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Inside The Mind Of Pitching Coach Scott Emerson: Part I

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

My introduction to A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson was humbling. He was on the outfield grass talking to a member of the grounds crew — that would be Chad Huss — who noticed me hovering and asked if I was waiting to talk to “Emo”. At that point, as Chad receded into the background I introduced myself to Emerson, only to have Chad call out, “You’re Nico? I’ve been reading your stuff for years!” Wait, people read this? Why was I never informed that I should think about what I’m writing before publishing the first thing that comes into my mind? Chad and I talked a bit after the the interview and he turns out to be the nicest person on the planet.

Then Emerson echoed Chad, saying, “Yeah, we all read your stuff,” which while flattering also immediately made me wonder, “Should I be writing that tiny Nick Allen is adorable and I want a Nick Allen Russian troll doll?” (I still do, but let’s not get off subject.) As I pointed out to them, as an internet blogger it’s so easy to sit in your bedroom in your underwear firing off a line that sounds funny in your head and not to consider that actual people might be actually reading.

It’s especially tricky when you write just after downing your annual spring training chocolate martini.

I think what I’m trying to say, Chad and Scott, is that every inappropriate, offensive, or critical thing I’ve ever said I wrote under duress, or at least very under dressed. When Jesse Chavez debuted with the A’s serving up 3-run HRs to Nelson Cruz like they were going out of style, did I really sincerely believe that he ate babies? No. Or at least I wasn’t entirely certain. Was I relieved when I asked Chavez for an interview 2 years later and he said “Sure,” rather than punching me in the stomach? Yes.

By the way, I may have over-stated it when I declared Chad to be the nicest person on the planet. It is probably a tie with Scott Emerson, who wound up chatting with me for so long that I am going to break the interview into parts.

This is part I, mostly because it would be downright silly to open with part II. This segment focuses on the young pitchers vying for a spot in the rotation and how the team views the early, middle, and later parts of spring training for them and for all the pitchers. Specifically, in this segment Emerson discusses outings the day before from Daniel Mengden and Paul Blackburn, each of whom have pitched once since (Mengden Friday, Blackburn Thursday) with very good results.

I hope you find this portion of the interview to be illuminating and that it is fodder for some robust discussion. And again thanks to both Chad and Scott for making me feel so welcome, and to all those in the A’s family who read AN. And Chad, the field looks terrific. And Scott, the rotation, well, the field looks really great!

Here’s to 2018, everyone. Cheers!

Nico: I have the same question for a bunch of pitchers…The guys fighting for the rotation, young guys, if they’re here (puts hand at chest level) right now and you want them to get here (raises hand higher to represent “the next level”), I’m interested, pitcher by pitcher, what is that one thing that you’re looking for?

Emerson: I think you break down their 6 or 7 starts in spring training into: the first 2-3 are “get their legs underneath them,” they’re seeing the hitters, their second (phase) is starting to get their stuff better, being able to move their ball around, and their last 2-3 are actually executing the pitches and getting outs and doing the things that we need them to do when the season starts.

So it is a process – sometimes you get a bit nervous if they’re not pitching good early, and then sometimes you might get really excited if they’re pitching good early and you don’t think they should be where they’re at. At the end of the day, you want the pitchers to peak when the season starts. I think the guys are starting to get the ball over the plate now a little bit better and now they’re going to have to incorporate what they do best and mixing up their pitches into the game sequences they would do.

Nico: So with Mengden yesterday (March 10th, when he gave up 5 runs his first inning, 6 runs in 4 IP overall), probably you would say, “good stuff, poor results” and you’re kind of in the middle of that spring training process. Where do you go from here, when you’re assessing an outing like that? What are you wanting him to do better next time, what’s the next step you want him to take?

Emerson: Well, yesterday he gave up the runs in the first 2 innings, and he didn’t really use his changeup, and his changeup is one of his best equalizing pitches. He’s just trying to move his fastball around and maybe throw some more breaking balls that he doesn’t normally do. And then the last 2 innings it was like, “Hey, let’s get this to be a good outing and start mixing in your changeup. I preach to the guys, “If hitting is timing and pitching is disruption of timing, the best pitch to throw to disrupt that hitter’s timing is that changeup. It just took him a couple innings to decide that’s what he wanted to do.

Nico: Blackburn, similarly, started rough (first 2 hitters: single, HR), ended great (3 IP, no further runs). So what are you wanting to see him do better in the last 3 starts?

Emerson: Obviously, start off good, come out of the bullpen ready to execute your pitches. In Arizona, Blackie’s got that sinker and cutter combination, and the ball just doesn’t move as much here. But it’s important to stay on your delivery and stay on your pitches so you can execute those pitches, and when we get out of Arizona maybe the ball will move a little bit more for him.

Nico: That’s an interesting dilemma. When you see a flat sinker down in the zone that gets hits hard, are you saying, “Great sinker in Oakland, keep throwing it”?

Emerson: (Laughing) Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s kind of that I want to see the delivery. If the flat sinker is flat because he’s running away from his delivery, and he’s bailing out of his pitch, or he’s not balanced in his legs, that’s a different story. But if he’s “staying through the baseball,” and is throwing downhill and has good plane, and (the pitch is) just not moving, then I’m anticipating the ball’s going to move when we get out of Arizona. But you know, the Diamondbacks play here, so it’s important for our guys to say, “Hey look, just because we’re in Arizona that means you have to stay in your delivery better, you have to execute your delivery so you can execute your pitch.”

Nico: With those guys, and with Cotton (so we thought), those guys are fighting for a spot. Does that make their earlier results more important at least in their mind, does it change anything in your mind?

Emerson: It doesn’t really change anything in my mind; you’d probably have to ask them in their mind. In my opinion, I would think when you’re a young pitcher and you’re counting the numbers, you put pressure on yourself a little too early in spring. But like I told the guys, “Your first 2 outings are basically for you. Just get out there, get your pitch count going, and then after that we’re going to have to start competing for the job.” We want to see guys stand out.