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For his third season in St. Louis Cardinals player development, Jason Simontacchi was named the Springfield Cardinals 2015 pitching coach, continuing his ascent in the organizational pipeline. His first two years were spent leading the pitchers for the Class-A Peoria Chiefs, where he contributed in the development of pitching prospects discussed below and many others. Simontacchi also coached in the 2014 Arizona Fall League prospect showcase.
The former St. Louis hurler (2002-04) is back in the heart of Cardinals country, and is guiding his young and inexperienced, but steadily improving Double-A staff. The seasonal numbers don’t fully reflect on the improvement shown by a group that is tied for sixth in ERA and fifth in WHIP in the eight-team Texas League. For the month of June, however, the club had its best stretch of the season, going 16-10, with the pitching staff playing a huge part by holding offenses to a 2.05 ERA.
In the following exclusive interview, Simontacchi chats about his growth as a coach with three seasons in the books, transition to Double-A from a coaching perspective, how his pitching staff has fared halfway through the season, along with individual impressions of his starters and relievers.
Derek Shore: In your third season as a coach in the Cardinals organization, how do you feel about your growth?
Jason Simontacchi: “I would think that I have learned to be a lot more patient, dealing with a lot more attitudes, but not the bad. I think it’s been okay, I could always improve, but the biggest is just having more patience, and feeding as much as the guy (player) will take.”
DS: Most players go through an adjustment period at Double-A. How is that transition from a coach's perspective?
JS: “I’m not going to say it’s easier, what’s different is there not as much speaking of mechanics. It’s more about talking about the mental aspect of the game, pitch-by-pitch, preparation, workouts in-between, just being prepared for the game and having a plan. A lot less dealing (versus his previous job at Class-A Peoria) with a guy’s mechanics in the windup or something like that.”
DS: How would you characterize your pitching staff's performance up to this point?
JS: “Improving. We didn’t start off too hot in the beginning, but I think our pitchers have settled into who they are. They are definitely improving, and realizing who they are as pitchers. I think it’s just come to fine-tuning some stuff and blossoming.”
DS: Could you give me an impression of some of your starters: Nick Petree (no longer with the club, was returned to high-A Palm Beach recently), Thomas Lee, Andrew Morales, Arturo Reyes, and Jimmy Reed (promoted to Triple-A Memphis)?
JS: “With Nick, he needed to command his fastball better. (It) looked like he (Petree) got away from it. The last couple of years, he threw the fastball probably 70 percent of the time. This year, I think he’s at 46 percent, and he just needed to go down there (Palm Beach) and fine-tune some things. It’s not that the stuff wasn’t there, it was just the fact he was getting behind and he was being too fine, and so he had to come over the middle of the plate. Guys were hitting him and balls were elevated. He just needs better command of the strike zone."
On Lee - “Again there’s a guy right there who has some pitchability, as in the fact he throws all his pitches for strikes and commands the strike zone. Lee can expand it, throws inside for a fact, has pretty good demeanor, and feel for the game. He sits at 87-88 mph, so he won’t wow you with stuff, but what he wows you with is the fact he commands his pitches, sets guys up, and makes guys mishit pitches."
On Morales - “We look at him, he’s a second round draft pick, just out of college, had about five or six innings as a professional last year. Guys his age right now wouldn’t even be at this level, but we feel he can pitch and compete here, there’s no doubt about it, I think the Cardinals would agree with that too, but I’m not a spokesperson for them.
“The rough spots, there just some growing pains, it’s what happens to guys who have a lot of success then all of a sudden they fail a little bit, and they really don’t know what to do or how to do it. So maybe, you starting with things in-between the ears, and try to switch things on the mound. We’ve gave him some time off to recollect his thoughts and next thing you know, he pitched well out there last couple of times.”
On Reyes - “As a 40th round pick, I guess you would say he’s underrated. When you look at his stuff, he’s not a tall guy. You’re not going to look on the mound and go, “Whoa!”. But all of sudden, he throws 94 by you and wakes you up real quick. He’s got a pretty decent slider, no question, his stuff plays. He’s really learning the feel of the game now, of actually pitching, his confidence is showing in his stats, and making the All-Star Game. Reyes has some quality stuff, it just a matter of him getting some innings and experience.”
On Reed - “Jimmy Reed is a crafty lefty with pretty good stuff. He is another guy like Thomas Lee - he just pitches, he’s pretty good with his command in the strike zone, expands it, changes speeds, elevates when he needs. He’ll sit about 89 mph too, just guys (Reed and Lee) who have a lot of pitchability. If things go well, who knows where they’ll be”.
DS: Would you take me through your bullpen - Jordan Swagerty, Kyle Barraclough, Joey Donofrio (Texas League All-Star, dressed with the club, but didn’t participate because of promotion to Triple-A Memphis), Kurt Heyer, Corey Baker, and Chris Thomas?
JS: On Swagerty - “Jordan has definitely been working on timing. He has had a lot of timing issues, getting back for the first time in three years now, and he’s got a lot of moving parts and just trying to get back in the swing of things. Swagerty’s had a tough go around. The great thing about it is the mental part in his approach. He understands what’s going on, he’s not pressing, taking it one step at a time, slowing things down, and finding himself again.”
On Barraclough - Simo agreed with me about Barraclough’s ability to miss bats. He credits the right-hander’s success at Double-A with “effective wildness, 98 mph coming by you that’s missing bats. He’s got a pretty good slider too. It is something he’s been working on, and fine-tuning those mechanics, so he can get consistent and repeat.”
On Donofrio - “He had an exceptional year here last year. It is kind of been hard to repeat what he did; it is what is. He’s another guy who throws strikes, got a slider for some reason that’s like invisible. Hitters don’t see it; they don’t recognize the break. Donofrio gives you innings, can come in and miss some bats as well.”
On Heyer - “Kurt Heyer, wow energetic fellow, he’s got some stuff too, sits at 94ish right around there. His changeup was good. We’re trying to get him to throw it more, being in the spots he comes in from the bullpen. It is his third best pitch. He will go with his fastball and slider first. Slider at times will be very good, but just needs to be more consistent with his fastball/slider.”
On Baker - “I think any manager would love to have a guy who is versatile, can pitch as a closer, can throw him in middle relief, and as a starter. Baker throws strikes. His stats don’t show it, but he went through a spell there where he thought he had to be perfect. He wanted to probably press to get moved up or whatever that reason was. He’s got a super sinker, when it is right, it is very good, and I think that pitch could play at the big-league level. His changeup is a swing and miss pitch, can throw it in any count, and he mixes in a slider towards righties. Baker’s got the pitches and just the matter of fine-tuning that as well.”
On Nazario – He noted that Nazario been especially tough on lefties at Springfield. So I asked whether he could pitch to righties at the next level.
“Absolutely, there’s no question he can,” Simontacchi replied. “Guy throws strikes, he’s got that funky delivery, and he’s actually got a pretty good changeup that not a lot of people mention. He’s also got a slider, a little roundabout curveball, that he can change the angles on it with his arm. There again he won’t blow you by. His command needs to be there. This is where it is whether a guy can either fine-tune their stuff or find another job.”
On Thomas - “Chris Thomas has like an invisible fastball, throws it like 91-92 mph but the way guys react to it, it looks like it is 95-96 mph. I don’t know what it is, he’s got some deception in his mechanics and arm action. He’s got a pretty good breaking ball, a change-up too, but the world he’s in, mainly just going with the top two pitches. I’ve had Chris for a couple of years, and there’s just something about his fastball that’s under the radar, they can’t seem to hit it. Most guys who live up in the zone like he does get smacked around; he seems to find holes in bats.”
DS: “Jason, thanks for your time!
To conclude, I would like to extend a thank you to Jim Connell of the Springfield News-Leader for helping me connect with Simontacchi.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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