Perhaps there is no more “Oakland A’s” aspect of the team’s surprise 2018 run than its pieced-together starting rotation.
While the front office brass certainly deserve credit for acquiring the bodies, they’re not the ones in the trenches working daily to prolong the careers of starters whose glory days seemed to be long gone. That person would be Scott Emerson – or simply, “Emo” – who assumed his current role of pitching coach just over a year ago, after three years as bullpen coach.
“The first time I saw Trevor [Cahill] throw a bullpen in Spring Training, I said, ‘this guy’s still got his stuff,’” Emerson told Athletics Nation, noting that he first worked with both Cahill and Brett Anderson back in 2008, when the two were in Double-A.
“Edwin Jackson – I coached in the Arizona Fall League in 2004 – he was supposed to be on my team, and I talked to their scouting director for about an hour about him. And then he ended up throwing too many innings and didn’t get to pitch in the Fall League. So I’ve followed this guy’s career for 15 years.”
From Emerson’s perspective, there’s a reason those three and Mike Fiers are still in the league in their 30s.
“I think the veterans have been around so long because they can take critiques. They’re not stubborn, hard headed. They want to be coached, they want people to tell them things,” Emerson said. “I think if you sit back – or don’t critique, or don’t tell them – you’re doing both the team and the player an injustice. So if I see something that needs to be corrected, I’m going say it, because that’s my job.”
But the way Emerson, 46, approaches that job is as a collaborative effort between coach and player.
“Generally I tell them: ‘I don’t work for you, you don’t work for me, we work together.’ Go out and pitch your game. If I got something to say, I’ll say it, if you got something to say, say it. We’re all in this together,” Emerson explained. “And it’s all about the presentation, the way you go about saying it. You say it in a professional manner that, ‘hey, this is good for you,’ and generally they buy into it because they realize, ‘hey, this guy knows what he’s doing, this is going to be good for me.’”
“I think I’m proud of the fact that I hit every stop in professional baseball, and there’s not many coaches that do that.”
Emerson is uniquely situated to mentor his veteran staff given his own coaching journey, which began in 2000. It is, in fact, one of the aspects of his career he is most proud of.
“I started in the Rookie League in Florida – I was there two years. I went to short season-A. I went to A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A. I went to Mexico. I did the Arizona Fall League,” Emerson said. “I was the pitching coordinator, I was the bullpen coach. I think I’m proud of the fact that I hit every stop in professional baseball, and there’s not many coaches that do that.”
It might stand out that he doesn’t personally have MLB playing experience, as many of his colleagues do. Emerson played in the low minor leagues of multiple organizations from 1992-97, climbing as high as Double-A, then wrapped up his playing years in the independent Texas–Louisiana League.
“Some injuries and some just not good seasons led to me coaching early. But I felt like I could have kept pitching,” he said. “I had a sore back and I just didn’t want to pitch the way I had to pitch at that point in time. I just didn’t feel good about it.”
Emerson’s teammates could always tell he’d go into coaching. “A lot of guys that I played with always said, ‘man, you’re, you’re going to be a coach someday,’” he recalled.
But that’s a phrase used frequently. In recent A’s history alone, it’s been applied to Stephen Vogt and Sam Fuld, among other players that seem to just have that certain aura about them.
So, what traits actually make for a good MLB coach?
“I think just a passion you bring to this field every day, the continuing education that you want on your craft and on the game. The ability to communicate with players, guys that are good talkers and good communicators – I think that goes a long way,” said Emerson. “A lot of people would say you’re a ‘field rat,’ you’re always at the field, you’re always trying to better yourself or somebody else. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do, is just find ways to better other people and bring out the most value that every player has.”
“I study my craft, and obviously I want to be the best at what I do, but the ultimate goal is to get each and every pitcher to be the best that they can be.”
On a typical game day, that means reviewing the previous night’s work, “walking the line” as the staff gets its throwing work in, then developing a Plan A, B, and C for the upcoming game. Plan A is for Emerson to scout the opposing team’s hitters, and inform his pitchers on a plan of attack. Plan B is to watch how the game is actually unfolding, and adapt based on what hitters are doing.
Plan C? Coming up with a totally different route on-the-fly if things take a turn for the worse.
“There are days where good coaching is no coaching. You just stay back and try to just reinforce what they’re doing,” Emerson said. “For lack of better term, I’ve been saying with the veteran pitchers we have acquired, ‘you take on an antique and you polish it back up to be its treasure.’ But a lot of guys are who they are, so you want to get what they do good and just keep them consistent.”
Even with the grind of the 162-game MLB season, Emerson continues to work through the offseason, consulting and traveling to Europe bi-yearly with Purpose Driven Baseball. Given his near-constant devotion to the sport, it seems like Emerson could be a fit to start managing some day. But he loves the more pointed nature of being a pitching coach.
“I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t turn anything down, you’re always going to have to listen, but the enjoyment of being a pitching coach is more that you’re with the players on a consistent basis, trying to get them better, so the manager can manage the game,” he said.
“But it might be fun someday. We’ll see.”
This was Part I of a two-part series with A’s coaches. Stay tuned for hitting coach Darren Bush.