3rd of May | Story

The path unwinding


MIDLAND, Texas | A.J. Griffin is less than a day removed from another quality start in the Texas heat and all he has to do tonight is sit in a plastic seat about two dozen rows above the field, cradle a radar gun and chart pitches under the lights. Easy enough, yeah. For now, his task is even easier. He sinks deep into a leather couch in the Midland RockHounds clubhouse, a pair of Wayfarers with orange lenses over his eyes, and belts out Elton John lyrics familiar to any child of the 1990s.

“It’s the ciiiiircle of liiiiife!” he sings with a healthy baritone and without irony. “Aaaaand it moves us aaaaall!” He knows these words, and he enunciates every one of them. He tilts back his head and opens his vocal chords. “Through despair and hope! Through faith and love!”

Griffin continues to sing with John until the bridge hits and the instrumental starts up again. Then he pushes up his sunglasses like the protagonist at the end of any John Hughes movie and starts to talk about pitching. The transition is almost seamless. He knows both worlds so well — The Lion King and the minor leagues — that he can talk about them at length, perhaps at the same time, perhaps even in Spanish. Or French.

“I try to pound the zone and just pitch to contact early on in the count,” he says. “I’m just trying to hit my spots and stay in there and keep the bullpen down for a while.” He knows these words, too, the words to all the ballads about the developing pitcher, and he enunciates every cliche, like Nuke Laloosh in front of the camera. He does toss in some analysis. “All my pitches make each pitch better. I work off different pitches, different planes to keep hitters off balance.”

“He doesn’t possess anything that makes you go, ‘Oh, my God.’ That’s what’s unique about him, is that he doesn’t have that one putaway pitch. Not to say he doesn’t put away guys, but he uses a variety of pitches, and he’s most effective when he can throw all his pitches for strikes.” — Midland manager Steve Scarsone

Griffin does manage to keep hitters off balance. One of the top pitchers in the Double-A Texas League — and all of the Oakland A’s minor league system — in terms of potential and statistics and stuff, he has a fastball that tops out around 92 mph, which is not all that fast. But he has managed to mix it with a curveball that sinks in on hitters, a changeup that dances down in the strike zone and a “slider-cutter thing” that he developed during spring training while “messing around with grips.”

Oh, and he will throw any pitch at any time.

“He doesn’t possess anything that makes you go, ‘Oh, my God,’” Midland manager Steve Scarsone says. “That’s what’s unique about him, is that he doesn’t have that one putaway pitch. Not to say he doesn’t put away guys, but he uses a variety of pitches, and he’s most effective when he can throw all his pitches for strikes.”

That relatively simple plan has resulted in a 3-1 record for Griffin over his first seven starts this season, along with a 2.49 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP, 44 strikeouts, 9.14 strikeouts per nine innings and 6.29 strikeouts per walk — every number in the top ten in the league among pitchers who have worked more than 16 innings. He has also averaged an efficient 14.15 pitches per inning and has thrown 67.0 percent of his pitches for strikes.



Midland pitching coach Don Schulze says he and others in the Oakland system “don’t talk about pitch counts. Go as hard as you can, as long as you can.” The numbers tell a story of a young pitcher steadily building up arm strength for another season.

April 5 — 71 pitches, 49 strikes (5 innings, 14.2 pitches per inning, 69.0 percent strikes)

April 10 — 78-51 (6, 13, 65.4)

April 16 — 87-60 (5 2-3, 15.35, 69.0)

April 22 — 90-64 (7, 12.86, 71.1)

April 27 — 92-61 (6 2-3, 13.80, 66.3)

May 2 — 95-57 (7, 13.57, 58.8)

May 7 — 100-69 (6, 16.67, 69.0)

Total — 613-411 (43 1-3, 14.15, 67.0)

“He has a great feel for the game,” Midland pitching coach Don Schulze says. “Almost like a sixth sense for what the hitters expect.”

All that started in 1996, the year Griffin played his first game on a diamond somewhere in San Diego. His dad, Tim, had asked him several times if he had and interest in playing the game. “And I said no,” Griffin says. “I said I wanted to play with my dinosaurs.” Turned out both he and his younger brother Aaron, now a pitcher at Loyola-Marymount, were pretty good. They played in little leagues and in high school, where their mom, Kathy, kept score for the team.

He pitched four seasons at the University of San Diego, a Torero until the 13th round of the 2010 draft, when he became an A, then a Canadian, a Bee, a Port, a RockHound, a River Cat and a RockHound again. Last season, his second in the system, he pitched for four teams at four levels — from Low-A to Triple-A — and pitched well everywhere. He finished the season in the top five among all A’s minor leaguers in wins, ERA, innings and strikeouts. He still wanted to improve.

“One of my problems last year was just nibbling way too much, instead of just throwing it down here, down the middle,” he says. “I’ve just been more aggressive, had more confidence in my stuff. It’s a game.”

This year already, he has pitched six no-hit innings in a start for the RockHounds, broken up with his French girlfriend — his inspiration for learning the language and adding it to a verbal repertoire that includes fluency in Spanish — and cruised through Texas League hitters to the point that, just a week after singing Elton John in the clubhouse, he received a promotion to the Sacramento River Cats and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He made one spot start there last season. 

This time, he should be up for good.

No despair. Just hope.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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