GIL PATTERSON MADE ME DO IT.
I cannot lie.
A few weeks ago, during a typical high-scoring game by the AZL A's, I was focused on live-tweeting the game as I always do. I was so focused, in fact, that I didn't see the man approach me, until I heard him say, "Why don't you cheer for our pitchers, too?" I looked up, dumbfounded by the question and said, "I'm sorry?" He repeated, "Why don't you cheer for our pitchers, too? The past few games, I've heard you cheer for our offense, but not for our pitchers. Why is that?" Just as I was thinking, "Who IS this guy? " He extended his hand, smiled, and introduced himself, "I'm Gil Patterson, pitching coordinator for the A's." A sigh of relief.
For the next few minutes, I talked with Gil, who is easily one of the most likeable people I've ever met, about the specialness of this Arizona League team and field staff. However, though Gil left, his words stayed with me. "Why don't you cheer for our pitchers?" This bothered me because he was correct…sort of.
From the time I was six years old, I was set to be the first woman major league baseball player. I was a catcher. Played little league with the boys until the boys started their growth spurts and I was done with mine. The battery has always been my favorite part of any game. I love the strategy required to approach each batter, and the beauty when those pitches are delivered. There are many who play the catcher position, but to me, a true Catcher - with a capital C - is as rare as a true pitching ace. He is smart about batters, baserunners, and his pitcher; has the strong, accurate arm, exquisite footwork, and exudes leadership. The chemistry and connection between the pitcher and catcher is vital to the success of any game….And, if done well, leaves observers feeling as if they're eavesdropping on a personal conversation. That being said, I don't generally miss much that happens between the #1 and #2 positions. Unless, of course, you ask Gil Patterson.
The Swingin' Baby A's, as I call them, are the most exciting group of players I've seen in the Arizona League…ever. The games are almost always the last AZL games to end. There's a reason for that: it takes time to score a lot of runs. And boy, do the A's score runs!
Since Opening Day on June 20th when they defeated the Angels 11-3 at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Athletics have led the league in almost every offensive category. As of Tuesday, they had the best record in the league. Great offense is fun to watch, especially the way this team plays. But make no mistake; the pitching staff is good, too. Even though they play in the "Fire League," where it may not be as "exciting" as their counterparts in Vermont or Burlington, the AZL pitchers are fortunate to be where they are; because of both, the Oakland A's organization and their pitching coach.
His name is Jaime Escalante; he was born in Los Angeles. Sound familiar? Nope. That's not him. He's too young to have Edward James Olmos play him in a movie, anyway. Jaime, or "Jimmy" as the 35-year-old pitching coach is known, isn't related to the famous math teacher. But he certainly knows a thing or two about numbers…and stats…and spray charts…and teaching. He also has first-hand experience of how important the relationship is between the pitcher and catcher. Jimmy was drafted in 1996 by the Baltimore Orioles as a switch-hitting catcher. Then, in 2000, he was traded to the Anaheim Angels and was converted to a pitcher. This perspective by a pitching coach is not very common, and that's exactly what gives the staff in the Arizona League an advantage. To say that Jimmy offers a well-rounded perspective is an understatement.
Escalante, who is in his sixth year with the A's -- splitting time between the Midwest League affiliate (Kane County, then Burlington) and the Arizona League -- is professional, confident, and very respectful. There is no yelling or unnecessary attention called to himself or to his pitchers. This is even more commendable when you consider how many of his "guys" were in high school or college just a few months ago. Watching Jimmy interact with players, the mutual respect is evident. Guiding these young men become "men" is part of the (unwritten) job description, and it's evident that Jimmy embraces that role; he lives the example these young men should follow.
Winning championships at this level is great, but not the main priority especially if it sacrifices a healthy arm for the future. It's clear that the term Player Development is taken seriously. The reason for the farm system in baseball is to develop players to play in the major league.
The A's have an organization-imposed policy of how to treat the newly drafted pitchers designed to lower the likelihood of injury for both starters and relievers; one factor includes mandating equal days' rest to number of ups. However, for the newly drafted, there is a 30-day waiting period until mechanics can be addressed; perceived problems or not. Essentially: hands-off for the first 30 days.
A typical work day for this year's AZL pitching coach begins at 12:30PM, when he arrives at the Papago Complex for a 7:00PM game. Escalante reviews charts/stats, and is busy planning and preparing for players' arrival an hour or two later. The afternoon is filled with indoor meetings to review scouting reports and determine how to pitch to individual players that night. In addition, there is outside field work/ skill building/ PFPs (Pitchers Fielding Practice), etc. Dinner is at 5:00PM, and then, if it's a home game, they are back on the field at 6:30PM to "warm up" for the game. After the game there are reports to complete, conversations to be had, etc. before heading home for the night.
The detailed reports on each opposing batter that are reviewed by the pitchers and catchers earlier in the day are generated through a tracking program that gives them an "edge." Catchers are an integral part of these meetings because, on this AZL team, they call "99% of the games," according to Escalante. Their presence and participation in meetings are vital for success. Case in point, the effective use of these tools led to the cooling of the hottest bat in the league, Texas Rangers' prospect Joey Gallo, the last time they played in Surprise on Aug 7.
AZL A's manager Marcus Jensen and Escalante are like-minded in many ways, including the way each man carries himself and the example he sets for the players. Both men place the highest level of importance on respect; both giving and receiving. They exemplify this by how they conduct themselves, and by how they treat players and game officials. There is very little – if any - "chirping" that comes from the A's dugout; from players or coaches. The same cannot be said about every team in the Arizona League. And, since throughout the season the team takes on the personality of its leaders; this is a good thing if you're in the Athletics organization.
Anyone who has seen Escalante's visits to the mound during a game knows he is quick and effective. No mechanics addressed, no corrections made, just simple key reminders to get the game back under control. No coddling of players here, that's for sure. After each defensive half-inning, Jensen, the AZL A's manager since 2006, and Escalante meet with the battery as they enter the dugout to discuss the previous pitching sequences to each batter faced. And, if between the two players, they decide an intentional walk is needed, then they do it and experience the consequences, whatever they may be. Autonomy with accountability; learning and growing; players developing. What a concept!
As with everything in baseball, results of this autonomy/accountability must be quantified. One of the first questions I ever asked Escalante was how important he finds the first-pitch-strike statistic. His response was almost immediate: "Very. It's very important." Valuing basics such as first-pitch-strikes as well as that of the pitch following 1-1 counts have helped the A's maintain a solid position in AZL's Team Pitching throughout the season. Week after week, they are among the top 5 in all the "good" categories, including allowing the fewest Hits (358), second-fewest runs (208) and tied for third-lowest WHIP (1.41), as of August 13.
The stats, of course, don't tell the complete story of Escalante's pitchers, but the fact that the numbers have steadily improved from the beginning of the season is a good reflection on the work being done in the "Fire League."
Who are these young men that the bilingual/ native Spanish-speaking Jimmy Escalante calls, "My Guys"? It's a mixed group. There are the periodic rehabbing pitchers from other affiliates. There are also a couple of pitchers from the 2011 team, as well as some non-drafted free agents. In June, when the smart folks in the Oakland A's scouting and management drafted and signed 17 pitchers, that's when the majority of the roster was filled. Of that group:
- Three have not played a game in the Arizona League: 2nd round pick Nolan Sanburn, 14th round pick Austin House, and 23rd round pick Tucker Healy.
- Four played in a few games before moving on to Vermont: Seth Streich (6th round), Kris Hall (8th round), Stuart Pudenz (18th round) (each, with two games) and Ryan Dull (32nd round), who played in four AZL games.
- Five saves in 13 games indicates 9th round pick Dakota Bacus, has emerged as the teams' closer.
- Ten are/ have been in Arizona for the entire season: Kurz (7th), Bacus (9th), Voiro (15th), DeYoung (18th), Hollstegge (21st), Bahramzadeh (24th), Hansen (25th), Sosa (26th), Massey (29th), & Johnson (33rd).
- Fifteen games: Tyler Hollstegge has the most appearances in relief, with 26 innings.
Of course, no story on the AZL A's pitching staff would be complete without mentioning the return of 6'7" RHP Michael Ynoa. Signed as a non-drafted free agent on July 2, 2008 from Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, Ynoa missed all of the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery in August 2010. The 20-year-old returned to the mound on June 30, 2012, almost exactly two years after his last game on July 1, 2010. Ynoa pitched one inning at Papago Sports Complex against Joey Gallo, Lewis Brinson, and the rest of the Rangers, where he walked one batter and struck out another. After appearing in six limited-pitch-count games this summer, Ynoa was moved to Vermont, where he made his first start for the short season Lake Monsters on August 1.
Ynoa is a warrior who will conquer whatever challenges come his way and show the world the champion he is.
Another pitcher who can't be overlooked this season is RHP Daniel Petitti. Out of the bullpen, this first year pitcher is a good story with good, solid production. Petitti was drafted in 2010 as a catcher in 37th round out of North Georgia College and State and spent the season with the then-short season Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League. In 2011, Petitti played for the AZL A's, Vermont Lake Monsters, and Burlington Bees; all as a catcher. On a rainy July 4th, 2012, Daniel Petitti, the pitcher, debuted at the AZL Royals and has done nothing but impress since then.
Being matched with fellow catcher-turned-pitcher Escalante, Petitti has a coach who knows just what he is experiencing; the nuances, the challenges, and the success. Escalante said the progress that the 24-year-old Petitti has made in a short period of time allows him to be viewed as a "go to guy" in the pen. That's saying a lot for the newest member of the pitching staff. Petitti's line in seven games & 10.0 innings pitched is: 7 hits, 7 runs (4 earned), 0 home runs, 5 walks and 19 strike outs with a 1.00 WHIP.
Coming off of this of- day (Monday, 8/13), there are 13 games left to be played in the season; last one on Wednesday, August 29th at the Giants. Assuming all remains equal (A's with best record in the league), the A's will then play the Wild Card team (presumably the Cubs, who are .5 games behind the A's), while the other two division leaders play each other. Then, the winners of each divisional game will face each other for the Championship. But then again, who knows? Anything could happen.
What I do know is, the pitching staff of the Arizona League Athletics will play a large role in the team's post-season success. Adding that together with the offensive production of the Swingin' Baby A's, and that's a great combination.
(Gil Patterson did NOT make me say that.)