One of the milder surprise players in the 2011 Pirates’ minor league system is Kawika Emsley-Pai, the Catcher/Designated Hitter for the West Virginia Power. Emsley-Pai was originally a 10th round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, but was cut after just one short-season stint for them. He signed with the Pirates in December and to date it is like the Pirates got a “bonus” 10th round pick from last year’s draft.
Interview with Kawika Emsley-Pai
Although he has slumped in June, Emsley-Pai still has an AVG/OBP/SLG of .306/.447/.408 (855 OPS) for the year. He has an exceptional walk/strikeout rate of 23 walks and 15 strikeouts in 98 at-bats. Emsley-Pai was kind enough to answer some questions for Pirates Prospects via e-mail while on the road to Greensboro.
Kevin Creagh: What is your heritage and family background? Does Kawika translate into anything of note?
Kawika Emsley-Pai: I’m half Hawaiian from my dad’s side. I have two sisters that live in Hawaii on the island of Oahu, and I wish to live there when my playing days are over. Kawika simply translates to David.
Kevin Creagh: It’s very unusual to see a 10th round pick get cut after one season of short-season ball. Did Arizona management give you a reason when they released you?
Kawika Emsley-Pai: That’s in the past and I try to focus on the future. The Pittsburgh Pirates have given me a wonderful opportunity and I am extremely grateful for having another chance. The Pirates have a great organization and I am very lucky to be a part of it.
Kevin Creagh: Describe your thought process when you found out you were cut by Arizona. Were you nervous that you would not be picked up? Were there other teams that called you? If so, what made you select the Pirates?
Kawika Emsley-Pai: I was heartbroken to be honest. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had no idea what other teams would think or if I was going to get another shot in the minors. So when the Pirates called, I jumped at the opportunity to be able to play again. I am very pleased with the way they run their organization and am very happy where I am now. They took me right in and I am very grateful for this opportunity.
Kevin Creagh: How can you explain your hot start with the bat this year? Your batting eye (23 BB/15 K’s) has been exceptional too.
Kawika Emsley-Pai: Last year was a huge learning curve for me as a ball player. I was trying way too hard at the plate and was not comfortable at all. This offseason I was fortunate enough to work with some big leaguers, Travis Snider (Blue Jays) and Brent Lillibridge (White Sox). They helped me simplify my swing so I don’t have any extra movement going on that may disrupt my timing. With their help, and the help from our hitting coaches with the Pirates, I was able to make my swing more efficient through drills and video work. From doing all that work, I was able to be comfortable and confident in the box so that I could compete in every at-bat I have. And that was my goal this year: to compete in every at-bat and to not get cheated. All I have to do is keep trusting my work I put in and being confident that it will all click during the at-bat.
Kevin Creagh: Rank your defensive skills from strongest to weakest — game calling, throwing, footwork, receiving.
Kawika Emsley-Pai: I need to get better in every aspect of my game but the biggest thing I am working on is game calling. I have been calling games my whole life but that was against metal bats. There is a big difference in attacking against wood bats, but I am slowly but surely getting better at it. We have an amazing catching coordinator in Tom Prince and he has opened my eyes to areas of the game that I have never even thought about before. He is one of the most intelligent coaches I have ever met and I am grateful to be able to learn from such a great coach.
Kevin Creagh: What is it like to catch so many talented young pitchers such as Jameson Taillon, Colton Cain, Zack Von Rosenburg, Zack Dodson, and the rest of the gang? Are there times you need to discuss things in-game with them that you may not do with college-drafted guys like Tyler Waldron and Brandon Cumpton?
Kawika Emsley-Pai: That’s a very good point. Most of the college guys go through the ups and downs of college baseball, whereas the high school guys are just used to dominating every hitter they face. Sometimes with the younger guys I need to reinforce certain things that I wouldn’t have to do with the college guys. We have some talented young pitchers and it’s fun to be able to catch them. They are all pretty mature for their age so it makes my job a lot easier when I don’t have to worry about any negative attitudes. All in all, it’s been awesome getting to work with all of them.
Kevin Creagh: Much has been made of the Pirates’ emphasis on fastball command at the lower levels. Did Arizona have a similar program in Yakima last year? If not, what do they stress to their short-season pitchers?
Kawika Emsley-Pai: The Dbacks were very similar to the Pirates’ fastball command philosophy so it was pretty easy to make the transition to this organization.
Kevin Creagh: If you were not a baseball player, what would you be doing right now?
Kawika Emsley-Pai: I would be finishing up school and probably be coaching football and baseball somewhere. I am big into coaching so I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
Kevin Creagh: How do you pass the time on the long road trips?
Kawika Emsley-Pai: I listen to a lot of music, any genre you can think of. We also play a lot of card games, we’re pretty competitive.
Thanks, Kawika. Good luck on the rest of your season!