Q&A with Staten Island Manager Justin Pope

Pope says Greg Bird can flat-out hit

We sat down with Staten Island Yankees manager Justin Pope for a Q&A session to get his thoughts on just how good Claudio Custodio could be, what went on with Ravel Santana, if he saw progress defensively from Peter O'Brien, how good does he think Greg Bird could be, what went wrong with Taylor Morton, and much, much more.

PinstripesPlus.com: Let's start off with Ravel Santana because he was supposed to be the big guy in your lineup this year. He didn't have a very good season overall, but did you like the adjustments he made over the course of the year?

Justin Pope: I did, especially towards the end of the season he made huge strides, huge adjustments. It was his first full season back from the ankle injury which, I didn't see the injury when it happened but I heard it was really gruesome and really, really severe. That type of injury I understand a lot of people don't come back from and here he is in his first season back basically playing every single day. We knew it would bother him and that it was a big-time adjustment for him, playing through that pain or uncomfortable feeling. I'm sure he never really got comfortable in the batter's box or in the outfield with his running and stuff. To his credit he worked really hard. I know it was only short-season in Staten Island but he did play in all of Extended [Spring Training] so in essence he really did get a full season in of ABs and playing every single day. I think he did a good job of understanding what his body is now. He may not get back to what he was before his injury, but he still has the potential to be an unbelievable player. With that being said, it's also his first time playing under the lights, playing away from Tampa, getting used to being in the clubhouse with older guys, 21-22 year old college seniors, and things like that. Again, I was really satisfied with the adjustments he made towards the end of the season.

PinstripesPlus.com: I specifically want to ask about his eyes because it seemed like they were getting checked a lot during the course of the season. Did he ever wind up getting glasses?

Pope: He did. He ended up getting contacts first. I don't wear contacts or glasses so I don't know what that feeling is like, but I guess when he first got his contacts he couldn't keep them in for an extended period of time. So we tried to have a plan for him where he would wear them for batting practice, take them out after batting practice and let his eyes rest, and then put them back in for the game. I guess they weren't helping though so then we got him glasses but then something happened and he went back to the contacts.

PinstripesPlus.com: Was it to help him see better at night because I know that was the case with Custodio?

Pope: Yeah and we saw what happened with Custodio once he started wearing the glasses. I think especially in the minor league ballparks, the lighting isn't as good and it's tougher to pick up the ball, especially hitting. It's tougher to pick up the spin and the depth of the pitch. If you can't see the spin of the ball, you're screwed as the hitter. You see a fastball and think it's a breaking ball you've got no chance. We've got to help him anyway we can because he's got a chance to be a great player. He's got a lot of tools; he can hit for power, he can hit for average, but he can't do any of that stuff if he's not seeing the ball.

PinstripesPlus.com: You mentioned player under the lights for these International guys. Some critics poo-poo that. How realistic is that adjustment and how hard is it to make that adjustment for the first time?

Pope: I think it's an adjustment because most of these guys have played a couple of years in the Dominican and then they played in the Gulf Coast League, and were there for a year or two. Basically every game is a day game. They're on the same schedule playing everyday at one o'clock, waking up at 7 or 8 in the morning, get their practice in, come in for lunch, and then play their game, and then be able to get to bed early. They have a schedule that they basically have to stick to. Now in Staten Island they have a lot more freedom. Playing under the lights and getting used to that is one adjustment, but getting used to how to take care of your body and getting the rest that you need is another, eating the right food, working out the proper amount of time in the right way. I think all of that is a correlation that goes into it. I don't think it's just playing under the lights but when you put all of that into the basket I think it goes into it. And two, these guys are still young players and they're going up against college pitchers, seniors even who have a good idea how to pitch. They'll pitch backwards. Instead of a fastball they'd see down in the DSL or the GCL, they'll get a breaking ball or a changeup. Again, you could see the improvements those guys made towards the end of the season. They were making adjustments getting into hitter's counts and seeing offspeed pitches, they were ready for it.

PinstripesPlus.com: I mentioned Custodio. He got off to the slow start, got the glasses, and then seemed to make the adjustment. Just how good could this guy be down the road?

Pope: I think he can be pretty good. I mean he runs like the wind which is a tool you can not teach. It's just such an enjoyable experience to watch him run. If he can figure out what he did in the second half of the season, if he can continue do that, he's going to be a very good player for a long time. When you look at him he looks like a smaller guy but when you're up close to him and see him in the gym he's a lot stronger than you'd think. I think his body is going to hold and do a lot more than people think. He got his glasses, he started hitting the ball better. Even his outs, the contact was better. He had better quality ABs. He started gaining confidence, he started playing better in the field, he started being more talkative, he started being more of a leader -- I think that's the biggest thing with him, talking more, because the guys look up to him even though he's reserved and quiet. I think if he can start coming out of his shell and being a leader on the field, and picking guys up, that's going to carry him a long way.

PinstripesPlus.com: Let's talk about Peter O'Brien. The first two things everybody says when watching him play is big-time power, big-time arm strength. He struck out a bit in Staten Island and doesn't seem to have that consistent approach yet. Do you think he'll develop that approach to become a better overall hitter to make better use of that special power?

Pope: I do, I really do because there was a period of time during the season that every time he walked up to the plate you knew that he was going to do something special and he had an opportunity to hit the ball a long way or really hard. I do believe that he will get a routine down and have an idea of what he wants to do when he goes up to the plate. The biggest thing with Peter O'Brien is he gets himself out. I can not tell you how many times I was down there at third base and he was just swinging at everything. It's like he made up his mind before the pitcher ever released the ball. I think if he learns to trust himself and trust his hands -- I mean he's got plenty of bat speed, he's got plenty of smarts to be a good hitter in the box and have an idea of what to do -- he's going to be good. He's just got to trust himself because most of the time he was getting himself out swinging at fastballs over his head or breaking balls in the dirt, and these were in counts where he was ahead. Maybe he was 2-0 and the next thing you'd know it would be 2-2, and then it's obviously a lot tougher to hit with two strikes. He's just got to be more patient...more patient and trust himself.

PinstripesPlus.com: You're a former pitcher. A lot of folks have made a lot of O'Brien's raw catching abilities. Did you see some progress from him this season that gives you hope that he can stick at catcher long-term?

Pope: I did. I think with him he just needs more reps back there to get more comfortable. I'm not exactly sure how much he caught in college but there were times back there where he was just uncomfortable and there were times where you were like 'man, he looks really, really good back there'. He's so big that he just has to get a feel for what he likes to do back there. A lot of times we'd watch video of Matt Wieters from the Orioles because he's 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, the same type of body as O'Brien. We'd watch video of him and see what he would do behind the dish so now he's got to figure out what would be best for him and do what he can to be consistent instead of one day doing something that he feels is good and the next day something Matt Wieters does. He just needs to stick with what he feels is comfortable and get repetitions behind the dish. He did make improvements in Instructional League with his catching setup behind the dish and widening up just a bit with his feet to feel more comfortable. He's got a great arm. Repetition is going to help him feel more comfortable back there and repetition with game calling too. These college catchers, the head coaches or pitching coaches call the pitches from the dugout so they're never really thinking back there. He's got to have a better idea of how to call a game and that's just going to take repetition, and he did get better as the season went on. He learned about pitches, he talked to pitchers in between innings, in between starts, during starts, go over scouting reports, talk to relievers about their out-pitch, etc. You can learn a lot just from watching the game.

PinstripesPlus.com: Matt Duran had an awful start to the year and then did a complete 180 degree turnaround at the end of the season. In my opinion he seemed to be pulling the ball too much early in the year. Tell me what you thought. What adjustment did he make to be so much better at the end of the year?

Pope: Yeah he made huge improvements, huge strides towards the end of the season. He started off extremely slow and that's going to happen in pro ball. Matt's so young and he probably never struggled like that ever before in his life so everyday he came to the ballpark he kept pressing more and more, and more, and more. He wanted to do better every single day. Each game that kept getting tallied up without a hit he just put that much more pressure on himself. From what I saw he was putting way too much pressure on himself. He wasn't really having fun playing. He was trying to get a hit every at-bat, which everybody is but I think he was putting so much pressure on himself. Then he'd go into the field and want to make every single play and when he didn't make a play he was so hard on himself. Then he'd come in the next day and work his tail off every single day. And sometimes less is more. [Hitting coach] Ty Hawkins and myself would sit him down and be like 'listen, sometimes take a step back and give your mind a rest'. Sometimes that's better than cranking at it and cranking at it. He did that, started to get into a better routine, a better plan, he started to relax and have fun, and then a couple of hits, a couple of bloopers went his way here and there, and the next thing you know he's smoking the ball. And then he starts getting confident and that confidence goes a long ways. We also have to look at Matt Duran's age, an 18-year old kid basically right out of high school, and again playing in the Penn League which I think is a tough league for young hitters because you're facing older pitchers.

PinstripesPlus.com: It's quite apparent to me that Matt Snyder can flat-out hit. But the thing is he's a first baseman and didn't hit for a lot of power this year in Staten Island. Do you see power developing in his game because it seems that is really the only thing lacking in his game?

Pope: I do, I think he can develop power because you see it in batting practice. When you watch him in BP the ball comes off of his bat really well. He's tall and lanky, and I think once he figures some things out mechanically I think it's going to free his hands up a bit more and start creating some back-spin, and I think that's going to help him with his power. He's a great kid, another one that works his tail off, he comes from a baseball family, so he just eats it up playing baseball everyday. He loves it. He was a treat to have on the team, that's for sure. He's a good student of the game. He watches the game, he watches pitchers and what they do, he remembers pitches from at-bat to at-bat. Say we play Brooklyn one game and he faces a couple of pitchers...a month later he remembers what that pitcher threw him and how he got him out. He's a student of the game so I think that's going to help him out also.

PinstripesPlus.com: Snyder's wrist injury helped Greg Bird get up there those last couple of weeks and Bird was great, not only in Staten Island but in my opinion he was awesome at Instructs. Just how good could Bird be?

Pope: You want to talk about somebody who can hit, that kid is going to hit! He's a great kid. He did a fantastic job transforming to first base because he was a catcher. He was in the middle of transitioning positions and still hit like that, which is really good. There's not too many young players, or even older players for that matter, that can make that transition from one position to another and get better offensively. He's another student of the game; loves to watch the game, loves to pick your brain, he remembers what pitchers do to him, and he loves to play everyday.

PinstripesPlus.com: Taylor Dugas is another kid who can really rake but he's a smaller guy without much power and he's not exactly fast either so how do you see him fitting into the organization long-term?

Pope: Yeah, he's just going to have to keep finding a way to get on base which he did a great job of this year. He's going to have to to do everything right. I had to do that too when I played, I had to do everything right and be fundamentally sound. He's going to have to keep doing that his whole life, to do the little things right. He's not going to be able to make too many mistakes, but I definitely think he's smart enough where he's able to do that. He's going to be interesting as he gets older if he can pick up some speed running. Offensively he can swing it. He's got a great eye and he's got sneaky pop. Sometimes he'll run into a ball and you'll be like 'dang, where did that come from?', so he's a guy you'd love to have on your team because he's so scrappy, he's a great leader, and he's a catalyst at the top of the lineup because he can get on base.

PinstripesPlus.com: Saxon Butler hit a lot of home runs for you this past season. There have been a number of guys over the years who have hit quite a few home runs in Staten Island and it never translated to the higher levels. Why is Saxon Butler going to be different?

Pope: Good question. He's a hitter. He never lets anything bother him, it's unbelievable. He comes in, strikes out in two at-bats in a row and completely forgets about it, and the next thing you know he's 1-3 with a bomb. He's another student of the game. It seems these college hitters we got this year are a bit more advanced for their age and have a real good idea of what to do when they go up to the plate. They have a great plan of what they want to do and these guys know what they can and can not do. I think that's why Saxon Butler will be able to succeed down the road, because he knows what he can do and what he can't do. I don't know how many times this year I saw him on the first pitch trying to hit the ball into the water [over the right field fence] and pull it foul. The next pitch he would come out of his shoes and completely miss it. He's 0-2 and the next pitch he hits a line drive off of the left field wall. You don't see too many guys who can make adjustments like that. He makes adjustments at-bat to at-bat but he also makes adjustments pitch to pitch. I think that's definitely something that's going to be able to help him down the road.

PinstripesPlus.com: Of the hitters I haven't mentioned yet -- Fu-Lin Kuo, Daniel Lopez, Isaias Tejeda, Jose Rosario -- these guys didn't exactly have great offensive seasons this year. Of the guys I just listed, which one is the best candidate in your opinion to have a bounce-back season next year?

Pope: To be honest with you, and I'm not saying this to be politically correct, I think it could be anyone one of them because they all have the track records that they can hit and they all made adjustments as the season went on. It may not show in their stats but watching them coming in everyday and working, and by the end of the season each one of those guys had an idea of what they needed to do to get better, what they can and can't do, and they started to get better approaches at the plate as the season went on. I honestly believe each one of those guys can come back next year wherever they are and have great offensive years. I think the years that you struggle the most are the years you find out the most about yourself. If you go every year hitting .300 and have great years, I feel like you don't learn anything about yourself. But the years that you have to come to the ballpark everyday and grind it out, and figure out what the heck do I need to do to get better, those are the years that you learn about yourself. Those are the years that you learn what you have to do to get better, to stop whatever so called slump is going on. I think these guys had a great learning year and it's going to help these guys get better. I told these guys 'some of you guys are going to look back at this year and realized how much you learned'.

PinstripesPlus.com: Of the position prospects at Instructs down in Tampa this year -- I know you were only there for a week -- but which one stood out the most for you?

Pope: I would say Greg Bird. I remember one at-bat he was facing Jose Ramirez who was throwing 95-97 mph with a really good slider. Ramirez gets him 0-2 with slider, slider, then he comes inside with a 97 mph fastball and Bird just turns on it for a base hit to right field. Not too many people can do that.

PinstripesPlus.com: Let me ask you about the pitchers. I'm not going to get to all of them but I wanted to ask about Gabe Encinas because for me his numbers lie. His numbers were pretty dreadful but his stuff was phenomenal later in the year and especially at Instructs.

Pope: His stuff in Instructional League was outstanding. I think the difference in Instructional League and during the season is during Instructs he was locating his fastball down in the zone and his breaking ball was better whereas during the season he was leaving his fastball up. I don't care how good your breaking ball is or how good your changeup is, if you leave your fastball up you're going to get hit, I don't care what league you're in. With him he just needs to be able to locate his fastball down low because he has a great downward plane angle to his fastball with his arm slot. If he can just keep his fastball down in the zone and be able to locate it better, he's going to be outstanding. If you look at his walk to strikeout ratio -- I don't have the numbers in front of me -- it wasn't very good. He was always pitching behind guys and when you pitch behind guys you have to throw your fastball, and then if you have to throw your fastball and guys know what's coming, and then you leave it up, it's tough to get guys out at any level. The key for him is locating his fastball down in the zone and he'll be a good one. His stuff is unbelievable. He's got an electric arm with great stuff.

PinstripesPlus.com: Evan Rutckyj has great stuff too. You're a former pitcher -- is the big thing for him limiting the walks because it seems like the pitches are there?

Pope: Definitely, I feel like that was half of our battle this year with our staff. I felt like every time I looked up at the scoreboard it was 3-0 or 3-1 [on opposing batters], and man it is so tough when you are behind hitters. There's a reason why hitters are in pro ball, it's because they can hit. If you can't pitch ahead of guys it's going to be tough to be successful. I don't care if you're in the big leagues or if you're in the GCL, you have to be able to pitch ahead of hitters.

PinstripesPlus.com: Taylor Morton was dreadful this year in Staten Island but yet I've seen him be quite dominant at times, including during Spring Training earlier this year. Are you expecting a big bounce-back season from him and why?

Pope: I never saw him pitch before Extended [Spring Training] but I heard the same thing. Guys in Spring Training would come back [from away games] and be like 'he was lights out', that he was unbelievable. I can't speak for Taylor but I don't know if he got bummed out that he didn't break camp with Charleston and then ended up going to Extended, and [maybe] he let that get to him. I don't know if that's true and I don't want to speak for him, but he did get shut down in Extended and we also shut him down during the season. So I don't know if his arm was barking on him, but his stuff wasn't the sharpest. It led me to believe something was going on with his arm.

PinstripesPlus.com: I know you only got a couple of looks at him but I wanted to ask you about Angel Rincon because I was getting text messages and emails from scouts and rival team officials when he was pitching in the Gulf Coast League asking me who this guy was. What did you like? What do you think he needs to work on?

Pope: Great arm, electric stuff. His first start he was lights out. I don't know the exact velos but it was around mid-90s with a really good slider. He was just going right after hitters, locating his fastball, pitching off of his fastball, and then in his next outing I don't know if he was being timid or what but his location wasn't as good. He was leaving his slider up and his fastball up. The tempo wasn't the same as his first outing. I think if he continues to attack hitters and go right after guys, locate his fastball and pitch off of his fastball, he's going to be very successful because he has a great fastball and an unbelievable slider with great depth, and a good changeup to go with it. He has three quality pitches. You don't see too many young pitchers with three quality pitches. He's a great kid with a great upside.

PinstripesPlus.com: I'm going to test your memory a bit asking about Corey Black since he didn't pitch for you long in Staten Island. Everybody knows he can light up the radar gun. Other than that though, why do you think he's going to be a successful pitcher long-term?

Pope: Obviously his fastball is on the plus-plus side, but there's two other reasons: one, he's going to have to locate better. Obviously as the higher you go that's what you have to do, I don't care what kind of stuff you have. You have to be able to locate your fastball and I think he's going to be able to do that. He has a second gear. He'd be cruising along and the next thing you know he'd get into trouble, and you could see him dig down a little deeper and get into that second gear, maybe throw a little harder when he needed to. He could throw balls by guys and elevate really well. He's got a great breaking ball and a really good changeup. He has three quality pitches, three plus pitches, with a great idea how to pitch. He's not out there just throwing as hard as he can, he's out there pitching and using his head.

PinstripesPlus.com: Of the pitchers I haven't mentioned, is there a guy who is a 'sleeper' in that group as a guy we should keep an eye on?

Pope: I could see James Pazos doing that because he's a lefty and gosh, a left-handed pitcher in baseball is a huge commodity. There would be times where he'd show sheer dominance. I don't know his exact velocity range, maybe 92-93 mph and touching 94 mph, and at times he'd show a deadly, deadly slider. If he can learn how to get lefties out on a consistent basis and dominate them, he could be a 'sleeper'. I wouldn't be surprised. He's a bulldog too. He wants the ball all of the time. It's nice to see that in the bullpen.

PinstripesPlus.com: Of the pitchers down at Instructs in Tampa who stood out for you?

Pope: Obviously our first round pick [Ty Hensley], he has a great arm. Jose Ramirez too, he's got a great arm. [Mark] Montgomery, I had never seen him throw before. He was unbelievable. I was really impressed by him. Encinas was really good too, really good.

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