Photo by Sean Kahler / Stockton Ports

Oakland A's coaching Q&A: Steve Connelly, part two

In part two of our interview with Oakland A's minor league pitching coach Steve Connelly, we continue to discuss pitchers he worked with in Stockton and at the A's fall Instructional League this season, including Casey Meisner, Kyle Friedrichs, James Naile, Brendan Butler, Kyle Finnegan, Lou Trivino, Zack Erwin, Cody Stull and more... You had Casey Meisner the entire regular season and all the way through Instructs. He had a tough year and it sounds like he was asked to make several changes during the year with his release point and his landing spot. Where is he at with his mechanics right now and how did he throw during Instructs?

Steve Connelly: We worked hard all year on his delivery. He got to the point where every side that he threw was exactly where he needed to be. Its hard to ask anybody to make a change like that during the season and go when the adrenaline is kicking in and your competitiveness is kicking in and keep and trust that delivery. He would fall back into his old delivery [during games] and his stuff would be compromised. His goal during Instructs was to go into the game and throw with the delivery that we have been working on. He did a great job with that.

He had a phenomenal Instructional League. It was great to see him go into Instructional League and take ownership of the delivery like he said he would. He had a phenomenal Instructional League. The ball was coming out of his hand extremely well. His maturity level going through what he went through this year – he became a man through it. Instead of backing down and getting into woah is me, he really took ownership of it.

Having Heath Fillmyer there really helped. Fillmyer had been through it last year and he was there to guide him along and he helped Casey with his routine. Casey didnt have a very good routine at the beginning of the year. He didnt take pride in his arm care. He didnt take pride in his active warm-up. He didnt take pride in his weight-lifting. But by the end of the year, he was one of the best guys that we had as far as active warm-up, arm care, weights. He made huge strides moving forward.

His stuff is really good. His breaking ball is a lot better. His cutter-slider is a lot better. His change-up has always been good. It has always been a plus pitch. The ability to repeat his delivery and fill up the strike-zone during Instructs was really impressive. 

OC: I know that wins dont mean what they used to for pitchers, but did it take some pressure off of Meisner when he finally won a game so late in the year? 

SC: I dont know. Probably it did, but at that point, he was already starting to throw the ball better and he was realizing that wins and losses dont really matter. He came in and it was a two-run lead in the ninth and he came walking in the dugout and asked what I thought in terms of whether he would go back out. I said, Casey, youre the best guy weve got right now and you are going to go out there and finish this game. He just looked at me, nodded his head and sat down on the bench. He then went out there and had the cleanest inning of the five that he had thrown that night. He came in in the fifth inning with two outs. Each inning he got better, but the ninth was dominant. He just came in and threw great in the ninth inning.

OC: Brendan Butler was a guy you mentioned last Instructs that impressed you. You had him only for two games in Stockton but saw him again this Instructs. Has he made a lot of progress over the past year?

SC: Yes. Hes got good stuff. Hes got a durable body. A strong body. The fastball is up there in the low- to mid-90s and hes got a good breaking ball. His strength is his ability to fill up the strike-zone. When he doesnt fill up the zone obviously, like everybody, hes going to get knocked around a little bit. But when he stays aggressive, he makes hitters uncomfortable. Hes got a shot, just like everybody. We draft them for a reason.

OC: Kyle Friedrichs and James Naile came from last years draft and both played a significant role for you in Stockton this year. What did you see from those two guys?

SC: Friedrichs is just a true competitor. Hes a great kid. He goes out there and he trusts that sinker and can throw it to both sides of the plate. Probably his favorite pitch is throwing that thing in on a left-handed hitter and having it run back in over the plate. He almost has to be perfect and he is perfect more than 90% of the time. He doesnt miss spots. He stays ahead in the count. He keeps the pressure on the hitters and he is a fierce competitor on the mound.

He also has that change-up. The change-up is a plus pitch for him, too. Half the time, if you are just looking at arm speed and delivery, you cant tell the difference between [the fastball and the change-up]. The only way that you can tell is the difference in velocity on it. 

OC: Is Friedrichs sort of similar to Zach Neal? I dont know if you have seen Neal throw much, but the profile seems similar.

SC: I have never seen Zach pitch during the season. I have seen him during spring training and situations like that. Hes a Sooner like me, so we have that in common. From what I can tell, they are very similar. They are going to fill up the zone, they are going to compete really well and they are not going to back down from any challenge. 

OC: How about Naile? He bounced around this season, but for good reasons. For a full pro debut season to include stops at four levels, he must be doing something right. How did he look as a starter as opposed to when he was relieving last year? 

SC: I didnt see him as a reliever. I know that he closed in Vermont and a lot of that had to do with innings that he threw in college. He was coming off of Tommy John and they didnt want him throwing too many innings. His nickname was Naile it Down. But as a starter, again he is a sinkerball guy. He has a little more velo than Friedrichs. Naile is in that 89-90 range with his sinker and he has a plus slider. Its a hard, big sweeping slider that has a late break to it. 

The change-up is coming along. He was working on the change-up all year. He tried a number of different grips and he finally found a grip that he liked that had good action on it. I think he would like to have a little more separation of velocity with it, but I dont know that he necessarily needs that. But thats a goal of his to have more separation of velocity between his change-up and his fastball. The action on it is good. Hes getting more comfortable with it. Of course, he also has the cutter that he will throw in there, too. He doesnt throw it a ton. Maybe this year he will throw it a little bit more. But it is a good pitch for him. OC: Its probably a lazy comp, but since Zack Erwin came from the same college program as Daniel Gossett and he, too, had his struggles in his first full pro season, do you feel like Erwins 2016 season had a similar feel to Gossetts 2015 season?

SC: We asked a lot of Erwin [this season]. Gossett had the opportunity to go to the Midwest League and face some younger competition. Erwin was good for us up until he got hurt. He wasnt completely forthcoming with the pain in his arm. He didnt really give the trainers the information that they needed to help him along. He threw through some pain and when you do that, you have lesser stuff and he got beat up. He got banged around a little bit. Im not sure where hes at on his progress on that.

[ED. Note: According to Oakland As Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman, Erwin had a scope of his left elbow in October. Erwin is likely to start next season at Extended Spring Training as he completes his rehab.]

OC: The Ports had two really hard-throwing relief arms in Kyle Finnegan and Lou Trivino who had been starters but found success this season with Stockton and later Midland as relievers. Do you see the bullpen as their permanent homes moving forward?

SC: Yes. With Finnegan, he just had to make an adjustment out of the stretch. He was always comfortable throwing out of the wind-up. He doesnt have the most traditional delivery, but out of the stretch, he was syncing a little too deep out of the backside. He was able to make an adjustment to improve his ability to throw strikes out of the stretch. As a reliever, that is really important to be able to throw strikes out of the stretch. And he did. He flourished in that role. I think he will continue in that role and hopefully will have an opportunity to contribute at the major league level for us soon.

With Trivino, he went into the off-season and re-vamped his delivery on his own. He started doing some scap-loading and rotational things to improve his velocity, and he did. His velocity has increased three-four miles per hour. For him, coming into the season, his biggest challenge was being able to repeat that new delivery. He had to make some small adjustments to get to a point where he could take ownership of what he was trying to do and also repeat it.

Once he was able to do that, the next part of the process for him was pitch-sequencing. What pitches to throw when. He loves throwing glove-side, glove-side, glove-side. We helped him to take ownership of throwing more arm-side in to righties to help set-up that nasty little breaking ball of his and that plus change-up of his. Hes a three-pitch pitcher out of the bullpen – actually a four-pitch pitcher. Hes got the cutter, too. When you throw a cutter 92-93, a fastball 97-98, a breaking ball 84, youve got a lot to work with. At the end of the day, if you arent pitching in, then they get comfortable. For him, getting him to go in to make the hitters a little uncomfortable and then set-up the stuff away, that really helped. 

OC: Cody Stull went something like half the season without giving up any runs for the Ports. What kind of pitcher is he out of the bullpen?

SC: Hes a true competitor. It doesnt matter what the situation of the game is. It can be a one-run game in the ninth, or it could be a blowout where we are up by 10 or down by 10, hes going to come in and pound the zone. He didnt break camp with the team. He stayed at Extended and Craig Lefferts [As minor league rehab coordinator] got his hands on him. He really helped him with his breaking ball. He started with a curveball. Then they took that away. Then he had a slider and it sort of became a cutter. Hes got a good to plus-change-up. Hes got a one-seam fastball that will run on hitters. Hes got a little cutter that hell throw and he pounds the zone with those three pitches. Lefty really helped bring him along this year.

OC: Was there anyone else at Instructs that caught your eye this year that we havent already discussed? 

SC: I really like Nolan Blackwood from Memphis. Hes got really good stuff. Fastball is firm. Hes got a little Frisbee slider that he throws and he has a good change-up. Hes got really good stuff and he fills up the zone with that sidearm delivery. Its not comfortable for any hitter to see.

I liked Dalton Sawyer. He was really good. Hes got really good stuff. Will Gilbert was another guy who looked good. He reminds me of Jeff Urlaub. Lefty who can throw strikes. He has a pretty good fastball, nice little breaking ball. I really liked him.

Nick Highberger was another guy that we had in Stockton for a little bit. He has a short takeback with his arm stroke and a nice little sinker and his breaking ball really came along during Instructional League.

Dustin Driver made some pretty good strides with his delivery. He lowered his arm slot a little bit, to try to get a little more three oclock angle on it. He threw the ball really well at the end. Struggled a little bit early and he took ownership of that. He figured it out and filled up the zone later in Instructional League and pitched really well.

Ty Damron has a nice little breaking ball. I like his stuff. He has a pretty repeatable delivery. He threw the ball well for us.

Obviously Angel Duno is great. He came in wanting to clean up his breaking ball and he threw some fantastic ones in his last outing against the Giants. He threw some big league breaking balls. It was nice to see him do that.

The Latin guys did really well. It was by far the best group of Latin pitchers that we brought into camp for Instructional League. Oscar Tovar, Duno, Miguel Sanchez. Sanchez has some work to do. He has a little bit of a cross-fire delivery and he struggles at times to repeat it, so he has a little ways to go. Argenis Blanco was great. I thought he threw the ball really well. Abdiel Mendoza, hes a small kid and hes young, too, so youd hope that he can fill out that body a little bit more. But hes definitely got the potential to be a power arm. He did really well.

Andrew Tomasovich, his whole goal was to get a higher arm slot. He was converted into that sidearm slot, and so we wanted to work on a higher arm slot for him to get more over-the-top. He struggled to find that. Hed sit there and say, okay, thats over-the-top and wed say no, thats still sidearm. And then hed say this is really going to be over-the-top and it was still sidearm. But over the last two or three weeks of camp, he really figured it out. He figured out where his head needed to be to get the higher arm slot. We put the little plastic hitting dummy in there and we worked on breaking balls from down low and breaking balls from up top and fastballs from down low and fastballs from up top. There is a distinct difference between the two arm slots and it gives him just another little wrinkle when facing guys. That was really good to see him make those strides.

Scouting Baseball Top Stories