As a part of our in-person visits to the White Sox affiliates, we’ve been interviewing players and coaches along the way. I was at BB&T Ballpark in Winston-Salem with the Dash on May 27th, and you can read my in-depth game and scouting report here. Here are those interviews with hitting coach Charlie Poe, and Dash players Trey Michalczewski, Andre Wheeler, Jake Peter and Adam Engel…
Hitting Coach Charles Poe:
Q: I was just in Kannapolis and I was talking to pitching coach Jose Bautista. He was talking to me about failure in baseball – but especially in these lower levels and that his number one thing is for his players to trust him. How do you stress that to players and how crucial is that to their success, both in the moment and long-term?
A: “I second that opinion, and in this game there’s a lot of failure. There are a lot of things that you have to repeat and do over and try to be consistent at it, and you still have to work even harder at that. For instance, you take a hitter – I really believe you have to have quite a few of ABs in the minor leagues before you get to move because you don’t want to move too prematurely . . . Sometimes the game speeds up on you and you have to take your time and go through the bumps and failures at the lower levels and work your way through that. And then when you have 400-500 PAs, and if you’re still at that point, then they’ll make the progression to go up – just like in pitching you’re gonna to face failure in everything you do, just like Jose [Bautista] was talking about and I think that’s a good point, especially for some of these younger guys because the big leagues is not going to go anywhere. You’re trying to do what you can in the minor leagues to get there, so you want to be prepared to move to the next level, and I don’t think it’s bad to have guys repeat levels sometimes.”
Q: About the trust factor, Jose [Bautista] was saying that he has a rotation of 20-year-olds – most of whom are straight from high school – and that they’re initially resistant to some of his advice. Do you see that here at Winston-Salem with your hitters? Do hitters come to you as a last resort? Or is your relationship more direct?
A: “Yeah, it’s a little bit of both, and again, Jose is right on about that, because you have to build trust before you build anything else. If they’re buying into what you’re saying, then they’ll feel more comfortable accepting what you’re trying to get them to learn. You do get some of the guys who come out of high school – even from college – who think they know everything, but this is pro ball now – playing every day, you get two days out of a month for days off. It’s a grind in the minor leagues and you have to lean on somebody and have to be able to have that trust in your coaches to believe what they’re saying because we’ve been there and know what’s down that tunnel . . . we know what it takes to get to that next level, and if we see guys doing something out of the ordinary, we don’t try to change everything, we just tweak some things a little bit – that little thing can get them to turn a light bulb on.”
Q: I was talking with Trey [Michalczewski] earlier about his exposure – or preview – last season at Winston-Salem. Can you talk to me about Trey and how the year’s been for him?
A: “This is my first time working with Trey and obviously he’s one of our prospects in the organization. When he first got up here, he got off to a slow start – just not really trusting his ability and his rhythm/timing and that’s one of the things we’ve worked on: getting stuff started a little bit earlier and now he’s having some success and making much better contact than he was. He’s gonna have his at-bats. He’s a flat out gamer, ballplayer, and he’s going to be able to figure it out. It’s good that he actually asks a lot of questions. He’s a knowledgable kid and he’s willing to learn. Those type of guys you want around you because you can see them shoot through the organization. He’s had a lot of success as of late and he’s going to continue to do so.”
Q: Two guys that are intriguing and have loud tools are Adam Engel and Keenyn Walker. Obviously they can run, but this year they’re getting on base. Is that something you’ve stressed to them? How do you go about teaching pitch recognition? Through film? Through in-game experience? ***NOTE: Walker has been promoted to AA since this interview***
A: “That’s an important part and you can’t help anybody if you’re not swinging at strikes. Those two guys have been table setters and have gotten on base and are leading the league in stolen bases. Those guys know what they’re doing when they get on base . . . It’s important to have pitch recognition and we stress it all the time by having guys track pitches in the bullpen off some pitchers or just in batting practice – gathering, loading, and watching the strike zone and knowing what you can and cannot handle.”
Q: Are there any players whose stats might not suggest development/progress that you’ve seen?
A: “I see a lot more out of [Keenyn] Walker. Right now he’s going a little bit up and down, but he’s been very consistent and I want to say this is the hottest he’s hit in a while. Working on his approach and having a plan, not going up there to swing at the first thing he sees, now he’s waiting for something he can handle and his average should, actually, be a lot higher than it is because he’s been making good contact and squaring it up. He’s been hitting into a lot of hard outs. Walker has made some good adjustments this year.”
Q: How important was your exposure to Winston-Salem last year to your success now?
A: “I think it helped me prepare for this year. I got a feel for how the teams are here. Pitching-wise, it helped me recognize their (accurate) stuff and adjust to the speed of the game.”
Q: What pieces of advice have you gotten from hitting coach Charlie Poe?
A: “Keeping it simple. We work on little things if I’m feeling off on that day, but it’s nothing really mechanical — just keeping it simple and having fun, reacting to the pitch.”
Q: What has it been like adjusting to the minors having come straight out of high school?
A: “Growing up, I was always around baseball, always around professional people which helped me to see what it was like. Being on time is a big thing, having a routine — growing up around baseball people was helpful.”
Q: I was in Kannapolis last night and one of the things the pitching coach there [Jose Bautista] told me was that young players need to accept failure and that at some point it will happen. How have you adjusted to failure throughout you career?
A: “Knowing that there’s tomorrow. You can’t be too hard on yourself — baseball is a game of failure and you have to stick to your routine.”
Q: How do you work on pitch recognition?
A: “The more ABs you get, you get an idea of what the pitches look like. There are things, like the umpires, that are outside of your control. You have to go one pitch at a time and you can’t really doubt yourself — that’s a big thing. That has helped me this year, just being comfortable with two strikes. Sometimes last year with two strikes I’d be thinking ‘oh, here we go again’ but they’re going to have to throw a strike to get you out.”
LHP Andre Wheeler:
Q: How has the adjustment been (since your promotion from Kannapolis) in A-advanced? What from the hitters have you noticed that has changed?
A: “I’ve noticed that every level that you go up, the hitters are just a little bit more disciplined. But, you know, it still comes down to us throwing strikes and filling the zone up. Yeah, they definitely are more disciplined.”
Q: You’ve come out of the ‘pen before in college and of course last year in Kannapolis in relief and in tandem starts, can you tell me about your approach now as a reliever? Are you not saving anything? Are you going all out for an inning?
A: “Coming out of the ‘pen is just different in the sense that you don’t have to save your pitches. You can go ahead and attack them with what you have because they’re already in their third or fourth AB by the time they get to you, so you just have to go after them with whatever you have and not save anything.”
Q: When I asked a member of the White Sox Player Development department about you, they talked about – aside from your encouraging stats – how you carry yourself on the mound and your personality and how that is something that they see in major league players. Can you tell me about your personality on the mound? Is that something you’ve carried with you since little league? How important is it for you?
A: “I think it’s very important to stay calm on the mound. You’re going to face failure, so you gotta learn how to deal with that and not let it bother you because if you do, then it’s going to be a long season for you.”
Q: Now coming out of the ‘pen, what are some things you’re working on with [pitching coach] J.R. [Perdew]?
A: “I’m working on being consistent with my angle. Sometimes I tend to get a little bit flat, so I’m trying to work on my direction towards the plate so I can get more angle more often.”
2B Jake Peter:
Q: You’ve always made a lot of contact and controlled the strike zone – both in college and in your MiLB career so far. How do you work on pitch recognition? Is there something outside of games that you can work on?
A: “My approach is pretty basic. I mean, it’s see a fastball and hit it. My two strike approach is very important to me. I try to reduce my strikeouts. I take a lot of pride in that and putting the ball in play, making the defense make a play and get me out. But really, you know, it starts in batting practice – not swinging at bad pitches there – working on zoning up and finding that zone that works for you. All hitters are different when it comes to finding their specific zone. It starts in BP, in the cage, and focusing on your areas where you can drive the baseball.”
Q: You were drafted last year and you’ve shot through the organization. What has it been like adjusting to minor league life?
A: “Being a college guy, having summer baseball – I played in the Northwoods League, and that’s a lot like this. It’s every single day. You have to learn how to take care of your body during a grueling season like this and this is my first full season, so I still have a lot to learn – how to deal with the 140 games or so that we play every year. It’s been a great experience and I’ve learned a lot, especially last year with [Charles Poe] being my manager at Great Falls and having him here in Winston really helps.”
Q: What was it like to give up pitching having pitched in college?
A: “I was in a closer role at Creighton and I liked that spot late in the game. But I knew my passion was always with hitting and defense – that’s what I wanted to do. Some teams looked at me as a pitcher but I knew I wanted to be a position player. There are times where I want to hop up on the mound during a game, but I’m happy where I’m at.”
CF Adam Engel:
Q: What facet of the game do you think you’ve improved upon the most since last season?
A: “I’m learning more about hitting and about what it takes to be a successful hitter. Obviously I’m trying to learn an approach and how to have success against different types of pitching – having more of an awareness of the game before the actual at-bat takes place.”
Q: How do you go about working on pitch recognition?
A: “Getting at-bats is huge. Professionally, night after night – if you’re fortunate enough to be an every day player –at-bats are huge. Talking with the hitting coach, writing down what you saw the last time you faced the pitcher – does this guy struggle to throw strikes? You look at their stats, what’s their walks per nine, and stuff like that so you know [for example] that this guy’s not going to walk me, I have to be aggressive early in the count. Or, you’ll get a guy out of the bullpen who walks one per inning. Those are the guys you’d want to work the count, and obviously the situation in the game matters – paying attention to the game . . . I’m learning more of what the game is giving me.”
Q: How important is it to have an open ear to the hitting coach and internalize some of the advice?
A: “It’s huge. We come to the game from all different backgrounds. Personally, I wasn’t really from a baseball background. I played baseball, obviously, but my first love was football. I took baseball seriously – but it was something I did in the summer. As soon as I got to college, I started learning a better way [to hit] and these guys, the coaches, know more than you do, so listen. I’m fortunate to have guys like Charles Poe who I was with my first year in Rookie Ball. He’s seen me probably just as much as anybody I’ve ever worked with, so we have a good relationship. He cares so much about his players, and so do other coaches in the organization so it’s easier to develop trust because I know he cares . . . I trust him 100% and I work [on his suggestions] and let the results come when they come.”
Q: Is there one thing in particular you’ve worked on to generate more hard contact?
A: “One thing that the White Sox have stressed throughout the system is your base and trying to really have a consistent, strong base, which gives you a chance no matter what the pitch is. This offseason, I played in Australia and as soon as I got back I was able to think on how I was going to approach the mechanics going into this season. One thing I did was really work on my base, and I kind of got away from that this week and my numbers/results haven’t been what they were and by talking and watching video – it’s like, man, my base is not what it was. I’m trying to put myself in the position from the ground up to square up the ball.”
Q: What was your experience in Australia like?
A: “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, playing baseball in a different country. How many people can say they’ve done that? I got there and the country was beautiful – the baseball is a little bit behind as far as the way they went about the game because it’s a different culture. It’s hard to expect the sports culture to be the same there as it is here . . . You have to bend with their culture, and it was a challenge at first, but once you accept it, you just try to have fun and I got to play for Tommy Thompson and he was good at staying positive even though things were different. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.”
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