Oakland A's Fall Q&A: Keith Lieppman, Part 2

Has Green found his defensive home?

In part two of our conversation with Oakland A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman, we discuss Grant Green, Michael Choice, Dan Straily, Instructs award winners and more. A's minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson makes a guest appearance to discuss several young arms, including Jarrod Parker and Michael Ynoa.

For part one of this interview, click here


OaklandClubhouse: You guys obviously thought highly of Dan Straily last year and felt he had taken a big step forward with his season in Stockton, but I know I couldn't have predicted the kind of season that he had this year. What was the big difference for Straily this season? Was it his change-up, improved command or something else entirely?

Keith Lieppman: If you look back at his numbers in Stockton last year, he was a league leader. He was one of the top guys in the league. Him and [Rob] Gilliam [who was traded to Washington along with Gio Gonzalez last winter] were both top performers. There was a lot of interest in him, as well as Gilliam, in trades. Obviously he was up for consideration as somebody who might have fit into a trade because a lot of teams were interested. I don't think it totally was a surprise because I know that other organizations had interest in him and had seen the fact that he had a really good idea about pitching.

He certainly had a belief system that came to fruition with the confidence and understanding of his game and not trying to do too much. Once he got to Double-A and realized that he could have success, I don't think his pitches became any sharper or that he was able to throw that much harder. It was about his mental game coming together for him. He was able to execute pitches. He is a student of the game.

When he came down here in case we had moved onto the next round [of the playoffs], he was outstanding in studying what he needed to do in preparation. He made all of the adjustments to be a big league pitcher. It wasn't a total surprise. Once you saw him make the leap from Double-A to Triple-A, with the strike-outs it's obvious that his stuff is really good, but there is a certain element that he took off mentally.

OC: Jarrod Parker looked a little lost in spring training – especially in that scrimmage in Sacramento against the A's just before Opening Day – yet three weeks later he was in the big leagues and was able to have instant success. What adjustments did he make to be able to improve like that so quickly?

KL: Let me put Gil Patterson on. I've got him right here and he can tell you all about Mr. Parker's improvements.

Gil Patterson: Hi Melissa. [Michael] Ynoa was very good today [in the final game of the Instructional League season]. We've had a number of guys do really well in this camp. But let's talk about Mr. Parker.

I tell you what. When you get someone from another organization, you never know how receptive they are going to be, but mechanically Emo [Scott Emerson, the Sacramento River Cats' pitching coach] and I both thought that there was a rush forward and not enough balance and not enough hip load. Even the alignment of his feet and the weight from when he came from the stretch [needed improvement]. To his credit, he allowed us to tweak his delivery to get a little bit more balance, a little bit more direction and a little better finish and not kind of lean and leak so much.

The pure stuff has always been there, of course. All this allowed him to do was execute it a little bit better. Like I said, he worked diligently with it on a daily basis. When the struggles first happened, you wondered if it was going to make him try to do too much, but he stuck with it and has really developed into a good power pitcher as opposed to a thrower. He was able to repeat his delivery and pitch extremely well.

It was really a credit to him to buy into the little tweaking and he did it in an extremely short amount of time. Sometimes you are there with them all season. But he picked it up, heck, in two or three weeks.

OC: You mentioned Michael Ynoa pitched well today. What has his fall program looked like and do you think he will be in good shape for the start of next year?

GP: Yeah, I certainly do. If today was surely an indication of what we have all hoped for in a game when we first got him. He has had more than his share of set-backs, but today it seemed like everything that everyone saw came to fruition. Then he pitched in a game and he struck-out a guy with a great change-up, struck-out a guy with a great breaking ball and his velocity was in the low-90s, mid-90s. I'm happy for him. He has been through a lot.

OC: How many innings do you think he ended up getting this fall? Is he up to that 50 innings total for the year?

GP: I think he is. Without my notebook in front of me, I think between what he did at extended [spring training], in Arizona and Vermont and what he did in the Instructional League, I would say it was 50. And really no set-backs. He answered all of the bells with all of his starts.

OC: Who else stood out to you during the Instructs program?

GP: Nolan Sanburn stands out. Seth Streitch stands out. Even Austin House, Ryan Dull, Raul Alcantara. It was a good camp. Blake Hassebrock was here and he made some strides. Sonny Gray was here and he did, as well. Those aforementioned guys that we just got. Dakota Bacus did a heck of a job. Tanner Peters. They all continued the same process that they had during the summer and they got better here. Seth Streitch didn't even have a breaking ball. Now he has two of them: a curveball and a cutter.

OC: Alcantara finished the year with a DL stint, I believe. Was he 100 percent healthy during the fall league?

GP: Yes, he was. He threw 92-94 today with an 86 cutter. His change-up has really improved. I'm looking forward to getting him started again next year. Like you said, we shut him down a little bit at the end of the year. He just had a little fatigue. I think he had 100 innings.

It was interesting what the Braves did with Kris Medlen. They did the opposite. We usually start guys and then put them in the bullpen [if they have an innings limit]. What they did is put him in the bullpen first and then started him later. I'm not sure if we are going to do that same thing in the minors, but it certainly helped them at the big league level. I don't know if that's the better way to do it. Sometimes in the big leagues it is hard to monitor how many innings a bullpen guy would get.

OC: Have you spent much time with the Arizona Fall League contingent so far?

GP: I saw them pitch the other day. On Monday, they all pitched. They are doing well. James Simmons is throwing really well. He had some 91, 92s on his velocity. Gary Daley had a good inning. Havi [Shawn Haviland] is still starting. He is going to throw the ball exactly where he wants it. I saw him warm up and I said, ‘gee, this is the best I've seen him throw.' When the game started, he left some pitches up, but it will be a nice process watching them these next three or four weeks while they are in the fall league.

Raul is heading back out to the mound, so I've got to get back to my spot behind home plate. Here's Keith.

OC: Thanks Gil!

OC: [to Keith] I was talking with Gil about the Fall League guys a little bit. I saw that Miles Head was injured in the first game. What is his prognosis for recovery from the injury?

Keith Lieppman: We replaced him [in the Fall League]. He's going to be fine. He's not going to need surgery or anything. He has a sublex of his left shoulder. He will be rehabbing that the rest of the winter.

We replaced him with Yordy Cabrera, who homered [Tuesday] night. First at-bat, I believe. He had a big ol' long homerun. It was a great opportunity to advance him a little bit and put him at a higher level. He missed 60-70 games last year, so be able to give him the opportunity to play more games is exciting for us. And then to have him get off to a good start is pretty good.

We are going to play him at third and at short and expand his horizons a little bit.

OC: With Miles Head, he had a great season at the plate. Where is he at, in your mind, defensively, and are there things he is still working on offensively?

KL: Offensively, he is really trying to work on better pitch selection, his plate discipline. He got a little bit exposed early on at Double-A. They expanded the ‘zone on him and he certainly had to make an adjustment, which he did. He got better as the summer went on in Midland. We were happy with the progress he made, but he will have to continue to make strides in that area.

The rest of his game, he is very aggressive, and with that comes the ability to put up good numbers. He has a good feel for hitting. Balancing that out a little bit will be where he is at.

Defensively, he has very good hands. At this stage, he is just trying to work on mobility and quickness. This off-season he will dedicate a lot of that time towards improving the reactions at third base – coming in on the ball, handling toppers, that sort of thing. The tools are there, it just has to be formed in the right away.

OC: You sent Grant Green back to the Arizona Fall League for a third season. He's played a different position each of the three years he has been in the league. Do you feel like second base is his home or are you still feeling that out?

KL: I think that to be in a position where he can play any of the outfield positions, short, third and now to have a total understanding of second is a good one. I think [second] is probably his position. That's the one he looks the best at that I've seen. In terms of double-plays, it suits him very well. There's a sense of how he is playing that position that this is the perfect spot. We've found where he belongs.

With his bat and finally what we think is his spot [defensively], I think it will all come together for him next year. He's really looked good in the Fall League so far.

OC: Max Stassi is off to a good start at the plate in the Fall League, as well. Do you feel like he is back 100 percent from that shoulder injury now?

KL: Yep. In fact, I talked to the manager [of the Desert Dogs] Aaron Holbert and Darnell Coles, the hitting coach, and they both have liked what they have seen in him. They think for a young guy, he's one of the most mature players, especially behind the plate, that they've seen in awhile. As we knew, he takes care of the pitching staff and has a good sense of the overall game. As a 21-year-old, he has looked very good so far.

OC: Was Michael Choice able to take any swings during Instructs or is his hand still healing?

KL: We kept him here until a couple of weeks ago. He played a lot of defense and was just starting to get some at-bats in the game and then he had some personal issues at home with his grandmother that he had to take care of. He left the program at that point. We are still looking at sending him to winter ball in the Dominican or Puerto Rico. We would like for him to catch-up on some of the at-bats he missed. He was right on-track, starting to get at-bats, and then due to the illness in his family, he had to leave.

OC: Do you feel that the adjustments he made in July before the injury have stuck with him despite the layoff?

KL: Yeah. He really made some nice adjustments with his set-up, with his stance, with his hand position. He was up to about .287 before he got hit by the pitch and was confident and was really working on a number of areas. It put him in a position where he really didn't have to think about it anymore. Every time you learn new things, there is a learning curve. Part of that process, you are just uncomfortable with it. But he stuck with it and he looked really good.

His defense has improved a lot. He was on a solid path to have a really big year [before the injury].

[sound of the game in the background] Oh, they broke our bat [a bat signed by all of the players at Instructs is given out to the camp's top "grinder" each year].

OC: Who won the bat this year?

KL: It's Phil Pohl, the catcher from Clemson. It didn't break all the way through, but that broke our span. It made it 6.2 innings and Vicmal [De La Cruz] broke it. They find the heaviest bat they can get. The beauty of the whole process is that every player puts their hands on the bat during the course of the game so the winner of the award is really getting a good team experience with the fact that they are on the same path with each other.

It's a great award. This Phil Pohl really deserved it. It's a grinder award. Best attitude, exemplifies the desire to play the game, unselfish. A lot of things.

MVP. We didn't officially name it, but obviously it was Addison Russell. He was far and above the best [in camp]. A couple of adjustment awards. Rather than most improved, we went with the biggest adjustments and the winners were Tyler Vail and Bobby Crocker. We picked one from the pitchers and the position players.

The top guys in the weightroom, the strength, conditioning and flexibility award went to Melvin Mercedes and Seth Streitch. We tried to award different things. We even had our language award, our Rosetta Stone. Our kids are really trying to learn the language. We gave an award to the guy who made the biggest effort to really start speaking English and that went to Gregory Paulino.

We had some fun with it. It turned out to be a pretty good camp.

OC: What adjustments did Tyler and Bobby make?

KL: For Bobby, coming here, he really began to understand his effort level in his game. He is very intense and hard nosed in his approach at the plate. His was learning about how to take some of the pressure off of his swings and his at-bats. A lot of it was about how to learn to relax in the box, vision. He really developed an approach that allows him to see the ball better.

There weren't any huge adjustments in terms of bat position or anything like that. It is more about the effort level and energy that he brought to the plate, which was way, way too high. He was able to tone it down and bring it into the game. He's had big, big results here that will benefit him next year.

Tyler Vail's biggest adjustment was about his landing position. He was trying to adjust his landing position so he wouldn't fall or spin off. And he developed a much better breaking ball. So those were the two areas.

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