Oakland A's Instructs Q&A: Scott Emerson

Scott Emerson oversaw the A's pitching corps.

Last week, the Oakland A's concluded their 2013 fall Instructional League camp. Much of the organization's top young talent participated in the camp. We spoke with the A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott 'Emo' Emerson about how the A's young arms fared during Instructs. Who reminded Emo of Andy Pettitte and which 18-year-old right-hander is a rising star?

OaklandClubhouse: How did the Instructional League program go this year?

Scott Emerson: I thought it went great. It was a lot of fun and hopefully the guys had a lot of fun. I saw lots of improvement.

OC: Were there primary things that you were emphasizing with all of the pitchers, or was it more of an individual program for each guy?

SE: Well, we stressed to them that they needed to become pitchers. We need these guys to go out there and when they fall behind in the count have the ability to throw something other than their fastball. When they get ahead in the count, we want them to be able to work on their pitching inside.

The guys bought into it. We had a video session of the guys who pitched the previous day to show them exactly how command looks. If they don't see themselves, sometimes they don't know. They might think they are making pitches, but when they get to watch it on video, they can really find out what those pitches were. I think the guys really enjoyed it and I think they learned a lot about themselves.

OC: Dustin Driver didn't get a lot of time pitching on the mound during the Rookie League because he had so much time-off from throwing leading up to the draft. What kind of progress did he make during the camp?

SE: His last game, he did an outstanding job throwing his fastball. In his last game, I think he threw about 30 fastballs and 20 secondary pitches. It's coming along slowly. The time-off he had after his high school season might have hurt him a little bit. It took him awhile to get going again. But anytime he can command his fastball, he's got a lot to offer, and that's one thing that he really worked on during Instructional League.

OC: How about Chris Kohler? How much progress did he make from the draft until now?

SE: He's made great progress. He reminds me very much of Andy Pettitte. He's got that classic delivery and he's got that lean-back that Pettitte had. The sky's the limit for this kid too. He throws a lot of strikes and he's got a feel for his change-up and his breaking ball already at 18 years old. For him, it's just a maturation from just becoming a pitcher on an everyday basis and learning how to pitch. His weapons are pretty close to being there; he's just got to modify the command of his weapons. But he's got three really good pitches.

OC: Were Dylan Covey and Bobby Wahl able to do a lot of throwing in the camp, or were they pretty maxed out after their college seasons and the short-season?

SE: We shut Covey down a little bit early. I want to say he threw about three innings, but that was just as a precaution. He did throw a lot of innings [in 2013]. Bobby Wahl went through the entire program throwing one inning at a time. He made five appearances and threw five innings. Both of those guys were electric, but Bobby Wahl was super electric. He was sitting 94 to 96 with a well above-average major league curveball. He bought into the pitching inside. He showed a change-up when he fell behind in the count. In one-inning stints, this guy was about as nasty of a pitcher as you'd see in the major leagues.

OC: Jeremy Barfield was participating in the camp as a pitcher for the first time. What was he working on and what is the protocol when you are converting a position player to a pitcher like that?

SE: Garvin Alston, our rehab coordinator, started him out in Arizona getting his delivery right. We took him on in Instructional League to try to get him into two games a week. We wanted him to work on that fastball command and on bettering his breaking ball. The bullpen is probably his future, so we put him more pitching out of the stretch, getting him some rhythm and tempo out of the stretch. We had him throwing his fastball, breaking ball and an occasional change-up.

He did a very good job. He's going to go down to the Dominican with me on the 27th [for Dominican Instructs] and he's going to get about six more appearances in pitching in the Dominican Instructional League.

There's a lot there to work with. He's a 90 MPH fastball guy, but a lot of guys swung right through his fastball, so he offers some deception. I think he'll gain velocity as he matures into his delivery and starts to understand how his body can move and all of that stuff.

OC: Are there any other pitchers from this camp going to participate in the Dominican Instructs, as well?

SE: No, just Barfield.

OC: Nolan Sanburn began the year with that shoulder injury. Where was he in this camp, progress-wise? Do you think he'll be able to start off next spring without restrictions?

SE: Yeah. Nolan did a great job. We made sure we got him starting ball games. We limited his pitches to about 50 pitches per outing, but he got in 11.2 innings. He was outstanding. Mid-90s fastball, power curveball, excellent slider and very good change-up. Nolan was very impressive each and every time he went out there. If he pitches like he pitched during the Instructional League, he should rise through the system pretty fast.

OC: How did Kyle Finnegan look? He had an impressive pro debut season.

SE: It was the same with Kyle. He came down and we were trying to work with him to get over the baseball a little bit more. He had a really long stride. You like pitchers to have a long stride, but he was so far that he really couldn't get over that front leg. And that breaking ball just kind of rolled up to the plate. But he was really impressive as well. He came to us without having a change-up. He had an okay breaking ball. When he left Instructional League, he was a guy I said, ‘this guy has three average to above-average major league pitches now.' He's got a short, tight curveball. He's got a very good change-up and he was able to spot his fastball much better, getting over his front leg. He repeated his delivery. I thought he did a great job.

OC: Is Sam Bragg someone who you think could be a starter next year? He was mostly used as a reliever during his pro debut.

SE: Sam is interesting. He came to us and was almost at his innings limit already for the season from what he did last year. We tried to slow him down a little bit and pitch him in two or three inning stints from the season all the way through Instructional League. He did a great job for us and he is someone that I would like to see get more extended innings in and get more of a look. The unfortunate thing is that you only get five starters per club. We want to get all of the best arms out and pitching for ball clubs, so if there is not a spot for him as a starter [at the beginning of the 2014 season], hopefully there is a spot for him as a reliever where he can get some extended innings.

OC: Do you anticipate utilizing more of those piggy-back rotations next year to give more guys opportunities to start?

SE: I like it. We had the eight-man in Beloit where we had the five starters and three piggy-back type guys. I like doing that to get the guys a little bit more innings and to be able to use their third pitch and to identify the guys who can start and the guys who can't start. You go out there and especially in Low-A ball, you go out there with the five starters and you really don't know that much about the guys you have because you haven't had them [in the system] that long. You limit the look. But if you can put some guys in a piggy-back situation, some guy might turn a head that you didn't know you had as a starter.

As many guys as we can get extended innings for, the better. Last year, a prime example was Austin House. He went out there and started some games. In June, we made the decision to put him in the bullpen, but that [experience as a starter] helped his breaking ball. I can say now that he has a very good major league breaking ball, whereas this time last year, we couldn't say that.

OC: Was it command that held House back at times this past season?

SE: I think at times he gets out of whack with his pitching delivery. That does affect his command. He was starting and relieving every other outing for the first couple of months. You are trying to get yourself into a routine and when you are told you are just going to go to the bullpen, you are probably able to get yourself into a routine. We don't like to label guys as closers in the minor leagues. Maybe we like to label them as guys that we go to late in games, but I think his woes just came from being a professional in his first full year of throwing everyday and every fifth day. It might have caught up with him at times. But he had a great Instructional League himself and I think the sky is the limit for him, too.

OC: What kind of workload was Michael Ynoa able to shoulder after throwing that career-high 70 innings this season?

SE: He came in and threw every day. He completed the Instructional League program and I want to say that he got five innings in five outings as well. He did a great job. His last game was probably his better game to where he had his electric stuff. I was proud of Big Mike, being able to go through a whole season like that and last a whole season. He did a great job.

OC: Do you think he will continue in a starting role at the beginning of next year?

SE: Yeah, I think so. I don't know where he is going to go next year, but a guy who has his kind of electric stuff is someone who you have to run out there every fifth day. He's maturing as a pitcher. He doesn't have many professional innings even though he has been here a long time. Hopefully, he can go out and he now knows what to expect with a full season. Hopefully, he can just go out there and pitch his game.

OC: What kind of stuff does Ronald Herrera have? He put together a really impressive season given how young he is.

SE: This guy to me is a big prospect. For an 18-year-old kid to be able to throw his fastball to both sides of the plate with above-average velocity and above-average sink with a good curveball and change-up, he's way ahead of his curve. He's a very intelligent kid. He has very good English for a young Latin player who is only 18 years old. This guy, I can't say enough good things about this kid.

OC: Do you think it was an important step for his development that he was able to make the jump to a non-complex league in the New York-Penn League at the end of the year?

SE: Yeah, I think so. He knows maybe next year that he has a chance to make the Beloit club. He knows what to expect. Myself and Carlos Chavez, our Arizona pitching coach, had a talk with him about making sure he goes home and continues to work on his English. Maybe do the laundry around the house and cook Mom and Dad some dinners, so that when he goes out there on his own next year, he has the ability to do that kind of stuff.

That are some of the things, especially with the young Latin players, that you have to worry about. This guy is going to have to go out and do his laundry and get the cable bill in his name. He's got to find himself an apartment or some place to live and get a driver's license. This kid is very intelligent, and the sky is the limit for him, as well.

OC: Jesus Zambrano was, I believe, your youngest pitcher in camp. I don't know a lot about him. What kind of pitcher is he?

SE: He is from Venezuela. He comes from the Herrera mold. Everyone says that they are twin brothers. He just turned 17 and he has a polished delivery right now. He throws strikes with his fastball. He's a mid-80s guy right now, but as a guy who just turned 17, that's good. He does all of the little things very well for a 17-year-old. I think it was important for us to get him over to the United States and work with the American coaching staff so that he could see how we operate over here.

I'm not sure where he is going to go at the start of next year. A couple of the teams hit him around a little bit because of the mid-80s fastball. I told him, ‘your command is very good. It's just that you are facing 22- and 23-year-olds at 16 years old.' He handled that very well and he's another guy that we are very excited about.

OC: Dominique Vattuone seemed like he may have surprised with how well he performed after the draft. How did he look in camp?

SE: He did a very good job. He's not the type of guy who is going to impress you with the velocity on his pitches or the late break to his breaking ball, but he throws a lot of strikes. He throws any pitch in any count and he changes his arm angles a little bit. He's kind of a crafty right-hander who throws strikes with some movement to his ball. He has a decent breaking ball and he puts it over the plate. He has a decent change-up and he puts it over the plate. He's a good competitor and he does the little things – he plays defense and he has a good pick-off move. He put himself in a pretty good position for next year.

OC: Tyler Vail and Kris Hall had both participated in this Instructs camp before. What were they working on this time around?

SE: Hall had a little arm injury early in the year and we wanted him to get some more innings and more appearances. We also wanted him to work more on his breaking ball and get him to stand up a little bit taller on his back leg. He had a very impressive camp, as well. I think he went eight or nine innings and he struck-out 10 or 11 guys. He showed us a good downhill fastball and he pitched in the mid-90s on occasion. He did a great job.

With Vail, this was his fourth Instructional League, so we joked that he finally graduated. It was his senior year. [laughs] But Tyler, age-wise, is still a very young pitcher. He has good stuff. He has a very good sinker. When you have good movement at such a young age, it's hard to identify your command. He just needs to get out there and pitch as often as he can, so that he can start to identify where he needs to start his baseball and get the movement. He has a ton of movement but sometimes it just leaks outside the strike-zone.

He did a good job of pounding the strike-zone with his sinker. We were trying to work on his breaking ball. Once he gets his breaking ball – it's not where it needs to be – but when he gets that breaking ball, his game is going to elevate to the next level.

OC: Lee Sosa was a player that you mentioned a few times during the season as having made big strides. Did he continue that improvement during Instructs?

SE: Sos did a great job. We teased him a lot for being a little stubborn. He's got a good fastball and he constantly wants to throw his fastball. We challenged him this Instructional League to become a pitcher. Fall behind in the count and have the ability to go soft in those situations.

One of our scouts, Trevor Schaffer, was here from Florida. Sosa asked him after the game what he thought and he said, ‘I was very impressed with you when you missed with a breaking ball with a runner in scoring position that you came back with another breaking ball for a strike.' With Sosa's mentality, he was probably looking for, ‘how was my fastball? What did you think of my fastball?' But Trevor Schaffer was watching him pitch and I think Sosa got fired up when he heard Schaffer say that he pitched today rather than just getting out on that mound and throwing. He did a good job himself.

OC: One of your pitching coaches, John Wasdin, is with the Mesa team in the Arizona Fall League working with that staff. Are there things that you are looking for the A's AFL pitchers to work on this fall?

SE: We have four relievers here and it is good to have Was here working with them on an everyday basis to make sure that they go through our guidelines and our philosophies. We are just looking for these guys to go out there and get some innings and face probably better competition than they faced all season. It will give us a better evaluation of them moving into next year.

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