When the Oakland A’s begin their post-season run on Friday, one of the most important pitchers on their staff will be reliever Sean Doolittle. Two years ago, Doolittle far from the post-season spotlight, instead spending his late September/early October in Arizona at the A’s fall Instructional League working on his conversion from a position player to a pitcher. Doolittle’s journey from that point has been well-documented and it took him only six months to go from pitching against some of the most inexperienced hitters in professional baseball to recording outs in the big leagues.
They say that lightening can’t strike twice, but the A’s might be getting another Sean Doolittle story in the coming years. Jeremy Barfield, an outfield prospect in the A’s system since 2008, is currently making the move from right field to the mound. While comparing anyone to Doolittle would be unfair, Barfield offers similar arm strength from the left-side, leaving plenty of room for people to dream on his future as a pitcher.
Barfield has been known for his cannon left arm since he was drafted by the A’s out of San Jacinto College in 2008. Barfield routinely led the A’s organization in outfield assists, even though teams often declined to challenge his arm. As a hitter, Barfield advanced as far as Triple-A Sacramento and he reached double-digits in homeruns in every season from 2010 through 2013, but he found himself stuck behind several top outfield prospects in the upper levels of the A’s system over the past two years.
After a 35-game stint with the River Cats earlier this year, Barfield was asked by the A’s to make the move from outfielder to pitcher. Barfield was initially reluctant, but he spent the last two weeks of July and all of August learning the art of pitching with the A’s minor league coaching staff in Phoenix. As he has progressed with his pitching, he has grown increasingly enthusiastic about the switch.
Barfield is currently pitching as part of the A’s fall Instructional League team, and we caught-up with the Texas native to learn more about how his journey from the outfield to the mound has been going.
OaklandClubhouse: You mentioned on Twitter that you had an outing [on Monday]. How has it been going pitching in live games?
Jeremy Barfield: It’s been going really well so far. It was my third outing and it’s been going well. I’ve been throwing an inning each time. My velocity has been going up. It’s up to 93 now. So it’s been going well. I’ve had a walk an inning, but it’s not as bad as it could be. I’ve been trying to get my control. I had a couple of strike-outs today, so that was fun. It’s definitely different.
OC: What kind of work did you do leading into Instructs while you were in Phoenix? You mentioned on Twitter that you had pitched some in high school, so it wasn’t completely foreign to you, right?
JB: Not completely. I swear, it was like I was training for a marathon. That’s what it seemed like. I was out running everyday and doing pitchers’ conditioning. They had me getting used to being on the mound. It’s a lot different than being on flat ground. I was working on the mound, working on my stride, working on strengthening my hips because that [how you use your hips] is a big difference between throwing on flat ground and throwing on the mound. We worked on strength and flexibility. We also worked on pick-off moves and PFPs [pitchers’ fielding practice]. We did a lot of fundamentals work, a lot of groundballs. I’ve taken more groundballs the past two weeks than I have my entire career.
OC: Are you using a throwing motion that you had already before this change-over began, or did you and the coaching staff put together a throwing motion from scratch while you were in Arizona this summer?
JB: It’s pretty natural. In the outfield, I’m focused on throwing the ball as straight as possible, so I have a pretty over-the-top throwing motion. With pitchers, you want have movement, so you tend to see them drop their arm slots and things like that. But they let me keep my higher arm slot, which I’m happy about because it is better for your arm physically. It was just finding hand placement for my glove and then working from a wind-up before deciding that I’d rather work from the stretch exclusively. Being a reliever, I don’t really need a wind-up. It’s been a lot. They have been throwing a lot at me, so I have been trying to soak it all in.
OC: Is [A’s minor league rehab coordinator] Garvin Alston who you have been working most closely with?
JB: Yep. He’s the magician.
OC: There haven’t been a lot of guys who have made this switch in the A’s system. Was there a set plan in place for you when you began your conversion?
JB: When I was here during the regular season working out in the AZL they had a plan for me. It wasn’t concrete. It was more based on how I was feeling and then progressing. The good thing is that it kind of sped things up. My first week on the mound, I was throwing exclusively fastballs. Then Garvin wanted to work on something off-speed, like a change-up. He tried to teach me a circle change-up grip. I wouldn’t say that was a disaster, but it wasn’t coming naturally to me. When I threw in high school, I used to throw a split-finger. They were kind of against it because I guess I split-finger is not one of the pitches that most guys throw because of health concerns. But I have big hands so that’s less of a concern.
I threw Garvin one and it actually hit him in the shin. So he was like, ‘yeah, you definitely have a split-finger.’ Ever since then, that has been my off-speed pitch. After that, it was all about throwing the slider, which I hadn’t thrown since I was in high school. I hadn’t thrown a breaking ball in forever. It was learning the hand-motion for that. Slowly but surely, it’s coming along for me.
OC: I remember that getting the arm speed on the different pitches to be the same was the biggest challenge for Sean Doolittle when he was making this conversion. Has that been a challenge for you?
JB: So far I have been fortunate that I haven’t had the tendency to slow down my arm at all. I haven’t really pitched that way. I have been working with [former A’s pitcher and Cy Young award-winner] Bob Welch down here and he told me that my breathing patterns change for the different pitches. I was able to fix that and so that was one less thing I was giving away to hitters. The wiggling of the glove, breathing patterns, arm slot, all of those things can give pitches away to hitters. I’ve had success so far [eliminating those].
OC: When you are on the mound, how much are you thinking through an at-bat like a hitter, or is it a completely different mindset when you are the pitcher?
JB: It’s completely different. As a hitter, I’m thinking, ‘he could throw this or that,’ but as a pitcher, I see what the catcher puts down and if I like it, I’m rocking and I’m rolling. I’m not thinking much up there. I have actually been pretty mad up there on the mound. They told me to get mad up there, so I have been pretty nasty. I have been throwing baseballs like the hitter stole my lunch money.
OC: How have your knees been? I know you had some trouble with them a few years ago. Has pitching off a slope had any impact on them?
JB: They have been fine. The only time they bothered me before was when I made a lateral motion, but I haven’t really had that much on the mound.
OC: It has been a few years since you were first at Instructs as a young position player prospect. How is it different to be in camp as an elder statesman?
JB: [laughs] First off, I’m sort of the savvy veteran now, so I got a lawn chair because I know that seating is at a premium. So I bought one and took it to the bullpen and sat down while the other guys had to sit on the grass. Before the game, some of the guys were playing pepper on the warning track. I was like, ‘come on, dude, this isn’t high school.’ Before, I was probably going to be the kid who was playing pepper, but now, I’m telling them ‘hey, you probably shouldn’t be doing that.’ Now I know.
OC: Have you been able to take any pitcher’s BP yet?
JB: You know what? I haven’t, and I’m glad because I would probably take it too seriously. It’s still too soon, way too soon.
OC: What’s your plan for the off-season once Instructs ends? Is there more pitching that you will be doing, or are you more focused on conditioning and taking to spring camp what you have done here in Instructs?
JB: The good thing is that living in Arizona, I can still go to our facility and work with our coaches on strength and conditioning. I want to give my arm a little bit of a rest, but I still want to work on mechanics. I will be able to work with our coaching staff here and then we’ll go from there.
Video of Jeremy Barfield pitching during Instructs, courtesy of Kimberly Contreras