The Oakland Athletics 2017 fall Instructional League camp is officially in the books. This week, I caught up with A’s minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson to get his thoughts on the players who were in camp, as well as several pitchers he worked with during the regular season.
Below is part one of our conversation.
OaklandClubhouse: How did you feel the Instructional League camp went overall?
Gil Patterson: I think it went well. I believe everyone got about the same amount of innings. We also had James Naile down here and we got Logan Shore ready for the Fall League, along with Miguel Romero and Sam Bragg and Nolan Blackwood. Even Brett Graves, we got him some innings, so we had some older leadership that helped the younger guys. Dalton Sawyer was another leader. It was nice to have them here and to see them providing leadership for the younger guys.
OC: You were working with Sawyer on lowering his release point. How is his progress with that change coming along?
GP: I think, for the most part, good. There are still some growing pains. Not that anyone is ever going to be able to pitch quite like Chris Sale, but his delivery was already similar and the pitches that he threw were similar, so it hasn’t been a real difficult transition. That’s not a bad guy to copy, but it also doesn’t have to be exactly like Sale. I think the combination of Dalton’s ability and what he can do and what Chris Sale has been able to do with his delivery, we are trying to get them similar. For the most part, it’s worked pretty well, especially with the fastball and change-up. If you would say, is there one pitch that is still a work-in-progress, I’d say it’s probably the breaking ball. But it is showing good signs, as well.
OC: Is Sawyer throwing a slider or a curveball?
GP: Well, even with Chris Sale, I don’t know whether he calls his a slider or a curve. It’s funny, but anyone can call anything a curveball. I can throw a fastball and say it is a curveball. Well, what is it? [laughs] It’s really a fastball. The shape [on Sale’s breaking ball] is so big and it’s thrown so hard that you can make a good argument for a curveball because of the size of it and you could argue for a slider because goes left-to-right and it has tilt and depth. You and I can just agree that it breaks. For the most part, that’s what we are trying to replicate with Dalton, as well.
OC: Was Dustin Driver able to get any innings in during camp?
GP: Yes, he was. I think about six or seven innings, if I remember correctly. It was nice to get him back in there. I think he made some strides. Going forward, for him to have a nice off-season and then come back fresh for next year, I’m hoping that all of the work that he put in during the Instructional League and the last half of the summer with Lefty [Craig Lefferts] comes into play in the spring, because he did work really hard. He made some good adjustments. We moved him over a little bit on the rubber and gave him a little bit easier lane to keep his head online [to homeplate]. He threw 92-94 and he threw some good change-ups. I think he’s going to be all about repetitions again once spring training starts for him.
OC: Since he missed so much time with injury, would there be consideration of moving him to the bullpen to speed up his progress?
GP: I think so. What you might do is to say, ‘I want him to pitch every third day or every fourth day, two innings.’ You might want to script his outings so that he gets work on a regular basis, so it’s a little bit more scripted. But you’re right, to ask him to throw 140-150 innings like a lot of guys did this year would be awfully hard.
OC: Speaking of innings pitched last year, this spring we talked about the tandem-rotation system at the three full-season levels and how it was designed to get more guys higher innings totals by the end of the year. Even though some of the tandems ended before the season was over, did you feel like it helped accomplish the innings-total goal?
GP: That’s a good call. I think now having looked back on it, and even having gone through it the first time I was here [in the late 1990s] with Grady Fuson, Bob Cluck and Keith [Lieppman] and they had us do a little version of the tandem system, I think I would tweak it. Let’s say you have more than five starters [at one level], what I might do is not piggyback five guys with five, but I might piggyback three guys with five. Especially sometimes if you don’t know who the top-five guys are and someone can step up.
I think going forward, as much as I did like the idea of getting them out there to pitch more frequently, the thing that I really didn’t like is that it didn’t give us a work day [in-between starts] to the extent that I’d like. The schedule was pitch, off, throw off the mound again, off and then pitch. I think as we went through some of the guys would say, ‘you know? I could use a day.’ It didn’t allow them to get the work in that you’d like them to have.
In general, I do like the tandem and the data shows that if you and I were pitching today, and you went five innings and I went four, we would probably keep the team in the game better than if you went seven and I went two. There is data to support that. Heck, even the other night, they took Clayton Kershaw out after five innings [in the NLCS]. I know that the playoffs are different, but the data proves that the tandem style can work. Maybe if you do have a Kershaw on your team, you can let him go in a regular season six-seven-eight innings, but if you and I were pitching, we’d tandem because you and I tandeming would produce fewer runs allowed than if you or I tried to pitch by ourselves six or seven.
I still like the tandem idea, but I think where maybe it could have done a better job would be make the starters have four days off in between the tandems rather than just three.
OC: Do you anticipate bringing back a version of it for Beloit and Stockton next year?
GP: I hope so, and maybe even in Midland, as well. There are a number of guys coming back from injuries who may be on innings limits, so that system might work well to help those guys. You couldn’t take, let’s just say for an example, James Kaprielian or Daulton Jefferies and give them 25 starts and six innings a start next year. If it was, say, 25 outings of three innings or four innings, then that might work and they could be part of a tandem. I think that sometimes if someone can’t go the 150 innings and we have to go with 120 innings this year and build them up next year, that’s a way to accomplish that.
OC: How is Jefferies coming along with the rehab program? I think he started his throwing program while you were down there, right?
GP: He did. He and Kaprielian were playing catch and Lefty stood behind them and had his little radar gun so they wouldn’t throw too hard. For each time out, he tries to keep them at the same speed. They are both, up to this point, doing extremely well.
OC: How did Dakota Chalmers look? Is he healthy and back on track?
GP: He is actually still [in Mesa]. It was one of those worms that turns into a butterfly, a metamorphosis. We tried a couple of different things this Instructional League and we went from a Kershaw delivery that he tried for a few games to almost a lower arm-slot delivery. Lefty and I both had some play in the Roy Halladay move years ago with his arm action. We are basically working on that with Dakota. The other day, we put him up next to James Naile and tried to get that arm in about the same slot.
Basically, we are trying to tweak his delivery a little bit, mostly with his arm slot, and get him a little bit stronger with his front leg and get his head more online. We did that the last week and he was going to pitch in a game, but we decided to hold off. Once you get into a game, the gloves are off. So he threw three bullpens the last week and I have him there with Lefty right now going Monday-Wednesday-Friday for the next two weeks to try to recreate some of the patterns that he is going to come back with this spring.
I think all of us have come together and believe that this is the direction that we have to go for him to be a consistent pitcher and help the Oakland A’s win a championship one day. He’s in on it, so am I, so is Lefty and so is Keith.
OC: You mentioned Naile a few times. He had a strong finish to season and the post-season with Midland. Do you feel he was able to make progress despite the time missed with the oblique injury?
GP: Yeah, him and Graves both. It’s neat that Naile won the championship game in 2016 for Midland and then this year again. That’s kind of cool. You could not ask for a harder worker. We are pretty lucky. I’m sure lots of teams are with the guys they have, but James, I really like all of the things that he has done. He can sink the ball. His change-up is getting better. The slider has some depth to it and quickness. The cutter, that he added this year, has been good too. I’m really looking forward to good things from James in 2018.
OC: It looked like Graves had made a breakthrough before he was felled by the shin injury. Do you see him being able to tackle Double-A at the start of next season?
GP: I do. It’s funny. Sometimes I see him pitching innings one through seven, and sometimes I see him pitching innings eight and nine. That’s just the way he is. It’s almost like maybe you should tell him that he’s the closer, but tell him he’s going to close the first inning, the second inning, the third inning, and so forth. I think Emo [Scott Emerson] used that line on Raul Alcantara. It’s a great line. You tell them: ‘go out and shut them out this inning.’ And you don’t say, ‘I’ll see you in the seventh.’ In theory, it’s make one pitch at a time, but, in this case with Alcantara, it was just ‘go get me a good inning. Get ‘em out.’
With Graves, everything has gotten better. The breaking ball has gotten better. He has life on the fastball. He added a cutter and he can cut it and he can hit 91-92, and he can make it be a slider at 88. He’s got some weapons.
Video of Brett Graves pitching at Instructs, courtesy of Kimberly Contreras
OC: In my mind, I always pair Graves and Daniel Gossett together. Gossett reached the big leagues this season and it was sort of two steps forward-two steps back for him at that level. How do you feel like he is putting things together at this point?
GP: Without being there, it’s a little more difficult for me to assess, but I talked to him a number of times – when things were going well and when things were going not so well. You don’t want to make an excuse for anybody but I like to use this on the guys: guys like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, their first years in the big leagues weren’t all like Doc Gooden’s. Some guys were like 4-12 and 3-9. It’s not to lower the bar for them, but sometimes you have to say, ‘look, your first year in the big leagues isn’t always perfect. There’s a learning curve.’ The biggest hope is that from game-to-game, and then month-to-month and eventually season-to-season, you get better.
I would certainly think that he is going to be better next season and then better the year after. I really think so. He’s got four quality pitches. I think he’s going to help us win a championship.
OC: You see a lot of guys like Gossett now who didn’t give up many homeruns in the minor leagues get to the big leagues and give up a ton. Do you think that is just the modern game, or is something changing when these guys are on the mound in the big leagues?
GP: Maybe there is some truth to the idea that the baseballs were different this year, but I really think the more he faces guys, the fewer homeruns they are going to hit. I just think he is going to get better the more that he faces big league hitters.
OC: You had a chance to work with Paul Blackburn for about a half season before he was promoted to Oakland. Is there a comp for him in terms of how much he pitches in the lower-half of the strike-zone?
GP: If he were to have the movement and the change-up that Kyle Hendricks has, I guess I could make a comparison to him. He doesn’t, so I can’t, however, I remember during spring training I was standing behind him before he threw in one of those intra-squad games and he actually got beat up pretty good in that game. But I was watching him and I told Curt [Young] and Emo ‘he’s going to win like 10 games for you.’ They looked at me like I had two heads. [laughs]
But he just throws strikes. He commands the baseball with four pitches that you would say none of them are great, but together they really work. I like him. I like him a lot. I don’t know exactly what his numbers were for the year, but he helped us win games and took us into the sixth and seventh innings on numerous occasions. I see him just getting better.
OC: Blackburn had that freak injury that ended his season. It must have been hard to balance all of the injuries this year. Did it seem like there were more of those unusual injuries this year?
GP: The biggest thing that you really hope with some of those is that their arms aren’t hurting. Other parts of the body you can’t really control. Sometimes you can’t really control the arm. You try to give them enough rest. You try to press them enough to make them work and get better, but there is that fine line always. The only thing for me being in the minors and working with all of the minor league coaches is telling the players ‘sometimes it’s not where you start. It’s where you finish. You just need to continue to work your butt off because you never know when that phone call is going to come and you are heading to the big leagues.’
Simon Castro didn’t get that call all the way into June and part of July. Paul got the call mid-season. Chris Smith. If you look at where everybody started this season and tick off how many went from Triple-A to the big leagues, it was a significant number. And Daniel Mengden, too. He came up in September and did a heck of a job.
OC: Did you feel like Mengden came out of his rehab looking more confident?
GP: Yes, I do. I even mentioned it to Emo and I think possibly even David [Forst] that taking him up to the big leagues in September was the right thing to do. He was getting things going. He can be a little quirky, but when he gets the ball, he competes and he can make pitches. Sometimes you say that you are pleasantly surprised when someone does well, but I wasn’t surprised at all with the way that he performed.
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