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Conversations with the Herd: Connor Cooke

By: Brian Frank


Bisons reliever Connor Cooke is a born athlete. The Louisiana native, currently ranked as the Blue Jays 19th best prospect by MLB Pipeline, was a three-sport star in high school. Besides starring on the baseball diamond, he played basketball at Sulphur High School and also played free safety, special teams, and occasionally wide receiver on the football team. He put his athleticism on full display in one of the biggest baseball games of his high school career.


“We played Barbe High School, who were one of the best teams in the country,” Cooke told The Herd Chronicles in a recent interview. “Our starting pitcher had gone like seven or eight innings. It was a tie game and we went into extras – and I stole home for the winning run.”

Cooke is currently the 19th ranked prospect in the Blue Jays system. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles



Cooke was primarily a position player growing up. According to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette website, he hit .410 with 24 stolen bases during his senior year of high school.


“In high school I played outfield and first base,” Cooke said. “I went to college as an outfielder but… now we’re here, so… (laughs). I mean I pitched growing up, but I was mainly a position player.”


He attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette with the intent of playing outfield, but quickly transitioned to the mound when he saw an opportunity there.


“I wouldn’t have played that much if I would have played the field, everyone was seniors and older,” he explained. “I think the only way I got on the field was to pitch – and I wanted to. If that was the only route then I was going to do it. I started throwing harder, started throwing good stuff, and just fully transitioned the next year.”


He was a reliever during his first two seasons, with his sophomore season cut short due to the pandemic. He became a starter his junior season and went 7-3 with a 2.03 ERA in 79 2/3 innings pitched.


His pitching coach during his college years was former Blue Jays and Orioles closer B.J. Ryan.


“He’s a very old school dude, so it was pretty fun to play for him,” Cooke said. “Just that type of knowledge in the clubhouse, it’s really nice to pick his brain and just to have that caliber of a coach was great.”


New to being a fulltime pitcher, the young hurler picked up a lot from Ryan, a two-time American League All-Star who racked up 117 career big-league saves.


“More on like the mindset side of things,” Cooke said of what he learned from Ryan. “He pitched in the era of Barry Bonds and all those guys, so just the mindset that he had. I loved to pick his brain about that – and that helped out a lot, of course, with moving forward and going into pro ball.”


Cooke's greatest college pitching moment came amidst tragedy in his personal life.


“My last year in college my grandfather had passed away three days before one of my starts and I ended up throwing a complete game shutout with 12 punch outs,” he remembered.


Cooke has appeared in 25 career games for the Herd. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles


After his junior season, Cooke was selected by the Blue Jays in the 10th round of the 2021 MLB June Amateur Draft.


“I just had a few buddies over,” he said of draft day. “Just some of my closest friends and family. We just kind of waited until my name got called. It was a special moment for sure.”


“There were a few teams that I felt like it could be, but the Blue Jays talked to me the most,” he continued. “They were actually the first team that talked to me, so I knew they had some interest.”


Cooke spent his first professional season split between the FCL Blue Jays and the Low-A Dunedin Blue Jays.


“It was different for sure,” he said of his transition to professional baseball. “Just the amount of baseball is hard to get used to. No one really knows how many games you play until you go through a first full season. The workload management was definitely a big thing to take care of and kind of just figuring out a good routine.”


He began his second professional season as a starting pitcher at Dunedin, before being promoted to High-A Vancouver in August, where he returned to the bullpen.


“It didn’t work out as well as we wished,” he said of his time as a starter, “but transitioning into a bullpen arm seemed to work out pretty well for me. After that transition I feel like it’s been on the up from there. I like the role I’m in now. I feel like it’s better for me.”

Cooke recently added a cutter to his pitching arsenal. Photo Credits: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles


It was while he was in Dunedin that he learned his devastating slider.


“I learned it in Low-A in ’22,” he said. “I was throwing a different version of it and they wanted to see if I could throw the sweeper. It ended up working out. It’s been all good since then.”


The sweeper-slider was added to an arsenal that already included a four-seam fastball and changeup. He’s recently added a new pitch to his repertoire.


“I recently added a cutter that we’re still trying to mix in there,” he said. “It’s fairly new. Like in the last few weeks. I’ve thrown it a few times (in games). Not too much, but a few times.”


Last season, Cooke rose through three levels of the Blue Jays’ minor league system. He began the year at Vancouver, where he had a 2.89 ERA and struck out 19 batters in nine relief appearances. He was promoted to Double-A New Hampshire in mid-May and posted a 4.38 ERA and recorded 46 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings pitched. In mid-August he was promoted to Buffalo, where he had a 4.35 ERA and added 15 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings pitched.


“Just playing across three levels, it was a lot of travel and a lot of change,” he said. “Being able to end up here last year definitely helped with the start of this season. Just knowing the place, knowing the town a little bit, and knowing some of the guys from last year – just carrying that into this year.”


Bisons manager Casey Candaele has been using Cooke often in late-inning situations. The 24-year-old relishes pitching in high leverage situations, particularly at the end of games.


“I don’t know who wouldn’t,” Cooke said. “I think it’s really fun. Being the last guy in there and being able to finish and shake the catcher’s hand is special for sure.”

 

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