Andrew Moore is tweaking his curveball. Rated a tad below average on the scouting scale at the start of the season, it's evolving into a crisper, crueler weapon for the 21-year-old righty.
Moore, who's 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA through five California League starts, has first-year Bakersfield Blaze pitching coach Ethan Katz to thank.
"He suggested a change in how I hold it," the Mariners' No. 10 prospect said. "He has me spinning a softball every day to do an over-exaggerated spin, and a couple other spin drills that are challenging me to be more specific with how I throw the ball. I've already seen huge improvements in just a few days, and it's definitely because of how he's working with me."
Katz has spent his professional life dedicated to the art and science of pitching, but he doesn't fit the image that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of Minor League coaching staffs. For one thing, he's young -- he turns 33 on the 4th of July. For another, his transition from toeing the slab to passing his knowledge on was more abrupt and unexpected than that of many of his peers. In fact, Katz had never even considered a future as a pitching coach until he suddenly found himself working as one.
He pitched in the Rockies system for four years and then labored through 2009 on a Victoria, Canada, team in an independent league. After that season, Katz returned to his native Los Angeles and trained with big league veteran Randy Wolf at the facilities of Harvard-Westlake High School in Studio City.
"I started helping out with some of the players. They offered me the role of JV pitching coach, and I told them I would do that with the plan that I would try to play again," Katz said. "Things were going really well, and they asked if I would consider giving up playing and being the varsity pitching coach full-time. I thought about it, and I realized that playing independent ball was not something that I enjoyed, and coaching was something I enjoyed, so why not run with it?"
And so, a guy who, when he thought about post-baseball life at all, figured he might go into law enforcement instead ended up in charge of one of the most talented high school pitching staffs in the country. Among the arms in Katz's care at Harvard-Westlake were those of two current Top 100 Prospects -- Lucas Giolito (No. 1) and Jack Flaherty (No. 76) -- and No. 10 Braves prospect Max Fried. His coaching inexperience was not apparent to his pupils.
• On the blog: No. 1 overall prospect Lucas Giolito on working with Katz »
"I worked pretty hard in high school, but once Ethan started coaching, that took it to the next level for me," Giolito said. "I wasn't much of a strike thrower. I had issues with my command. Ethan took over as pitching coach, and we worked hard on it every day. It got to the point where I was a good amateur prospect and all that."
From Katz's point of view, too, he was a natural in the role.
"The biggest thing I learned early was getting the players to trust you," he said. "You have to make sure they know it's about them and it's not about you. Once that happened, it was pretty easy. That was something I focused on -- building the relationships."
After the high school season, in the summers of 2011 and 2012, Katz served as pitching coach of the La Crosse [Wisconsin] Loggers in the collegiate wood-bat Northwoods League. Andy McKay, who became a mental skills coach in the Rockies system in 2012 and was named the Mariners director of player development in October 2015, was the Loggers manager at the time. In Katz's second season with the Loggers, Tyler Servais, son of then-Angels assistant GM and current Mariners manager Scott Servais, was the team's catcher.
Ethan Katz went 13-7 with a 2.97 ERA over four Minor League seasons, including two with Asheville. (Tony Farlow/MiLB.com)
"Scott saw how I worked with the pitchers," Katz remembered. "One day he said, 'Hey, if I ever have an opening, I'm going to give you a call.' He gave me a call a week later."
Katz's accepted Servais' offer to be pitching coach of the Rookie-level Arizona League Angels, who's late opening allowed him to finish the 2013 Harvard-Westlake season as he helped the Wolverines to a Southern Section championship and Baseball America High School Team of the Year honors. He spent 2014-15 as pitching coach for Class A Burlington in the Midwest League, and his contract with the Angels ended as both McKay and Servais became integral parts of the Seattle organization. He wasn't far behind.
Not much has changed about his approach to his job -- he still focuses on building trust with his pitchers and pushing them to reach their potential.
"The same stuff I asked from the younger guys, I ask from older guys as well," Katz said. "It's a cautious line you have to walk, because with guys in pro ball, it's every day. You have to know when to back off a little bit, but I demand a lot from them. Every day at the ballpark, we want to accomplish something today to get better. The workload is nonstop."
But the Blaze staff, which boasted a 3.80 ERA through May 15, is buying in.
"He's been awesome to work with," Moore said. "He's a young guy as well, so he gets it. He knows it's a long season, and he's having fun with us. We're joking around and having a good time, but at game time, he knows how to flip that switch. He becomes a competitor, too. But he's still someone who's very approachable. He's somebody who, if I have a question or if something is lingering in my mind, I can definitely go talk to."
Nothing but Star Wars: San Jose hosted Star Wars Night on Saturday with character appearances throughout the ballpark, themed jerseys available for auction and two tickets for a future game to those who came dressed as their favorite characters from a galaxy far, far away. The Giants were the third Cal League club to put on a Star Wars Night this season -- the Mavericks did it a week prior, on May 7, and Bakersfield did it on April 24 -- and plenty more are in the pipeline: Rancho Cucamonga on May 21, Lancaster on June 17, Inland Empire on July 9, Lake Elsinore on Aug. 6 and Modesto on Aug. 20.
Collecting bags: What player had more total bases through May 15 than anybody at the Class A Advanced level? It wasn't High Desert's Travis Demeritte, who's been near the top of the MiLB homer leaderboard since Opening Day. It wasn't Visalia's Rudy Flores, who was leading the Cal League with 32 RBIs over 35 games. It was Rancho Cucamonga's Kyle Garlick, who's eight homers, one triple, 12 doubles and 21 singles added up to 86 total bases -- four more than Demeritte and eight more than Flores. The Dodgers prospect was hitting .338/.384/.533.
Horsing around: The Visalia Rawhide, whose mascot is Tipper the Bull, called on another four-legged beast to help them earn a win last Thursday night. A mini-pony named Zues [sic] was in the park, and the team tweeted that it expected Zues to help "snap their 2-game skid." How did Zues do? Well, Tipper better watch his flank -- the Rawhide topped the Ports in extras, 6-5.
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.