For Rehabbing Oakland A's Players, All Roads Run Through Lefferts
MESA, Ariz. — The list of pitchers rehabilitating injuries this spring at the Athletics' training complex in Mesa, Ariz., would form a pretty good future starting rotation for any Major League club. Among the hurlers recently in the A’s rehab program have been A.J. Puk, Jharel Cotton, Jesus Luzardo and James Kaprielian, with big league southpaw Sean Manaea not too far away from joining the group.
Every player going through the program adheres to a specialized regimen set up for them by a support team consisting of coaches, trainers and strength & conditioning coordinators. While it’s a team effort among this group of individuals, the most visible individual is the man on the field with the players—pitching rehab coordinator Craig Lefferts, better known around the game as "Lefty.”
Lefferts, 61, is now in his 18th year as a minor league coach with the Oakland organization and his fifth year in the rehab position. It’s a job that gives him a tremendous amount of satisfaction.
"I had a great career and was very blessed,” said Lefferts, who pitched for six organizations over a 12-year big league career. "And to be able to give back and help these young men reach their potential is very satisfying.”
Lefferts’ contributions have been recognized by those in charge with the Oakland organization.
"He has earned the respect of almost everyone who has come in contact with him,” said Keith Lieppman, Oakland’s director of player development. "His personality just leads to him wanting to help people, and his experience as a player, as a pitching coach, as a mentor … he really brings so much to the table.
"Mentally, his biggest emphasis right now is helping so many kids through the hardest time of their life . . . He gives them a wealth of information about staying positive and having the ability to understand that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
A major part of getting a pitcher healthy is to also make sure that they stay healthy, with Lefferts putting together a plan for each individual player.
“The biggest thing for rehabbing a pitcher is it gives them a second opportunity to work on their mechanics and maybe fix the flaws that got them hurt in the first place,” Lefferts said. “I take some pride in helping them figure out a better way for them to pitch and a better way for their mechanics to work. It’s very satisfying to see the light bulb come on in their eyes when they feel that (and say), ‘Hey, I’m going to be better than I was before I got hurt.’”
Every pitcher is different and every injury is unique, with each pitcher following a program designed for his specific needs. As an example, Lefferts explained how they handled an injury a few years ago to current Athletics' starter Frankie Montas, a pitcher with a live arm regularly delivering fastballs from 95 to 100 mph.
“He (Montas) had a stress fracture in his rib,” Lefferts said. “When we started working his rehab we had to really keep his effort down because he wanted to keep throwing but not stress it to the point where that stress fracture got worse.
"In doing so, he learned how to pitch with a lower effort because when a pitcher pitches with a higher effort they tend to get out of their mechanics a little more. The better that they can control their effort the better that they can repeat their delivery and locate their pitches.”
The end result for Montas was that he was able to learn to pitch with more control in his delivery, thus improving his command.
While primarily working with pitchers, Lefferts is also responsible for helping position players get back into playing condition, including spending time with big league catcher Chris Herrmann during his recovery from a knee injury.
“Everybody has a process and a program designed specifically for them,” Lefferts said. “My job is to help them execute that, whether it’s pitching mechanics or working with a catcher on his defense drills. I have to learn what the drills are and have them execute it.”
The responsibility of working with position players might find Lefferts in less familiar roles for a pitching coach, such as spending time with hitters putting balls on the tee in the batting cage or working with catchers on their defense drills.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a very good hitting coach or catching coach,” Lefferts said. “But at least I can get them through the process, and then the staff can help them when they can.”
To fully understand the impact that Lefferts has on players, it’s relevant to know and understand where he came from and how he got to this point in his career. With a rich and colorful history in the game, Lefferts loves to regale listeners with tales of his baseball life.
Some of Lefferts’ biggest influences came long before he set foot on a major league diamond.
The son of a military pilot, he was born in Germany and lived around the world before the Lefferts family settled in Florida. Coming out of high school, Lefferts planned to follow in his father’s footsteps as a pilot. While he received a commission to attend the Air Force Academy, he failed the physical because the depth perception in his vision didn’t meet the minimum standards for a pilot.
Plan B for Lefferts was to pursue a career in baseball. He had pitched for his high school team, but pro scouts and college coaches weren’t exactly beating down the door to recruit him.
“I was throwing 75 mph as a high school senior,” Lefferts said, with a laugh. “Probably not on anybody’s radar.”
Lefferts wrote letters to seven major universities asking for the opportunity to tryout as a walk-on to their baseball team. Only one head coach responded to his letter—Jerry Kindall, the legendary coach at the University of Arizona, the alma mater of both of Lefferts’ parents. He enrolled there and headed across the country to Tucson, Ariz., Unfortunately, Lefferts was cut from the junior varsity team, but Kindall encouraged him to try again the next year.
“That was pretty devastating,” Lefferts said. “I think I stayed in my dorm for three days. But I got over it. I was young . . . I didn’t turn 18 until September so I had already enrolled as a 17-year-old, so I was a little bit behind physically.”
Lefferts kept working to get stronger and add velocity to his fastball, making the JV team the next year. By his third year, he had matured physically and was pitching well enough to join the Wildcats' varsity bullpen. He moved into the starting rotation the next season, after which he was drafted by the Royals.
With one more year of college eligibility remaining, Lefferts decided to return for the 1980 season. It’s a decision that he’s never regretted. That ’80 Wildcats team, with seven future major league players including current Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, went on to win the College World Series.
“It was an incredible story to go through that,” Lefferts said. “To be cut my first year but end up becoming a national champion.”
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He was drafted again after his final year in Tucson, this time by the Cubs, starting a playing career that spanned 16 seasons.
While being at Arizona certainly gave a big boost to his baseball career, even more important to his development were the life lessons he learned from Coach Kindall, traits that more than 40 years later he continues to adhere to in his current position.
“The thing that I learned the most from him was he was that he was the kindest and most thoughtful man,” Lefferts said. “Just a consistent man with his values . . . He was not easy, he was tough, but he was just an incredible man. I don’t think I ever met in my life a better man than Jerry Kindall. I don’t think I realized how good he was until after I left because playing for him was hard. He expected a lot from you. He had his values and his values were very important.”
Lefferts made it to the big leagues in 1983 as a reliever with the Cubs after having been a starter through the minor leagues, spending the first nine years of his big league career in the bullpen. But he never gave up the desire to be a starting pitcher. That opportunity surfaced in 1992 when he was with the Padres, which had just acquired lefthander Randy Myers to replace Lefferts as their closer.
Not wanting to be traded from San Diego, Lefferts approached general manager Joe McIlvaine with the idea that he could move into a starting role the next season. His persuasion worked, and he wound up winning 14 games that year as a starter, split between San Diego and Baltimore.
“That was really so much fun because I always wanted to be a starter,” Lefferts said. “But circumstances put me in the bullpen and I had success.”
Another highlight of Lefferts’ career, so to speak, was his part in what is commonly known as the biggest bench-clearing brawl in major league history, occurring between the Padres and Braves on August 12, 1984. Clips of this fight are often shown by MLB Network when the subject of brawls comes up, and the skirmish has been well-documented online with multiple YouTube videos. Lefferts’ competitive nature and feistiness still shows 35 years later when he talks enthusiastically about what happened that day in Atlanta.
“It all started with the very first pitch of the game when Pascual Perez, the starter for the Braves, hit Alan Wiggins intentionally with the first pitch,” Lefferts said. “So, at that point it was incumbent upon us as a staff to retaliate. And we did . . . or we tried.
"Unfortunately, the three times he came to bat before I faced him in the eighth inning, we missed him. In the eighth inning, I did hit him, not to hurt him but to send a message. Because the tension started on the first pitch of the game and it built up to the eighth inning, when the fight finally started it did create a pretty riled-up bunch of people.”
Lefferts’ love for the game shows in his eagerness to talk about his career and his accomplishments. But why he is still coaching 40 years after leaving Arizona, when he could be retired and relaxing at home?
“I’m in my sixties, what else would I rather be doing but putting a uniform on and still being out there with these young kids?” Lefferts said. “They keep me young . . . there’s a lot of satisfaction in spending time with these young men and seeing them reach their dreams. I enjoy it . . . It’s a blessing to have this opportunity, and for me it’s giving back to the game of baseball and giving back to these young kids.”