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Astros Minor League Q&A: Talking with Aaron West

Never ask for Aaron West around the Jethawks clubhouse. There, he's known as "Snacks." And he's been feasting on Cal League hitters this season. I pull him aside for a Q&A before the August 18, 2013 game in Lancaster.

Timothy De Block

Aaron West

Born: 6/1/90 in Everett, Washington
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
High School: Snohomish HS (Snohomish, WA)
College: University of Washington
Drafted: 17th round (519th overall) in 2012 by the Houston Astros


Aaron West has put up good numbers so far in the New York-Penn and California Leagues. A 17th-rounder in 2012, West was the University of Washington's Friday night starter in 2012, so he's already shown the ability to pitch in the spotlight.

West has earned admirers both for his ability and for his outgoing, friendly nature. I pulled him aside before a game in Lancaster earlier this month. The transcription has been lightly edited for clarity:

We haven't really talked with you since you won - in dramatic fashion - the TCB March Madness Fan Favorite Poll, breaking the system in the process.

Lot of fans out there.

Of all the awards that you've gotten in your career, where does that rank? Number one?

Yeah, it's up there. It's nice to know that you have fans out there, all around the United States, and that they support you and they believe in you. It helps push you a little bit, and I like it.

Once upon a time, obviously, you were a high school pitcher in Snohomish, Washington. Adam Eaton - the one from the Padres, not the one that's playing now - was a pretty successful pitcher out of Snohomish High School. Do you ever talk to him?

No, I don't. I've never even met him.

There was a time when you had to search for Washington prep players - guys like Jeremy Bonderman and Travis Snider come to mind. But not a lot of guys came out of Washington high schools. In more recent years, Washington high schools have put out a lot of big draft prospects. Reese McGuire, Clint Coulter, Blake Snell, Josh Sale. Do you think anything has changed, or are more people just starting to notice?

I think it's changed a little bit. I think Washington's getting put on the board a little bit in terms of baseball. When most people think about college baseball, they think about the southern California schools, the Midwest, the Southeast. But Washington's getting a lot better players now. That has a lot to do with the type of baseball that's being played, and new facilities that are allowing the kids to play in the rain and snow.

Your senior year, 2008. 7-0, 0.62 ERA. Two hitter to win the state title. Dogpile at Safeco...

I tried not to go down, but my catcher got me and threw me in. One of our guys got cut on the arm and was bleeding all over everybody, but that's just part of the fun. It was great.

Were you involved in the draft at all that year?

I maybe talked to one scout, and he was just at the game watching someone else and talked to me because I was throwing that day. Other than that, no. I wasn't really thinking about that. I was just thinking about college and getting into a good school and furthering my education.

I followed you through college, and your career has always sort of interested me. After your freshman year, Lindsay Meggs took over the program. What was that transition like, to a whole new staff?

It was different at first. Coach Knutson had been there for a while. He was really relaxed, and liked to let his players play. Lindsay Meggs is a great coach. He takes a little bit to get used to. He likes to be in control, and he likes to have things his way, which is understandable when you come into a program. After a year, I thought he was really tough on me, but it made me work harder. My next year, he really taught me a lot of stuff.

But that year, you were a medical redshirt to get surgery on your elbow for frayed cartilage. Can you tell us a little about that?

It kind of looked like grass was growing on my elbow. All the cartilage was sticking up, so they went in and shaved it off, drilled holes in the bones, and scar tissue filled the area to replace the cartilage. It's been great ever since.

Is that something that just sort of developed over time from pitching?

Yeah. My freshman year, my arm felt great. No problems. Then, towards the end of that freshman summer, it started getting swollen every once in a while. After about ten or fifteen innings my sophomore year, my fastball was topping out around 84. Something wasn't right. I realized something was going on, so I checked with a doctor, they took some X-Rays, and I had the surgery.

I'm not going to lie, that sounds awful.

It was a long process. After five months of not throwing, you wonder if you'll ever play baseball again. It puts everything in perspective; makes you work a little harder.

Luckily, you're from Washington, where you don't pitch all year, anyway. So you're used to five months off.

That's right. I never thought of that.

So when you returned in 2010, Dave Dangler came in as the pitching coach. Junior College Hall of Fame pitching coach. Notre Dame pitching coach for a while. Head coach at Portland State. What did you learn from him?

He's a great coach. He taught me a lot. Got my confidence back, and from there I played well and everything went smoothly.

He also changed your slider, as I understand it.

Yeah, I used to have a curveball. He said my changeup was pretty slow, and there's no need to have two slow pitches. So he had me start throwing a slider, and I developed it. It took a lot of time. I'm still working on it now - I'm always working on all of my pitches - but it became a good secondary pitch.

That summer, you played for the Humboldt Crabs in the Far West League. You were named Most Valuable Pitcher after leading the Humboldt Crabs to their first-ever Far West League championship. 7-0, 0.17 ERA. 83 strikeouts over 54 innings and only 11 walks. What did you learn pitching there?

Pitch with your fastball. I worked in and out with my fastball. For that league, I was a little bit overpowering, but it taught me a lot. Before, I was pitching away from contact, trying to get people to swing and miss instead of attacking. I think that really carried into the next season, pitching off of my fastball, attacking both sides of the plate. It really helped my career.

Moving into 2012, you were Washington's Friday night starter. Did you know that coming into the year?

Coach Meggs said I was battling for the spot as I came in. I told him, "I'm just going to let you know right now, I'm going to be pitching for you on Friday nights."

The game I remember sitting up and taking notice of you was against UCLA and Adam Plutko. He was the big name, but you matched him pitch for pitch. I think you had 22 of 28 first pitch strikes. Pitching in those high-profile games must have been very exciting.

I loved it. I loved going against Plutko and Appel and all those guys. It's great to see that you can pitch against those guys and match up well with them. It's Pac-12 baseball, and it's great. I didn't want to do anything else. I wanted to pitch against the best guys.

"Coach Meggs said I was battling for the spot as I came in. I told him, 'I'm just going to let you know right now, I'm going to be pitching for you on Friday nights.'"

But you didn't face Brady Rodgers.

No. I started a mid-week game that week. We were trying to win a certain amount of games to get into the postseason. I started Wednesday and pitched Sunday.

I don't like midweek games. No one likes midweek games.

No. And it's too hot to pitch on Sundays.

You ended up being drafted by the Astros in the seventeenth round. What was your draft like?

It was fun. You always want to go in the highest round possible, but it's nice to watch the first day on TV and see your buddies get picked. I was just sitting by the phone, waiting. After the second day ended, I was talking to a few teams, the Astros included. We came up with a deal and they said they'd take me. I never looked back and I've never been happier.

At the beginning of the year, you talked to Tim De Block on our podcast, and you mentioned that last year you got tired toward the end of the year, between college and pro ball. How are you feeling right now?

Feeling great. I was getting a little tired at the end of the piggyback system. It was a little tough throwing with three days' rest with a bullpen in between it. It caught up to us quick. We got used to throwing with sore arms. So going onto five or six days' rest was a complete change. My arm felt so good.

I would've guessed that that would be less taxing.

Throwing seventy-five pitches or throwing a hundred pitches isn't a big difference. Throwing seventy-five pitches and then sixty pitches every three days is a lot of pitches. It gets on you. After a while, you get used to it, but it's a bit rough coming right out of spring training.

Are you glad it's gone?

It was nice throwing more often, but it's nice to get into a rotation and always be starting games.

You also mentioned in that podcast that one of your biggest adjustments was learning to pitch inside. How do you feel with that particular adjustment, and what other adjustments have you had to learn to make?

Definitely, throwing inside is a big adjustment. In college... Tyler Heineman's going to hate me, but especially UCLA... they stand on the plate. If it's inside, they're just going to turn and get hit. If you jam them, they're not going to break their bat. They can flip it over the infield. With wood bats, guys are trying to hit home runs. They're going to try to get their hands out. Pitching inside is huge. For anyone that's going to throw off their fastball, pitching inside is the most important thing you can do. That's a huge adjustment for me. Also, this year I've been using my changeup a lot more. It's become a really good pitch for me. I actually want to throw it, as opposed to having to throw it.

In college, you weren't ever a huge strikeout guy. Six and a half strikeouts per nine innings. Over your two professional seasons, you're up around eight and a half per nine innings. Would you say those adjustments - pitching off of your fastball, trusting your changeup, and working inside - are helping you with that?

Absolutely. You can't really control strikeouts. I just try to pound the zone and make good pitches, and let them get themselves out. If that's how they're going to do it, that's fine with me.

One thing that's interesting about you is that your home/road splits are pretty fantastic. You've pitched really well [at the Hangar.] Is there any particular reason for that?

I don't think so. I think I've pitched more innings on the road. But I just try to pitch well anywhere I pitch.

"You can't really control strikeouts. I just try to pound the zone and make good pitches, and let them get themselves out. If that's how they're going to do it, that's fine with me."

That's a wise strategy. You don't think, necessarily, that when you [pitch in Lancaster], you have it in your head more to keep the ball low, so you make more of an effort?

No. I always try to keep it low. For some reason, they just don't hit the ball up in the air as much against me here.

You're a guy who's been through a lot of pitching coaches for someone your age. Is it easy to integrate what everyone has told you? How do you work with having had so many voices in your head?

It's pretty difficult, just because you're constantly getting different ideas thrown at you. But at the same time, you can take a piece of each of those ideas and help your game improve in every aspect. I've had a lot of great pitching coaches that have helped me, whether it's pickoff moves, windup, holding runners... they all combined to really help my game. There hasn't been one pitching coach that hasn't helped me at all.

Staying on the idea of holding runners, has Vince Coleman worked with you specifically? If so, what is he teaching you?

The only thing he's worked with me on was in Spring Training, he had us running bases. But he hasn't worked with me on pickoffs or anything. He talks to hitters in the dugout, and I like to listen. He talks about what he picks up off the pitchers. Little movements a pitcher might make, or something he does with his head. He knows what he's talking about, so I listen to him and try to think about what I do that would give away my move or my delivery to home plate. Without him directly teaching me, I can still pick up little things I can improve on.

Does Delino DeShields ever come in and tell you something he's seeing?

He'll come in and tell me my holds are the same and I need to mix them up. He knows who's fast, who likes to steal early in the count or late in the count. He's smart. He knows the game.

Between Ricardo Aponte last year and Donnie Alexander this year, what's the primary difference there?

I like Donnie a lot. He's really detailed. He works a lot with every little part of your game. Aponte, being my first season, was more just seeing how I throw. He didn't really change much. He was mostly just helping me with learning how to read hitters, and more of the mental side of the game instead of more mechanical. This year, it's a lot more mechanical with a little bit of mental.

I guess the only other thing I want to talk about is your fallback plan. You have a degree in Middle East history, a minor in international relations...

Working on that. It's about halfway done.

And you speak Persian.

Yeah, I took a couple years of Persian. Hopefully, I'll remember it.

And your fallback plan is to be in the FBI. Where did that come from?

I grew up watching CSI, Criminal Minds, shows like that. I thought that would be cool to do. I was good at math in high school, but once you start throwing letters in there, it wasn't the easiest thing for me. So with a history degree, you don't need to do math. You just need to memorize years and wars and governmental plans. I can memorize things easily. It's something cool and I really liked taking all the classes. It's a good plan to fall back on. It's something to do, and it makes life interesting.

Personally, I'd prefer you were pitching in Houston.

I'd be pretty happy about that.

Alright, good. As long as we're together on that.

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