Pitching Development Has Become Oakland's Strength
OAKLAND—When one pitcher went down, another came up.
As the Athletics battled into September with their ragtag collection of kids and bargains, part of what kept them fighting was an influx of young arms, immediately ready for big league competition. The likes of A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily, who were never big-name prospects, filled in capably for the experienced veterans.
More than anything else, the A's of the first dozen years of the new millennium have been an organization built upon the development of young pitchers. They have been able to identify potential and develop talent; not just from the high picks, but with remarkable success from the later rounds.
So what has been the big secret for such success? Is there some leftover warrior spirit springing from the hills at their Papago Park training center? Nothing that complicated, the A's say. Draft well, hire dedicated pitching coaches and let the talent blossom.
"I don't think we're doing anything all that different from what other organizations do," said Gil Patterson, who was the minor league pitching coordinator for the last six years. "It really does start with the scouts. The job they do sometimes goes unnoticed."
Patterson also has high praise for the cadre of pitching coaches in the organization. "We have no egos. We do everything we can to help the player, to allow the player to have the autonomy to make his own decisions," he said. "I feel like they know we're in it like they are, and we care about their careers as much as they do."
Farm director Keith Lieppman echoed Patterson's analysis. "All of those guys are very relationship-oriented. The know how to build relationships with pitchers," he said. "Along with those other attributes, they know how to connect and how to motivate. They have a real passion for people, and they believe in the system. They're all-in with what we're doing."
Patterson and Lieppman have made an effort to bring out the best in their coaches, as well as their pitchers.
"What is interesting is to get so many opinionated people to work together," Lieppman said. "A lot of organizations will get one headstrong person, then everybody will have to bow down to it. This has a different synergy."
Emerson Takes Over
In the last days of October, Patterson decided to leave the organization, taking a job with the Yankees as director of pitching. Patterson said it was difficult to leave Oakland, but this will allow him to spend more time at his Florida home. His 14-year-old son Gil Jr. is battling Tourette's syndrome and other health problems, and he wants to be as close as possible. Lieppman elevated Scott Emerson, 40, to pitching coordinator. Emerson had served as Triple-A pitching coach the last two seasons, and he has been with the A's since 2003, so Lieppman expects a smooth transition.
Good transitions have been the norm for the organization. Patterson took over for another well-respected coordinator when he replaced Ron Romanick, who took a big league coaching job and is now pitching coordinator for the Mets. Romanick had initiated an advanced throwing and arm-strengthening program that the A's credit for developing both pitchers and position players.
"I have had a chance to learn from two great coordinators, and that's a blessing," Emerson said. "Gil has been a master of the mental game. Ron is a mechanics guy. He is very up to date on the science of mechanics. I consider myself very close to both those guys. They are true friends."
That program has been a key to the development of young pitchers. The concept is to help pitchers find themselves more than to set them on a particular path. Andrew Bailey, a sixth-round pick out of Wagner in 2006, struggled as a starter before the A's moved him to the bullpen, where he became a two-time all-star before being traded to the Red Sox. Romanick helped convert Brad Ziegler from overhand pitcher to submariner, and Ziegler became a major bullpen asset.
One of the organization's major moves came this season with Sean Doolittle. The lefty had been a premier prospect as a hitter before knee and wrist injuries derailed his career. However, Doolittle both hit and pitched through his college days at Virginia, and in 2011 he started working on the mound again. He made the adjustment so quickly that he was in the majors on June 4 and emerged as the A's best lefty set-up reliever. Lieppman credits minor league pitching rehab coordinator Garvin Alston with playing a key role in the change.
"Romanick taught Garvin how to start guys in making the change from position player to pitcher," Lieppman said. "Garvin started the process with Doolittle. Garvin (works with) all the guys who come through the system, and he's a big part of the day-to-day with every pitcher."
Lieppman believes he has top-flight pitching coaches at every level, with Don Schulze at Double-A, Craig Lefferts at high Class A, John Wasdin at low Class A and Jimmy Escalante at short-season. The coaches work as a team to develop talent, and the players benefit from the combined effort.
Nolan Sanburn, a 2012 second-round pick, has been ecstatic with his tutelage. "I am so fortunate to have been drafted by this organization," he said. "The coaching is so good, and I have learned so much since I've been here. Gil Patterson is a tremendous leader, coach and friend. I've learned so much from him. I've not just become a better baseball player, I've become a better man."
Quite The Character
Patterson, the outgoing coordinator, has quite a colorful history, and a Billy Martin-like relationship with the Yankees.
After being drafted four times by different teams, Patterson signed with the Yankees in 1975 as a first-round pick. He threw in the high 90s with plenty of raw stuff, making him such a high-level prospect that the Reds offered to trade future Hall of Famer Tony Perez for Patterson. The Yanks refused.
Patterson threw nearly 500 innings in two years, and general manager Gabe Paul assigned him to continue his 1976 season in the Venezuelan League. Patterson felt a pop in his shoulder, but kept pitching without realizing it was a torn rotator cuff.
Even with the injury, he continued pitching well enough to make the Yankees in 1977—the infamous "Bronx Zoo" club—and he promised owner George Steinbrenner that he would win 300 games. He won one before the shoulder injury felled him.
He would have eight surgeries, and even attempted to come back throwing lefthanded at one point, before his career ended in 1983. Patterson was parking cars at a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when Steinbrenner recognized him and offered him a coaching job for life. That lasted one year. While coaching short-season Oneonta, Patterson refused to let sore-armed lefty Al Leiter keep pitching, and the Yankees fired him for bucking orders.
Lieppman hired Patterson in 1991, and he would eventually become the big league pitching coach with the Blue Jays from 2002-04, then move back to the Yankees as Triple-A pitching coach before joining the A's as pitching coordinator.
For his part, Lieppman downplays his own role in the success of the pitching operation.
"I've hired the right people, people who know what they are doing," Lieppman says. "People with big imaginations and creativity. That's what I was always interested in in filling those positions."
The formula has worked, and, he believes, will continue to work even with the loss of Patterson.