The Oakland A's not only sent eight players to the Arizona Fall League this season, they also sent a coaching prospect. Pitching coach Steve Connelly -- a 24th-round pick of the A's in 1995 -- joined the A's system as a pitching coach in 2014 for the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters. In 2015, he moved up, holding the same position with the Low-A Beloit Snappers.
This fall, he served as the pitching coach for the Mesa Solar Sox. In that position, he oversaw the fall development for the Solar Sox's staff, which included Oakland A's prospects Sean Manaea, Brendan McCurry, Kris Hall, Aaron Kurcz and Jeff Urlaub. We spoke with Connelly about how those A's prospects fared this fall.
OaklandClubhouse: What are your first impressions in working with Sean Manaea this fall? What was he focused on improving?
Sean Manaea AFL Stats
Steve Connelly: First of all, I love the kid. He is a character and a half. The players on the team love him to death. He is sitting there cracking jokes and playing games, but anytime it is a work time for him, he’s as serious as it comes. From stretch, he doesn’t goof around. He doesn’t goof around with his conditioning. He doesn’t goof around when he is pitching in a game. He sits by himself and is completely focused on the task at hand. It’s awesome to see somebody have that switch where they can go from being a clown to being a competitor like that.
Obviously, he’s such a big guy that he has this kind of easy arm action, but he gets such great extension that it doesn’t look like it is 94 out of the hand or 95 out of the hand but you see it at the plate. You see the hitters react. That extension is so good that it plays at 94, 95 at the plate. It’s not like a 94 out of the hand that looks like a 90 at the plate. It gets on the hitter quick.
What he has been working on has been pitching inside to lefties and using that breaking ball to go back-foot on right-handers. He has really had some success with it. He loves to throw his fastball glove-side. He loves to pitch in to righties and then he can now throw that breaking ball in on them. That’s a great pitch for him.
That along with working on his pick to first. He’s come a long way with that. It was not a very athletic move to first [before the Fall League]. It didn’t play at all. Now he has a very serviceable pick to first. He’s worked hard on getting that. He’s come a long way and it has been a good Fall for him.
OC: He should just watch Jeff Urlaub’s pick-off move to pick up a good one.
SC: Yeah. We had two guys on the team this year who had really good pick moves. That helped Manaea, too. Just getting those guys to go over and spend some time with him. Greg Mahle also has a great move to first. Hearing the two philosophies from each guy and their thought processes really connected for Manaea too. What really worked for Sean was the thought process of ‘going home, going home, going home, pick’ instead of straight ‘pick.’ Before, his first move would be turning his shoulders to first and there was a lazy leg lift over there.
One thing we noticed was that we got a really good pick move to first all of a sudden from him, but then he would ‘slide step, slide step, slide step, leg lift and throw to first.’ So it wasn’t that well disguised. We have been working on mixing in more of a leg lift to the plate and a slide step move to first, so he can mix-and-match a bit.
OC: One of the leaders in Arizona Fall League in appearances this year was Brendan McCurry. What did you see from him this Fall and how did his stuff match-up against top hitting talent?
Brendan McCurry AFL Stats
SC: He struggled early on. He came in and he went to his breaking stuff too much. It’s fun to watch [his breaking ball] because it is so slow and it is so funky. It really makes guys uncomfortable. But what makes it so good is his ability to throw 92-93. He has that sidearm fastball that runs in on guys and runs away from lefties. He has a four-seam that has a great angle to the plate and it’s down. Then all of a sudden he throws a 60-mile-per-hour curveball with the same arm action and it just fools hitters. It completely messes up their timing. They get pretzeled in the box trying to swing at it.
But if he comes in and he just shows [the breaking ball] over and over again and doesn’t show the fastball, he is going to get hit. It took me reminding him of that. He would readily admit that he needs to be reminded about that all of the time because he has such success with swing-and-miss off of his breaking ball that he sometimes forgets to use the fastball to get to that.
His first four or five outings, he got hit pretty good, but his last six or seven outings, he has just been awesome. He has made some really good hitters look really bad.
OC: Kris Hall would be the opposite, I assume. I can’t imagine forgetting to use a 98 MPH heater. [laughs] Command has been the thing that Hall has struggled with the most as a pro. Do you think that has improved this Fall?
Kris Hall AFL Stats
SC: What has improved for him is his delivery. He has always had a max-effort, herky-jerky type delivery. The reason we have minor league systems in my opinion is because guys aren’t ready for the big leagues. They have to go each level and it takes time. The best delivery in baseball is the kind that you can repeat. The more moving parts you have in that delivery, the harder it is to repeat it.
Hall has really worked hard on getting to the point where he has smoothed his delivery out and has found a good rhythm to his delivery and he is repeating it more. Therefore, he is finding better results with it. His stuff is down in the ‘zone. When he elevates, he elevates effectively instead of just always being elevated. He can throw that ball with a good angle and then all of a sudden come with a good leverage fastball at the belt or above and it plays off of it instead of everything being up and guys just whacking at it.
OC: Do you work much with the mental approach for these pitchers and how they can get through a tough inning?
SC: Advanced pitchers will work on that everyday. That is the thing about this game of baseball. There is a mental grind every single day. Everyday there is some sort of mental focus that you have to stay in and remind yourself of. The mechanics and the body take over at some point and you compete, but the mental side is always lurking in the back. You have to be aware of that. You have to remind everybody all of the time about it. It’s just part of the game.
There is fear of failure that creeps in there. There’s superstition. There’s luck. There are plays that are made behind you and there are plays that aren’t made behind you. All of these factors. You get a ball that doesn’t feel right. You sit there and you are thinking about the next pitch and you say, ‘I want to go fastball in’ and then all of a sudden they call slider. You think, ‘that’s not a bad pitch, I’ll throw that’ but then you aren’t throwing it with conviction.
You have to have the fortitude to know that when something is thrown at you, you can go out there and compete and have conviction behind that. The mental side is always there. No matter what level of baseball you are at, you are going to have to be reminded of it daily.
OC: Aaron Kurcz wasn’t there that long. Was it more that he was fatigued and that’s why his season ended early, or was there an injury concern?
Aaron Kurcz AFL Stats
SC: No, it was fatigue. He had had a long year. All of these guys have had long years. But [the fatigue showed up] so early in the Fall League and we had Urlaub ready. There was a decision made to not take any chances with this. We have another guy who is ready, so bring him on. Urlaub needed innings anyway. He only threw something like nine on the year anyway.
OC: Is Urlaub throwing without restrictions at this point?
Jeff Urlaub AFL Stats
SC: Yes, he is without restrictions. He’ll be in there today [Thursday].
Stay tuned next week for a conversation with Steve Connelly about his 2015 Beloit Snappers' staff.