By JOE McFARLAND
They say that hindsight is 20-20.
When Andrew Kittredge made the transition from being a starter with the Western Major Baseball League’s Okotoks Dawgs in 2011 (feature image courtesy of the Dawgs) to joining the bullpen for the playoff push, few would have assumed that was where he would be pitching from for the rest of his career.
He ascended through the Seattle organization after being drafted by the Mariners in 2008, and in December 2016, was traded to Tampa Bay in a deal that included shortstop Taylor Motter.
Kittredge made his debut with the Rays in 2017, posting a filthy 1.76 ERA in 15 appearances. He’s become a regular in 2018 and just recently posted his first victory, while also being included in a “bullpen day” where manager Kevin Cash throws a reliever in as the supposed fifth starter.
Alberta Dugout Stories chatted with Kittredge, 28, about going back to being a starter, his memories of Okotoks and some advice he has for those in the Dawgs’ system today.
Q: Let’s start with your time here in Okotoks. What comes to mind when you look back on your stay with the WMBL club?
A: Just a blast, I mean I had an absolute blast playing there. Obviously that organization and that league, it’s top-tier. It seems like with the stadium we had there and the staff and everything, it was one of the better college summer league experiences I ever had. So I mean that’s what I kind of think about it. It’s just how much fun I had that summer and the guys that I played with. I still talk to some of them today. It was just an awesome summer.
Q: Did you have any spots you frequented or memories in particular?
A: I’m a pretty laid-back guy so I didn’t have any routines or anything. The thing that sticks out to me when I picture Okotoks is the stadium there, I just remember it always being sunny and beautiful. I know that summer was pretty awesome as far as the weather goes. It just kind of reminded me of home a little bit. Spokane summers seem to be really similar to Okotoks summers. Those are things I remember when I try to picture Okotoks. The stadium, summer, beautiful, and a lot of my good memories are just off-days and whatnot hanging out with teammates and just enjoying Okotoks for what it is.
Q: Not quite the same as the spring we have seen so far with the winter weather sticking around for longer than we’d all hoped. But that seems to have been the case for everyone, even for you guys in the pros.
A: (laughs) Yeah, I mean obviously when we play here at Tropicana Field, it’s beautiful and 72 every day. But that first long roadtrip we went on it was cold everywhere we went. Boston, New York, Chicago were all frigid cold. But that’s a different element that you have to get used to. Especially playing in the northern half of the United States early on in the season, it’s going to be cold pretty much wherever you go. Growing up and playing in that environment kind of helped me a little bit but I also haven’t played regularly in it for a long time so it took a little bit to get adjusted to it. But we were all able to do a pretty good job of figuring out how to stay warm and be able to realize what it takes to get ready for that weather.
— Okotoks Dawgs (@Okotoks_Dawgs) July 18, 2017
Q: Speaking of growing up and being from the northern half of the US, I’m curious how a Spokane kid who has been drafted into the MLB already somehow managed to find themselves in Alberta. How did that come about?
A: It’s kind of an interesting thing. It was kind of in my transition as I had just left the University of Washington baseball program and was gonna play at Lewis and Clark State and since I hadn’t played that spring, L&C State was just trying to find me a place to play that summer and they had a connection through, I think it was Brandon Newell, the manager at the time and it just kind of worked out. They had a spot for me and being that Spokane wasn’t too far away, it was convenient for me with the location and everything.
Q: When you were in Okotoks, you started as a starter and by the end you were in the bullpen. That transition seems to have come in handy for you now with what you’re doing in Tampa. How did that help you prepare for this versatility you’ve had in your career?
A: Yeah, I definitely think it helped. That was kind of the first time in my playing career at any level where I really threw out of the bullpen. In high school and Little League, you just pitch whenever they ask you to pitch. I had been a starter my whole college career at that point. But it was just something in Okotoks where we had a lot of good starters heading into playoffs and we weren’t going to use a five-man rotation so they asked me if I wanted to move to the ‘pen for the playoffs.
— MiLB.com (@MiLB) July 17, 2017
I was pretty excited about it because it was something I had never done before, consistently anyway. I had never been a full-time bullpen guy and it transitioned well for me into professional baseball because the Mariners, right off the bat when I signed with them, just had me in the bullpen. Mostly because I was a two-pitch guy and most starters you see have three, four, or five pitches. I don’t think the Mariners ever really saw me as anything other than a reliever but definitely getting that kind of experience I think helped. Even though it was just the one summer that I ever really did it. In pro ball, I was a reliever pretty much my whole career with a few spot starts here and there and longer outings too. I’ve definitely had some longer relief appearances through my minor league career but definitely in Okotoks that was really the beginning of me kind of transforming into the role of a reliever. So I definitely think it was a starting point.
Q: When did you become aware of this new plan of having a reliever fill the role of the fifth starter in Tampa, at least for the first part of the year?
A: We sit down at the beginning of spring training and have a meeting with all the front office and the coaching staff, just going over expectations for spring training. They didn’t, at that particular point, mention to me specifically that we might be doing a bullpen day. The only thing they said to me was that they wanted to stretch me out and get me up to 50-60 pitches so that I could be capable of having longer outings. It wasn’t really until halfway through spring training where all the talk about us possibly doing a bullpen day and then ultimately doing it started floating around the clubhouse. We heard a lot more about it on a day-to-day basis after that.
— FOX Sports Florida (@FOXSportsFL) April 29, 2018
Q: Did you ever think you would be going back to being a starter?
A: It floated through my mind a little bit at times, especially in my minor league career with the Mariners. I had some longer outings and had some success, then I wondered to myself if I was better-suited to be a starter. But since then, I have kind of changed my attitude about that a little bit. I think I am, first and foremost, a reliever. But that being said, I have made some starts and have had some success in some longer outings. So, I think it’s something I’m capable of doing. But as of now, I view myself as a reliever and hopefully a very versatile reliever. I’d like to think that’s something I bring to the table.
Q: I have chatted with some pitchers who like the regularity of starting and others who like being called upon whenever it happens. They say their approach changes and their pitch selection can vary. Does your approach and selection change at all, depending on which role you are filling?
A: To this point, it hasn’t really. I try to keep the same mindset as far as it doesn’t really matter what inning I’m going in. For me, it’s about being really aggressive and just try to out-compete the hitter. I want to be in the zone often and force contact and hopefully get quick outs. Which I think that mentality kind of works as a starter. I mean, starters are trying to keep pitch counts down and be efficient. My mentality as a reliever is similar to that so there hasn’t really been much of an adjustment. That being said, there have been times where my pitch selection has sometimes changed just a little bit but for the most part, my mentality and the way I’m throwing is all the same.
Q: Let’s go back to your time with the Dawgs and it didn’t end on the greatest of terms because of the loss in the final to Regina. Did that affect you in any way in terms of teaching you about resiliency at a young age?
A: Any time you go through a series like that and don’t end up winning, it’s something you have to bounce back from mentally and it’s something you have to learn from. I have been on a lot of winning teams in my career and I’ve been on a lot of losing teams in my career. So there are different things you just try to take from it, you know. Obviously, at the time, it stings and you know you’re not getting another opportunity until the next season rolls around. But you know you just gotta flush what happened and realize we did have a really good year and it was a lot of fun. We didn’t finish like we wanted to but each of the players that were on that team the next year were able to re-group and kind of flip the switch again and start fresh.
Q: You’re the second Dawgs alumni to make to the majors with the first being Jim Henderson. What does that mean to you?
A: It’s definitely cool. I hadn’t ever really thought about it too much but it’s definitely cool just because of how much respect I do have for that program and being one of the two is pretty special and humbling. Like I said earlier, I’ll always cherish the time I had up there and it was a blast. Just being in that conversation is just pretty special to me. It’s definitely an honour and very humbling.
Q: What advice do you have for the kids in Alberta who look at you and think that maybe they have a shot at making it as far as you have?
A: You always have to have a positive mindset. I kind of had to grind through a lot of my career where things weren’t going well and just had to stick with it. I would say things aren’t always as bad as you think they are when you’re going bad. But at the same time, things aren’t always as good as you think they are when you’re going good. Just try to stay even-keel and come to the park everyday with the mentality that you have something to prove, whether you’re playing well or not playing well. You gotta stick to the grind. Play hard everyday and the rest should work its way out.