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Q&A with 2015 Beloit Snappers' pitching coach Steve Connelly, part one

The 2015 Beloit Snappers' pitching staff featured several talented arms that went through plenty of ups and downs. We spoke with the Snappers' 2015 pitching coach Steve Connelly about his Snappers' staff. In part one, he discusses the development of Heath Fillmyer, Daniel Gossett, Brett Graves, Jose Torres and Carlos Navas.

OaklandClubhouse: In talking to people around the organization both after the season and even during spring training, Heath Fillmyer’s name has come up a lot as a pitcher to watch. He had a very rough start to the season but finished the final six weeks of the season with an ERA around 2.00. What clicked in for him midway through the year?

Steve Connelly: Several things. It was his first full season. It was the most he has ever thrown before. He had to learn how to pitch. He really didn’t have an idea of when to throw what pitches. His delivery was a little loose. We revamped it in the middle of the season. We made some serious delivery changes with his mechanics. He always struggled with that he would get really east and west in his delivery. He never rode it down the slope. We changed his delivery up where we preset him and we got him a little bit shorter and we found a way to get him a little bit better direction down hill towards the plate.

He is athletic. He is as athletic of a kid as you will find on a baseball field. He played shortstop in junior college and so he was able to pick it up quick. It just clicked and each time he went out it got better. I don’t think he made it through the third inning through the first two months of the season. I don’t remember it exactly, but I think he was 0-10 with a 9.00 ERA in June. For him to finish the year with an ERA under 3.00 for the second half and the last month of the season it was under 1.00 and he was going five, six innings every time, was great.

He just really created an angle down with his fastball. He was able to spot it in and out. His breaking ball was really cleaned up. It wasn’t so slurvy and loose. I had more of a sharp bite to it. And then he’s got a tremendous change-up that is firm – 88-89 MPH – but it is a dive-bomb sinker, in a way. It just ties guys up. Hitters are all out in front of it. They really don’t have much of a chance of hitting it.

OC: It’s amazing to think of 89 MPH change-ups.

SC: He’s got a fastball that sits 93 and he can get it up to 97. So separation of velocity between fastball and change-up is not great, but the separation in action – the difference in action – is tremendous. The eyeball test, what you see, is that he still has hitters well out in front of it. As long as you are creating disruption and getting hitters out in front, the separation doesn’t really matter that much.

OC: Daniel Gossett had an up-and-down year. At points it looked like he was breaking through and then he would fall back again. What was he working through this season and where do you think the end of the season left him?

SC: All of the starters struggled the first half of the season. He really struggled [the first half]. His fastball was as straight as an arrow and it got hit. His secondary pitches are great. They are always going to play. He is always going to have a chance because of those secondary pitches. That kid worked hard on a two-seamer and by the end of the year, it became a really good pitch for him but he still wasn’t using it like he should.

We had a conversation towards the end of June where I said, ‘okay, you have a good two-seamer now. You can use it. Do you feel comfortable spotting it up?’ He said, ‘yes.’ And he started using that. He kept his four-seamer because it plays well off of the two-seamer because it stays true. He can throw this sinker that is running away from a lefty and running into a righty and they see that. Then he can leverage a four-seam that’s true and he can tie hitters up a little bit more with that. Instead of his fastball always being straight and them jumping on it, now they have something that they are rolling over the top and they are getting groundballs with.

That was a big key for him. That was when things started changing for him. He had a really good second half. He had a period there between the end of June through July where every outing was dominant. Then he just got tired at the end. It is his first full season. Guys aren’t used to going like that.

The Midwest League did an awesome thing this year, though. Starting the last Monday in July through August, we had every Monday off. Everybody in that second half when they were really hurting were getting that extra day. That really helped a lot. That was good for those guys. I wish every league did that.

OC: In talking to Garvin Alston and a few others, it sounds like Brett Graves didn’t necessarily have the big fastball that he had in college, but that he was learning to compete better with his other pitches. Is that something that you saw from him?

SC: Absolutely. That kid competes better than anyone that I had last year. He is a fierce competitor on the mound. He really is. He is a very quiet kid. Soft spoken. Everything is to the point. Yet when he is on the mound, he is fierce. Fist pumps, glove slaps, he is into it. He learned how to pitch this year. He realized that he didn’t have his fastball early on, so he started throwing more two-seamers. He had never thrown a two-seamer before, so now he is sinking the ball. He developed a very serviceable change-up. The change-up played well for him. And he added a little cut fastball.

The change-up became a pitch for him. The sinker became a pitch for him and the cutter became a pitch for him. So he learned how to pitch. If he gets his velocity back like had it before – you hope that it comes back. Usually there is a downtick in the first year for some guys. He might be one of those guys who sees a downtick in velocity his first year and then gets it back again the next year. If he does get that velocity back, with those new pitches, he will be in a really good place.

OC: Jose Torres is a guy who showed some stuff as a starter but wasn’t very consistent. He took a big leap forward as a reliever this year. Besides the big fastball, what was he throwing this year that made him so effective?

SC: He had a mechanical issue in his delivery where he would drop-and-drive and he would just drag his back foot. He would leave a trench that was about three-feet long and that back foot never got up in the air. In Vermont [in 2014], we addressed it and I talked to him about it and told him what he needed to do to fix that. Every day in Vermont and in Beloit, he worked on his shadow routine. He really worked on his delivery.

We would want him to do five minutes of shadow work a day and he would do 10 minutes. He was dedicated to it and he really cleaned up his backside to the point that he has a dual release now. When the foot front hits, the back foot is up and he is actually able to get some drive off of the backside. His velo just steadily climbed from it. That’s how he went from 89-91 to 93-97 and that’s a lot of help.

The second thing was that he was trying to create a top-to-bottom curveball. When he would do that, he would raise his arm angle almost to straight over the top. He’s a three-quarter arm slot normally. We were able show him that on video and he said he was doing that to try to create this top-to-bottom breaking ball. That pitch really didn’t do anything. It was a non-pitch for him. So he worked on finding a breaking ball from his arm angle that was more of a sweeping action and not top-to-bottom. He started throwing it and throwing it for strikes, but he still didn’t know when to throw it. So we talked about different counts to throw his breaking ball to righties and to lefties and when to use it. He started that and found success with it.

That kid, he did it all. He worked really hard and I can’t say enough about him. It was awesome to see him do that.

OC: Could you see him moving back into a starter’s role or do you think being a reliever suits him best?

SC: He really loves pitching out of the ‘pen. His stuff is good enough that he can do whatever. He has a clean delivery. He has a strong body. He is healthy. He could start. He could relieve. It’s just a matter of what the organization wants to do with him.

OC: Carlos Navas is another guy who took a big leap forward this year. What was the key to his success?

SC: Carlos, his call sign I would do as a halo over the head. He is just an angel. He is such a good kid. You root for guys like him. For him, to transition from being a starter to a reliever like he did and to go from Arizona Rookie League to the Midwest League like he did was remarkable. He goes from being a starter in the Rookie League to a reliever in the Midwest League and it’s hard to fathom how he was able to flourish the way that he did.

He is a guy who pitches at the top half of the ‘zone and it works for him. He isn’t necessarily down in the ‘zone. His fastball is up but he has a really good breaking ball. He has a curveball that is more top-to-bottom and he has a slider that is running away. It’s his ability to have four pitches that he can use and he uses his off-speed off of that fastball really well. It looks like it is 95 but it is 89-92. It’s a funny thing. I was just really happy for him in the year he had.

Stay tuned for the final part of this interview, when we discuss Koby Gauna, Mike Fagan, Rob Huber, Ryan Gorton, James Naile and Boomer Biegalski.

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