Steve Connelly's career came full-circle in 2014, when he joined the Oakland A's as a minor league pitching coach after three seasons as the pitching coach at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. His nine-year career in professional baseball began in 1995 as a 24th-round pick of the Oakland A's and included a brief stint in the big leagues with Oakland. He made his professional coaching debut in 2014 with the Vermont Lake Monsters as their pitching coach. In 2015, he moved up to Low-A Beloit and last year he managed the pitching staff for the High-A Stockton Ports. Connelly has also worked closely with the A's top pitching prospects at the team's fall Instructional League camp each of the past three years and he was the pitching coach for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League last year. During his stint with Mesa, he worked with -- among others -- Sean Manaea and Rob Zastryzny.
We caught-up with Connelly last week to get his thoughts on the pitchers he worked with this season in Stockton and during the A's fall Instructional League camp. Below is part-one of the interview.
OaklandClubhouse: This year’s Instructs featured a number of high-profile, high-round draft picks in camp on the pitching-side. Was there a different feel from this camp, or was it pretty normal?
Steve Connelly: It was a little bit different. This is my first camp with Gil [Patterson, A’s minor league pitching coordinator]. He ran it a little bit differently. In years past, it was myself and the pitching coordinator who were the two pitching guys that were there. This year, we were fortunate enough to have Carlos Chavez [Vermont pitching coach] and Fernando Cruzado, our Dominican pitching coach who actually pitched for me my first year [as an A’s minor league pitching coach]. Then, on top of that, for the first half of camp, we had Trevor Schaffer, one of our area scouts out of Florida, and the second half we had Jim Coffman [A’s area scout in Oregon] come in. So instead of having one big group, we were able to split it up into four separate groups, so one pitching coach worked with five guys the entire time.
It was a little bit more one-on-one, which was really neat, and we were able to do more video work than we had done in the past and we were able to have smaller mental meetings. There was a lot more one-on-one. It’s kind of like when you go back to college and you go to that big school and you are in those classes with 200 people and you can get away with falling asleep or not showing up. When you go to a small school and you are in classes with 15 people, you have to be prepared. You have to be ready. You get a little more out of it. I really enjoyed it. It was a good learning experience for everybody.
OC: A.J. Puk is the highest draft selection the A’s have had since the late 1990s. His throwing motion is interesting. It’s a bit rock-back and throw. Was there a lot of work done on his mechanics during Instructs?
SC: We did simplify his wind-up a little bit. Originally, he did have more of a rocker-step and we synced it up a little bit more with his move out of the stretch. Typically, motions out of the stretch have fewer moving parts, so it is easier to repeat. The idea being, too, if we can give him that same move out of the wind-up, it will be easier for him to repeat. But, also, it gets him down to having one delivery instead of having two deliveries. One is always a little bit easier to repeat than having two different ones.
OC: Do you feel like he made progress by the end of camp?
SC: Yes. His change-up is outstanding. It’s a great pitch and what we really wanted to do was give him some separation with his breaking ball. When he came in, we started working on a breaking ball with almost a shorter, cutter-like break. He really bought into that and felt comfortable with that. Shaffer had seen him in college throw a couple of slower breaking balls that he really liked. We talked to A.J. about that and had him spin a couple for us and everybody liked it, including him. We then worked on that in the second half, just to give him some more separation. The harder breaking slider is around 87-88. His change-up is around 85 and he has this slower curveball that’s around 80.
To have that separation from 80-83 to the change-up being 84-86 to the harder breaking ball being 87-89 and obviously the fastball being in that 93, 94 to 97 range, I think that is going to really help him to find success next year.
OC: Daulton Jefferies was there just for the classroom work, right?
SC: He didn’t throw at all while he was there. He was there, one, for the mental side, and two, at the end of the day, to really get to understand the off-season lifting and arm care program. He spent a lot of time with Josh Cuffe [A’s minor league strength and conditioning coordinator in 2016] and Jeff Collins [A’s minor league medical coordinator in 2016] working on arm care and the off-season lifting program.
http://www.scout.com/mlb/athletics/story/1721636-eric-martins-on-a-s-ins... OC: Logan Shore came to pro ball with the reputation of being very polished. Was there something that you worked on with him that you think will help him take the next step in his development?
SC: With him, his four-seam fastball has always been a running fastball. It’s never been that true-to-mitt pitch. That was something that we worked on. That was his number one goal was to throw a straighter fastball. Everyone sees that run, but to be able to throw a straighter fastball into lefties that stays true and you can lock them up with that, that will be big. His goal was to be able to develop that fastball that will stay true and he was able to do that. There was just a little bit of hand manipulation to find where he wanted to have that release point and some adjustment with the grip that will allow him to keep the pitch true.
Now he has two grips on the four-seam fastball: one that will run and one that will stay true. The other thing for him was getting his breaking ball to have a little bit later break to it, not such an early break. He struggled with it. He had some really good days and he had some days where he lost it, but, at the end, when it was all said and done, the grip he found and the feel for how to throw that both were fantastic. Hopefully he can continue building on that through the off-season and into spring training.
SC: Those guys weren’t necessarily in my group, so I’m not going to be able to really get into them a lot. Tovar, that’s a special arm right there. He’s got a lot of ceiling. He could end up being a really good pitcher. It’s really just a matter of him growing. He’s only 18. He would be dominating his high school baseball team right now.
Szynski, I didn’t really see him throw at all. Usually with the high school kids, it’s all about getting them into the program and getting them comfortable with the program. They are coming in and are around these men. They should be freshmen in college and they are around these grad students. His stuff is good. He’s got electric stuff, but he just has to get more consistent with his delivery and his ability to repeat, which is about standard for most of those high school kids.
OC: Did you see much of Dakota Chalmers?
SC: Yes, he was in my group.
OC: How do you feel like he is progressing as compared to last year?
SC: The thing about Dakota is that the kid has the heart and the desire to do it. He is a mentally tough kid. He works hard every day. He went through a lot this year in Instructional League. He took ownership of his delivery. He did dry work every day. He did mirror work every day. He did a certain throwing program every day that included drills that keep the front leg from rolling out and staying firm and in place. He lowered his leg. There were so many things that he worked on. It was a huge task for him and he is the one guy who could take on a task that large because of his willingness and want to be a big leaguer.
I felt like at the end, he made the strides that he needed to. Hopefully, in the end, with more repetitions, coming into spring training, he will be locked in and ready to go. I think that he could have a very good year for us next year.
OC: You got to work with Grant Holmes after the trade when he was in Stockton. What was he working on during that stint in Stockton and what did he work on this fall?
SC: It was a couple of things. The biggest thing was getting familiar with everybody. He hadn’t met Gil. He had talked to him on the phone several times, but it was a chance for Gil to get his eyes on him and it was a chance for Grant to get used to our facility and the way that we go about things. It was a chance for him to feel more informed on the off-season weight program and throwing program.
Ultimately, that was what he came in to work on. He’s got electric stuff. What we worked on in Stockton was just quality of pitches. Throwing in off the plate instead of throwing in over the plate. Creating lanes with his four-seam fastball to set-up his breaking ball. Throwing the two-seam fastball more. Throwing the change-up more. He has a hard, late-diving change-up. It’s 89-90 miles an hour, but it’s got heavy sink to it and it’s a good pitch for him. When you have that kind of movement on your change-up, the separation between fastball and change-up speed isn’t as important, as long as the hitters are still out-in-front and it has that late action to it.
That was really what he came in to work on was just getting to know our system a little better. He’s just coming into us. He’s been with the Dodgers the whole time. But the kid is a true professional.
OC: Is his change-up similar to Heath Fillmyer’s change-up?
SC: Yeah, it’s funny. We pulled out the Trackman data on it and compared the two and they are very, very similar.
OC: Fillmyer made nice strides this year. Based on the year-and-a-half you spent working with him dating back to Beloit last year, what do you think the key was for Fillmyer in taking that step forward into being a pretty dominant pitcher this year?
SC: Last year, in July, we completely revamped his delivery. That isn’t something that you normally do during a season, but he was 0-9 with a 5 or 6 ERA and he hadn’t made it past the fifth inning in any one start. So Grady [Fuson, A’s Special Assistant to the GM] and Garvin [Alston, former A’s minor league pitching coordinator] made the decision that it was time to try to do something different. Him being as athletic as he is, he was able to take to it really quickly. We simplified his delivery, made him a little more directional towards the plate. Before he would get east-and-west a lot. He would spin out of his delivery.
Him being able to take ownership of that allowed him to turn his year around in Beloit and he carried that into Instructional League. This year, coming into spring training, he was right where he left off in Instructional League and he carried it through the season. His confidence grew. He is a true professional. Him, Daniel Gossett and Brett Graves have three of the best routines of anybody that we have that I have ever been around. If you look at the best in the game, they have these great routines that they stick to. Those three are the first ones in working on active warm-up and they have a great arm care routine. They take pride in their arm care. Their throwing program is always focused.
The big thing with Heath is that he was a shortstop in college and he has a good idea about hitting. Last year, in Beloit, when we would have hitting meetings and would go over how we wanted to do things, he would sit there and listen and he didn’t really contribute. I don’t know if it was a maturity thing or if it was confidence, but he really didn’t chime in. This year, he took ownership of it. He charted the hitters. He took notes on the hitters. He knew exactly what he wanted to throw to each hitter, and he would tell the catcher, ‘in this count, I’m going to throw this pitch and this is how I’m going to do that, and this guy has an arm-bar, so I’m going to do this to him.’ He went in with a game plan every day. He knew what he wanted to accomplish and it was great to see the success that he had.
OC: You mentioned Daniel Gossett, and this season was a complete 180 for him in terms of how he fared. Was his success due to adding a bit of a wrinkle with the cutter, was it due to added velocity, or was there something else that keyed his success?
SC: It was a combo of all of those things, but the cutter really made the biggest difference. It was one of those things where he threw a fastball in spring training that cut a little bit and Gil happened to be sitting right there. Gil asked him if he had done that on purpose and he said, ‘no.’ Gil just kind of looked at the grip and moved the finger a little bit and said, ‘throw it.’ This thing was 90 miles an hour and broke like a slider. It was late-breaking. I remember Gossett throwing it and stepping off the mound and kind of taking it all in. He had this little grin on his face like ‘woah, what was that?’ It was there. He learned it in two seconds and it was a game-changer for him.
He’s always had the plus change-up. He’s always had the ability to spin a ball. Last year in Beloit, he started throwing two-seamers. He went from only throwing four-seamers to being able to sink it [with the two-seamer] and have a four-seamer that stays true. He’s also got the cutter that breaks late and the change-up and he’s always had the curveball. All of a sudden, with adding the two-seamer and the cutter, he’s got so many more weapons.
Part of it, too, he’s got a non-traditional delivery. It’s herky-jerky. That being said, he’s calmed it down a lot over his three years in professional baseball. If you looked at it the first time, you’d say, ‘that’s a lot of moving parts.’ But if you compare it to how he was throwing when he first came into the system, it’s completely different. He can repeat it better. He stays online better. He can get behind the ball and get it where he needs to.
He’s one of the strongest guys we have even though he’s on the smaller side. He’s very strong and he’s got a tremendous work ethic.
OC: Brett Graves looked like he was starting to put some things together during the second half before looking like he might have tired the last couple of starts. Where do you think he is at with his development going into spring training?
SC: He’s right where he needs to be. Last year in Beloit, he lost his velocity and he had to learn how to pitch. He had to learn how to use the two-seamer and he had to trust the change-up. Then he comes into spring training this year, and the velocity was back, but he was still trying to pitch like he was throwing 87-89. Somewhere in the middle of the season, he decided that he was going to throw hard again. So we challenged him to throw hard. From 89-90, he started averaging 93 and hitting some 95s. The thing was, I don’t know if he truly believed he could command the ball by throwing hard. Once he realized that he could and he bought into it that made a big difference.
He also has a true cutter. It’s not a big cutter like Gossett. It’s a small, late-breaking cutter. He can throw that in at lefties and he can sink it away on lefties and sink it in on righties. We worked extremely hard on fastball lanes and breaking ball shape. That was another big add for him. He would throw his more slow, big breaking ball early in the count and he would use a fastball up in the strike-zone to set that up. He would then use the shorter, hard breaking ball – kind of a ‘back-foot to the lefty’ idea and then throw a fastball leveraged down glove-side off of that breaking ball. Working those four lanes with the fastball and the breaking ball really helped him take off.
Where he ended up is right where he needed to be. He’s always had a blister problem and that was what kind of got to him at different points in the year, but he has found a way to keep that under control now. He could get a good off-season job working at a manicurist. He could go into any nail salon and tell them about what he needs on his fingers and they’d know.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, when we discuss Casey Meisner, Kyle Finnegan, Zach Neal, Kyle Friedrichs, James Naile, Brendan Butler, Nolan Blackwood, Dustin Driver, Lou Trivino, Zack Erwin and many more...