Do You Want More?!!!??! SSS Meets White Sox Minor League Pitching Coordinator Kirk Champion

See the interview with Minor League Hitting Coordinator Jeff Manto here.

Once again, I would like to start off by thanking Marty Maloney, the White Sox Coordinator of Public Relations, for making this interview possible.  The next thank you goes out to Kirk Champion for agreeing to the interview and being an all-around pleasant and entertaining guy.  My final show of gratitude is for Jim Margalus, the sole writer of the always fantastic Sox Machine.  I asked Jim for some tips before the interview and he was kind enough to help.  He was also a great interviewer to follow and learn from during the questioning.

Just like in the last one, there were three other interviewers.  Jim has already been covered, but Anthony Mazzuca of Future Sox and Paul Banks of The Sport Bank were also there.  Without further ado, here are the thoughts of one Kirk Champion.

 

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Jim Margalus: I have a question about Daniel Hudson and his first three starts.  In the two starts that he struggled, he has pretty much abandoned his slider.  I think he's gone maybe 40-50 pitches a time without throwing it and he hasn't looked comfortable.  Was this a problem he had in his slow start in Charlotte this year?

Kirk Champion: Not necessarily.  That's a pitch that probably isn't as progressed as his changeup or the locating of his fastball, but he certainly has had it in his stretches.  It's just an arm slot thing for him; and when he stays on it and stays over it, it's a quality pitch.

JM: Chris Sale has been pushed aggressively so far.  How do you see him responding to the challenges?

KC: Chris has done really well from a mental standpoint.  He's been prepared and goes about his business every day.  He's got really good poise on the mound.  He's handled it in the clubhouse.  I was talking to Randy Williams about that actually.  Chris is prepared and he knows how to get ready.  He's got those things that sometimes young and inexperienced pitchers need a little guidance, but he's handled it so far.  In Winston, in front of some real big crowds, and in Indianapolis both times I know he had real good crowds, so that's a great atmosphere for him to get adjusted to.

 

SSS: Before this year's draft, the farm system seemed a little hitting heavy.  How happy have you been with the results of the pitchers picked up by the Sox in the draft this year? (This was said much less eloquently).

KC: Well so far, I just had the chance to hit Idaho Falls and see the arms there and there's certainly some guys and some exciting stuff there to see.  I hit Bristol pretty early and am heading back there next week.  I like to lay eyes on them a little more before I start digging into scouting reports.  But there's guys who have some good arms, good stuff.  Saw Jacob Petricka, saw Thomas Royse throw the ball very well.  Saw Addison Reed just on the sideline up in Idaho Falls.  But there's some guys who are interesting guys.  Of course Sale going from Winston-Salem to Charlotte that quick.  There's some guys that are gonna be fun to watch the next few years.

PB: We saw Jeff Marquez for about one inning earlier this season at the major league level.  What do you think the upside is to him long term?

 

KC: Jeff's got a pretty good feel for his pitches.  He didn't have his best stuff a year ago, but now I think he's got his best equipment to go out there.  And now it's just learning what his style is, like are we gonna sink the ball, are we gonna change speeds a little bit more?  I think he understands what his strengths are.  I think when he gets on the same page with a good approach, he's got three pitches that he can use in an at bat.  The velocity is coming up, he can move his fastball when he has to.  That's the upside to him.  He's a got a more confident approach maybe than he did before.

 

AM: What can you tell us about his sinker?  That seems to be his out pitch.  Do you think it's really his best pitch he has to offer?

KC: Well yes.  I think his sinker is a real plus pitch for him, and it seems like he can get away from it some times.  There's times he needs to just trust it.  Groundballs sometimes find holes and it can get a little frustrating when they do, but I think that it's a plus pitch for him and it's something that you're gonna see more when he's on the mound in a longer role.  Maybe as a middle guy, or a starter down the road, but that sinker will be much more prominent. 

JM: Watching some pitchers come up through the Sox system, one common trait they have is that they all work pretty fast.  Hudson is a pretty quick worker; and Gavin Floyd was a pretty slow worker with Philly, but then we he made his way up through Charlotte he started speeding up his tempo.  Is that something that is taught or a philosophy that is preached throughout the organization, maybe a Mark Buehrle trickle-down affect, or is it just a coincidence?

KC: It's not a coincidence.  I think that Mark's had so many good outings and works fast, the defense seems ready behind him.  And he's certainly an easy guy to point to because of the success he's had.  We do address it and we go back to John Ely and Clayton Richard, guys who aren't in our system any more and we certainly emphasized it.  Clayton was a fast worker.  We're trying to get a lot of our younger guys to realize that if we can cut some time down between pitches that it's a good trait that more pitchers in our system need to stick to.  We don't force it on guys.  There's been a lot of times where you can see a slow tempo and we certainly want them to be a little more aggressive.

SSS: Adding on to Jim's question, it seems like the cutter is the pitch of the White Sox system.  Does this just start with Don Cooper, or do they try to start teaching it down in the minors?

KC: Yeah, with different organizations, we're talking about different philosophies.  It's a trendy pitch, like the split finger years ago.  I think the ability to locate your fastball up and down is our first priority at the lower levels, being able to change speeds and throw your best stuff more often.  I like to think that at high-A, AA, AAA, if we're ready to add that pitch we'll do it.  But one trap that you can fall into, is that guys will get "cutter happy" because they'll have a little success with it at the lower levels and then get away from locating their best fastball.  That's just something we have to monitor.  There are some guys we'll allow at the lower levels a survivor pitch, maybe.  Some guys we don't want to throw too many til they get to the point where they can do other things really well first, and then maybe we'll add that pitch.  I know a lot of organizations don't even add that pitch til AAA.  Coop talks about it a lot and it certainly gets a lot of attention.  It helped Jon Garland back when Jon was having a hard time getting it going sometimes.  Thing is, sometimes it becomes a slider rather than a cutter and that is one thing they truly have to understand.  It's no good to have five pitches if you can't control all but one of them.  We want to avoid developing four mediocre pitches as opposed to three quality pitches.

JM: One guy that Rick Hahn pointed to as a sleeper or someone under the radar was Charles Leesman.  He kind of had a rough start but still got a promotion to Birmingham.  What are you seeing that isn't reflected in the stats?

KC: Even in his rough outings in Winston-Salem, there were portions of each one of those games that he stands out.  Understanding how to minimize the damage or being able to step off the mound and grab the rosin bag and regroup sometimes.  He had an outstanding outing just the other day in West Tennessee for Birmingham when you look at his line.  When you hear things like back to front, or staying on your pitches or having real good direction; those are things he has to do to have consistency.  In my mind, when a guy starts doing that 2-3-4 times in a row, mechanically they've got it.  That's what you hope for with a guy like Leesman.  He's left-handed with an average to above-average fastball.  There's a lot of good things.  We thought he was ready to go for the Southern League and that his stuff was good enough for AA.

JM: Two pitchers you think of when you talk about the lightbulb going off are Clayton Richard two years ago and Carlos Torres last year.  They showed flashes of success, but finally started putting it together 6-7 starts in a row.  What is the biggest identifier when you're scouting these guys that they've made it to the next level and who are some guys that aren't big names that are finally making that jump?

KC: Those two guys are real hard workers and grinders and that tends to carry over into the games.  They're guys that pitching coaches love because they work so hard.  We have a lot of guys that have had some good stretches.  Torres had a bad outing the other day, but he's still the same guy that became a AAA All-Star.  The thing you have to be careful about with a guy like Carlos is "I did it before but I'm not quite there now, so I have to do more".  For some guys: Lucas Harrell has had a real good run.  He threw a great ballgame a few days ago in Indianapolis.  He's 9-9, but at one time I think he was 1-6 or whatever.  Marquez has had pop and some real good games.  Brandon Hynick, the guy from the Jose Contreras trade, is just starting to come back from a late start out of spring training.  Matt Zaleski, not on the 40-man but a AAA grinder.  Johnnie Lowe in Birmingham has shown us some really good games.  Charles Shirek had a real good first half at Birmingham.  There's been a lot of interest in Shirek.  Terry Doyle in Winston-Salem, record-wise is probably even but he's been pitching well.  He has a plus breaking ball.  You've got to command three pitches as a starter and watch your first pitch strikes.

JM: Well a few names you didn't mention in rookie ball making their second run through David Holmberg and Steven Upchurch.  Can you compare where the two of them are at this point in their careers and if they have any shot at A-ball before the season is over?

KC: Both of them could if we had a need.  I saw both of them pitch.  Upchurch didn't throw as well in front of me as before.  I saw Holmberg throw well and he threw even better in the next start after I was there.  Strong, left-handed pitcher, young.  If we were forced to send Holmberg or Upchurch to Kannapolis, it wouldn't be that big of a stretch

SSS: You've been pitching coach for the U.S. World Cup team.  How did they pick you over all the other coordinators and pitching coaches all over the minors?

KC: Actually I can tell you real quickly.  In 2001, it was about 10 days after 9/11 and Terry Francona called me and asked "Would you do it?". We'd been together at Birmingham and there weren't a lot of people wanting to jump on planes any time soon, so that's how I did it in 2001.  In 2006, (name I can't decipher) had to back out at the last second and they asked me if I'd go to Havana with Davey Johnson's crew since I had done it in 01.  In 09, Dave Walls backed out at the last second and they needed someone to do it so they called me and I went to Europe for a month.  This year I'll be in the Pan-American Qualifier down in Puerto Rico and they asked me first.

SSS: (interrupting) Congrats!

KC: (laughing) Thank you.  I have great respect for it and it's a great experience.  This year is a non-40 man format, but it's really a unique experience.  I spent 14-15 days last year in Italy and Germany, it's taken me all over.  It's a positive thing.

 

And that ended our time with Kirk.  Look for another interview in 3-4 weeks with someone else from the system (the suspense is killing me too!).

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