A few A’s minor leaguers have made their way from Midland to Sacramento over the past few weeks – outfielder Josh Whitaker and relievers Tucker Healy and Seth Frankoff. And we took the opportunity to talk to the talented trio about the transition to Triple-A just a few days before the All-Star break in Sacramento…
The A’s 25th-round draft pick in 2010 out of Kennesaw State in Georgia, Whitaker was one of the RockHounds’ top sluggers in the first half, posting a .320/.367/.523 slash line before his promotion. The 25-year-old missed some time after being beaned in the head in early June in an incident that saw him taken off the field in an ambulance and led to a stint on the disabled list. But once he recovered, Whitaker was on his way to the River Cats, where he’s put up a .219/.250/.313 slash line in his first 16 games at Sacramento.
AF: Now you were pretty seriously beaned in the head last month at Midland. You were unconscious for a while and were taken from the field in an ambulance. How scary was that experience for you?
JW: Yeah, it was definitely scary. I didn’t realize it at the time. But afterwards, when my wife was calling and my parents were calling trying to get info and stuff, I kind of realized how much it scared everybody else really more than me. But it’s something that I guess still lingers. You know, anytime I get something high and tight, I kind of get flashbacks of that and it’s still something I’m really working hard on to get over. I’ve talked to Sparky [Sacramento hitting coach Greg Sparks] about it, and I asked him what his approach would be to get over something like that. And he just said the more at-bats over time I have, the better it’ll get. So hopefully that’ll all click here soon and I can get back to how I was before.
AF: Once you came to, did you remember all the details of what had happened?
JW: Yeah, I had a pretty good idea. I didn’t have much memory loss. I remember the first pitch of that at-bat him throwing a slider and just thinking to myself that I didn’t really see it very good, so I was just trying to stay in there and try to see the spin a little better. And I just stayed in there a little too long and he got me. So whenever I have at-bats where it’s kind of tough to see here in the first inning, I just kind of have flashbacks of that. And it’s just something I’m going to have to end up getting over if I’m going to do well. So hopefully time will help that.
AF: So not long after recovering from that, you got the call up here to Triple-A, which is another adjustment. How does the talent here in the Pacific Coast League look different to you than the talent you faced in the Texas League?
JW: Talent-wise, I don’t think there’s too much of a difference, besides command of all their pitches. I’ve seen the same velocity and breaking stuff in Double-A from organizations’ top prospects that they send there. I guess that league was easier on me because I kind of had an idea how teams would pitch me. There’s so few teams in the division and you play them over and over and over again. The scouting report really doesn’t change. They have an idea of how they want to pitch you and they do that to you every time. So I guess being able to go through this league and face the teams and know how they’re going to approach pitching me will help with the timing as well.
AF: So you don’t feel that the pitchers you’re facing here in Triple-A are all that different from the guys you saw in Double-A. It’s just that you don’t know them and how they’re going to go after you.
JW: Yeah, I kind of had an idea before and now I’m just trying to learn them.
AF: With the transition to another level here in Sacramento, are there a few friends or familiar faces you’ve played with in the past you were glad to see here?
JW: Yeah, I’ve been playing with [Anthony] Aliotti for a couple years now. We’re actually roommates on the road. Me and him critique each other. We’ve been around each other enough to know each other’s swings.
AF: So you’re each other’s hitting coach!
JW: Yeah, exactly. So if he sees something in me that seems weird or awkward, he’ll let me know, and vice versa. So it’s always good to have somebody who’s been around and seen you play.
AF: Are there any specific aspects of your game that you feel you need to work on to get to the next level?
JW: I’ve really been taking a lot of pride in my defense this year, as far as outfield assists and making every routine play. And I’ve got the ability to make the diving plays and stuff like that. I’ve really been focusing on that. I know that I’ll be able to hit, so I try my best not to worry about it and that’ll come with time. But right now as I’m going through this period of getting back from getting hit in the head, I really want to focus on things I can control like my defense and baserunning and stuff like that.
AF: So I guess your main goal the rest of the way this year is just getting more comfortable hanging in there at the plate after the beaning.
JW: Yeah, that’s my only goal is to feel comfortable staying in on any type of breaking pitch that starts in at me coming back over the inside corner…Hopefully I’ll be over that soon and maybe the numbers will start to show.
The A’s 23rd-round draft pick in 2012 out of Ithaca College in New York, Healy’s impressive strikeout numbers since he joined the system have put him on the fast track, going from Vermont to Beloit to Stockton to Midland to Sacramento in just two years’ time. The 24-year-old has struck out a total of 190 batters in just 121 1/3 innings in his minor league career. This season, Healy struck out 29 in 17 1/3 innings while posting a 1.04 ERA for Stockton, then went on to strike out 29 in 19 1/3 innings while putting up a 2.33 ERA for Midland, and he’s now struck out 13 in 7 1/3 innings with an ERA of 3.68 so far for Sacramento.
AF: What’s been the key to your success that’s helped you get all the way up here to the Triple-A level so quickly?
TH: I think it’s pretty simple. When I get ahead of hitters, that’s when I do my best. Getting strike one on guys is really important, and converting 1-1 counts to get it to 1-2 instead of 2-1 makes a huge difference. When I get ahead, I’m good. When I fall behind, that’s when I might struggle. So just getting ahead of hitters and mixing in a good mix of pitches.
AF: So once you get ahead of hitters, you feel pretty confident you can finish them off.
TH: Yeah, for sure.
AF: Are there any particular challenges facing these Triple-A hitters here?
TH: If you look at the times I’ve struggled so far here, it’s when I fell behind hitters. It’s that simple…They’re definitely more experienced and have a better eye and better knowledge at the plate.
AF: And if you fall behind them, they’re going to take advantage of you.
TH: You can make less mistakes, for sure.
AF: Tell me a little bit about the pitches you throw and what kind of command you feel you have of them.
TH: I throw a fastball, a slider and a changeup, and I feel confident in every one of them. I’m sure if you look at my percentages, they might show that I throw my fastball more than the others, but I feel confident with all three. In terms of my command, I just focus on throwing strikes and getting ahead and not being too fine at times. Sometime when I get into trouble it’s when I try to place it in certain spots instead of going right after them…When I’m out there, I try to aim to the glove. Wherever he puts the glove, I try to put it right there.
AF: Is there anything in particular you’re working on or anything the coaching staff’s been trying to get you to focus on at this point?
TH: They’ve been trying to get me to throw my slider more since I was at Stockton. I think it’s come along a good ways from the beginning of the season to now. And I was just thinking about this and talking to some of the pitchers…I have to be more willing to throw in on guys and jam them up and that opens up the outside later in the count…Coming in is definitely huge, more so than down at the lower levels, you have to come in here.
AF: You started the year at Stockton, then went to Midland and now you’ve made your way to Sacramento. So how has making all those transitions been for you?
TH: It’s definitely been a good ride. I’m happy to be here. It’s definitely not easy picking up and moving. I’ve done it twice now this season, going from Stockton to Midland and moving here in like a two month span. It wasn’t easy, but I’m definitely happy to be here. And the guys have been real nice in the clubhouse, being friendly with us and talking to us, so that’s been a big help coming here.
The A’s 27th-round draft pick in 2010 out of the University of North Carolina, Frankoff began as a starter but made the transition to a full-time reliever last season at Stockton, where he struck out 93 in 74 1/3 innings while putting up an impressive 2.78 ERA in the hitter-friendly California League. The 25-year-old took over as the closer at Midland this year and was as effective as anyone in the system in that role, posting 15 saves – which still leads all A’s minor leaguers – and striking out 47 in 33 2/3 innings in relief for the RockHounds.
AF: When you first got to Sacramento, you got into a couple of rough games, so what’s the transition to Triple-A been like?
SF: The hitters are a lot more experienced here. So you’ve got to execute all your pitches. A couple of times I didn’t do that, and I got hurt because of it. So you’ve just really got to focus in on staying aggressive in the zone and executing pitches. And if you’re going to miss, missing where the ball’s not going to get hit…My first outing, I left one up and a guy hit a home run off me. And then Reno’s not the most forgiving place. But at the same time, you’ve still got to deal with those conditions. So it’s been an adjustment period for me, and I’m working on it and working to get better every day.
AF: The ballparks in the PCL are definitely a little different than some of those ballparks in the Texas League.
SF: To say the least.
AF: Now you were one of the most effective closers in the A’s system during the first half of the year at Midland. So what was really working for you down there?
SF: I was just kind of going straight to put-away. I was pitching at the end of the ballgame, so you kind of get guys out quickly…My goal when I go out there is to get ground balls and punchouts and to keep the ball on the ground and keep it in the infield so that guys aren’t advancing bases and try to get the inning over with as quickly as possible.
AF: What are some of the differences about playing at the Triple-A level?
SF: You’re playing in a big city, and everywhere you go is a farily big city. You have a lot more mature ballclub. We have guys with some big league time in the clubhouse. So I’m just trying to go about my business the right way and try to do what you’re told.
AF: And try not to look like the new guy…
SF: Yeah, absolutely.
AF: What about the ballparks you’re playing in here in the PCL, do they seem a lot bigger and a lot closer to a major league environment to you?
SF: Yeah, everywhere we’re going there’s 10,000-seat stadiums. And here in Sacramento, on July 3, I believe we had 15,000 people. So it’s definitely a joy to play in front of that many people…now in the big leagues, there’s 30,000+ but still, when you play in front of more people, it’s an adrenaline rush being out there.
AF: So what about the the process of transitioning from one place to another during the season?
SF: Still trying to figure stuff out logistically – my car and some of my luggage is still in Midland. My wife is in North Carolina trying to work on getting everything out here, so it’s a process.
AF: Well, you did arrive here with your Midland teammate Tucker Healy anyway. Are there many other familiar faces you’ve played with before on this River Cats team?
SF: Well, I played with Ryan Ortiz last year in Stockton. Josh Whitaker, Anthony Aliotti – played with them for a couple years. Most of the guys here I’ve met during spring training. But at the same time, we’ve got guys we’ve claimed who I’ve never met before. It’s kind of a revolving door. It’s kind of crazy. There’s definitely a lot more moves going on here than at Midland.
AF: Yeah, I imagine you’ve never played with a guy like Tommy Milone before.
SF: I’ve met Tommy over the past couple years and he’s a very good guy, and he’s somebody you try to learn from. He’s got quite a bit of success and experience in the big leagues, and you just try to pick up on what he’s done to make himself successful and just try to pick his brain and see how he goes about his business.
AF: So have you had the chance to talk much to some of the more veteran pitchers here?
SF: In the bullpen, there’s plenty of time to talk. Philip Humber down there is a former third overall pick and had a perfect game. There’s quite a bit of experience down there – Savery and Scribner are 40-man guys who’ve been in the big leagues this year. So you just try to pick up on things that they do and go about your business the right way.
AF: Being a guy who’s played baseball his whole life and worked your way up through the system, now that you’re here at Triple-A, can you smell the major leagues from here? Does it feel a lot closer?
SF: It definitely feels closer. I haven’t pitched the way I wanted the last few outings. But you can’t worry about that. You’ve just got to go out there and get the job done. It’s all about pitching well consistently. You know, at Midland, guys just don’t get called up, whereas here, it can happen. So you’ve just got to try to put yourself in the best situation to give yourself that opportunity, because that’s what we’re all here for is to try and get there.
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