As part of my recent visit to Birmingham, I spent some time chatting with a number of players and coaches (along with scouts and other people around the team). We also wrote up some of what we saw from these pitchers in-depth with video. If you missed those, you can read about Michael Kopech here, as well as Spencer Adams and four relievers here.
But these interviews help add some color and context that viewings don’t always provide. They add the “why” to the “what, where, when and how”. Below are some highlights from my interviews with six key pitching prospects on the club, along with their Pitching Coach.
Get to know them before they make it to the majors…
RHP Michael Kopech
Q: First I wanted to ask you about this charity auction for your glove that you started yesterday [6/30]. Can you tell me where that idea came from, and how this all go started?
A: To begin with, the glove meant a lot to me, because my grandmother passed with breast cancer my senior year in high school. And so, I’ve used that glove or a glove just like it every year since then. So for the past four years I’ve been using a black glove with pink laces, and a pink breast cancer ribbon. For me, it meant a lot, but what I was thinking was, ‘what can I do to help’, to really benefit instead of just wearing a tribute. So that glove, I kind of retired it from the first half. I usually keep my stuff, give it to my parents or whatever for memorabilia. But just looking at that breast cancer ribbon every day when I wear it, it sparked an idea of, why not give back and try to help out a bigger cause? So I did the auction thing. And it blew up a lot bigger than I thought it would.
Q: Speaking of that attention, what was the final bid number?
A: Well, unfortunately, there were a couple guys who said they were bidding a number and then backed out of it. In fact the top three highest bids all went away. And so I think the highest bid ended up being like $5,600. Still a decent amount of money. And then I offered to match it, and my girlfriend did as well, so… we haven’t done the donation yet, it should be sometime later today [7/1], but it will end up totaling around $17,000.
Q: Going back to baseball, and this past offseason when you ‘changed Sox’. Have you noticed anything different, in terms of the way the two organizations approach things? Or they style with development?
A: Not really. I mean, the Red Sox are in a different stage, in terms of their big league club right now. The Red Sox are about winning today, today, today. I think the White Sox are more about the future, although they’re having a pretty good year as is. Other than that, minor league systems are pretty much all similar. We’re all trying to develop down here, but trying to compete at the same time. It’s just a different uniform, and I have a lot of respect for both clubs.
Q: Going back to your start on Thursday, the conditions obviously weren’t ideal with all the rain. It seemed as though you were working fast early on, then things kind of slipped a bit and you came out after the 3rd inning. What do you think contributed most to that?
A: Nothing, really. In my opinion – and I told [Pitching Coach Jose] Bautista this the other day – in my opinion, that’s the best stuff I’ve had all year, other than I couldn’t grip my change-up because it was raining. But at the time I didn’t need the change-up. That’s the best my two-seam has looked all year, best I’ve stayed at the bottom of the zone. My slider was there, really everything was the best I’ve had all year. Just five little bloop hits, cheap hits, got pieced together. Even one off my glove, one was a broken bat that went flying, there was just those five cheap hits that kind of took over my whole outing. And that was out of my control. It was very frustrating, but I have to look at it as, what can I control? I felt like I did what I could to compete, with what was going on, and it just wasn’t enough that day.
Q: Back a half step, when you’re talking about developing a pitch, like the change-up in your case. What does that involve? What specific things are you doing to improve it?
A: So, if I’m in a throwing program, right after the fastball I’m throwing a change-up. As soon as I get loose that’s what I’m going to. Fastball then change-up. The thing is, developing a pitch is easy to do in practice, but it’s not easy to do in a game. So out here [pre-game field], I have a big league change-up. But when I get to the game, it’s trusting it that makes it work. I clearly trust my fastball, I’ve trusted my slider since I was 15 years old. The change-up is just a pitch I hadn’t thrown much in my career. So, throwing it in a game, when I feel like I can beat people with my fastball, is something I’ve had a lot of trouble doing. Recently I’ve realized that’s going to be more and more important. I’ve sort of known it all along, but at this level it gets put in front of you and you have to do something about it. I think that’s going to be my biggest key. Just trusting it and throwing it in a game, and it will all fall in place.
Q: Do you have any specific goals for this year, or any checkpoints you want to hit in 2017?
A: So it’s funny, I get asked that in almost every interview. And I usually say, every year, that my goal is to make it to the big leagues. And that’s not changing. But, there are small goals, small checkpoints, that I need to focus on more. So, one goal I hadn’t really talked about was making the Futures Game, and that just happened. Another goal for me, just something I haven’t had in my career yet, is a complete game shutout. That’s a small thing that I think will, ideally, make me more of a pitcher. Because I’m usually a guy who, my good starts are six or seven innings. I’ve never gone past seven, so, if I can get deeper and deeper into games, I think that’s going to be the best thing for me.
Q: Last question, and this is related to what you just talked about. You’re already at a career high in pro innings for the season, and it’s the first day of July. Will you be on a program to limit innings or pitches the rest of the way?
A: Well, obviously that’s up to the organization. I feel better than I have in a long time. I haven’t reached a real fatigue point yet, and I think that’s what the organization is worried about with me not having very many innings. But I feel great right now. I’m gonna do whatever they tell me. If I have a say in it, I feel fine. Just going to continue doing what I’ve been doing.
Pitching Coach Jose Bautista
Q: You’ve got a number of hard-throwing types on the roster here – Michael Kopech of course, but also Aaron Bummer and Connor Walsh. How is your approach to coaching those guys perhaps different than other pitchers?
A: Well, command and control guys are easier. The hard throwers, you usually have to calm them down more. Try to get them to the plate, and keep the ball down. The control guys, like Matt Cooper, he wasn’t throwing hard, but he can command both sides of the plate. Just trying to get them, mentally, to have more of an approach like that. To calm them down, and be more straight to the plate.
Q: Jordan Guerrero really struggled in April, but has turned it around pretty dramatically since then. What’s the difference between April Jordan and current Jordan as a pitcher?
A: So, I had him in Kannapolis, and I know what I have to do with him. That was a time he was really good. Jordan Guerrero was changing a lot of things, since the last time I had him in Kannapolis. So I had him go back and watch the videos that we had before, and showed him what we worked on then. So, to get him to another level, I wanted to get his hands out of his head. Got him to be on top of the zone more with the fastball, and away from his curveball a little bit. We also gave him a little slider. Now he’s got that slider for the left handers, and he’s always had a good change-up for the righties.
Q: The slider is new for him, right?
A: Well I had him using a slider in Kannapolis, but then he lost it, trying to go with the cutter. The cutter just didn’t work for him, so we went back with the slider. This also takes more pressure out of his shoulder, and makes him go deeper in the games too.
Q: I am going to ask you a question I also asked Spencer Adams. When I saw him in May of last year, he was leaning heavily on the 2-seamer, with the 4-seam acting almost as a secondary pitch. But last night [6/30], he was more on the 4-seamer, and it was a few clicks faster than last year too. Is this an intentional change in his approach overall, or was it just circumstantial to the game?
A: Well yeah, what we’re trying to do is get a little more of his velocity back. Trying to get more of that 94, 95 again. So yeah I just talked to him to throw a little more of that four-seamer, and then spin the two-seamer to get more sink if he throws harder.
Q: So, about Kopech’s start in the rain the other night. When you have a pitcher that has a night like that – where maybe they had a bad night but their stuff wasn’t bad, they just had some tough luck – how do you handle that as their pitching coach? And how did Kopech seem to handle it with you specifically?
A: Well, like I told him, he cannot do that much. Because he was doing well with a lot, with his four-seamer, we asked him to throw his two-seamer more but he couldn’t grip it as well that night. It happens, when a guy throws that hard, the hitters will have blooper hits, ground balls, a lot of what we call bullshit. But he knows he didn’t pitch that bad.
Q: OK, last pitcher I want to ask you about is Jordan Stephens. He just came back from missing a couple months with some tendonitis, and he’s done very well so far. What’s new with him since a year ago, when you coaching him at Winston-Salem, if anything? Since we don’t get to see him in person on this trip… he added a cutter late last year, but anything else?
A: Well, he still has four pitches he can throw in the zone, for a strike. What we talk about mostly is, trying to get him to not sit on it. He tended last year to sit up, and the ball would come in flat. He’s not that big to be able to do that. Now this year, just trying to get him to be more straight up and tall, and throw the ball back to front, instead of pushing it flat.
RHP Spencer Adams
Q: When I saw you pitch early last season in Winston-Salem, you were leaning heavily on the two-seam fastball, with the higher velocity four-seamer being less heavily used. But when I saw you pitch last night, the four-seam velocity seemed to be up a couple ticks, and you used it more often as well. Is that a balance that is changing in general, or was it circumstantial to this particular game?
A: If they had a righty-heavy line-up, I go in on them, and it’s with two-seam. Just getting more comfortable with both, and it’s progressed a lot. I’m actually trying to work on going in more, to protect my offspeeds away, instead of just going away-away-away. Also I’m actually down this year in velocity compared to later in last year, when I was up to 96, 97 in a couple games. This year up to 95 a couple games. I’m not too concerned about velocity, as long as I keep getting people out.
Q: With such a strong rotation of starting pitchers here in Birmingham, do you ever talk shop with the other pitchers about what each of you are doing? Share any ideas or tips, that sort of thing? Or does that just come from the coaches?
A: Well, before each series, we’ll meet with the coaches as a group to talk about their lineup. And we’ll talk about this guy and that guy, like, this guy chases sliders in the dirt, stuff like that. For me personally, I just pitch on my strengths, try not to worry about that too much.
Q: What is the strongest baseball skill you bring to the table right now, and on the flip side, what is your main development focus?
A: My strongest right now, I think, is just that I throw strikes. That helps me get more deep into games. What I need to work on is just putting guys away. Instead of getting ahead of guys and letting them stick around for a couple more pitches, I need to just go ahead and bury them right there.
LHP Jordan Guerrero
Q: Coming back to Double-A for 2017, your first few starts in April, you struggled. But then after those first few starts, you seemed to flip a switch and got dialed in. What changed?
A: I just went back to the way I knew how to pitch and Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. Last year [with Birmingham] when I got here I was trying to do too much, throwing too many cutters, too many other offspeed. When I really needed to go with my best pitch, which is my change-up. Being here this year with [Pitching Coach Jose] Bautista, I struggled a little bit before I got into a groove. He said just don’t change the things that work. If you get beat using your change and your fastball, then hey, tip your hat to them. It’s part of the game. Don’t try to do too much and go out there and pitch a game that you don’t know how to pitch. So since those first, I think it was four starts that were terrible, I just went back to what I know, and kept the momentum going.
Q: So, if the cutter isn’t part of the picture, what all are you throwing now?
A: I don’t have the cutter anymore. Now I went back to a regular slider again. So fastball, slider, curve, change.
Q: One other thing that seems to be going better for you lately and this year is, you’re throwing more strikes. When as a pitcher you are focused on control or command, what exactly are you doing physically? Or is it more mental for you?
A: It’s both. Last year my command wasn’t that good. This year, started off iffy but now it’s back. Small mechanical things too, like staying back and staying tall. Finishing through, not pulling off until you release the ball. Everything going through the catcher, is a big part of that. That’s helped me with my command this year.
Q: Now that you are back to your previous pitch set, is there any one of them in particular that you are focused on improving?
A: I’m trying to improve my curveball and slider mostly, throwing them more for strikes so I can use my change-up better, not just going fastball-change-up. Trying to throw the hitters off where now they’re thinking, ‘well he has everything he can pitch for a strike’. So in my bullpens and when I’m with Jose, I’m working on my slider, so in the game I can work off that and use my change-up more lefty-on-lefty.
Q: But that change-up is still your strongest, your go-to, yeah?
A: Oh yeah. I mean I played all these teams last year, they all know, but it’s what I’m going to come with. Here it is, you better hit it.
RHP Jordan Stephens
Q: You missed some time early this season due to injury, and just got back rolling in June. Can you tell us about the injury? And how do you feel now?
A: It was just tendonitis. It was more in the forearm than the elbow. It had me a little worried in the beginning, but they took care of it pretty quick. From there I had to start over with my throwing progression, work up through a certain number of feet, then innings, and so on. I feel great now.
Q: Since I won’t get a chance to see you pitch on this trip, can you tell us what if anything has changed for you since last year? Anything new or different from your perspective?
A: Well, I added a cutter instead of a slider. Late last year I started to mess with it. But now it’s a new grip that I’m using this year, I picked it up while I was rehabbing in Arizona. When my elbow started flaring up, I was ripping through a bunch of sliders in a row. I guess that turning motion on my arm isn’t too good of a thing, so that’s why I decided to switch to the cutter. As far as doing things different, I think I pound the zone a little better this year. I think my walks are within reason, and that’s what I’m trying to maintain.
Q: What are your development goals for 2017, with the somewhat abbreviated season in your case?
A: Well, keep pounding the zone like I said, but also building my innings up. I’m a little behind everyone else, so, trying to get deep into games, trying to get at least six innings every time. I came up a little short last time so that was frustrating. But hopefully next time I can get a little further.
Q: Off topic question. The other day, you were talking about SoxTalk.com on Twitter, which was a bit surprising. As a minor league ballplayer, how do you soak in social media as it relates to you specifically? Do you look around once in a while? Is someone else pointing it out to you? I’m just curious how that kind of information comes your way.
A: Well I’m not sure who else does it. Back at Rice there was some sort of blog covering the team. I’m used to having those out there, following you, everyone putting in their two cents about you. It’s interesting. They’re wrong about a lot of stuff, and they’re right about some stuff. Sometimes they think they know what’s going on. It’s fun to look at sometimes.
Q: Back to the mound… with the changes you mentioned earlier to what you’re throwing, what is your strongest pitch at the moment?
A: I think my best right now is my fastball in on righties, keeping them honest. And that new cutter, up and in on lefties. If I miss low and in, like I did on a couple the last game, they’ll hit it. But being able to keep that pitch up and in, I don’t think they’re picking up the spin real well. Those are my two equalizer pitches right now.
LHP Aaron Bummer
Q: Going back into your history a bit here… as I understand it, you had a relatively minor surgery on your elbow a couple years back. Then there was a pause, then it came out that you were going for Tommy John surgery. Can you take us through all that, if those two were related, and how it went down?
A: It’s kind of related. I had loose bodies and bone spurs around my elbow. A lot of times those are precursors, because of the protections on the ligaments in your elbow. So, we played with fire a bit, and said let’s hope that’s where the pain is coming from, and not the ligament. So we took out the loose bodies and spurs, but then it just kinda blew up and we knew it was the ligament, so we ended up leading to Tommy John.
Q: So, you came back to pitch briefly late last year, now back at it in 2017. How does your pitching feel compared to before the surgeries?
A: It feels pretty much the same. It actually just feels good to be healthy. When I was going through all that arm stuff, it was just waiting to see if it was ever going to get right. Then it finally did and a lot of things clicked. I’m really happy to be back.
Q: Back in the spring when the invites to big league spring camp came out, your name was the one on it that we got the most questions about. People hadn’t heard your name much before, especially with you being gone for a while. What was your experience like in camp with the big leaguers?
A: Oh it was unbelievable, just awesome. Getting to know those guys and getting a taste of how those guys go about their business, how they work in their routines. You really kind of follow them. I talked with Dan Jennings a lot, and even guys like Chris Beck, the guys that are kind of in between and up and down. There are those tiers there, guys that have been up a long time, once that are up and back down, and guys like us – like Jace Fry, Brian Clark, myself – guys who haven’t been there yet. We were there to soak it in, and go out there and compete, and I think we all did pretty good.
Q: So you said you talked with Jennings a lot. Any other players or coaches you spent a lot of time with? Did you get some time with Don Cooper?
A: All those guys, they’re so good. Even the manager, Rick Renteria, he was awesome with all the young guys. He made all of us feel at home, we all had fun in the clubhouse. Of course when it came down to it, we were also there to get our business done. I think I definitely grew as a person, in that experience. Being around that stuff showed what’s the road ahead, hopefully.
Q: So now coming to today, hopefully I’ll get to see you throw while I’m here. But in case I don’t, what’s your pitch arsenal now post-surgery, and what’s your plan of attack?
A: We talk about that with all the pitching coaches from top to bottom, starting with Coop in Arizona – getting ahead. So that’s my main goal, to get ahead, and then put people away. That’s out job as relievers. I’m not going out there trying to throw 25 or 30 pitches. My perfect inning is throwing fifteen pitches or less. If I do my job right, I’ve got the chance to potentially throw the next inning, or maybe the next day or two, and help my team out. As far as my arsenal, I’m primarily sinker-slider right now. Those both feel good coming out of my hand. Change-up is still a work in progress. It’s there more as a show-me pitch right now more than anything. So I’m trying to get comfortable, throwing 4-seamers, sinkers and sliders.
LHP Jace Fry
Q: So this year, returning from rehab after your second Tommy John surgery, the Sox have you working out the bullpen. Is that just to pace your innings this year, or is this your role going forward?
A: I get the idea that the bullpen is where I’ll be staying, just for health concerns. I’ve had a couple surgeries, and the bullpen helps limit my innings. It just wasn’t really working as a starter, I kept breaking down and getting hurt. But we’ll see. If they ask me to start then I’ll start, that’s up to them.
Q: What was the recovery and rehab program like after this second surgery? Same as the first, or different?
A: It was a lot of the same stuff, just a longer timeframe. We knew we were going to take our time with this one.
Q: Now that you’re in the pen, what does your pitch repertoire look like? What do you throw, what do you lean on?
A: Well, since my 2nd Tommy John, my stuff has changed. My slider is now a cutter. Fastball, curveball, cutter and a change-up now. Using all four, but not the change as much. My repertoire has actually changed a lot. I used to just spin a lot of curveballs for strikes, now it’s more of a strikeout pitch. Never had a cutter before, now I do. Kind of dropped the slider to protect my health. So the stuff has changed a lot.
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