Athletics Pitching Prospects Taking Similar Road To Recovery
MESA, Ariz.—The career paths of Athletics pitching prospects James Kaprielian and Daulton Jefferies are uncannily similar. Both are California natives who starred as Friday night starters at their respective Pac 12 schools—Kaprielian at UCLA and Jefferies at California—and both were high draft picks. Kaprielian was selected No. 16 overall by the Yankees in 2015 and Jefferies was taken by the Athletics with the No. 37 overall pick one year later.
To further their similarities, both Kaprielian and Jefferies had Tommy John surgery in April 2016, although at the time Kaprielian was still a member of the Yankees organization before being traded to Oakland last July in the deal that sent righthander Sonny Gray to New York.
Since then, the pair of highly touted prospects have been going through the rehab process together at the Athletics’ minor league facility in Mesa, Ariz. They train together, work out together, often sit together while watching extended spring training games, and more recently have both faced live hitters in the same sim game.
“Since getting here there's been growth together, just because we're going through the same thing at the same time,” Kaprielian said. “We didn't choose to have this be our path, obviously, but it is and we've kind of just pushed together. We have the same goals down the line … We want to improve and there are ways that we can learn from each other.”
Being acquainted from their college days has given the one-time competitors a mutual respect for each other. They're quick to point out that they split the two games in which they faced each other in college, with Jefferies earning the win against UCLA as a freshman and Kaprielian picking up the victory over Cal one year later.
“I always looked up to him,” Jefferies said about Kaprielian. “He was the dude in the Pac 12. I just wanted to model my game after his … The camaraderie has been good. Coming in here every day, it takes a toll on the mind a little bit so it's really nice to have a guy with you going through the same things. The competitiveness is there … We're both very competitive in the gym, in the weight room, on the field, off the field. We're just trying to get each other better.”
Both pitchers have been impressive in their limited appearances against hitters in extended spring training. Jefferies' 93 mph fastball has featured good movement and he’s shown feel for both his changeup and curveball, while also mixing in a cutter that he first introduced last spring before getting hurt. Kaprielian’s heater has consistently hit 95 mph, and he's also mixed in the rest of his four-pitch repertoire with success.
The joy of getting back on the field was obvious in the faces of both pitchers at the end of each trip to the mound.
“It was good. I was able to put a smile on,” Kaprielian said. “It's been a long time. It's been frustrating. I'm not going to lie; this wasn't the plan that I had … But I really appreciate all the support from everybody along the way. I'm able to appreciate having the opportunity to pitch again. It's a good feeling to be out there and to be able to compete.”
Jefferies also felt the relief of getting back out on the mound after more than a year away.
“You take your first steps on the mound, you take a deep breath and think, 'I made it,'” Jefferies said. “I've still got a long way to go, but this is another stepping stone to being that number one starter in the big leagues.”
The progress each has shown was not unexpected because of their hard work and adherence to the prescribed rehab program, according to Athletics' rehab pitching coordinator Craig Lefferts.
“They are exceptional individuals, both with superior attention to detail,” said Lefferts, a 12-year major league veteran who has been in his current role for four years after more than a decade coaching at various levels in the Athletics’ system.
“They do their work to the nth degree. They've worked really hard through their rehab process. Now they're getting into the period where they're facing hitters … They're on track and everything's gone real well. I do like the mentality that both of them bring to the table.”
While both pitchers had a couple more ticks on their fastballs prior to the injury, the slightly lower velocities are not a cause for concern. It's part of the plan established and administered by Lefferts and a team of trainers and strength coaches.
“It's been a process of knowing that it's going to take a while,” Kaprielian said, “it's going to be slow. Everybody wants to get on the mound and start throwing 97 … They just bring us back and make sure we realize the big picture, that it's not necessarily about today but being able to check today's box that you worked on and see where you're at … Improve, feel, understand, and then move forward.”
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Both pitchers dealt with injuries earlier in their careers as well. A strained flexor tendon limited Kaprielian to eight games in his first two seasons in the Yankees organization, although he was healthy during the 2016 Arizona Fall League season when he ranked as one of the league's top pitching prospects. A shoulder injury put Jefferies on the shelf for part of his junior year at Cal.
An important part of any rehab process is to look for ways to help the player stay healthy once they're back on the field, be it a change in the pitcher's delivery or in their preparation for each start. But no major changes were necessary for either of these righthanders, with Jefferies pointing out that both he and Kaprielian have pretty smooth mechanics because of their athleticism. Lefferts shares that opinion.
“The rehab process allows us to go back and work on some issues they might have,” Lefferts said. “But I will say that both of them are really fundamentally sound. They didn't really need to make any delivery changes. Daulton had one issue where his body would leak off the plate in his direction, so he's had to work on his direction. That's more of a feel thing for him; it's not anything with his delivery. Both of them came in with very good deliveries, and they're continuing to utilize them.”
Kaprielian's delivery has a bit of a dip to it, which he acknowledges that some observers haven't liked in the past. But he's quick to point out that Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw also pitches with a dip in his delivery.
“You can't necessarily change the way people throw,” Kaprielian said. “It's something that I need to be aware of and understand that if I'm dipping too much, it's an issue. But if I'm able to find my timing, find my rhythm and find my pattern, it could be something that can help me with deception.”
While the time away from the field has been difficult, both pitchers feel that they've gained a greater appreciation for the game and a better perspective of their roles.
“Appreciate every day you have here,” Jefferies said. “You can't take any rep for granted or any day for granted, because you know that someone is out there trying to work as hard as you. Stay focused and have goals in mind.”