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Talking to Wagner, Godfrey, Fuentes and Balfour

On March 3rd, as a part of a visit to Spring Training in Peoria, Arizona, I was invited to come into the A’s clubhouse in Phoenix at Phoenix Municipal Stadium before everything got started for the day to interview some players as any member of the media could. It was an exciting day in A’s camp as it marked the first appearance in the clubhouse of Yoenis Cespedes, the great Cuban import the A’s surprised everyone by signing. I was able to conduct brief interviews with eleven players and this is the second of three parts (click here for Part One). I have separated them so that each group has some degree of relevancy, it is not the order I did the interviews in. This second grouping represents the four returning pitchers I spoke with Neil Wagner, Graham Godfrey, Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour. The next part will feature four pitchers new to Oakland or yet to reach the Majors. First and foremost, I want to thank the A’s for this incredible opportunity, it was an experience that I never would have imagined possible and I also want to thank all the players who took a few minutes to talk to me.

Let's start of with Neil Wagner who I was able to ask two questions of. With his time on the A's roster being so limited and his not really being a prospect prior, he is one of the players I was least familiar with but he was a nice and articulate guy. Here are my two questions I had for the 28 year-old righty.

Q: This year you have a shot at a bullpen job. How has this spring training differed from ones in the past now that you’ve made it to the Majors?

A: The main difference is that this year, all I have to focus on is going out and performing and I feel like if I at least do that then I have a shot to get where I want to be. Whereas in past spring trainings you go out and you’re trying to earn, the chance to earn a chance. Like here, you’re in the mix and you go perform well you have a shot and you can't really ask for more than that.

Q: What sort of role do you hope for and feel most comfortable with in the bullpen. Do you aspire to close?

A: For the most part, everyone who is going to be in our bullpen has closed at some point in the minor leagues or in college, and a lot of guys in the big leagues. Everyone would sort of like to be the top dog and be the closer. The reality is if I am the long guy, or I am coming in to get one guy. Whatever gets me out there and keeps getting me opportunities, I am perfectly happy with.

Wagner came off the radar for me at least last year when he got called up to the big league club. In very limited action - he pitched all of five innings - he sported a messy 7.20 ERA, still messy 6.43 FIP and still far from ideal 5.33 xFIP. That is of course much different from how he performed in MiLB where last year he began in Midland where in 37 1/3 innings he had a stellar 12.8 K/9 to just 3.1 BB/9 allowing zero home runs for a sparkling 1.49 FIP. That earned him a promotion to Sacramento where he continued to impress posting 10.6 K/9 to 3.1 BB/9 and allowing just 0.6 HR/9 over his 29 innings of work with the River Cats. Wagner has electric stuff with his fastball averaging 95.3 mph last year. It makes sense he would be happy with any role as I imagine most 28 year olds coming off of their first season with any MLB action would be. If he can keep the walks down (a problem for him earlier in his career) he could be a nice bullpen piece.

Next up is Graham Godfrey who is vying for a rotation spot with the 2012 club.

Q: At the beginning of last year it was a much different situation for you. You weren’t on the 40-man roster and I suppose fortuitously for you there were a lot of injuries that allowed you to get a shot and you made the most of it while you were up here. Could you describe, the difference for you from this year to last year now when you have a great shot at one of those roster spots?

A: I think one of reasons I had so much success last year was mainly in part because I took out the factors of what level I was at, whether it was at Double-A or Triple-A or the big leagues. It took me a while to figure that out but you can’t worry about what level you’re at, it’s just about winning and what you can do to help you team and what you can do to win that day. I think that helped me a lot, that I way I wasn’t worried about when I was going to be called up. Was I out of here? Was I being sent down? Was I being called up? I think that was sort of the biggest thing.

Q: Going off of that, in a way do you think there’s almost more pressure now given that there’s a different set up expectations?

A: I think it just depends on how you look at it. There’s obviously pressure. There’s a high level of competition in camp right now. But, the way that I view it is, it’s an opportunity. You got to make the most of whatever opportunities are given. Instead of being nervous, it’s about being excited and having the opportunity.

Q: Yesterday [March 2nd] you got the start here and pitched two innings [allowing two earned runs on two hits including a two-run home run by the Mariners' Michael Saunders, walking one and striking out four]. How did it feel? Things you’re happy with anything you weren’t?

A: I felt pretty good. I made my pitches when I needed to. Even on the home run, it was a pretty good location; it was right where I wanted it. It just happened to go right into his bat. But I was happy with it.

Godfrey in some respects was similar to Wagner as he sort of came out of nowhere to join the club. Originally acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in the deal that sent Marco Scutaro up north, Godfrey put together a good season in Sacramento that forced the call-up. All said and done in Sacramento last year he posted a 2.68 ERA, with a 3.30 FIP getting 7.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and allowing just 0.5 HR/9. I think Godfrey looks good for earning himself a spot in the rotation.

Next up southpaw reliever Brian Fuentes:

Q: Last year there was a big difference and you talked about it too in the media, between you in save situations and in non-save situations. Is there a different approach you have in save situations? I know you had said there was a comfort level knowing your role.

A: It’s just the way you prepare to come in. You don’t know your role; you’re not really sure when you’re supposed to be getting ready for the game. As far as save and non-save situations, if you’re closing and you go into a non-save situation, it’s like you have to artificially generate some pressure because you’re just used to that intensity and in those situations you don’t have that and you have to try and find a way to do that. Especially when you’re not closing, now you’re the set up guy you gotta find a way to do that and still be effective.

Q: You’ve pitched in Colorado and you’ve pitched here [in Oakland] quite a different ballgame, what’s it like?

A: I never really found it a problem in Colorado, I think it was maybe before the humidor there was some difference. But once they started doing that, it evened the playing field.

Q: You are fighting for the closing job, there aren’t too many lefties, would you be fine ever with being a lefty-specialist guy?

A: No. I’m not ever looking to be a lefty-specialist guy. I’ve always been adamant about being able to get both right-handers and left-handers out and I don’t consider myself a lefty-specialist and I’m not sure I ever have been in my career.

What I loved about this interview was that Fuentes treated the term lefty-specialist as if it were a four letter cuss word I had just directed at his mother. I loved that fire. There is a school of thought that, as a player is a professional who is paid to do a job, regardless of what scenario they are used in, they need to perform. I get that mentality, but I also can see how one being used in a consistent manner allows one to better prepare psychologically for a game. I am a huge fan of sabermetrics but think that one thing they undervalue is the psychological impacts that various stresses can have on players. I imagine one undervalued commodity could be if a team could identify these sorts of psychological traits to find a team that worked better and more cohesively as a unit, or that found people who were more easily adaptable to new or varying roles, etc. Regardless, Fuentes' numbers do indicate a preference for closing and they carry through not only in 2011 but throughout his career.

Sv Sit ‘11 8.2 2.63 1.09 3.13
Non-Sv Sit ‘11 5.3 1.75 1.33 4.08
Sv Sit Career 9.4 2.65 1.20 3.05
Non-Sv Sit Career 9.6 2.43 1.27 3.82

That said the big knock on Fuentes has been difficulties in his career facing right-handed hitters. With how his pitching motion conceals the ball to lefties it is apparent how he would pitch them tough, but against righties the results haven't been there quite like he may say. While last year he did pitch better to right-handed batters than left-handed batters a lot of that could be accounted for with dramatically different BABIPs from one platoon to the other (right-handed hitters' BABIP against Fuentes in 2011 was just .230, whereas left-handed hitters managed a slightly high .308). In his career the numbers are not nearly as sanguine, but also unless you look at advanced stats not all together that bad.

Slash Line OPS+ K/BB FIP
vs. LHB .218/.303/.315 85 3.57 2.82
vs. RHB .226/.320/.374 107 2.19 4.12

Those minor increases in the slash line truly manifest themselves in the OPS+ and furthermore the fact that fewer right-handers are fooled really shows in the FIP. I like Fuentes' moxy but the stats don't entirely support his assertions. Ultimately, he does have a lot of experience as a closer, I am not enamored of the saves statistic but he has 199 in his career (ninth most among active MLB pitchers) and has converted 84% of save opportunities. I do like the stats shutdowns and meltdowns, and he has 253 shutdowns to 79 meltdowns in his career for a 3.2 SD/MD ratio. The job for closer likely will come down to either Fuentes or Grant Balfour (owner of 112 shutdowns and 43 meltdowns for an inferior 2.6 SD/MD ratio) who I also spoke to:

Q: I actually got the chance to see you in the Intercontinental Cup in 1999 which Australia won. Any chance of Australia winning a World Baseball Classic?

A: That was a long time ago. I don’t know it’s always tough, you know we don’t have the depth of some of these other guys. We’ve got some good players but not the depth to go all the way. I’d like to see it happen but maybe after I retire from playing I might try and reinstate and come back and play it. We’ll see what happens. The time of the year though it’s tough because you’re always trying to get ready for this season [the MLB season]. I hope they do well, hard to predict, teams and guys at different stages and obviously guys in America here are trying to get ready and they aren’t always in great shape so some of these other countries are a little ahead. Sometimes I think you can’t really get a good read on that tournament. I don’t think everyone is at their peak to really show where they are.

Q: How’d you get into baseball being in Australia?

A: I more or less came across the game but didn’t really know the game. My dad, he played professional rugby and it was one of those things where we stumbled across the game, saw it being played. Next thing you know I sort of show up and they need an extra player and I start playing and my dad becomes really involved in the game. We fall in love with the game. He’s been sticking with it ever since, he’s coached.

Q: How do you even get discovered in Australia?

A: There’s a bunch of scouts down there now. You go down there now and check it out, you’ll see that it’s a bit more developed.

Q: I remember when I was there, explaining the sport to a lot of the fans around me.

A: Yeah, the Sydney Grounds [the since closed venue for the baseball games in the Intercontinental Cup and 2000 Summer Olympics] they’ve got the cows running around on there now.

Q: Between last year and 2010 using some metrics like xFIP your seasons were basically the same but you had a big difference between how many fly balls turned into home runs. Is that something that you feel is controllable or is it more of just a hitter taking a mistake pitch.

A: I don’t even know how many home runs I gave up last year, you could probably tell me. I gave up a couple yesterday (March 2nd in the spring opener against the Mariners he surrendered home runs to Luis Rodriguez and Jesus Montero), I remember that. You have some days where shoot the wind is howling out and its good and it might go out. I can’t really tell you what the difference is. I feel like I didn’t do anything different. Like you said, the numbers were the same except they came from a couple more long balls. I still had the same amount of runs given up they just kind of… I guess if you get them up though, you just want them to be solid. It’s going to happen. Once they start being two, three run and grand slams it’ll hurt you a lot more though.

What I found fascinating about Balfour is that on the mound he is so emphatic with his reactions to missed pitches or hits and especially home runs. Fans watching on television or listening on the radio can often hear Balfour's frustrations over the crowd noise even in fuller ballparks. Yet, his reaction was much more laissez-faire sort of "over it" with respect to him talking about the home runs he gave up both the day before and the season before. What struck me is that that is a great quality to have in a closer, a guy who has the fire and passion and is angry at making mistakes yet forgets about any mistake by the next day and is ready to start a new - a quality good for any reliever really but in particular the high pressure closing role. Balfour's stats from 2010 and 2011 do demonstrate the power of the home run to run roughshod over a pitcher's record sabermetrically. It also in some ways offer some fodder to people who question the value of advanced stats, have a look:

2010 55.1 16 0.5 4.1% 2.28 2.68 3.59
2011 62.0 17 1.2 11.0% 2.47 3.77 3.57

There are more things than just the HR/9 at play with explaining the difference between Balfour's 2010 and 2011 seasons. There is the fact that he had a .274 BABIP in 2010, but still performed worse despite a .232 BABIP in 2011 that perhaps makes this all look much different. There is a strand rate that went from a slightly better than average 78.9% in 2010 to an incredible 89.0% in 2011. These things helped keep Balfour's ERA down. Now those forces helped suppress his ERA, but ultimately the value of Balfour as determined in WAR largely rests upon the FIP which went up significantly, therefore Balfour's WAR fell from 1.1 with the Rays in 2010 to just 0.4 last year with the A's. Some might argue - and fairly - that results are all that matter in the end and Balfour wasn't that different. What is interesting is how is bad luck was offset by his good luck, yet how WAR doesn't care at all and penalizes him quite harshly. Just an interesting set of numbers.

It was great getting to talk to these four players. The finale of this set of interviews will run next Sunday.

I also got to go to yesterday's game in Phoenix, so here is some of my shaky camera work including Yoenis Cespedes first hit which you see of the bat and then which I lose completely!