The Oakland Athletics 2017 fall Instructional League camp is halfway through its month-long schedule. We caught-up with A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman on Monday morning for an update on how the camp is progressing thus far.
OaklandClubhouse: You mentioned before the Instructional League camp opened that the make-up of the roster for this camp was different than in years past. There are a number of guys on the roster who began the year at the Dominican complex. Has that changed the program at all?
Keith Lieppman: We went with two teams, and we have had some great leadership development. This idea came from Ed Sprague and Aaron Nieckula. They decided to spend a lot of the focus on leadership, chemistry and taking accountability. We made groups that brought together a lot of different kids from a lot of different cultures. We have players from many different countries here – from Colombia, from Panama, from Venezuela, from the Dominican Republic. Everywhere. We wanted this to be a camp where we learn to socialize as a team and learn to be a good teammate. Basically interact with each other.
We have different pods of players with different leaders that are made up of all of the different groups of players from different countries. They all operate kind of as one. There is one staff member who is a consultant for each pod. Basically, the pod leaders take these guys through their day. There are a lot of things that players can slide away from doing, like arm care exercises, pre-game warm-ups, stretches. There are a lot of things that we monitor as a staff.
With the new millennial group, they ask for more horizontal leadership and this is a call to try to accommodate the new kind of athlete. A lot of this is orchestrated by them. Whoever is in charge of groups of seven, they help lead these guys through their day. If they don’t get them through their day, we’ll have a de-brief and come back and try to get it right. It’s kind of an interesting concept. We have found that things are getting done. We’re not having to yell at guys as much. We don’t have to implement as much discipline. They kind of discipline themselves.
With that premise, that sort of started the process. Really good results. Every morning there is a meeting and the pods report back on how their group is doing. It creates better leadership on your team. Instead of a bunch of followers, you have created people who are going to go out into the system each year out of these groups as leaders and we hope that will help improve our system from within. It’s an interesting concept.
OC: With two teams, are you playing two games a day?
KL: Yes. What happened is that we brought so many pitchers that we are playing one simulated game with one team and then the other team plays the real game. A lot of the simulated game is about base-running, situational hitting and correct fundamentals. We’ve drawn lines on the bases to where every player is going to get at least a 10-foot lead.
In the past, the A’s have been known for homeruns, and we still are, but we are going to have to be better base-runners. There has been a big emphasis on base-running, on going first-to-third, all of the sorts of things that we haven’t been notorious for in the past. We want to make that an asset. That simulated game is geared towards aggressive leads, how to get back to the base, pitchers working on their pick-off moves, bunting, all of the fundamental things.
We usually play four or five innings of that, and it is totally controlled by the staff. We start with a 1-1 count so that we can get a lot of at-bats. We aren’t really very good two-strike hitters [as a system]. A lot of the counts go to two-strikes in one pitch, so the hitters are forced to practice their two-strike approach, which is an important aspect of what we want them to do. The things that they are learning in the simulated games, we are monitoring to make sure that they take them into the games against competition.
OC: Have there been any players who have made particular strides that have impressed you thus far?
KL: There are so many different things we are looking to have players work on. I’ll give you an example. We have a group that has Anthony Churlin, Collin Theroux and JaVon Shelby that has a particular emphasis on working the opposite field. Trying to stay in the middle of the diamond. We’ve segmented different people that are working on different elements of their game. Jeramiah McCray and Nick Allen are smaller guys who are working on different things than that other group.
This isn’t really a performance-based Instructional League. It’s really about putting groups of players together to work on things. For instance, there’s a conversion group with Eli White and Shelby as infielders that have moved to the outfield. A lot of time is spent there. Individual defense is a big aspect of it with catchers, outfield and infield play. Each of those groups have a daily event that requires that these guys go to work on a specific part of their game. We haven’t really gotten too much into the individual performance. It’s more about teaching right now.
We’ve played four games. There have been a few guys, like [catcher] Skyler Weber, who didn’t play much during the summer who have gotten an opportunity. He’s shown a lot – throwing out three or four runners already and he hit a homerun. At first base, Alonzo Medina, who was a conversion from an outfielder to a first baseman, has done a really good job of playing defense. The first thing that you focus on with a conversion player is the defense. He’s picked a lot of balls in the dirt.
We have guys that came from Vermont that only had one day off [from the end of the playoffs], like Will Toffey, Ryan Gridley and Greg Deichmann. Their play has been geared towards not as much effort because they have already burned out. They are here to learn our hitting philosophy and about our system. There are a lot of meetings. We meet in the morning for a couple of hours, and they are there just to get indoctrinated into the mental game and understand how we operate. Theirs isn’t about performance at all. They have already proven through a long season and a long collegiate season that there is a lot going on with them. We are down-playing those guys right now because they have been through a lot.
OC: How are the rehab guys like Kevin Duchene and Dustin Driver doing? Did James Naile still participate, or was he shut-down after the playoffs?
KL: Yeah, Naile is here. He’s actually pitched great. Brett Graves, too. They are actually the highlight of the camp so far because they have obviously missed time during the summer. Naile is sharp, especially after his last performance [in the playoffs for Midland] in Tulsa. We just want to get him innings and keep him ready in case if Norge Ruiz or Miguel Romero happen to go down in the Arizona Fall League. If either can’t pitch, Graves or Naile would be ready to replace them if necessary.
Graves’ last outing was outstanding. He’s pitched in a simulated game and in a real game. He looks sharp and has recovered from his injury.
OC: His injury was shin splints, or something similar, right?
KL: It was a weird injury that took three months to fix. It was a really odd shin splint, but some of those leg and foot injuries – like an Achilles problem – are really problematic.
OC: How has Dakota Chalmers looked?
KL: He’s been extremely receptive to a lot of different changes. He’s undergoing some major changes to his delivery. We are seeing some very positive changes. It’s been good that he has had a chance to break his entire delivery down. You might see a different look out of him as he is moving forward.
Duchene has been really good. Healthy and making a good comeback from being suspended for all of that time.
OC: Is Dalton Sawyer still working on that Chris Sale-like delivery?
KL: Very much so. I watched him throw a side today and he was very good with that. Lots of interesting projects here, as you go around day-to-day. Miguel Mercedes and Eric Marinez are really working on strength and conditioning. Half of their day is spent in the weight room. We are trying to get them quicker feet and more strength.
Then you have some guys from Venezuela who are better off not being home right now, like Angel Duno, that wouldn’t get the food and other things that they would need. There are guys coming from other organizations, like Rafael Rincones, that we are just getting our hands on, and a couple of young kids that Dan Feinstien just signed, like Teodoro Ortega and Wilkin Ramos.
It’s been an interesting blend of a lot of different things. It’s pretty exciting every day because you are seeing a wide variety of events and people working on different things.
OC: How did you feel Austin Beck and Lazarito came out of their first season and into this camp?
KL: Lazarito has really turned it on the last few days. Remember I told you earlier that he had great plate discipline. He lost it a bit during the summer, but he’s back to giving solid at-bats. He’s a physical presence on the field. When he’s at the plate, you expect something is going to happen. He’s running well and playing good defense. His throwing has gotten better. You can see why he was a well sought-after player.
Beck is making some adjustments. He missed a lot of the showcase circuit in high school as a junior, so he had a little bit more of a severe adjustment to the high velocities and movement, but so far in these games, he’s looked good. He plays a great centerfield. He made some big league caliber plays at the Angels the other day. He had three sun balls that would be difficult plays in Oakland and were just as difficult here and he handled them well. He’s a true centerfielder.
OC: Has it been helpful in camp to be able to talk about the two teams that made their league finals this year and Midland winning it again? Does that help to build a winning tradition?
KL: Especially when you have professional good kids like Naile and Sawyer and Graves. You have great influence from them. And then you have other guys like Andrew Triggs, who is down here on a rehab, and Daulton Jefferies, same thing. These are all quality role models. They bring that good player, good teammate, good work ethic with them. One of the interesting parts is that whenever a rehab pitcher goes out to pitch, the other rehabs will go out and watch him. There is a camaraderie that is built. Some of the pitcher pods – like Duchene – will bring his group out if one of the other rehabs [not in the pod] is going to pitch.
It’s an interesting way that they are developing and learning to help each other out and understanding what it is really like to support somebody else that is going through a hard time.
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