When the season began, top pitching prospects like A.J. Cole, Ian Krol and Blake Hassebrock were expected to make the Class-A Stockton Ports’ starting staff the real highlight of the team. But Hassebrock ended up spending much of the first half on the disabled list, Krol has struggled for most of the season, and Cole got off to such a rough start that he was eventually sent down to Burlington.
The focal point of the team turned out to be young third baseman Miles Head who quickly proved himself to be the best hitting prospect in the organization, but almost as quickly found himself promoted to Midland. With Head now gone, the Ports’ offensive load has been turned over to young hitters like catcher Max Stassi, third baseman B.A. Vollmuth, first baseman A.J. Kirby-Jones, shortstop Yorda Cabrera, and outfielders Dusty Robinson and Josh Whitaker. And when we visited Stockton about a week before the All-Star break, we took the opportunity to talk with manager Webster Garrison about some of his hitting prospects.
We also had the chance to talk to the player who now appears to be the Ports’ top pitching prospect, right-hander Sean Murphy. The 23-year-old got off to a red-hot start at Burlington, posting a 1.97 ERA in 8 starts, and he’s continued to look impressive at Stockton. Murphy has the third most strikeouts of all starting pitchers currently in the A’s minor league system with 105 in 110 1/3 innings, and hitters are batting only .222 against him on the season. He’s had a couple of rough starts recently, but Murphy has clearly put himself on the map with his strong performance this season.
So be sure to check out our chat with Ports’ pitcher Sean Murphy followed by our conversation with Stockton manager Webster Garrison and get the inside scoop on the 2012 Stockton Ports…
AF: You’ve been having a great year at Burlington and here at Stockton. Last season, guys were hitting over .300 against you, and most of this year, guys have been hitting around .200 against you. So what’s changed?
SM: I would say just actually getting ahead of batters, and just staying consistent and trusting my off-speed stuff – throwing it for strikes when I need to throw it for strikes, and then going out of the zone when I need to go out of the zone. That’s the biggest key from last year to this year – just throwing every pitch with a purpose.
AF: What made that change happen? Did somebody tell you something, did a light suddenly go off, or did it just creep up on you?
SM: I would say (Burlington pitching coach) John Wasdin helped me out a lot with the mental side of the game – really just focusing in on throwing every pitch with a purpose, not just throwing pitches to throw them – having a your mind set on what you’re going to do with this pitch and what you want the hitter to do with it, rather than just go out there and see the sign for the curveball and just throw it – he wants it away and you throw it away, rather than splitting the plate. So I think that’s the biggest difference – just being committed and having a purpose.
AF: You got off to a great start this year at Burlington, and then you came up here to the California League, which is considered much more of a hitters’ league. So have you had to do anything different here or had to make any adjustments?
SM: Because the wind blows out in most places here, the biggest key is keeping the ball down in the zone. If you keep the ball down and really get ahead of batters, you can start playing with them and get them out.
AF: You’ve been second or third behind Dan Straily in the entire A’s system in strikeouts for most of the year. So what’s been your big out pitch?
SM: Against lefties, I’d have to say the changeup – just the deception of the changeup. Really getting ahead with the fastball, locating it, which sets up the changeup, and working the changeup off the same plane against lefties. Against righties, everything – it’s all come together for me – but I’d have to say my slider late in the count. Just going off the plate and staying down with it gets a lot of swings and misses. And then freezing people going in with the curveball – that’s a big key.
AF: Tell me a little more about your repertoire.
SM: My fastball – I like to get ahead with my fastball. I could get ahead with off-speed too – its just throwing it for strikes is what’s key. My #2 would be my changeup – that’s my go-to pitch. If I’m facing the cleanup hitter with runners in scoring position and a 3-2 count, I’m going to go with my changeup most of the time. And then my curveball has been a big key for me this year – actually throwing it in the zone. Then my slider late in the count. I would have to rank my pitches fastball, changeup, slider, then curve.
AF: Well congratulations – whatever, you’re doing, it all seems to be coming together for you this year!
SM: Yes, sir!
AF: I know you played in the A’s minor league system back in the ‘90s. I remember you playing in Double-A, but they weren’t in Midland at that point, they were somewhere else, right?
WG: When I was playing, they were in Huntsville.
AF: Right, in the Southern League. And then you were at Tacoma in the PCL too, right?
WG: Yep, Tacoma.
AF: I guess you’ve seen all the stops.
WG: A lot of them!
AF: Well, I wanted to get your impressions of some guys on the team here in Stockton. Let’s start off with outfielder Dusty Robinson, who came up here from Burlington about a month and a half into the season. He’s obviously a big power hitter, and he’s from right here in the Central Valley. So what’s your impression been of him so far?
WG: He works hard. Like you said, he’s got the big swing. He’s definitely a home run hitter. We’re just working on him staying on the ball, trying to use the whole field. He’s a good defensive player. He’s got a good arm and he runs well. He’s a good-looking young prospect coming up. He just has to work on that pitch away. Coming inside, he’s ready for that all the time. And he’s definitely a power hitter.
AF: So the main thing he’s got to work on at this point is that away pitch?
WG: Yeah, and he’s working on it. He’s not the only one – there’s a lot of guys in the minor leagues who have to work on that pitch. But that’s definitely one of the pitches he’s got to work on staying on, because he’s a big power guy. He likes to get it going, and once he gets it going, that bat’s coming through the zone and he’s looking to go to left field. And so he’s working on staying to right-center in batting practice.
AF: You said he’s looking good in the outfield. So does he have skills in the outfield? He’s not just a power-hitting DH type?
WG: Oh, he’s definitely not just a DH type. He can definitely play the outfield. He runs balls down. He throws well. He’s diving and hustling, and he runs well. So he’s not just a DH by a long shot. He can play the outfield.
AF: He’s got about 10 stolen bases so far this year, so it does seem like he’s got a little speed.
WG: Yeah, he’s got some speed. He can steal a base. He runs well. He’s a well put-together guy. He’s not a big tall large guy, but he’s well put-together for his size, and he does a little bit of everything. He can hit the ball out of the park, he runs well, he throws well, and he’s a good defensive outfielder.
AF: Right-hander Sean Murphy started out the year in Burlington too and looked really good there. He came up here in May. So how’s he looking to your eyes?
WG: He’s looking real good! He’s a competitor. He goes out there when he pitches and he locates well and he changes speeds well, and he’s competing. He’s out there and he’s got a game plan. He knows what he wants to do with the ball, and he puts it in spots and lets the defense play for him. He makes big pitches when he gets guys on, and he gives us a great opportunity to win when he’s out there. I like what I see out of that kid.
AF: He told me that he’s been throwing with a lot of confidence and a lot of purpose. Is that what you see?
WG: Exactly, that’s definitely what I see. He’s focused, he’s prepared, and he goes out there and he executes his pitches and it’s working well for him right now.
AF: Another guy who just came up from Burlingtonis third baseman B.A. Vollmuth. What do you think about what you’ve seen of him thus far?
WG: I saw a lot of him in spring training. He’s a good young player as well. He’s a good defensive guy for third base – good arm. He’s going to hit as well. He had abig springtraining for us. So were looking for some good things out of him. He’s more of a contact guy. He can use the whole field, and he can drive the ball out of the ballpark. So we’re looking for him to step in there and play well. I think he was playing pretty good in Burlington from the reports I was getting – no big numbers, but putting the ball in play hard a lot. So that’s what I’m looking forward to from him while he’s here.
AF: He came up here when you lost your other third baseman Miles Head, who I’m sure you were happy to pencil into the lineup every night. He’s obviously up at Midland now, but tell me about your impressions of him when he was here.
WG: He’s just one of those ballplayers who’s amazing. That’s all you can say is “amazing.” His approach to hitting is amazing. He puts the ball in play. He puts it in play hard. He hits the ball to all fields. There’s no certain way to pitch him. He hit just about every pitch and he hit it hard. He used the whole field. He plays hard, works hard. He’s a good kid all the way around. I was just happy to have him here as a ballplayer. I knew he wouldn’t be here long. But to lead the league in hitting and have 18 home runs and almost 60 RBIs for half a season, that’s just outstanding – very impressive.
AF: And he just turned 21 while was here too, right?
WG: He just turned 21. He’s an impressive-looking young hitter. I don’t know exactly how he’s doing in Midland right now, but he’s definitely going to be making waves later on in this game.
WG: I think his best tool to hitting is he’s just up there hitting. He’s not up there thinking I’ve got to go the other way or I’ve got to stay inside the ball – where my arm is, where my foot is, where my head is. He’s just going up there ready to hit.
AF: So he’s keeping it simple.
WG: Yeah, he’s keeping it plain and simple. That’s his approach and it works well for him. He goes up there swinging. He’s not up there looking to walk – but if you walk him, he’ll take it. But he’s looking to do damage while he’s up there. He’s not just up there swinging, he’s looking to do damage.
AF: Is there any weakness in his game? Is there anything he really needs to work on as he moves up the ladder?
WG: He could work on his defense a little bit more – just getting jumps. He was basically a first baseman and we moved him over to third base this year. So he’s working hard at it. He’s going to get better, but he’s better than what we thought he was going to be. He’s a ballplayer – he can catch the ball, he can throw the ball. He was already an infielder, so he can definitely catch the ball. He’s just got to work on getting jumps and angles and reads and when to throw it and when not to throw it – just third baseman stuff he hasn’t done in a long time.
AF: So you think he’s got the essentials that he could make it work at third with time?
WG: Oh yeah, definitely. He’s only 21 years old. He just turned 21. Once he gets a couple of years under his belt at third base, he’ll definitely be okay.
AF: How would you compare him to a guy who was a staple here for you at Stockton last year, Michael Choice? Is there any way you could compare the two?
WG: I’d say Mike’s just a raw power guy. He’s going to hit it farther than Miles Head. He’s just one of those strong guys. When he gets a hold of it, it’s gone and it’s gone by a lot. Miles Head is just a little more of a consistent hitter using the whole field – the ball’s in play more and he’s just getting more hits. Mike’s got the big swing where he’s hitting home runs and extra base hits. He had an outstanding second half last year and made some great adjustments. But with Miles Head, the ball’s just in play more and it’s in play a lot more hard. He can just hit the ball out of the park anywhere, and there’s just a little more consistent hard contact.
AF: Catcher Max Stassi was hurt for a while, but he’s been back playing a little more regularly for a while now and showing a little pop. What’s your take on him?
WG: Like you said, he’s been back in the lineup. He got injured earlier in the year, and now he’s getting real comfortable again. He’s started catching a lot. And his bat’s always been a plus in my eyes, because he definitely can hit the ball, and he can drive it out of all parts of the park as well. And now he’s starting to see a lot of pitches and he’s getting more and more comfortable. He’s a staple right in the middle of our lineup right now and we’re going to continue to look for big things out of him.
AF: Another guy people have been looking for big things from is shortstop Yordy Cabrera, but he’s been struggling a bit at the plate here. What’s your take on him?
WG: Young, raw talent – and it shows at times. He’s a young raw kid, but he’s got a lot of potential. He’s got moves in the field – good hands, strong arm. He’s definitely got some pop in his bat. He’s just got to get a little more consistent in his approach and putting the ball in play where he can have some better results. He’s a young kid who’s up there swinging, trying hard – so hard at times that it doesn’t work out for him. But he works so hard. If he just settles down and just tries to do the little things well, I think he’ll be okay.
AF: Well, I guess trying too hard is better than not trying hard enough anyway.
AF: Well, thanks a lot, Webster.