – basically the head of pitching for the minor leagues – I've known Jon since 1988, so there is a real comfort level there. He gives us some freedom to use common sense and have answers if there are questions that arise. There are pitch counts. They are a little bit less for the lower levels, and rightly so. A lot of these guys are coming out of college or high school situations where they might have thrown a whole lot. It kind of gives their arm a chance to bounce back and get some strength to it. Those counts extend a little bit as you get into the upper levels. We have some usage rules as far as how often a guy can be used out of the bullpen. Again, our hands aren't tied. They give us a lot of freedom to make good decisions to help the team win, but also there are standards set out there because in the middle of competition, common sense can leave you; you could do things you wish you wouldn't have done. There are standards in place to make sure that doesn't happen. Jon's always been real good about letting us make decisions and be accountable for those decisions should a question arise. It just really makes for a great working environment. I've certainly heard of other places where that's not really the case; you're hands are tied a little bit more. They certainly give us the ability to win around here and at the same time keep guys healthy.

TT: I have to imagine that freedom to make decisions and work within the game situation helps you in trying to develop yourself and prepare yourself for a potential big league job down the line.

AJ: Yeah, I hope so! That's ultimately where I'd like to go. I don't know if it will happen. I don't know when it will happen, but everyone has to have a goal and that's mine. I think the situations that they put us in, that they groom us for; allow us all to have that information. I've really been fortunate working for Matt Walbeck the last four years because he understood all the parameters of pitching and making sure all the bullpen guys got enough use without being overused. He was very respectful of the pitch count guidelines. He didn't try to talk you into getting one more inning out of a guy. If it was time, it was time. If that meant that you had to put a game at risk for that night, then that's what it meant. You might have lost the battle but you won the war. It made my job a whole lot easier that Matt understood and respected those guidelines. I think he's going to be a tremendous big league guy because of that, and I hope that I'll be a big league pitching coach someday because of that too.

TT: Moving away from your coaching experience for just a second; who was the toughest hitter you faced in all the time you played professionally?

AJ: All the good ones to me were tough. If you look statistically, it was David Justice. I believe he was 7-for-7 off of me with a couple of home runs. The next time I get him out will be the first time I ever got him out! Really all the good ones were always tough. It seemed like the Indians were a team you played a whole lot, and when I first started out it seemed like I was doing pretty good against (Jim) Thome and Manny Ramirez, then towards the end of my career it seemed like they were starting to take me to the wood shed a little bit. I think it was a case where their ceiling was a little higher than mine. They got better and I was probably as good as I was going to get. The good ones were good ones for a reason. There are certainly ways to get them all out, but it was kind of the role up your sleeves and go to work every single pitch for me to do that.

TT: I don't think its any shame to be knocked around a Thome or a Ramirez. When you're talking about potential Hall of Fame players, I think a lot of pitchers have been knocked around by those guys.

AJ: It's amazing. You think you made a pretty good pitch, and then these guys are running around the bases and giving everyone high fives. It's kind of an eye opener. Like I said, there comes a point where the guys you are playing against are as good or better than you. For a lot of us, that comes a little later in life, but it's certainly a humbling experience.

TT: You mention that humbling experience there AJ, and do you think that is a difficult part of the developmental process for a young pitcher, realizing that maybe in high school or college they were they cream of the crop, and now they're one of many that have these abilities to become Major League players? All of a sudden they're tasting failure for the first time.

AJ: I think that was a real big thing in A-ball. Most of those guys had yet to face failure. From the time they were eight-years old, all through little league, pony league, high school, and college, they were always the guy. I think a lot of times in A-ball, when the teams that they are playing against are in the same situation, that is the first time a lot of them had to face it. That was probably as big a job as anything they learned pitching wise was learning to stay with the job and understand that failure is a part of this. You can either get upset, agitated, and aggravated about it, or you can learn from it and get motivated from it. That's what you find the good ones do. They figure out a way; we'll either find a way or we'll make a way sometimes. The guys in the box are pretty good too, so you have to understand that. I think in A-ball that was a big deal. Double-A – I don't know Triple-A yet – but in Double-A those guys had been knocked around a little bit; even the good ones. I thought they were probably more advanced as far as handling adversity and being able to squelch the big innings, squelch the bad games, and move on. Where sometimes in Class-A ball, you see a guy that would give up a couple of hard hits in the first inning, and then he would start pitching away from contact, trying not to get hit. He just wasn't real sure how to handle adversity.

TT: As has become my tradition in these interviews, I always give those I speak with an opportunity to leave the readers with their parting thoughts. Do you have anything you'd like to get out to our readers that we may not have touched on in this interview?

AJ: I'm real excited for where the Tigers are! The job Dave Dombrowski and his staff have done, I think everybody knows that, but it's a system that's been built from the ground up. It starts with scouting and player development. I don't know this – I've heard other coaches who have been around a lot long than me say this – I don't know if there is an organization that has more experience in player development than what the Tigers have, when you look at big league years. That doesn't always make you a good coach, but these guys have got some dirt in their spikes and they've been around the block a lot. I think that's a real asset because we're not asking them (the players) to do anything that we don't know works at that level. I think the system is in very good shape. We traded away a lot of good prospects to get very good big league players, and that's just part of the maturation process. With any luck from the guys we still have here teaching, we're going to replenish that system. That would be my thing. I just think the Tigers are a real healthy organization right now and are being run very well.

TigsTown.com would like to thank AJ for taking time out of his off-season schedule to chat with us about his upcoming season at Toledo, and we wish him the best of luck with the ‘Hens in '08!


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