After seemingly stalling in 2009, Lance Sewell's career path is once again on an upward trajectory. The Oakland A's 2007 seventh round pick out of San Diego State found himself repeating the California League at the start of the season after posting a 4.36 ERA and walking more than a batter every two innings for the High-A Stockton Ports in 2009. Rather than being frustrated about his return to the Cal League, Sewell took full advantage of his second opportunity, posting a microscopic 1.76 ERA and striking out 46 while walking only 11 in 46 innings for Stockton. He was working on a 24-inning scoreless streak with the Ports before he earned a promotion to Double-A Midland in late July. He finished his first stint at Double-A with a 3.94 ERA in 16 innings. Overall, Sewell went 7-0 with a 2.32 ERA and a 51:14 K:BB ratio in 62 innings in 2010.
The left-handed reliever features one of the most memorable pitching motions of any hurler in the A's system (see video: http://tinyurl.com/2d733o5), but he struggled earlier in his career to find a regular release point with that motion. Sewell repeated his delivery better in 2010, and it showed in his results. He also saw an uptick in his velocity.
Sewell recently finished a stint at the A's Instructional League camp, where he spent his time developing two new pitches. With an expanded arsenal, better command and increased velocity, Sewell seems poised to continue to rise through the ranks in 2011.
We recently spoke to Sewell about his new pitches, his improved command, playing for Tony Gwynn, knowing Stephen Strasburg before he was the Stephen Strasburg, being eligible for the Rule 5 draft for the first time and more…
OaklandClubhouse: How has the off-season been going? I heard you were throwing at the A's minor league complex. What have you been working on?
Lance Sewell: It's going well. I went to Instructs. I got the call about a week after our season ended over in Midland. Luckily I was fortunate enough to get the call from Gil [Patterson, A's minor league pitching coordinator] and they told me to come in. We have been working on developing a straight change-up and a curveball. I got to throw those for a couple of weeks out there. I feel like I developed them pretty well and next year it will be nice to have two more pitches in my arsenal that will hopefully keep the hitters off-balance.
OC: That's kind of unusual for a reliever to have that many pitches to choose from. Do you think that will allow you to work more innings and see a line-up turn over once?
LS: Yeah. The past couple of years I was just throwing a fastball and basically a split-finger, so having a straight change-up that looks like the fastball rotation and having the curveball to throw to left-handed hitters will be beneficial just for the fact that it will give hitters a different look and they can't just sit on one pitch. They won't be able to say, ‘ok, he only has a fastball and a splitty.' Now they will have to be thinking, ‘fastball, curveball, splitty' or ‘fastball, splitty, change-up.' I may not throw them as much as I do my split-finger or my fastball, but at least I'll have that in my back-pocket if need be.
OC: You are coming off of a really good season and your control, in particular, was better than in past years. Was there anything specifically that you did that led to you walking fewer guys?
LS: [laughs] I was definitely a lot better with pounding the ‘zone this year. I guess I would have to say that I improved my mechanics a little bit. I was more consistent with repeating my delivery. One thing I tried to focus on was going after the hitters. If you try to nibble and pitch around the strike-zone, you can get yourself in trouble. But if you go after the hitter and attack the strike-zone, even if you fall behind in the count, you still go after them because seven-out-of-10 times, they are going to make a mistake and get themselves out. That's one thing that I try to keep in the back of my mind, that a .300 hitter is only going to get a hit three-out-of-10 times, so that means 70% of the time, they are going to get themselves out. I really try to pound the ‘zone and let them get themselves out.
OC: You had a stretch in Stockton where you didn't allow a run over 24 innings, a streak that lasted from June 18 until you were promoted to Midland in late July. When you are on a streak like that, are you aware of it or is each outing so separate that you don't really think about the previous ones?
LS: I think it depends person-to-person. I know for me, I wasn't even aware of it, to be honest with you. Some of the guys had brought it up right towards the end of the streak, but that was it. Usually when things are going well, your confidence is up and it makes it a little easier to pitch and you feel a little more comfortable and a little more dominant on the mound. It's easier to run out there and know that you are going to have success. But it's a crazy game. One day you can go out there and get lit up and give up four runs in one inning and some days you can absolutely carve, so I just try to take it outing to outing. I didn't think about it too much. It kind of happened so fast that all of sudden people were talking about it and I was like, ‘oh, I didn't even realize that.'
OC: How was the jump to Midland? Was it what you expected or was there stuff that you learned that surprised you?
LS: It was a good jump. It was definitely nice to get the opportunity to get up there. The strike-zone is a little smaller. I had heard that going into it and had kind of questioned it, but it was a little bit smaller. The hitters are a little bit better. If you get behind in the count, hitters will take advantage of your mistakes. There was definitely a learning curve and I was fortunate enough to get a little bit of a taste of it this year, so hopefully next year if I get the opportunity to go back, I can take those experiences and use them to my advantage.
OC: You got to pitch a little bit in the post-season for Midland and you guys almost won the Texas League Championship. What was that like?
LS: That was amazing. It was a fun experience. I have never been a part of anything like that. When I was in Kane County [in 2008], we made it to the playoffs, but I think we lost two consecutive games and were out right away, but to be a part of a team that went all the way to the championship, especially in Double-A because I think that is a competitive level, it was just a great experience. Being a part of that atmosphere and being around the guys to see how they handled it, it was a big growing experience. It was something that if I never get a chance to do that again, it was just nice to have been a part of it. I was fortunate enough to get an inning out there in the Championship Series.
OC: I have to ask you, your throwing motion is one of the more unusual ones I've ever seen. How did you develop it?
LS: Gosh, I don't even know how I developed that. It's so unusual and there are so many critics out there and so many people who don't like it, but somehow I have made it work and my body has adapted to it. I have been doing it as long as I can remember. I honestly don't remember ever throwing any differently. I feel weird when I throw the ball [with a more conventional throwing motion]. I guess my body just kind of adapted and that's the way it has been. It's weird to see myself on video. It doesn't feel awkward, but when you watch it, you feel like, ‘wow, that's really pretty unusual.'
OC: How was playing for Tony Gwynn [at San Diego State]?
LS: That was probably one of the best experiences of my life, getting to listen to his knowledge. Him, of all people, he's a very knowledgeable person and it was great to see how he goes about his business. He's just a great guy, a great coach, a great person and a great mentor. Playing for him is something that I will never forget and I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be around him.
OC: Did you cross paths with Stephen Strasburg while at SD State or were you already in the pros when he joined the staff?
LS: He was actually a freshman my last year there, my junior year. I'm sure you've heard all of the stories on him [from when he was a freshman] being out of shape and being mentally weak, I guess you'd say. It was neat to see him go through that transformation. He lost like 25-30 pounds. He was a really shy kid and now I see him talking to the media. I know all of the hard work that he put in to get there. I remember the days when he was crying when we were doing our running. It is really quite the transformation. No one would believe it unless they saw it.
OC: What are your plans for the rest of this off-season and what are your goals going into the next spring training?
LS: The rest of the off-season, I'm definitely going to get into the weight room and work hard in there, work hard conditioning-wise. Do the normal routine and maybe do some yoga this year, see if that will help out. I've always heard great things about yoga. Just do the things I normally do and maybe throw in a few more things and hopefully come into spring training even more prepared this year. I know they are talking about me maybe playing winter ball. I'm not sure if I am going to do that for a month or two, but if I don't do that, I'll get ready like I normally would.
OC: You are eligible for the Rule 5 draft for the first time this year, right?
LS: So I hear. I don't get caught up too much in that stuff. You never know how things are going to shake out.
OC: Is that the mentality, that anything that goes on off-the-field, you have to kind of ignore it and whatever happens, happens?
LS: Absolutely. There's a lot of hearsay and things like that out there and I don't think I'm really a high-profile guy. I'm just one of those guys who is going to have to fight to make it. I'm not a top prospect, as they would say. For me, if something happens and I catch a break and I get a different opportunity, then great, but I love Oakland and they are the one team who gave me a chance in the draft. I'm extremely happy here. I've had a great experience here and hopefully I'll be able to continue my track up to the big leagues with them.
OC: Does it resonate with you when a player like Bobby Cramer or Brad Ziegler who rose through the system fairly anonymously make it to the big leagues? Does that give everyone in the system a sense of encouragement?
LS: Absolutely. For me knowing Bobby Cramer himself and to see the road that he has gone down and to see the obstacles that he has overcome and never giving up – because it's easy to give up, the odds are always stacked against you as it is – but watching the way he went about it and how long it took him to get there, it's an inspiration. It gives you hope. You hear guys talk about it in the bullpen and things like that. It gives you motivation to never really give up until they basically take it from you and say ‘hey, you're done, forget about it.' Until then, you never want to give up because you see things like that. Don't get me wrong, he's a very talented person, but the fact that he was finally able to catch a break and get his opportunity, it definitely gives you hope. It's great to see, especially for a person like Bobby.
OC: Do you think it was helpful to see the Cal League a second time? Were there things that you learned in 2009 with Stockton that helped you in 2010?
LS: Being around Schulzie [Stockton pitching coach Don Schultz], I really like Schulzie a lot as a pitching coach. [Steve] Scarsone was a great head coach to be around. Good energy off of him. He was just a fun person to be around. He knew the game and made me feel really comfortable there. For me, it was one of those things where I saw guys get moved up and I was repeating a level, so basically, I had to say ‘hey, I need to turn it on here or I'm going to be left in the dust and not get moved up.' I would say it was more encouraging to want to do well because I was starting to get left behind from where my draft class was and I knew I was better than that. It was nice to finally do well and to learn that I had to throw strikes and things started happening in a good way for me.
OC: Do you feel like you were as strong at the end of the season as you were in the beginning of the year? Sixty innings is a pretty hefty total for a reliever to throw.
LS: Yeah, for me it was the first time I had ever thrown that much in a season as far as relieving goes. I still felt strong this year. I felt like I had a better off-season going into spring training this year. I felt prepared and I felt like that carried through the entire season. There were times where I wished that I made better pitches mentally, but physically I felt good all year. I think that I maintained my velocity for the most part throughout the year. I felt like I had a lot better year stamina-wise than I normally do.
OC: What was your velocity sitting at most of the year?
LS: In Stockton, I was anywhere from 87-90 and I think I touched 91 in one game this year. But, for the most part, I was mostly 88, 89 and would touch 90.
OC: Do you feel like that is where you are most effective, when you are in that velocity range?
LS: Absolutely. This is the first year that my velocity has come back. It has been down the past couple of years from where it was at in college. I'm throwing a little bit harder and throwing strikes made my life a lot easier and gave me a little more success. I learned what works for me lifting-wise and it helped me keep my velocity there, so that was one thing I definitely took away from this year and will help me out in the future.
OC: Do you miss starting at all or are you pretty sold on being a reliever?
LS: Honestly, I'll do whatever Oakland wants me to do. Starting is nice because you are on a routine, but there are perks to being in the bullpen, as well. You can come in in the late innings in pressure situations and that is kind of what we live for as pitchers. I didn't do a very good job when I was first in pro ball. If I had it to do over, I would do it differently knowing what I know now. But whatever gets me to the big leagues quickest is where I want to be.