Ignoring the ugliness that unfolded at the Coliseum this evening and the brutal umpiring, I thought Athletics Nation would enjoy reading a question and answer session with A's Director of Scouting Eric Kubota and Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman.
Kubota has been with the A's organization for 20 years and Lieppman is in his 13th with the club. So they offer quite a deep perspective of our favorite team.
The questions come from a request I made in a comment thread from Athletics Nation directly. It turned out that many of the questions that were originally intended for Kubota related more to Lieppman's area of expertise. Lieppman was kind enough to fill in any gaps.
Thanks in advance to both of them for their generous time dedication as AN asked plenty of questions!
Here is the first part of that interview...these are your questions, so enjoy.
Athletics Nation: Can you summarize the A's organizational pitching philosophy and describe how it is implemented with young pitchers who may not fit the mold well?
Eric Kubota: More for player development. BUT when it comes to how we scout pitchers, we are more concerned with effectiveness than pure "stuff". To us, it's not so much what kind of stuff they have, but how well they use that stuff to get guys out. Of course, stuff and effectiveness is the best combination. We also like pitchers who are good athletes.
Keith Lieppman: From day 1 in the Organization, pitchers are instructed on the use and command of the fastball to both sides of the plate. We want over 60% usage during a ball game. Ideally with our starters we would use 15 % change ups 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 change up 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.
Athletics Nation: Blanton is not pitching as well this year as he did last year. Why is this? Has he lost some speed? Is it a major worry and has it slowed his development? Will he be in Oakland next year?
Eric Kubota: We are very excited about Joe's progress. You have to remember that he is in Triple A in his 2nd full season. He was dominating early in the year in Sacramento and has tapered off a bit as the season has progressed. Not only does he have a chance to have above average stuff across the board, the thing we like most about him is his competitive nature. He's a bulldog and A's fans will have a chance to see that in Oakland sometime in the near future. It's hard to say exactly when that will be, but we do feel that he will be ready fairly soon.
Athletics Nation: Is Jairo Garcia ready to be in the bigs? Why do you think he struggled in his brief Oakland appearance?
Eric Kubota: Probably another question that's best asked to Keith, but I will say that Jairo has dominating stuff and has shown a great ability to get guys to swing and miss throughout the minor leagues. It will be fun to have him here in Oakland fulltime.
Keith Lieppman: Command and location of the fastball is the ticket for his success in the big leagues. He was a starter prior to this role as a set-up or closer, and has a power breaking ball and good change up. He will need time to make adjustments to the running game and speed of the game in the major leagues. He has all of the equipment to be a good major league pitcher.
Athletics Nation: Do the A's make decisions on pitchers (starter or reliever) based more on abilities or on the short- and long-term needs of the parent club?
Eric Kubota: Hate to be passing the buck again, but another question best asked to Keith. I will say that pitchers' roles are generally determined over the long haul. How effective they will be in either role really determines what role they will fill in the big leagues.
Keith Lieppman: Typically we have made decisions on abilities of the pitcher. Most top pitchers in recent years have been developed as starters. Lehr, Garcia, and Duchscherer were all starters that eventually found roles in the bullpen. Others like Hudson, Mulder, Zito, and Harden have always been starters. Huston Street is really one of the few that will be developed as a reliever.
Athletics Nation: Will Nick Swisher be in Oakland next year? There doesn't seem to be a worry in some quarters that Swisher is only hitting .260 in AAA. That doesn't translate well into the majors no matter what his on base percentage. What do the A's feel? What does he need to work on offensively?
Eric Kubota: This is a question that is better suited for Billy or David Forst. The one thing that I will say is that Nick's production in AAA is not limited to his on-base percentage. He has also hit for power and has a chance to score 100 runs this year. Nick's season has been outstanding, and his on-base percentage is only one part of that.
Keith Lieppman: Since he will make his debut tonight against Toronto, we will wait and see. Great storyline and year for the organization's hardest-working player.
Athletics Nation: Have you changed the way you view/rate defense, given the parent club's shift in that regard? Or, to put it a different way, is there a backtracking analysis of defensive metrics in HS/College to see if they panned out in the bigs the same way DePodesta and Co. have dealt with offense and pitching?
Eric Kubota: Defense is much harder to quanitfy than offensive production, especially at the HS and college levels. There are so many factors (i.e. field quality, score keeper quality, level of competition) that it's hard to make any accurate assumptions using amateur stats. As a scout, defense has always been a part of our equation in estimating what kind of player any prospect will become, but it's especially subjective when we are dealing with players for the draft.
Keith Lieppman: This has always been a priority in the minor leagues. There is a huge emphasis in the system that starts with our traveling instructors (Juan Navarrete, Dave Hilton, and Ron Plaza). It is an on going process that begins in rookie ball and continues through Instructional League and spring training. The finishing off process is masterfully done by major league coach Ron Washington. This attitude of playing defense and being a complete player is a constant theme in our organization.
Athletics Nation: Is there an organizational strength-training philosophy or is each level left to implement its own ideas? How much attention is given to strength-training programs? Who develops them? Are the A's as innovative there as in other aspects?
Eric Kubota: Once again, a question for Keith but I can say that we do have an organizational plan when it comes to strength and fitness. Chris Lantz is our minor league coordinator, and it's his job to make sure we are doing the right things for each individual at each level.
Keith Lieppman: The program is run at the top by Clarence Cockrell. He sets the tone. In the minor leagues we have Chris Lantz, who is our strength and conditioning coordinator, who implements in-season, and off-season programs. All programs are individually designed and are geared to specific times of the year. Some players elect to use personal trainers but they are still monitored by our staff. The A's have had a remarkable record for staying healthy and avoiding some of the injuries that plague a season. A lot of that has to do with the programs that are in place.
Athletics Nation: Are the A's going to keep their current affiliations in place? (The ones we wonder about are Midland and Modesto.)
Keith Lieppman: We are signed for 2 more years at Midland, Sacramento, Kane County, and Vancouver. We are still unsigned in the California League. We own and operate our team in the Arizona Summer League.
Athletics Nation: Is it getting harder to find college talent, i.e., do other teams follow college players more now?
Eric Kubota: I think the competition in scouting in general is more difficult now. Clubs are always looking for ways to be better about acquiring talent and there is a lot more information available to everyone. Clubs are continuously changing philosophies to try and find the one that works best for them.
Athletics Nation: Does Danny Putnam project as a middle-of-the-order guy?
Eric Kubota: We feel that Danny Putnam has a chance to be a special hitter. He has a very advanced knowledge of hitting and has shown flashes of his power potential thus far in his pro career. He also has an excellent demeanor for the game. We are very excited to see what Danny will do in our system.
Athletics Nation: Curious if you sense a level of frustration with many River Cats who are clearly MLB-ready, but are held down due to keep their MLB service time in an A's uniform from ages 26-29...The prime years of a players' career. It must be frustrating for players like Morrissey and Dan Johnson to watch a player like Esteban German get called up when they may feel they are more deserving of a spot.
Keith Lieppman: Once a player reaches AAA and sees that he is close to the Major Leagues he begins to realize that he can play there. We would be disappointed if all of them didn't have the attitude that they belonged at the next level. There are many disappointments in every player's career. We continue to stress to them the importance of controlling the things that they can control like approach and attitude. Call-ups are not in that category.
Athletics Nation: Are you ever asked in a given year to concentrate more on one position because a void is anticipated a few years down the road with the parent club?
Eric Kubota: Our philosophy is pretty much consistent from year to year, regardless of what's happening at the major league level. We try and take the best available talent. In most cases, it will be a number of years before the players we draft have an impact on the ML level.
Athletics Nation: Is Brad Knox moving ahead of Blanton in the A's future projections- how do either compare to Hudson or Harden at this stage?
Eric Kubota: I think it's unfair to make any comparisons. We are certainly excited about Brad's success this year. It was a big step forward for him, although we have always felt that he had the ability to do what he has this year.
Athletics Nation: How are injuries considered when allocating interest and resources into a player?
Eric Kubota: Health, or lack of it, plays a major role in our determining who to take in the draft, especially on players taken high in the draft. We certainly don't want to invest big money in a player who is hurt. In some cases, we may even have players checked out by our doctors prior to our drafting them, and we do have our minor league medical coordinator review all the players who we are considering. If he feels that a player warrants further scrutiny, we may pass the injury reports on to our team doctors who will evaluate them and advise us of the risks involved.
Athletics Nation: What kind of attention is given to players who are not expected to make it to the majors? How are they trained?
Eric Kubota: Our hope is that all players that we bring into the system will one day make it to the major leagues. Once they sign, for all practical matters, we treat everyone the same and try to do what's best to make each of them better players, with the hope that they one day play in the ML. Remember that there are many players in the major leagues today that were drafted in later rounds, or in some cases, weren't even drafted at all.
Athletics Nation: Do the players have deep allegiances to the A's or are they aware that they may be traded to another team or another teams' system? How does this impact them? Are A's younger players more excited to be in the system because they know that the A's will often give opportunities to younger players more quickly than teams like the Yankees and Red Sox?
Keith Lieppman: Our initial comment to all of our new players in the system is about our desire to make them major league players. We hope that all of them will play for us in Oakland, and we tell them that. But, the reality is that all of them won't play for us and they know that as well. Our appeal is that they will be trained in a way that will get them ready to play there no matter if it is with us or some other club. When the time comes for a player to be traded many have been better off as the opportunity afforded is better than the chance they would have gotten with us. Each player is different in understanding this concept. Mark Teahen certainly knows that a trade works better for him than sitting behind Eric Chavez for the next 6 years. Whereas Bobby Crosby is in a completely different situation where a spot was opening up due to free agency. Performance, opportunity, and some good timing still are key factors.
Athletics Nation: Does the A's farm system take an interest in psychology like, for instance, the Orioles system does? How do the A's take into account the extra-baseball aspects of a players personality like desire, strength under pressure, reaction to failure, etc...?
Keith Lieppman: We spend most of our time with the staff. We dedicate most of our spring training to developing programs that will enable the players to deal with the many issues that confront them as players. Performance enhancement, failure, lack of confidence, goal setting, feedback, etc. are all part of the minor league experience. We were fortunate to have pioneers in the mental training with Karl Kuehl and Harvey Dorfman as mentors to many of the minor league and major league staff.
Athletics Nation: What is the biggest adjustment players have to make between A ball, AA ball, AAA ball? And have you seen players that should have made the pros get too ahead of themselves when they make AAA?
Eric Kubota: First off, all minor league players have "made the pros". There is not really one answer to this question. It's more of an individual thing, with individual players having different adjustments that they need to make at each level. On the most basic level, it's all about adjusting to ever-improving competition.
There you have it. Two of the most important minds in the A's organization answering your questions.
Part two coming soon...stay tuned.