Due to a seemingly never-ending wave of injuries, the A’s have truly been a team in flux this season. But the resulting roster turmoil has provided plenty of opportunities for some of the team’s top prospects, including starting pitcher Daniel Mengden and corner infielder Ryon Healy, both of whom we took the opportunity to talk to earlier this week. We last spoke with Mengden in this May interview, shortly after he made his first start for Nashville. And we hadn’t spoken with Healy since his time in Stockton in 2014, when we talked to the big batch of A’s prospects who were then playing for the Ports in this piece.
Both players started this season with Double-A Midland, but their impressive performances brought them all the way to the big leagues within a matter of months. And we wanted to check in and see how the adjustment to the majors was going. We spoke with both of them earlier this week, shortly before Oakland’s 10th-inning walk-off win against the Astros, in which Healy drove in a pair of key runs for the A’s.
After finishing last season with a strong second half for Midland, Ryon Healy found himself starting 2016 back in Double-A due to an abundance of corner infielders on this year’s Nashville team. But the 24-year-old immediately began tearing up the Texas League and quickly earned a May promotion to Nashville, where he didn’t miss a beat. Healy had the best batting average and slugging percentage among all A’s minor leaguers when he was called up by the A’s a week ago. And he’s shown some real pop as well as an ability to hit with runners in scoring position during his brief time in Oakland. Originally drafted as a first baseman in the third round of the 2013 draft, the southern California native mostly split time between first base and third base in the minors, but the A’s have made it clear that they’d like to see if Healy can handle the hot corner in the majors. And so far, with the help of A’s infield coach Ron Washington, the audition’s been going well…
AF: So how have your first few days in the big leagues been going for you so far?
RH: You know, it’s been awesome. All the players and the coaching staff have done a great job of helping me get into a good routine between the cage and the weight room and then early defense and B.P. So I can’t thank all the guys enough for making me feel comfortable and at home here so far.
AF: Well it must be nice for you to see a few guys here you’ve actually played with before.
RH: Definitely. The day I showed up here, I recognized at least half the clubhouse. The other half I’ve seen, so I made sure I introduced myself. I’m just trying to show all the respect I can for the veterans here.
AF: So were you out working in the field with Ron Washington earlier today?
RH: Every single day I’m out there with Wash before the game.
AF: How useful and instructive has that experience been for you?
RH: He probably has way more knowledge than I’ll ever be able to absorb, but I’m going to be out there every day just trying to learn anything and everything I can from him just because of how much experience he has. But even in the short time that I’ve been here, he’s done a lot for my confidence as a defender.
AF: Now you haven’t been here that long yet, but is there anything different about the way that major league pitchers approach you that’s caused you to have to make any adjustments in your approach at the plate?
RH: I think just being ready to hit in every count. A lot of these pitchers don’t know me, but these guys aren’t afraid of me. Obviously, they look at me and I’m a few days into the big leagues, so they’re going to come right after me with heaters. I made the mistake the other night when I faced Roberto Osuna of the Blue Jays of out-thinking my at-bat and I got four or five straight heaters and all of a sudden I was struck out. Some of the veterans in here have helped me with that kind of mental stuff. So I’ll be more prepared next time.
AF: Is there anything else that’s been different for you either on or off the field when it comes to major league life compared to things in Nashville or Midland?
RH: It’s still baseball, at a very high level – the very highest level. And you need to make sure that your body and your mind are prepared every day to perform at the highest level. But at the end of the day, it’s still a game and everyone’s here to enjoy it. But it’s also a business, and you need to prove every day that you can be here and want to stay here.
AF: You started out the season at Double-A Midland and you’ve come a long way in a few months and now you’re here. You probably were the best overall hitter in the A’s minor league system this year, so what accounts for the big leap forward you seemed to take this season?
RH: I think it was just a mindset honestly. I didn’t really enjoy the way that I finished the season last year. I know my numbers looked good but, the way that I viewed it, I wasn’t satisfied at all with what I did. I thought the second half of my season last year was a big improvement over the first half, but I still wasn’t very happy with the way that I finished the season. So I knew I had to go home and make some big adjustments. So I watched a lot of video and talked to a lot of people with a lot of experience and absorbed what I could and applied what I did. And fortunately for me, I walked into spring training with a positive mindset, understanding that Double-A was probably going to be my starting point. But I also know it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. I’m definitely not anywhere near the finish, and I never will consider myself near the finish line, but I’ll always just continue to work harder and get better.
AF: So you started out with a positive approach about trying to prove yourself and letting them know what you could do?
RH: That was definitely the mindset going in – it was chip on your shoulder, prove everyone wrong, and try and shock the world.
AF: Rather than mope about it, just go out and show them.
RH: It was one or the other. It was pretty much a make or break year for me. And fortunately for me, I picked the right mindset and went from there.
AF: What are some of the adjustments you’ve made at the plate that have helped you get to where you’re at now?
RH: I think a lot of it’s my mental approach at the plate – just being able to decide which pitches I can do damage with and which pitches I should take, whether they’re balls or strikes. So I’ve taken a lot more strikes this year, and it’s allowed me to get more mistakes, because I’m ready for a pitch in my zone. Rather than hitting a pitcher’s pitch, I’m hitting a pitch I want to hit – which is probably why my strikeouts have gone up, but my walks have also increased. I’m not afraid to hit with two strikes. I’m not afraid to take a strike earlier in the count if it means that I’ll get a pitch in my zone later in the count.
AF: It sounds like you’ve really become very intelligently selective, looking for that pitch that you can handle and just trying to lay off of everything else.
RH: Exactly, I think that’s been a big factor in it right now.
AF: Now you’re from California, and I know your family’s had a chance to come out and see you play. So how has it been for you to be able to have the chance to play here in California?
RH: It’s incredible. The best part for me is being in the same time zone. I can text my siblings and my parents, instead of having to time our phone calls, so that’s been nice.
AF: So now that you’ve been here for a few days, is there anything that you’re really trying to focus on every day when you step out on the field here?
RH: I think it’s just staying in tune with every single pitch and making sure I’m prepared for every play at third base. I think there’s only been one play so far where I’ve really been caught off guard – the potential interference with Carlos Correa and I. But besides that, I feel like I’ve done a good job understanding every scenario that could happen. That was just the one that snuck up on me, but it’s something that I’ll put in the memory bank and it won’t happen again.
AF: I know you hadn’t really been spending that much time at third base this year, so how has it felt being over there at third base every day? Has it been a bit of an adjustment for you?
RH: The game is all about adjustments. But yeah, it’s definitely something that I can now put all my time and effort into now that they’re showing that they want me to play there. So instead of having to take reps at first and third, I’m just going to take them at third right now. Until they tell me otherwise, that’s where I’m going to put all my time and effort.
AF: So I guess they’ve made it clear that that’s where they see you at this point.
RH: Yeah, for right now.
AF: Well we all know that anything could change tomorrow.
Right-hander Daniel Mendgen was acquired by the A’s last summer, along with catcher Jacob Nottingham, in the trade that sent left-hander Scott Kazmir to Houston, and the former fourth-round draft pick ended up posting a 4.25 ERA over eight starts for Stockton last season. Mengden then came roaring out of the gate this season, putting up a 1.19 ERA in eleven starts for Nashville and Midland before being called up to Oakland in early June. The 23-year-old allowed eight earned runs over his first four major league starts in June and has allowed nineteen earned runs over his last four starts in July. Mengden’s distinctive windup on the mound has attracted a lot of attention, as has his handlebar mustache, which is reminiscent of legendary A’s reliever Rollie Fingers…
AF: So how did you feel when you first got the call to the big leagues last month? Were you surprised at all?
DM: I was kind of surprised. I figured I might be a September call-up. I thought they might let me sit in Triple-A. Even though I was doing well, I didn’t think it really mattered. I thought I was just going to mature down there and get my feet under me and then be a September call-up, maybe in the bullpen.
AF: I guess you weren’t really feeling too much pressure down there at that point anyway.
DM: Yeah, so I was kind of just doing my thing, just going about my business, taking it one game at a time. And then there were injuries and it was good timing and they gave me a chance. And I’m trying to do the best I can to run with it and trying to put us in the best position to win.
AF: So how did they tell you that you were going up to the big leagues?
DM: It was our manager Steve Scarsone and our pitching coach Rick Rodriguez. We were in Oklahoma City for a doubleheader. And after the second game, I came in to give them the chart. And he was like, “Hey, you messed up the chart. You missed two hitters. You missed like 10 pitches.” And I said, “I didn’t miss any pitches.” He goes, “You’ll get fined for each batter you miss the next game.” And then he said, “Do you like doing charts?” And I was like, “No, who likes doing charts?” And he says, “Good, you’re going to the big leagues. You don’t have to do charts anymore.”
AF: You’re off the hook! Well, I guess they called Ryon Healy in and started telling him that he wasn’t hustling before they told him he was going up.
DM: Yeah, same type of thing. Scar’s a great manager down there. He just tries to keep it loose and have fun.
AF: Did Bob Melvin or Curt Young have any words of advice for you when you first got here?
DM: Curt was just like, “Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re throwing well. Don’t change anything. Nothing changes from Triple-A to the big leagues except the jersey. So just keep doing your thing and don’t worry about the excess stuff going on with being in the big leagues and the fans and all the mumbo jumbo around us.”
AF: Have any of the big league pitchers up here had any particular advice to offer you yet?
DM: Rich Hill is really a good veteran guy who’s talked to me a little bit and helped me out when he can. I’ve asked him if I’m doing things right and asked him how it goes for rookies and stuff like that. Most of our guys are pretty good. I was talking to Ryan Madson one day when we were in the bullpen and we were talking about changeups and grips and how we throw it. They know I’m a rookie and I’m going to try and pick their brain and learn as much as I can while I can from the veteran guys.
AF: Since you’ve been here, is there anything in particular you’ve been working on or focused on trying to do?
DM: Well, we’re always working on things. We’re trying to better every day no matter what. We always have room to get better. But just the general things like keeping the fastball down and executing two-strike pitches – just the general stuff, nothing too fancy.
AF: So at this stage of the game, what pitches are really working for you and which ones are you still working on refining?
DM: It kind of depends on the day. Some days I have all four, and some days you have two or three. But I guess the most consistent would probably be the fastball and the changeup – and the cutter most of the time. But my last start, the curveball was a little off. I couldn’t throw it very well, but I kept throwing it because you’ve got to throw it to show it to them. But I’d probably say the curveball is one of the more work-in-progress pitches I have that kind of varies more from start to start. But most of the time, I have the fastball, the cutter and the changeup almost every outing.
AF: And what’s your velocity been like lately?
DM: It’s probably normal – 90-95 mph, in that range. It’s weird, its like big league innings are way harder than Triple-A innings. Some of those innings just suck the life out of you. It’s a lot harder having to actually get outs in certain situations, and it takes that much more energy out of you at this level compared to Triple-A.
AF: You don’t have quite as much left in the tank after a few of those innings.
AF: Is there anything you find different about the way major league hitters approach you that’s caused you to have to make any adjustments to the way you pitch?
DM: Yeah, everyone’s approach here is a lot better – that’s why they’re here. They have a good approach, they’re a good hitter and they have a good eye. You have to really throw good pitches. You can’t get away with bouncing a curveball or throwing a pitch way outside or up. Hitters are a lot more disciplined. I have to make good pitches. I can’t just hope they’re going to swing. Sometimes they’ll swing at pitches out of the zone. But most of the time, if it’s out of the zone, they’ll take it. They see everything way better than most guys and their overall approach is just better.
AF: So is there anything in your game you’ve really had to focus on – maybe just trying to be more precise with your pitches?
DM: Yeah, just fastball command – fastball command is number one. If you have that, then you can go from there. You’ve got to keep the ball down and throw strikes. The thing of it here is, if you make a mistake, it’s either a double or a home run. In Triple-A, if you make a mistake, you still could get an out possibly. But here, if you make the tiniest mistake, the ball’s going a long way.
AF: Now I know one of your starts was in your hometown of Houston. So how was that for you?
DM: Oh, it was great – just being able to see my family and friends, college friends, people I played ball with, coaches, teachers. Anybody you could think of came out and supported me, and it was great having that support and fan base behind me. And it was great being able to pitch in front of all of my family, besides just my parents, my girlfriend and my siblings. But yeah, it was exhilarating. It’s one of those feelings that’s really hard to explain…After the game was over, I had probably at least 100 people just waiting to take pictures and stuff – people from when I was on the swim team when I was like 9 or 10 to college teammates and boosters and friends I’ve made through high school and college…so it was pretty cool.
AF: So what’s the major league routine been like for you?
DM: With a lot of day games here, it’s kind of hard to really go out and do much. Basically just hitting the field every day, get our stuff done early and get out for the game. And usually by the time we get home, we’re tired and we just kind of watch some TV and go to sleep. So it’s not a very extravagant life. But on the road, you might want to go out and explore and eat dinner somewhere.
AF: Where are you living now that you’re here in the Bay Area?
DM: Right now I’m living with Josh Reddick. I moved into his house. I had been living at a team hotel for a while…It’s been fun. He’s a great guy. He’s a real fiery cat. He likes to have a lot of fun. So he’s a good guy to be around.
AF: So is there anything in particular you’re focused on heading into your next start?
DM: Just executing my pitches – trying to make the best pitch I can in any given situation. Every hitter’s just a hitter – you don’t have to try and over-think it. Sometimes you’ll say, “Oh my gosh, that’s Jose Altuve.” You just kind of have to go after them like they’re a normal hitter. You can’t think about their name. You think that they’re the enemy and you’re trying to beat them. So if I execute my pitches and do what I need to do, if me and [Stephen] Vogt stick to our plan, most of the time, we’ll win – if I execute everything. It’s all just about executing.
AF: And finally, have you been getting a lot of attention for the mustache since you’ve been up in the big leagues now?
DM: Oh, yeah! Some guy in the stands actually handed me mustache wax and told me, “Hey, this is what I use. Why don’t you try this?” People always say they love it. On the road, people either hate it or they love it. There’s no in between – you either love it or you hate it.
AF: So, just for the record, what mustache wax do you use?
DM: It’s called Bonafide.
AF: You haven’t had the chance to meet the owner of the A’s original handlebar mustache, Rollie Fingers, yet, have you?
DM: No, but I actually did a conference call interview with him maybe two weeks ago before the All-Star break. So it was nice to be able to talk to him and pick his brain…He said he hadn’t seen me throw, but he said he’d heard a lot about me. He said that all of a sudden people were telling him, “This kid has the same mustache as you.” So he said he had to look me up.
AF: Well, at least the two of you ought to be able to compare notes on mustache waxes when you meet!
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