An Interview With Brian Akin

The name might not immediately ring a bell, but most of you know him as the Dodgers minor leaguer who runs the entertaining and insightful Dear Tommy John Letters blog.

In the interview, Brian dishes about dealing with major injuries, the minor league environment, reading Dodger blogs, and gives lots of other random insights.

The interview is rather long, but I think it’s well worth the read.

I guess a good place to start would be to inquire about how your recovery from Tommy John surgery is coming along. Also, where do you expect to be playing in the organization, and what are your expectations?

Wow, it took a great deal of self-restraint to not respond with a graphical illustration of my recovery. I will say that had I drawn a graph, there would be a high level of variance but the trend line would indicate a successful surgery. With injuries, I guess I always thought that you just gradually got better until one day, you woke up and you were back at 100%. My recovery was definitely not like that. Some days, even early on, my arm would feel great – like I was ready to compete. Other days I felt like I would be better off trying to throw left-handed. In hindsight, I may have entered into games a bit prematurely last year but I think it was good for me – I have no regrets. Now, 18 months removed, I feel totally normal and am ready to be evaluated that way.

As for where I’ll be this season, I really can’t speculate. We’re always reminded that “it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish” (especially when we’re being told that we’re going to have to repeat a level). I’m prepared for anything and I’m just excited to compete for a job.

In one of the entries on your blog, you mentioned that while you were surprised by the amount of positive experiences you’ve had with minor league teammates, there were specific instances where strife frequently occurred, like with the bitter veterans who didn’t want kids reading Baseball America type publications. What were some other causes of clubhouse strife? Were there any other types of players you noticed who would constantly rub you or others the wrong way?

Unrelated to that question, how helpful has minor league coaching been to you? There is a sense among fans that most of the real coaching occurs in the minor leagues, do you believe this to be the case? Have you noticed a different type of coach or coaching style as you’ve advanced levels?

Without a doubt, the number one catalyst for clubhouse strife would have to be the card games. I’m convinced that some players are more concerned about their win percentage in Spades than they are about their batting average.

In all honesty, I really haven’t witnessed many problems in the clubhouse. Sure, there have been a few quarrels, but for the most part we get along. On a scale of 1 – 10 measuring clubhouse togetherness, (1 being Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton brandishing weapons, and 10 being the team in ‘Remember The Titans’ rehearsing their choreographed pregame dance) the teams that I’ve been a part of would probably operate at about a 7. It doesn’t make for a very exciting answer to your question, but it’s the truth. I know that resentment among players exists, but the feelings usually don’t result in anything that I would characterize as strife.

The coaches that the Dodgers have in place at the minor league level are tremendous. From top to bottom. It really is a surreal moment in spring training when Dejon Watson introduces the staff. The success that some of these guys have had at the major league level is astounding. When you’re joking around with Charlie Hough in the stretching lines, it’s easy to forget that he won over 200 big league games. Then when he throws you a knuckleball during warm-ups, you are quickly reminded of how he acheived that feat. Outsiders might think that these guys are hired because of their names and their playing careers, but they are all truly great coaches. It is invaluable to have a mentor that has been through your same problems and come out on top.

The coaching style does change a bit as you move through the system. At the lower levels, coaches tend to come to you with advice, and at the higher levels, the players typically seek out the coaches for advice. I guess the assumption is that by the time you get to the AA and AAA levels, you have a pretty good handle on your delivery. That’s not to say that the help isn’t available at any level, there just seems to be a different etiquette as you move along.

I would have never known that about card games. I always thought those two fighting over cards was one of the most ridiculous things i’ve ever heard.

Anyway, in your career, you have advanced as far as AAA. How frustrating was it to get so close to the majors only to be setback by a significant injury? You mentioned before that you’ve had doubts like any minor league player would, how advanced did those doubts get?

As far as your injury is concerned, many who go through the surgery say that their velocity commonly bounces back, but fine control is usually the last thing to return, is that what you have experienced thus far? Were you able to pinpoint any mechanical reason for your arm troubles, or do you believe it was just a matter of typical attrition that occurs?

This may sound strange, but the news of my injury was actually kind of a relief. At the time, I was in AAA but I was pitching horribly. Technically it was the closest I had ever been to the big leagues, but I had never felt so far away.

Mechanically, I felt like I was all over the place. To borrow a phrase from Roy McAvoy, my delivery felt “like an unfolding lawnchair”. I can’t pinpoint when it started, but the last time I remember feeling right was in spring training. I was never pitching in pain, I just felt like something was off. It felt like I had to put forth way too much effort to sustain my normal velocity. What made it particularly tough though, was the fact that I didn’t look much different in any of the videos I watched. And I watched a ton of video. I can probably recite every pitch sequence that I had filmed that year. This is when the doubt really began to set in. I had certainly struggled at different points in my career, but never this badly. One of my strong suits has always been the ability to figure out what was causing me to struggle, but at this point, I really had no idea.

Any pitcher that has a reputation for being smart has heard “it looks like you’re thinking too much out there”. That was easily the most common advice that I received from those trying to help me. After a while, I began to wonder if maybe they were right, if maybe the problem was mental. Just considering this was devastating to me. If I never make it to the big leagues, I’ll be extremely disappointed, but I’ll get over it. After all, it’s not an easy thing to accomplish. But if I didn’t make it and I thought that it was because I was weak-minded – I’m not sure how I would deal with that. That’s where I felt like I was heading and it was hard. I was starting to think that it was turning into something that would haunt me the rest of my life. Writing this now, it sounds so melodramatic, but at the time it was all I could think about.

Then I started to notice something… I couldn’t straighten my arm. It had felt stiff between outings, but I still didn’t have anything that I’d describe as pain. Now though, I was actually losing range of motion. I decided to show our trainer and he recommended an MRI. He and the doctor agreed that I probably had developed some bone spurs. About a week later, the results showed that I did indeed have some spurs, but my UCL was also torn. I was shocked, but strangely relieved.

Not to harp on the negative feelings one might go through in the minor leagues, but have you ever considered quitting, or have you ever lost faith in your career path? Have you seen teammates have to make that decision? If so, what do you think influences somebody like Justin Orenduff (mid-20s, relatively close to the majors) to retire, but guys like Mitch Jones (early-30s, career minor leaguer, eventually made it) to push on?

On a lighter note, i’ve realized by reading your site that you’re into the statistical aspect of the game. Has sabermetrics helped your approach to pitching in anyway? If so, how? And how many teammates do you believe actually care or understand how players are valued in today’s market? Like do you think there’s been a premium placed on plate discipline instead of being free swinging to maintain a batting average?

During the worst of it, just before finding out I needed surgery, I did consider quitting as an option. I know the opportunity cost of bouncing around in the minor leagues all too well (it would be awesome if I could pick up a tab for my successful banker/lawyer/doctor friends every once and a while). But for me to actually quit, I would have to know that I wasn’t good enough to pitch in the big leagues. In 2008, I knew that this was the case – what I didn’t know was that I was pitching without a functioning UCL.

To quit anything that you are passionate about without regret, I think you have to come to the realization that your best efforts are not going to be enough. I’ve seen several close friends make this tough decision and I think that all of them had this realization at some point. Pushing on (as in the case of Mitch Jones) is just a product of still believing in your ability. And if you ever see Mitch hit during one of his hot streaks, he will make you a believer as well.

I’ve always been into statistics, but I can’t really say that they have influenced my approach to pitching very much. Most of the metrics for pitchers are pretty intuitive (such as the focus on BBs, Ks, and HRs) so learning them didn’t really change anything for me. With hitting, I could definitely see how a knowledge of sabermetrics could be beneficial. I have seven career at-bats and have not yet drawn a walk, even though I’m fully aware of the importance of OBP. I think that this has less to do with me being a free-swinger, and more to do with me being a really bad-swinger.

So I know that you’ve mentioned to me in the past that you do read certain Dodger blogs, and I was wondering what you thought of us, or just the medium, in general. Is it awkward to hear outsiders give their opinion on an organization that you are a part of?

I subscribe to several Dodger blogs and I really enjoy reading them. More often than not, I’m impressed by how well the writers use their resources to make accurate predictions about the players. The posts that I really enjoy are those that are informative, but also hint at how passionate the writer is about their team. Even if that means being angry with them from time to time… but not all the time. There are way too many bitter sports bloggers out there. Sometimes I think that, deep down, those guys want their team(s) to lose so that they have something to complain about. It’s like they aren’t happy unless they’re miserable. (I realize that makes no sense whatsoever, but I’m sticking with it.)

The only time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable reading an opinion was when that opinion involved Jason Schmidt. I understand why fans were unhappy with his production, but that guy worked his tail off every day to try and make good on his contract – even when it was clear that he wasn’t going to be able to. He could have easily shut it down and collected pay checks at home, but he’s not that kind of guy. Instead, he came to Camelback Ranch every morning and went through all of the monotonous drills and all of the conditioning in the 115 degree heat. It was Jason Schmidt, 8 or 9 rehabbers (like me), and about 80 rookieballers fresh out of high school. I know people will read this and think, “that’s the least he could do given how much he was earning” – but that’s not my point. My point is that he didn’t have to do it, and the truth is, most guys in his position would not have done it.

Thanks, Brian. Understood on both points, and I think the people reading it will understand the sentiment as well.

Thanks again for agreeing to this, it was informative and interesting for me to get a player’s perspective on things, especially from a fellow blogger.

No problem, Chad. I enjoyed it.

It’s worth noting that this interview was conducted through e-mail.  I feel that should be mentioned because some of the questions were long, and I didn’t want you guys to get the impression that I was just sitting there asking him a ten minute long question on the phone while he was on the other end contemplating why he ever agreed to do the interview in the first place.

About Chad Moriyama