Mychael Urban, the Oakland A's beat writer for MLB.com, recently finished his ACES book on the 2004 journey of the Oakland Big Three, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Urban followed the three pitchers throughout the 2004 campaign and chronicled every step of the way.
He first told AN about the book when it was still in its infancy. He then gave AN an update on where the book was right as the September swoon was starting.
Now, Urban is finished writing the book and he's here to give us a more complete view of how the book evolved through the process. Plus, he gives us a nice tease at the end of this question and answer session.
Enjoy...and if you want to put in a preorder for this book (and I know you do), go to this page at Amazon.com.
Blez: First of all, congratulations on finishing your first book. How do you feel the reality evolved when compared to the original vision of the book?
Mychael Urban: First of all, thanks. And thanks for taking such an interest in the book. As for the differences between my original vision and the reality of the finished version: My plan was to write a baseball book. A book mostly about pitching. What I ended up with was a book about three guys dealing with a lot of the same crap -- frailty, frustration, failure -- that the rest of us deal with every day. It's still a baseball book, and there's a ton of detail on the craft of pitching, but I think it became something that might have a little broader appeal than the original vision would have had because it humanizes The Big Three. Prior to 2004, these guys were machine-like. Well, the machines broke down a little this season, adding elements to the book that I really think people will enjoy.
Blez: Was it challenging to get the pitchers to continue to open up, especially down the stretch as Mulder and Hudson struggled?
MU: Not at all. If anything, they became more open down the stretch. I'd go home some nights absolutely floored by what they were giving me, and I think they really liked having someone to talk to, particularly when things were going sour. ... When the guys agreed to really be a part of this thing, we spent a lot of time talking about how important it was for them to be completely honest with me about everything, and they were even better than I expected. Very rarely did I feel like one of them was holding back, and when I did, they were dead cool if I called them on it.
Blez: Speaking of Mulder, do you have any advance insight as to what happened to him coming down the stretch? Was he hurt?
MU: He wasn't hurt. He was tired, physically and emotionally. He admits to that now. There was a time, when Barry was struggling and Tim was hurt, that the A's needed Mark to go deep and win every single time out, and he knew it. That's a lot of pressure and stress, not to mention a lot of wear and tear on an arm. Remember, Mark didn't pitch the whole season in 2003 because of the leg injury, and as a result he got started in his offseason workouts earlier than he normally does. So fatigue seems pretty logical -- almost inevitable. Looking back, he won't use any of that as an excuse for his problems late in the year, but he's now willing to concede that it all might have been a factor. And he plans to hold off a little this winter before cranking it up again, just to be sure that he doesn't wear down again.
Blez: As for Hudson, rumors are starting to circulate that Tim will be traded this offseason as the A's don't believe they are going to be able to re-sign him. Have you talked with either Billy Beane or Hudson about this and do you think it's likely?
MU: I've spoken with both of them about it, and Tim talks about it a lot in the book. He knows that a trade is a possibility, and he's totally prepared to move on if it comes to that. That doesn't mean he wants to leave Oakland. He doesn't. But at this point in his career, Tim cares only about winning world championships, and if he doesn't get a sense that the A's have the same commitment toward that goal, he's definitely open to going to a team that has a legitimate shot at the title. Do I think it's likely that they'll trade him? No. But from a business standpoint, if they don't think they can sign him to an extension, it does make sense to get something significant for him in a trade right now. If he plays out his deal and leaves as a free agent, all they get is a draft pick.
Blez: Do you think the A's will keep any of the Big Three or do you think Billy Beane is leaning toward rebuilding with younger guys like Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Brad Knox and Jason Windsor?
MU: Depends on what you mean by "keep." They'll almost certainly have two or three of The Big Three around next year, and Mark and Barry have pretty inexpensive club options for 2006. Beyond that, I'd just be guessing as to what the A's are thinking regarding the rotation. Harden is about to blow up into a star, no doubt, but I'm not sold on any of the other guys as bonafide big-league starters. Blanton got roughed up pretty good at Triple-A at times this year, and if he were as talented at any of The Big Three or Harden, he'd have made it to The Show at 22 or 23 like those guys did. Knox and Windsor are even bigger question marks for the time being. I think they might make a decent rotation by 2007, but they'll never be as special as what we're seeing in Oakland right now.
Blez: Was it a challenge coming down the stretch when the "ACES" started to struggle so badly? If Mulder wins one or two games in September, then the A's are probably in the playoffs.
MU: The challenge was to not slug the smartass writers who knew what I was working on and bombarded me with alternative title suggestions, such as "Used To Be Aces," or "Rich Harden's Valets." (Actually, that second one is kind of funny; most were not.) The rest of it wasn't a challenge at all. As I've said before, I think the struggles make the book more interesting, so I was fine with what was happening as long as the guys were being honest with me, and they were. And by the way, Mark agrees with you. After his last start of the season, he told me, "If I win one or two of my last seven starts, we're already in the playoffs. ... It's like it's all my fault."
Blez: Do you have a final release date for the book?
MU: The book will be out late in March. We're having a private launch party in Scottsdale during Spring Training, and I think we'll have an event at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, too. Then, hopefully, a signing or something at the Net in the first week of the season. I'm pretty sure the book will be in stores before the season opens, but if your readers want to reserve a copy now (and get a discount), it's already available on amazon.com. Just type in my name in their search function and it'll take you to the book's page.
Blez: Did any of the pitchers campaign to keep Curt Young as the pitching coach? How did they feel about him in the end?
MU: None of them campaigned to keep Curt, but don't take that to mean they didn't want him back. They all like Curt and think any criticism of him regarding this season is pretty unfair. Did they miss Rick Peterson and Ramon Hernandez this year? Of course. You can't spend your whole career with the same pitching coach and catcher, have them both leave at the same time and not go through an adjustment period of some sort. But none of The Big Three has anything bad to say about Curt or Damian Miller. They understand that change is part of the game, and they all take total responsibility for whatever struggles they had this season.
Blez: Is there one part of the book that will shock or surprise A's fans?
MU: I think readers will be shocked/surprised by a number of things, particularly a couple of admissions by Mulder. Expanding on my answer any more than that doesn't make a lot of sense from a book-selling standpoint. Sorry.
Blez: In your opinion, being around these guys so much, what truly motivates these pitchers? Is it to win a World Series or personal achievement or something else?
MU: As I said, Tim is motivated by one thing: winning championships. So are Mark and Barry, of course, but Tim seems to have this white-hot passion about it that's really powerful. Barry's motivation, I think, is to become the best pitcher in the history of the game. Some people might scoff at that, but it's true. I've never seen a guy so committed to his craft, which is why I find it laughable it's suggested that he should focus less on acting or surfing or music or whatever. Those are simply hobbies for Barry, and everyone needs outside interests if they want to have balance in their lives. Greatness is what motivates him, plain and simple. Regarding Mark, that's a tougher question to answer, but I do know that Mark simply loves to compete no matter what he'd doing, so the pure competition of it all might be what drives him. But I get the sense that Mark is still trying to find himself as a person, so even he might not know exactly what motivates him as far as the big picture is concerned. Right now, though, he's simply motivated to prove that the second half of 2004 was a stumble, not a career-threatening trend.
Blez: OK, so I've got to ask, can AN get another sneak preview of the book? We're dying to see any secrets revealed on so many things, like whether or not there was an undisclosed Mulder injury and what Hudson's long-term thoughts are on staying in Oakland.
MU: There's no way I'm leaking anything that juicy this early, but rest assured that Tim's thoughts - and the thoughts of Barry and Mark, as well - on his future in Oakland are a huge part of the last chapter. What I will give you a look at part of Chapter 16, in which The Big Three offer their thoughts on the "new guys." In the excerpt that follows, Curt Young is featured, and I thought your readers might get a kick of out of material borrowed from their favorite website. Enjoy, and thanks again for your interest, Blez. I'll see you at the launch party.
"Curt's not really a hands-on kind of guy," says Hudson. "I think he understands that we're all big-league pitchers, you know, and I think he lets us ... he trusts our judgment. He trusts that we know what we need to do to get ready and that we're as professional as we should be. And I think guys appreciate that, because some people might come into a situation like this and think, `I've gotta put my stamp on this.' Curt's never done that. He trusts the system and he trusts us."
"I'd say `trusting' is a good word for Curt," adds Zito. "If you want to try something new, he'll say, `OK, let's check it out.' Rick would say, `Something new? Why? What you've been doing works. Why fuck around?'"
Young trusts the system because he knows it. His coaching career began in 2000 as the pitching coach for Oakland's Double-A club in Midland, Texas, and in 2003 he was moved up to Triple-A Sacramento. By the time he got the big-league job, everything was rote. "We had a thing organization-wide that we did throughout," he says.
And what, exactly, is that thing? Oakland's director of player development, Keith Lieppman laid it out in an interview with athleticsnaton.com, which might be the most comprehensive baseball "blog" on the web. Even Beane has submitted to a sit-down with the site. "From day one in the organization, pitchers are instructed on the use and command of the fastball to both sides of the plate," Lieppman told Tyler "Blez" Bleszinski, who runs the site. "We want over 60 percent usage during a ball game. Ideally with our starters, we would use 15 percent changeups and the rest with the breaking ball. Early outs -- find contact within the first three pitches -- are stressed, using pitches to the lower part of the zone. After pitchers learn these aspects, we go to elevating the fastball, using the changeup in fastball counts and finally using put-away pitches, properly called `sequencing.' Since pitching is so individualistic, the organization cannot lump any pitcher into groups or a mold. Pitch development, mental training, and other aspects are geared toward each individual since they are so varied and different. There are other programs that involve side work, pre-game, weight work, and care and maintenance of the arm that are very regimented and geared toward the group." Keeping track of pitch counts, Lieppman adds, is an important part of it all. "We keep starters below 75 pitches at the rookie league level," he says. "We keep starters at the other levels below 100 pitches. Early in the season, we operate around 75 to 80 pitches. Side work is strictly monitored by pitch counts, and pre-games are also counted. Long-toss programs, daily warm-ups, and all volumes are kept and recorded by the pitching coach. Unnecessary throws are all eliminated. Relievers cannot throw three days in a row in a game. They are limited to getting up in the bullpen three times, and if they are not in the game by then, they are done for the day. Their warm-up pitches are numbered. If they exceed a certain number, they are unable to pitch for two, three, or four days, depending on the volume during the game."
Young isn't just familiar with this system. He was one of the architects. "We did the same thing from rookie ball to the big leagues, with Rick and [A's minor-league roving pitching instructor] Ron Romanick and all of us coaches involved," he says. "So I felt comfortable with the physical part of it, what guys do on a daily basis, relievers, starters. That was the easy part."
Acceptance was fairly easy for Young, too, mainly because he has a big-league pedigree. Young pitched for 11 years in the majors. Ten of them were spent with the A's, and he was part of the starting rotation for the "Bash Brothers" teams -- Canseco, McGwire, et al -- that went to three World Series from 1988-90. "I definitely think it helps to know you've got a guy who's been through all the same shit you're going through," Mulder says, and Hudson agrees. "Having pitched for this organization and knowing what it's like to get guys out at this level, he understands that it's not easy," Hudson explains. "You may have the right pitch and the right location, and you can still give up a hit or something, because this is the big leagues and that's what big-league hitters do. For the most part, if you do make the pitch, you're gonna get them out, but that's not gonna happen all the time. Sometimes you've just gotta tip your hat to them, and he understands that."
The real challenge for Young was the same challenge anyone faces in a new work environment. Getting to know people. Building relationships. Establishing rapport. That was particularly important with The Big Three, because if you can't get along with the leaders, the followers will never follow. "All of that needs to be done on the one-on-one basis," Young says, "so I went to them early and found out their needs and what they like from a coach. Whether it's hands-on, whether you want some advice throughout the game, whether you want to talk after the game. I've taken that approach with basically every guy on the staff, including those three, where, with communication, you've gotta pick your times and make sure you go to them at the right times talking about improving or doing something with their game. With Mark, you've kind of got to let him come to you. He keeps to himself, so you just leave him alone until he asks you about something. Barry's more of a guy who wants to know what you think. He wants to know what the catcher thinks. And Tim, he's somewhere in the middle there."
The middle seems like a comfortable place for Young. He'll tell you the truth, but he'll be damn sure the truth doesn't rub anyone the wrong way. Ask him about how his style differs from Peterson's, and he beats around the bush a bit. "Well, see, I was never around Rick the entire season. I was around him in Spring Training. I know he was always in a mode of helping guys improve. We all are. And that's the art of coaching, how you communicate to each individual how you think you can make their game better. And that's how I'm gonna say the style was different. How he talked to people was definitely different that how I communicate." As for how his personality differs from Peterson's, Young is a little more giving. Peterson's willingness to talk is legendary, and Young didn't have to spend a full season with him to know that.
"He may be a little more outgoing with the press," Young says coyly. "He may be more involved with the press, I'm not quite sure. I think [reporters] know, you've gotta come to me to find stuff, I don't come to you. Telling you what guys should be doing, that's not me. It's all about making the guys on the field better, and I try to do it with a style and the way I learned throughout past coaching experiences. I knew Rick during Spring Training, and he was very organized, very technical with all the things that went on, and that may differ from me, too. I may be a little simpler."
But when posed a simple question, Young again reaches for that middle ground. Say you somehow had Hudson, Mulder and Zito all fully rested heading into the biggest game of the season. Who gets the ball? "Wow," he says, getting up to end the interview before another sticky question comes his way. "Well, I think I'd go three innings with each guy. That's it, right there. That's nine innings. And I'd make Hudson the closer."
Thank you so much, Mychael. I'm really looking forward to the insights revealed in ACES. And thanks for the AN plug. I'm just glad the site offered you something you could apply to the book.