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Oakland Athletics front office Q&A: Keith Lieppman, part 2

In part two of our Q&A with longtime Oakland A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman, we discuss A.J. Puk, Matt Olson, Renato Nunez, Franklin Barreto and many more…

A.J. Puk / Photo by Matthew Barnett/Midland RockHounds
A.J. Puk has been impressive in his first pro season. / Photo by Matthew Barnett/Midland RockHounds

Oakland Athletics front office Q&A: Keith Lieppman, part 1

OaklandClubhouse: Speaking of power, there have been some impressive power numbers from some of the experienced guys in the system this season. Looking back at the group that began the year in Nashville, it seems like some of the repeaters – like Matt Olson and Renato Nunez – made some significant and positive adjustments to find success their second time through the PCL. Are you pleased with how they handled repeating a level for the first time in their careers?

Keith Lieppman: Psychologically and mentally for Olson, it reminded me of the times with Eric Byrnes and a number of guys – Mark Bellhorn – who were on that ticket back-and-forth to Oakland. They both went back [to Triple-A] four or five times. After the second or third time, it becomes discouraging. You begin to feel it as a player. It’s hard to focus on the task at hand because you know at any second you are going to be called back up and it may last or it may not. You also might not get the at-bats that you expected. There’s a lot of the internal strife that can interfere with your performance, even if you are in Triple-A at that particular time. You can’t be looking ahead to the future.

Both of those guys have done a good job. Nunez has hung in there. He hasn’t been called up yet this year. And Olson, the number of times he has been called up, has hung in there, as well. Now that he is in the big leagues and is getting at-bats on a regular basis, he’s hit three homeruns three games in a row [over the weekend]. He’s beginning to show you what he can do. These guys, once they get comfortable, they are going to be like Ryon Healy and other young players who have gone up there and have finally gotten a chance to relax and play.

Renato has had a great year. He’s really focused on continuing to put up big power numbers and he’s very impressive.

OC: Do you think the adjustments that Olson made with his set-up have allowed him to get through the hitting ‘zone a little bit quicker this season?

KL: Yeah. That’s always been his M.O. He’s trying not to lose his power, but he has worked to be a little more compact to the ball. That was all a product of that process. He moved his hands away [from his body] and he developed a style that he grew comfortable with. It may not have looked the way that everybody thought it was going to look, but to him, he understood it and he’s feeling it. He’s getting the bat a lot quicker to the baseball. Obviously what he did [on Sunday hitting a homerun against star LHP Zack Britton] was really impressive. Britton is a lefty with big velocity and Olson got there very easily.

OC: Franklin Barreto got a taste of the big leagues in June. He had a period earlier this season where he was really scuffling, striking out a couple of times a game. Were you pleased with how he pulled himself out of that period as a 21-year-old in Triple-A for the first time?

KL: He’s going through the same thing that Olson went through and Jaycob Brugman is going through right now. You get there [to the big leagues] and perform okay and there just isn’t a spot for you at that time. So you have to deal with going back, having just been on charter planes and playing at the top level. And you have go to back and not reinvent yourself, but produce again. You have to keep getting better and doing your thing to get you back to the big leagues. It’s hard not to get a little bit complacent. We have good coaches at that level to help motivate them and help them to understand that they have long careers ahead of them and they just have to continue to focus and play and don’t let the future get in the way. Just continue to produce right now.

OC: Franklin has played some second base, Joey Wendle played some shortstop and third base, Nunez has played some left field and first base. How do you feel those players are progressing defensively in their “secondary” positions?

KL: I think everybody, including Yairo Munoz – who has played third, short and centerfield – we’ve tried to spread out those at-bats because given whatever scenario comes up, whether it is an injury or a trade or a promotion, we want to be able to put any of these guys in those positions so that they can do the job. It’s worked out so far. We’ve moved Barreto around at short and second. He’s gotten almost equal time at both spots.

Joey has been a standup guy, playing at all three positions, proving that he can stand at shortstop. It’s almost like Eric Sogard [who moved over to shortstop later in his minor league career after playing exclusively second base early on]. It’s giving an opportunity for a guy to prove he can do something that you almost didn’t think he could do. Esteban German was a guy who was solely a second baseman and it cost him two or three years of his career because he didn’t really want to play short until the very end of his career. I think we see situations where guys are capable of playing there, so we should give them that opportunity.

OC: Munoz has had an impressive season. He strikes me as a similar player to Chad Pinder with his versatility and his ability at the plate. Do you see Munoz and Pinder as similar assets at this point?

KL: Absolutely. Pinder might have a little more power, but both have good arms. Munoz is maybe a 7 or an 8 arm. He could probably pitch if he wanted to. He throws that well. He and Matt Chapman used to have contests to see who had the best arm. Those are the kind of the things that are going on. They both have great arms. We are lucky to have so many tool-oriented players like that who have the potential to play a lot of positions. We have a lot of good position players to choose from once we get to that point of the total rebuild. It will be nice to let it all play out.

OC: Healy was one of the first position players who was drafted and developed through the organization to graduate and stick with the A’s at the big league level in a few years. Now there seem to be the possibility of several more. Is there a positive impact on the entire organization when younger prospects are able to see that there is a path to being developed and sticking with the big league club?

KL: Absolutely. I know that a lot of players have been pushed back over the years. We had a lot of free agents come in, but during that time, we also had a lot of success at the big league level. That system worked for awhile. But now it is time to provide that opportunity within our organization.

One of [Vice President] Billy Beane’s speeches early in a player’s career when they first show up, Billy would talk about opportunity. First of all, it would be that we want you to have an opportunity with the A’s. But we will also trade you and you’ll get other opportunities with other clubs, like a Daniel Robertson or Billy McKinney. That was part of our M.O., but I think we are more focused now on the message that hopefully you are going to be playing in Oakland, and, oh by the way, you could be playing for another organization. Back in the day, I think it was more of a 50-50 proposition. Now it’s geared a lot more towards getting our own guys there. I think that the guys understand it and want to be a part of something big like that.

OC: Looking at the Midland team. They are chasing a playoff spot and they have a lot of high ceiling players on that roster. A.J. Puk is obviously one of them. Outside of those two horrific starts against San Antonio, he has pitched well in his first tour of Double-A. Have you been pleased with what you have seen from Puk this season and is there one thing you think he needs to do to get to that next level of effectiveness?

KL: I just think that he’s had a great learning curve this year. Going to the Futures Game and being able to get rid of that reputation that he had to throw a lot of pitches to get through outings in college. The atmosphere that his command was an issue. We haven’t seen that with him at all. He’s thrown a lot of strikes. Now getting late into the game, there are some issues popping up a little bit, learning to get through the line-up a third time through. All of those issues are part of the growth experience, but he’s been outstanding. I know that [General Manager] David Forst was there and saw Puk strike-out 13 in six innings before he went out for the seventh.

You’re seeing a little bit of good competition between him and Grant Holmes. They both show their good sides and their bad sides. They are young and maturing and beginning to understand what they are all about, but when you see them on their really good days, they are untouchable. They are really good pitchers.

OC: [Minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson talked about having Holmes go more with his two-seam fastball, even though it didn’t have as much velocity as the four-seam, because he got so much more movement on the pitch. Is that something Holmes has done this season?

KL: It’s a very sharp sinker. It’s like Kendall Graveman’s sinker, when Graveman is right. It may not have the high velocity that Graveman’s sinker does, but it has the same kind of movement. It goes to the arm-side and right-handers have a really tough time with it and left-handers really have to reach to get there. He can throw it to the front door or back door and it creates a lot of downward angle. He has a really great change-up, too. Sometimes I don’t know how he gets hit because he has really good stuff.

OC: He’s been hit a lot less the second half. Was it a matter of him getting comfortable in that league that allowed him to find that level of improvement?

KL: I think his focus is better. A lot of these younger guys don’t understand as they start out the importance of situations and making your pitches. They just give up runs because they didn’t think through the situation beforehand. He’s come to understand the big pitches he has to make and not to get lazy with your thinking and to throw a pitch that doesn’t have any intent. Learning to do that with every pitch that you throw is really a grind and a lot of guys don’t learn how to do that right away. I think both in Holmes and Puk’s situation, they are learning to execute pitches one pitch at a time. It’s simple and clichéd, but it really is important to learn how to do that.

OC: Heath Fillmyer has really pitched well the second half, as well. He doesn’t strike-out a lot of guys. Do you think that sinker still gives him a chance to start in the big leagues even if he doesn’t get a ton of swing-and-miss?

KL: He’s at that stage where the other day he had a bases-loaded, nobody out and he found a way to get out of it. That was part of the goal for him was to learn how to pitch and he’s learning how to do that and work himself out of jams. The groundball is always the pitcher’s best friend. He changes speeds well. He’s a grinder. He has given us a lot of innings. Certainly from the guy who started out in Beloit a couple of years ago and struggled so mightily, he’s really matured. He was the position player who hadn’t pitched much. Now he’s the pitcher who is an excellent fielder

OC: How do you feel Sean Murphy has been able to handle a more veteran staff and a more veteran league in his first full year as a pro?

KL: I think it’s been a great opportunity for him to catch these guys. Considering that he didn’t have a chance to catch that much last year in Vermont. He had a big league camp and then was hurt early in the season in Stockton, so he really has very little upper-level experience. That’s why he’s such a unique guy that he can go to Double-A and lead that staff. He’s done a really good job with that. He has a rapport with the pitcher and he knows how to get them on the same page. If he wants a breaking ball in the dirt, he’ll over-emphasize it. You watch a lot of good catchers who are very definitive with their movements behind the plate – whether they want the ball down or up in the ‘zone. He leads the guys well. I think he is a big reason why they are doing well in Midland.

OC: Was it good to be able to reward Casey Meisner with a promotion to Midland after a couple of frustrating years in Stockton?

KL: I think sometimes the grind is better than the promotion. Working through things. Getting yourself to a place where you have to continue to battle and fight your way out. That’s what he did. The promotion came after he exhibited the ability to use his pitches to limit the number of walks – that’s always been an issue with him – and compete. He’s gone out there and done that. He’s certainly better. Sometimes it is better to work through a problem and really solve it before you prematurely send him and he has to work through it all again [at the next level]. I think he has improved quickly this year and I think that experience has helped him.

Stay tuned for part three of this interview, when we discuss Max Schrock, B.J. Boyd, Tyler Ramirez, Logan Shore, Brett Siddall and more…

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