The A’s triple-A affiliate Sacramento River Cats have a long history of winning – and this season has been no exception. The team currently boasts the best record in the 16-team Pacific Coast League, and has gotten great performances from many members of the starting rotation like Graham Godfrey, Tyson Ross, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, Bruce Billings and even, earlier in the year before his struggles, Brad Peacock. And when we visited Sacramento about a week before the All-Star Break, we took the opportunity to talk with the newest member of the River Cats’ rotation, right-hander Dan Straily, as well as the team’s pitching coach, Scott Emerson.
We also had the chance to talk to one of the staples of the Sacramento lineup who always garners a great deal of interest amongst A’s fans, former 1st-round draft pick Grant Green. The former shortstop, whom the organization converted to an outfielder midway through last season, has recently been playing all over the diamond. The 24-year-old has put in time this season in left field and center field, as well as at shortstop, third base and second base. And after working on his approach at the plate, the right-handed swinger’s power numbers are up a bit this year and his strikeouts are down, and he could very well be angling for a spot with the 2013 A’s.
So be sure to check out our chat with top hitting prospect Grant Green, followed by our conversations with River Cats’ starting pitcher Dan Straily and Sacramento pitching coach Scott Emerson, and get the inside scoop on the 2012 Sacramento River Cats…
Sacramento River Cats
AF: Well you started out the year playing strictly in the outfield, but you’ve been playing a lot of different positions lately – short, third, second. So how has it been adapting to all these new positions and playing a different position everyday?
GG: It’s fun. It’s something new every single day – walking into the clubhouse and checking the lineup to see where I’m playing. It’s kind of fun and interesting to see where I’m playing. Certain days it’s a little bit less stressful to know I’m playing in left. But tomorrow I could be playing second – something different, something new.
AF: So it’s been an enjoyable challenge for you rather than something difficult?
AF: Do you have any preferences in terms of where you’d ideally like to play?
GG: Short, of course – that’s what I’m most comfortable with. After that, I like playing second – something I just started doing this year. I’ve only played 1 or 2 games there. But if I could stay in the middle of the diamond on the infield, I would love to. I’ve gotten more used to playing left.
AF: It sounds like you’d prefer to be where the action is.
AF: What about this year at the plate for you – your power numbers were down last year, but they’ve been up a bit this year – is there anything you’ve been doing differently?
GG: Yeah, we’ve really worked on getting more quality ABs – kind of seeing a little bit more pitches than usual – still being aggressive, but aggressive inside the zone instead of just being aggressive in general. And then last fall I really worked on widening my stance and getting a little bit of a load. It also helps that we’re not playing in Texas League parks. There are a lot of graveyards and the wind blowing the ball foul.
AF: Have most of your home runs been off any particular type of pitch?
GG: I’ve had a couple that were hanging sliders, a couple fastballs in, a couple fastballs down the middle. So it’s been a little bit of an array of pitches.
GG: Either in left-center or left. I think I maybe have one to center, if that.
AF: Your strikeouts have been down a little this year. Is there any particular reason for that?
GG: Just the overall approach. There was a little stretch at the beginning of the year where I was striking out a little bit too much and being a little bit too aggressive – just in general, swinging at bad pitches. And we really worked on quality ABs and quality pitches. And if I strike out looking on a borderline pitch, it’s better than swinging at a ball.
AF: Is there anything in particular that you’re really working on right now?
GG: Yeah, mostly the defensive side – coming back to the infield, trying to get back to that first step coming in, unlike the outfield. Just trying to get back to doing that and trying to cut distance and trying to save the arm a little bit when it comes to the infield.
AF: So are you practicing at different positions every day?
GG: It depends. If I’m playing the infield, then I’ll take all BP at that. And if I’m playing the outfield, I’ll take one round there and usually one round at short and just practice cutting the distance.
AF: I know you’re originally from Orange County, so do you spend most of the off-season in southern California?
GG: Yeah, I have a house in Corona. It’s about 10 minutes from where I grew up. So I spend my time there, travel a little bit, and try and go to the beach as much as possible.
AF: Well you’ve now played in the California League, the Texas League and the Pacific Coast League. So in all your travels, is there any place you’d rather never see again?
GG: Probably Bakersfield. The whole situation there was just a grind. The field wasn’t very nice – the infield was terrible actually. The clubhouse was old. That’s one place I’d never go back to.
AF: That’s funny, you’re not the only one I’ve heard say that.
GG: I bet!
AF: Thanks, Grant.
Sacramento River Cats
AF: Well, you got off to a good start this year at Midland and now you’ve been doing great here at Sacramento too. So what’s been the key to your success this year?
DS: Just throwing strikes down in the zone. Last year in Stockton, I spent a lot of time working on that because of how the ball sails in that league. That’s really been the key to success this year – just being able to keep the ball down.
AF: You’ve always been a bit of a strikeout pitcher, but even more so now. You’re leading the entire A’s minor league system in strikeouts this year. So is there any particular reason for that?
DS: It’s just kind of happened. I’m not pitching all that differently. I’ve just had a few games with a lot of strikeouts. I’ve had some 10+ strikeout nights and a bunch of 7-8-9 nights. It’s not like I’m trying to strike everyone out. It’s just kind of the way things are working out. My goal pretty much every night is to go out there and go 7-8 innings. And sometimes that’s 7-8 innings with a bunch of strikeouts and sometimes it’s 7-8 innings with just a handful of strikeouts. But I’m not necessarily trying to strike people out.
AF: So, you’re not trying to be Nolan Ryan.
AF: Coming from the Texas League to the Pacific Coast League, which is considered to be more of a hitters’ league, have there been any adjustments you’ve had to make?
DS: Not so far. It’s just kind of nice that the wind’s not blowing out at least here. It’s seems like in most of the Texas League stadiums, the wind’s blowing out. But I haven’t really been here long enough to be forced to make any adjustments. I’ve just been pitching the way I’ve been pitching.
AF: So how have you liked playing in Sacramento so far?
DS: So far it’s been awesome. Last night coming in here with a packed stadium – and a packed stadium most places is a few thousand less than it is here. I got to pitch here last week. And you don’t normally notice when you’re playing how many people are there, but when you’re done, you tend to notice those things. It’s a lot of fun. I just like the atmosphere here.
AF: Have you been following your former teammate A.J. Griffin’s progress this year?
DS: Absolutely. He was my roommate in Texas when we were down there. I texted him the other night and told him congratulations and stuff and talked to him a little bit today. It’s awesome. He’s my first friend I’ve seen come up and be in the show now. So that’s just awesome.
AF: Well, that must give you a real sense of just how close it can be.
DS: They keep telling us, you’re just one phone call away. And he definitely proved that. We were down in Vegas one day and just all of a sudden A.J. walked in just beaming with this big old smile and he came in and told us. And I couldn’t be more proud of him.
AF: Well, good luck!
Sacramento River Cats
AF: Well, Dan Straily came up here last month, and he’s been looking as good as he did at Midland. Tell me what you like about him.
SE: Well, I like his delivery. When you have a repeatable delivery like he does, it makes it a lot easier to throw all four of your pitches. He’s got four major league pitches, and he’s just got to go out there and face better hitters here in Triple-A and show us what he can do.
AF: Tell me about his repertoire.
SE: Well, he’s got a sinking fastball that goes to the arm side with good downhill plane to his mechanics. He’s got a good top-to-bottom curveball. He’s got a good late slider that at times looks like a cut fastball. And he’s got an excellent changeup that at times will look like a loose split-finger where the ball will actually fall off the table. So he’s a lot of fun to watch.
AF: What’s been his big strikeout pitch?
SE: More of his breaking ball. But the ability to spot his fastball to both sides of the plate sets up his breaking ball. Everything works off the fastball. When he throws it to both sides and then he’s able to throw that breaking ball, he’s getting them to chase it.
AF: Another guy you had here for a while this year was A.J. Griffin. And so far he’s been doing as well in Oakland as he was here.
SE: Well A.J. is a strike-throwing machine. And he works at the bottom of the strike zone. He works quick. He’s got an excellent changeup. Anytime that you can disrupt the timing of hitters, it’s always a plus. But again, everything comes off that good fastball command. He really commands the fastball down and away. He has the ability to throw his changeup behind in counts, so he’s always back in the count. If he falls behind in the count, he can throw that changeup in a fastball situation and either get hitters swinging or have them put the ball in play. And he’s developed a cutter over the course of the season this year – sometimes it looks like a slider – but to right-hander hitters, he got a lot of groundballs with it.
AF: After having him here for a while this year, did you feel confident about his ability to succeed at the major league level?
SE: Yeah, he holds runners well. That’s one of the questions you always get – does he hold runners? He plays good defense, he has the ability to throw his changeup behind in the count, and he spots his fastball. If you can do those things, you’re pretty much going to have some success in the big leagues.
AF: Another one of your starters here this year is Bruce Billings. He was pitching really well early on, then he was on the disabled list for a while, and now he’s been coming back. Tell me a little bit about him.
SE: Bruce has got real good command. He throws the ball at the bottom of the zone with movement. Anytime you can throw balls at the bottom of the zone with movement, you’re going to have a lot of success. He didn’t really have his sinker last season. But coming here this year, he started the year throwing that sinker at the bottom of the zone and getting some groundballs. He’s got a good late slider. Anytime you can do that and have good life at the bottom of the zone and get groundouts, you’re going to pitch good.
AF: Now what about Brad Peacock? He’s really been struggling of late and seems to have hit a bump in the road. So what’s up with him?
SE: Well, he’s got great stuff. There’s no doubt his pitch mix is very good. He’s struggling a little bit with his fastball command. And once the fastball command comes back and comes around, the sky’s the limit for this guy. His weapons are just that good. He’s got a hard late curveball, and a very good changeup with good arm speed, and then the changeup just dies. So we’re just looking for him to get that fastball command back. And you know, sometimes you put some pressure on yourself. You get traded for a guy like Gio Gonzalez and you run into a couple of rough games – he’s just got to know that we’ve got a lot of confidence in him – you’ve just got to go out there and have fun and pitch your game.
AF: Thanks, Scott – that’s really informative.