Jim Eppard recently completed his second full season as the Oakland Athletics minor league hitting coordinator. The former big leaguer and longtime major and minor league hitting coach was part of the coaching staff for the A’s 2017 fall Instructional League. As that camp winds down, I spoke with Eppard about the progress made by several hitters in the camp.
OaklandClubhouse: Keith Lieppman spoke about the different structure the A’s Instructional League camp took on this year with the pod group-format. How do you think that system worked out for you in terms of coaching the hitters?
Jim Eppard: Really good. We were kind of looking at it yesterday and I think that everybody got the at-bats and appearances that we were shooting for. Even though we had a fairly large group – 28 [position players] – we still got the at-bats and got the work in. We did some simulated games that also increased the number of at-bats. It was a little bit creative, but we got the work we needed in.
OC: Liepp mentioned that you had grouped them together in terms of what they were working on, so one group might be working on going the other way, while another was working on a different approach, and so forth. Was it helpful to have them together that way so that they could feed off of each other?
JE: I think so. If in your mind, you are always trying to go to the opposite field gap, and all of a sudden the guy in front of you does it, you get to see what it looks like from someone else doing it and achieving what he is trying to do. You can go up there and try to emulate it, almost. I think it is very beneficial.
OC: Was two-strike approach something that you focused on with the hitters during the whole camp?
JE: I don’t really talk about two-strikes and striking out and walking and all of that stuff. Really what I focus on is getting a good pitch to hit. Really, if you can get a good pitch to hit, and lay-off the pitches that you don’t want to hit, then all of those other things are going to take care of themselves. You are going to walk more. You are going to be ahead in counts more. I think you’ll strike-out less. But guys get impatient and they want to hit the first thing that they see. It just causes problems down-the-road and puts them into bad counts. Just a lot of bad things can happen. Getting a good pitch and having an idea of what you are looking for are really the first things that you focus on.
OC: One of the guys who the A’s picked in the draft this year, Will Toffey, seems like he had an advanced approach at the plate for the level he played at. Did he demonstrate that in this camp?
JE: Without a doubt. It’s kind of funny because when I got to Vermont [during the season], I think he was hitting around .220 and his strike-outs were over his walks. I was like, ‘what’s going on with this guy?
He was pulling the ball a lot. I hadn’t met him before that – other than just introducing myself – but just from following the game reports and stuff like that, I knew that he was trying to go outside of his game plan a little bit. He was pulling the ball more and chasing pitches outside of the ‘zone. It was one of the things that we talked about during my week while I was there. He said to me, ‘I don’t know why I am pulling everything. This is really not my game.’ He just got back into his game and into the flow and he ended up finishing strong in Vermont. He has continued it here. I think the first day he and Greg Deichmann maybe looked a little bit rusty, but after that they were fine and just picked up where they left off.
OC: Do you feel good about the position players who debuted from the draft in Vermont this year?
JE: I am excited about the group, as well as the group we had in Arizona. That first year for a player is tough because you really don’t know what you are getting yourself into. It’s uncharted waters. They are coming off of – in some cases – three or four years of college ball, playing in the fall, playing in the season and then summer ball. It’s a long three-to-four years for those guys and then we come in and drop another 70 games in Vermont and 14 games here on them. By the time the season ends, they are at the end of their ropes and are ready for some time off. We know that’s what they need and that they will come back even better in spring training.
OC: Was Nick Allen’s thumb healed enough that he was able to swing without restrictions during Instructs?
JE: Without a doubt. I think he might have had the most plate appearances. This guy has really good bat-to-ball skills. Good hand-eye coordination. Hits the ball square a lot. The only issue that I had with him was that he would square the ball up and lift it into the air and it would be a flyout. We talked about maybe one day down-the-road, when he is stronger, maybe those balls will jump over the outfielder’s head, but, for now, let’s work on being a really good line-drive hitter and focus on smashing line-drives. That way, he’ll be able to have success and he’ll be able to play well and enjoy the game. It’s no fun making outs. We know that. Then when he does get a couple, three years of experience and he’s got more added weight and strength, then we’ll see what we have.
OC: There were a few switch-hitters in camp. Do you tend to group those guys together?
JE: I didn’t really want to put switch-hitters together because with switch-hitters, one guy is really equal to two guys in terms of what they are working on. I try to separate those guys as much as I can. It’s tough. I don’t know how they do it, really. I spent my whole life working on my left-handed swing and they are working on two swings. I can’t imagine. But the guys that do it are usually really comfortable on one side and end up hitting more on the other side just because it doesn’t feel as good. A lot of times, they are right-handed dominant guys and they are learning to hit left-handed, so they spend the majority of time on their left side.
OC: Eric Marinez is one of those switch-hitters. It looked like he took a big step forward in terms of approach this season with Beloit. Did he continue to make progress at the plate during Instructs?
JE: Yes. That whole approach I mentioned earlier about trying to look for a good pitch to hit is in place in the Dominican Republic. I think we will start seeing more of those guys come out of the Dominican quicker. I say it all of the time, so they are used to hearing me say it, and it’s starting to sink in with them. I think he has the idea. We talk about it with the coaches all of the time and we just keep professing it to the players. They are well aware of what we are looking for. Eric has gotten better at it and we are looking for him to continue to get better and see where it takes him.
OC: Where do you feel like Austin Beck was at at the end of the regular season and where is he in his development after this Instructional League?
JE: If he had grown up in Southern California like Nick Allen, he’d probably be a little bit further in his development. I know he was in a little bit more rural community and he was a big fish in a smaller pond. He’s seeing things now through the AZL and the Instructional League that he’s not really seen a lot of. Maybe occasionally. He was also hurt [in high school], so he didn’t get to see a lot of high-level pitching as a senior. He’s definitely getting better. He’s starting to understand himself, understand his swing and understand what it is going to take to compete against those big arms and very advanced breaking balls and change-ups.
OC: When you have a guy with Beck’s experience, is it usually the velocity that takes the most getting used to, or is it the breaking pitches?
JE: I think it is all of it. I really do. If you aren’t used to the big velo and the sharp breaking pitches, it’s all pretty daunting. But the more that you see it, the more that your mind and your eyes start to slow the ball down. Then you start to feel more comfortable and more confident. That’s when you start to really advance your game. It takes time. Sometimes – and it could very well be the case with a guy like Austin – that it will take some time, but it’s not going to take that much time.
OC: What was Anthony Churlin’s main focus while he was in camp? Did he make significant progress?
JE: Yeah, he was working on better pitch selection and trying to keep the ball more on the line. He did a good job for me. Last year, he was more on the pull-side and he’s now willing to take away the outside part of the plate more and take what the pitchers are giving him. I think that was what was key for him in Vermont in terms of why he hit as well as he did. He was in the heart of that order for many games over the course of the summer. That isn’t something that I necessarily saw coming, but it was great to see and he did a great job. He’s continued that here. I think for a lot of these guys, more playing time helps. They already have a decent foundation and knowledge base. As they are able to add that stuff to their at-bats, they are just going to get better.
OC: What was your first impression of Rafael Rincones [acquired in the Rajai Davis deal]?
JE: I was excited to see him. Switch-hitter and he put up good numbers down there. He’s a great kid. Full of energy. He always has a smile on his face. Plays hard, runs hard. He’s very selective at the plate. It’s kind of that theme that we like around here that you can lay off pitches that you don’t want to hit and he kind of does that naturally. Hearing what I am saying, he’s probably thinking ‘okay, I fit here because that’s what I do.’ He’s a nice looking player. I’m glad we have him.
OC: How did Lazarito [Lazaro Armenteros] look? He had a couple weeks off at the end of the regular season. Did he pick up where he left off during Instructs?
JE: Absolutely. He loves to play the game. He has made tremendous strides from a year ago. He was always way around the ball, hooking balls and way out in front of breaking balls. He’s made significant adjustments. I think he could sit in the middle of the order – three, four, five – and be very productive. He’s able to hit balls into right field, into that opposite field gap, and he has some power to left field. Another guy that I just really like and the more he plays, I think the more I am going to like him.
OC: How are Yerdel Vargas and Marcos Brito progressing at the plate?
JE: Brito had a really good year all the way around, I thought. Vargas, not so much on the offensive side. He has figured some things out of late. The biggest thing was that he was getting himself out on pitches that were not good pitches to hit. He is talented enough to put them in play, but anybody who is swinging at pitches that are pretty much a ball, you’re going to end up making outs more often than not. That was the case with Vargas. And Brito did a good job of using the whole field and really playing his game. We would like for both of those kids to just keep on moving.
OC: The power has been there for Miguel Mercedes, but he has struggled with selectivity. Is he getting any better in that area?
JE: I think so. You just don’t know with people as to when it is going to click with them. When will the discipline start to come into play and then really how far can they take it? We’ll see with him. I truly believe that he understands what we are telling him and what he is supposed to be doing. He’s just not executing it very well. He’s going to finish out the camp here. I’m not sure if he is going to go to the D.R. and participate in the Instructs camp there. But he just needs to continue to work on it because when he gets a good pitch to hit, he’s a definite threat. He’s a big man with a lot of power. We’d like to see him advance.
OC: Yhoelnys Gonzalez put up some impressive numbers in the DSL this year. What kind of player is he?
JE: He kind of came out of nowhere. There are a lot of kids down there. When I’m down there for a week, it can be tough to see everything you need to see out of all of them. They don’t always get to play every game. The coaches there liked him, so he was playing every day. It was pretty apparent in front of my eyes that this kid was getting better. The fact they kept putting him into the line-up showed how much they liked him. We ended up inviting him out here and he’s fit right in. He did have to make some mechanical adjustments early in camp, but he’s made those. He’s a good kid. Hard worker. Another kid who always has a smile on his face. He runs well. He plays a good outfield and he really has a terrific arm. He’s a good player.
OC: There were a couple of position conversions in camp with Eli White and JaVon Shelby working on outfield defense. Is it difficult for players to focus on their hitting when they are working on a new position at the same time?
JE: JaVon made the transition last Instructional League, and he was able to play the outfield the entire regular season. I think he looks very comfortable in the outfield. He had a little bit of an arm problem when he first moved out there, but those are long gone and he’s throwing the ball pretty well. He’s very athletic in centerfield. His big focus here was to work on covering more of the outside of the plate and a little bit more body control. He’s such an athletic kid, but he was having trouble keeping that front side in there, so that he can attack the breaking ball away and the fastball away. I think we tapped into some things, as well, mechanically, so I think he’s on his way.
Eli White is here working on a couple of mechanical things with his hitting and to play as much centerfield as he can. He needs some reps out there. He’s probably been an infielder/shortstop his entire life, so the more time he can spend out there, the better. Even being out there in batting practice and tracking balls down is helpful. I think he got a lot of work done. I’m not sure exactly – I think it might be a combination of playing centerfield and shortstop, but those are two prime positions for a kid to play. I think any organization would be thrilled to have a guy like that. He’s doing okay, as well.
OC: Deichmann was probably pretty worn out by the time he got to Instructs given the length of his season and the post-season runs at LSU and Vermont. But based on what he did this season, do you see him profiling as that prototypical right-field type in terms of run production and being able to drive the middle of a line-up?
JE: Without a doubt. He has the tools for it, but he also has the make-up and the mentality for it. He’s very level-headed. Like any baseball player, you have your competitive side, your competitive nature. I’m not saying he’s a guy who is just going to go sit on a bench and be perfectly fine with making outs. He is competitive and there is a burning desire in him. Great skillset. Ability to use the whole field. Terrific eye. And he’s got some serious power in his bat. All of this being at the end of these three or four years of him playing year-round. So he’s ready for a break. I’m really excited to see these kids come back in spring training.
OC: Santis Sanchez got his feet wet professionally in Arizona this season. Conditioning was something I believe he was focused on after being drafted this year. Do you see him starting to develop a more adult, professional athlete body at this point?
JE: Yeah. I think so. He appears to be in better shape. He’s moving around better. Very aggressive in the box. He has a big arm. Like with any high school kid, he just needs more playing time. I know that the strength and conditioning people and the training staff got together with him and it seems like he is on his way. Now it is just a matter of continuing it.
He’s got a lot of things to deal with in Puerto Rico, too. He’s probably not going to get the training we were hoping for. I know that he needs to get home and help his family. We are hoping that those things will improve and get resolved sooner rather than later so that he can get over to the Dominican and spend some time in their Instructional League, which will only benefit him more.
OC: Will you be going to the Dominican Instructs camp?
JE: I will.
OC: Are there players there that you saw when you were there for a week during the season that you are looking forward to seeing again?
JE: They have the July 2nd guys over there. I got a chance to take a look at those guys then. All I got to see was them take batting practice. I didn’t get a chance to see them play any games. But there are a couple of kids there – three or four – that really kind of stood out to me. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys when I go down there because now they are going to get a chance to play in real games with real umpires and the full deal. I’m sure it will be a little bit of a wild baseball time down there, but that’s the way it starts. All of those kids are trained to launch the ball over the fence, throw as hard as they can and run as fast as they can. Now they will be learning how to play baseball. It’s fun to go down there and see them so raw, and then, in a year or so, see how far that they have come.
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