Why Connaughton can pitch in the big leagues

As a fellow Northeasterner, Ristano knew he could coach Connaughton hard. That brought out the best in the 6-foot-5 righthander, who didn’t always have command – due in part to his split allegiance with basketball – yet found ways to succeed and thrive.

This is a two-part series with Notre Dame pitching coach Chuck Ristano and Irish basketball assistant Anthony Solomon. Both coached/worked with Pat Connaughton, the two-sport standout from Notre Dame who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles last June but returned to the Fighting Irish for his final season of eligibility with the basketball squad, which he led – along with Jerian Grant – to the Elite Eight.

The following is Ristano’s viewpoint of Connaughton as spoken to Irish Illustrated Senior Editor Tim Prister.

First of all, with regard to where Pat ends up professionally, I want Pat to do what Pat wants to do. He’s an amazing talent in both basketball and baseball, but he’s an even better kid.

If his heart is on the basketball court and he gets an opportunity, I’m going to root like heck for him to do that. If his heart finds its way to baseball, do I think he can pitch in the big leagues? Absolutely, and a big part of that is beyond what his physical gifts are.

The great separator for Pat is personality, competitive desire, all the things that were so well showcased with our basketball team, which is a more visible stage than the college baseball diamond.

Once you get to professional baseball, your stuff, your velocity…You’re kind of playing on an even scale there. But what ultimately takes you to the next level are those intangibles that Pat has that come along so rarely.

I absolutely believe that Pat can get to the big leagues. Knowing how big the hill to climb is for anybody in professional baseball, I don’t say that to put pressure on him or create expectations where it doesn’t need to be. But to steal Coach Brey’s phrase (via Solomon), it’s Pat’s world and we’re all just living in it. I absolutely believe he can pitch in the big leagues.

In my 10 or 11 years coaching – I don’t want to say Pat is a once in a lifetime guy -- but the total package is just so special, and to be special, you have to be more than just physically talented. You’ve got to be a leader, you’ve got to take your academics seriously…

At a university that prides itself on the complete person, Pat is the greatest personification of that that I know. I’m just so happy that we maintain such a close relationship and that he cares about Notre Dame baseball like he does Notre Dame basketball. He’s a really selfless kid.

In a lot of ways, the gifts that helped our basketball team make that run are what are going to take him to the next level on the mound. He has that intangible, that ‘it’ factor. When the lights go on, he’s at his best.

As far as tangible assets go, not only does he have a power fastball, but he has a really good comprehension of pitching. At Notre Dame, he didn’t really post dominant numbers. But keeping in perspective the amount of time he was actually allowed to allocate to baseball, it was pretty remarkable what he was able to do. If baseball is where he ends up and he’s allocating his time toward that, he’s going to develop his secondary stuff and he’s going to continue to gain velocity with his fastball the way his arm works.

Everybody sees the fastball. That’s the most obvious pitch he has, and that will go in the mid-90s. I would expect that is going to get a tick more consistent now with some professional baseball under his belt. Not only is it easy gas, but it’s heavy. A lot of times guys throw with the same velocity and the radar gun says the same thing for two guys. But the pitch doesn’t look the same. He’s able to create so many rotations on the baseball that it’s like hitting a cannonball. That’s a heavy fastball.

His changeup to me is an above-average pitch. He can throw it to lefties and righties.  It’s what gets guys off of his fastball. He’s better throwing it to lefties than righties, which is pretty standard for a right-handed pitcher. He’s got a curve that is a big, looping pitch that probably needs to be a little firmer than it is. His junior year, he really worked on trying to add a slider to his arsenal. It’s a pitch that is the ‘in’ pitch, especially for a power guy. It’s a pitch that will be deceptive late and run off the bat.

He’s continued his work on that pitch, and while it wasn’t something he featured a ton while he was here at Notre Dame, the way he picks things up would lead me to believe that the development of an above-average breaking pitch is probably accelerated with his exposure to professional baseball and that he’s very close to having that in his arsenal.

The reality is if you put him on the mound in Frank Eck Stadium or if you put him on the hill in Camden Yards, he’s going to know how to compete. He just has that ability to be big when you need to be big.

It can be a really temperamental situation when you have a multi-sport athlete joining your locker room a third of the way into the season, and you know he’s going to take innings away from somebody who has been doing his job. To the point where he had entered our locker room, our pitching staff was doing a pretty good job.

Pat came in with all his physical attributes and a ton of expectations, and it isn’t just the fact that he performed, but he never was an outsider. It’s a quality I wish I could teach. I wish I possessed the quality he has. Whatever it is, it just makes him one of the guys, and as a leader, you saw it more visibly in basketball. But in our locker room, he was incredibly valuable, too, even for the limited time that we had him.

Pat and I are both Northeast guys. Pat was a guy I always knew we could push, and sometimes if you’re not careful how you push guys, it can be counterproductive. When he would come out and struggle in the first inning, I’d go to the mound and say, ‘Stop surviving and start dominating!’ He’d survive walks, he’d survive bad counts, and probably on more than a couple of occasions, I was a lot more colorful with him than I would be with some of our other pitchers.

He’d just give you that look like, ‘I got it under control.’ I’d walk back to the dugout, Mik (Aoki) would look at me and I’d say, ‘We got this. Pat’s in control.’ This was with the bases loaded, nobody out, he had just walked two guys and hit a guy, and you’d leave the mound knowing that somehow he was going to figure his way out of it, and he almost always did. That’s not hyperbole. That probably happened one out of every five or six starts.

Pat has an unbelievable amount of accountability regarding ownership and what he was doing. He knew all about bunt plays. He knew all about (pickoffs). He never made it a crutch. His performance, whether good or bad, and the fact he wasn’t able to devote a lot of time to baseball, was never a crutch. It was always, ‘I need to be better,’ and that’s what made him so fun to coach.

His family is unbelievably supportive. They allowed us to coach. It’s easy for a family that knows they have a son that has abilities that can take him to professional sports to mettle and question how you’re doing things and want to be involved. Len and Sue (Connaughton) just said, ‘Hey, you take him, kick his butt if you need to, but he’s yours now,’ and boy, that made it so much easier.

You call Pat and ask him how he’s doing and he wants to know how we’re doing. That’s the kind of kid he is. He was at one of our games this spring, it might have been N.C. State, and he walked by Forrest Johnson, our captain, and he said, ‘Yup, addition by subtraction.’ We had a good laugh about it.

I’d be lying to you if I told you we don’t miss Pat. Physically, we obviously miss him. I don’t look at it as a regret, but if he were only a baseball player, there’s no doubt in my mind he would have been a captain and looked upon the same way our basketball program looks upon him.

He’s serious about what he does. He represents himself in the community well. I don’t know how many stories I’ve heard of him (impacting) people in the community. He was great at that.

I hesitate to call him a ‘once in a lifetime’ kid because we’re at Notre Dame where you expect to be around great kids. But if I never worked at Notre Dame and I just watched from a distance, Pat Connaughton is what I would expect every Notre Dame guy to be.

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