One strikeout at a time: An interview with Blue Jays prospect Connor Cooke

Dunedin Blue Jays v Tampa Tarpons
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Offseason work produces positive results

The former standout three-sport athlete from Sulphur, Louisiana attributes his work in the offseason to his success this year.

“I got in the weight room a lot this offseason, got stronger,” says Cooke, who’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds. “But the big thing that I did was I started throwing to a nine pocket [pitching net] a lot when I wasn't throwing to a catcher because the nine pocket doesn’t lie, and you can't strike guys out if you're not throwing strikes.”

While Bonnett agrees that Cooke’s hard work over the winter has made him a better pitcher, he’s quick to point out the constant work the reliever puts into his craft: “He also spends a lot of time prepping for the days he is throwing in a game. Throughout the week, he tries to touch the slope as much as possible to keep a good feel for all of his pitches.”

You can’t argue with the results. His 18.32 K/9 ranks fourth in High-A among pitchers with a minimum of 25 batters faced. His 24.7% swinging strike rate ranks second.

The three-pitch mix he’s using so successfully includes a high-90s fastball, a nasty slider and an improving changeup. While his fastball rode up to 98 mph against the Yankees in the spring, he admits that was from the adrenaline.

“I got up to 98 a few times during Spring Training,” Cooke says. “It was definitely a bump [from the adrenaline]. I throw anywhere from 96 to 97, but with all the adrenaline, the fastball was playing pretty well.”

Cooke’s velocity has ticked up since college, where his fastball averaged 90 mph. Last season, as a starter in Low-A, the four-seam sat 92-93 mph. He works the high velocity up in the zone as much as possible.

“Keeping the heater up was a big thing for me,” he says. “As soon as I was able to get comfortable keeping that up, I started getting a lot more swings and misses.”

In describing the rest of his arsenal, it’s obvious Cooke is partial to his big, mid-80s slider, which he keeps on the outer third and calls his best pitch. With a spin rate that touches 3,000 rpm, it’s easy to see why he feels that way.

His changeup is a work in progress, but Cooke wants his off-speed option to be as good as his breaking ball to force hitters to respect all three pitches.

“The changeup is a good pitch,” Cooke explains. “It's definitely the last one to get worked on, so I'm just working on that and continuing doing what I'm doing with the fastball and slider.”

Following his promotion to Vancouver last year, Cooke moved to the bullpen for the final month of the season.

“The organization and pitching department thought he may flourish better in a reliever role, and they were obviously right,” Bonnett explains when asked about the decision to move the youngster to the bullpen.

Cooke pitched in a relief role as a freshman at Lafayette and was on board with the move, and it has been paying off.

“I've always felt my stuff was better in the bullpen, in one and two-inning stints,” Cooke explains. “Just being able to blow it out, giving everything rather than having to hold some back through five-plus innings. My stuff obviously plays better in the bullpen now, and I feel more comfortable in the bullpen.”