2022 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Connor Cooke climbs the mound in this instalment of C’s Chat.
The pride of Sulphur, Louisiana was a three-sport athlete in his hometown high school, playing baseball, football and basketball. As a defensive back on the gridiron, Cooke was a two-time All-District and All-Southwest First Team All-Star and helped the Golden Tors make the state playoffs four times. On the diamond, the righthander racked up All-District, All-Southwest and All-State First Team honours and helped Sulphur High reach the playoffs four times, including a State finals appearance. As a two-way player, Cooke won six of eight decisions and batted .410 with 24 stolen bases in his senior season of 2018.
Unfortunately, Cooke’s father Fredrick Cooke Jr. passed away unexpectedly at the age of 55 during Connor’s sophomore season in 2016 and he lost two more key figures in his life after committing to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Ragin’ Cajuns coach Terry Robichaux died of a heart attack in 2019 and Cooke’s grandfather Fredrick Cooke Sr. succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 2021. His grandfather passed just three days before Connor pitched a complete game three-hitters with 12 strikeouts and no walks against Arkansas State.
Cooke persevered and solidified his prospects for pro baseball when he starred in the rotation for the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2021 after being the closer during his sophomore season. Under the tutelage of former Orioles and Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan, Cooke earned First Team All-Sun Belt Conference and First Team All-Louisiana honors in 2021 and put up a 10-4 record with a 3.82 ERA over his three seasons on campus.
Listing the 6-foot-1, 203-pound righty as the third best prospect in its Sun Belt Conference preview, Baseball America issued this scouting report on Cooke before the 2021 MLB Draft.
“Cooke had been a reliever for his first two years at Louisiana Lafayette, but he took a big step forward in 2021. He has plenty of athleticism, but he took a step forward with his control and consistency this year. He has the makings of a pro relief profile thanks to a plus low-80s curveball that he shows feel to locate and he has the power to bury hitters with it. It’s a 12-to-6 hammer, and opponents hit only .092/.145/.123 against it in 2021. He sits at 89-91 mph with his fastball, but he has shown he can get to 93-94 when he needs it and he carries that velocity deep into games. After going 7-3, 2.03 with a .157 opponent average this year, Cooke seems ready for the challenge of pro ball. He has earned the shot to go out as a starter, but may eventually end up as a reliever with a weapon in his curve.”
The Toronto Blue Jays would take Cooke in the 10th round of the 2021 Draft and give him a signing bonus of $141,900 after being scouted by Chris Curtis. Cooke’s pro debut came August 28 when he pitched a scoreless inning with a strikeout for the Florida Complex League Blue Jays against the FCL Tigers West. After one more appearance in the Complex, Cooke was sent to Dunedin and earned the win his his first game in the Florida State League by striking out the side in Tampa September 8. He made two more one-inning appearances with the D-Jays to close out the season by striking out six with a 0.00 ERA.
Baseball America listed Cooke as the best athlete in its Blue Jays 2021 Draft report card.
“Best Athlete: Righthander Connor Cooke (10) stood out for his athleticism and took a step forward with his control for Louisiana Lafayette this spring. Tiedemann (2022 C’s lefty Ricky Tiedemann) is also an impressive athlete. Toronto views both pitchers as above-average in this category.”
Also agreeing with BA’s assessment of Cooke’s athleticism is his college coach Matt Deggs, who replaced Robichaux as head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns.
“He reminds me of a David Cone-type pitcher. He’s got explosiveness to him and he can also power you or finesse you. He’s got multiple ways to get you out.”
In 2002, Cooke returned to Dunedin to begin 2022 and made eight starts and six relief appearances. Despite an uneven season in which he won two of seven decisions and posted a 4.86 ERA, Cooke finished with a flourish by pitching 3-1/3 shutout frames with six strikeouts in St. Lucie July 15 and struck out a career-high eight batters in four shutout innings at Clearwater July 28. He struck out 63 batters and walked 14 over 46-1/3 innings.
Cooke would get the call to go to Vancouver August 2 and recorded his first professional save in his C’s debut against Tri-City at Nat Bailey Stadium with a scoreless frame and one strikeout August 4. He would strike out three batters in 1-2/3 innings for his second save against the Dust Devils August 7. So far, Cooke has converted eight of nine save opportunities and ended the month of August with five straight saves.
C’s Plus Baseball spoke with the 22 year-old Cooke during the Canadians homestand against Hillsboro in late August.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
C’s Plus Baseball – What was your draft day experience like?
Connor Cooke – I had all my family around. Invited a few friends. Nothing big, just four or five of my friends and just kind of waited it out. Waited until my name was called.
CPB – And how did it feel when you heard your name called?
CC – It was great more for my mom more than anything. She was really excited. She’s been with me through all this kind of by herself. It felt good to do that and have her there with me.
CPB – I’m sure your thoughts had to turn to your father and grandfather. I’m sure it was a very emotional time.
CC – Yeah, for sure. For sure.
CPB – Talk about what they meant to you in your baseball career.
CC – My dad taught me how to pitch taught me everything about baseball. So, you know, it’s great to have another reason to play, another why, if that makes sense. They mean a lot to me and my grandpa got to watch me a little bit at UL my first year there but I mean they’re still there. It’s not like they’re gone. They’re watching, you know. It’s difficult sometimes but it’s how it goes.
CPB – Did you have any idea the Blue Jays were going to take you?
CC – Actually the Blue Jays were the first meeting I had with any pro team. And then I didn’t really hear much from them until draft day. They called me a few times. There was a few teams that I thought were going to want me, but the Blue Jays ended up doing it.
CPB – With the Ragin’ Cajuns, you were under the tutelage of pitching coach B.J, Ryan. What was it like working with him?
CC – Awesome. I love his style of coaching. It’s pretty old school. Lift, run, throw, throw hard. But just the knowledge he has. It’s great. Anytime you have a two-time big leaguer on your staff, you ask a lot of questions, try to get to know things. It was just really special, having him being there for my last two years.
CPB – What is it that he taught you? Is there maybe one or two pieces of advice he gave to you that stuck with you to this day?
CC – Just like a mentality-type thing. Before he was there, I was just a small freshman and didn’t really know how to pitch. And when he got there, it was just more of like flipping my mentality into ‘Your stuff’s good enough. Just pitch to your strengths.’ I’m just more hard-nosed than how I was and that helped me out a lot.
CPB – Pitching for the Ragin’ Cages. Anything that stands out when you look back in your time there?
CC – Playing for Coach Robe (Tony Robichaux), my freshman year was really big. Can’t ask for a better coach than that. Not even just baseball, just a leader of men.He was a great, great man to play for.
CPB – And Matt Deggs stepped into that role. How was he able to help you out?
CC – He piggybacked well off of Robe. Deggs coached for Robe in the past so a lot of the same ideals, a lot of the same coaching style. It wasn’t a huge transition because he knew the system and everything. It was great playing for him.
CPB – What would you say was your best memory or best game with the Ragin’ Cajuns?
CC – I actually threw a two-hit, CG shutout with 12 punchies, three days after my grandpa passed. So that was a pretty big one.
CPB – You attended high school at Sulphur, Louisiana. Talk about your high school career.
CC – I got offered by UL pretty early in high school. About my sophomore year, I played all three sports there to be completely honest. When I was in high school, baseball was like my least favorite sport. I liked football and basketball a lot more, but as I matured and got older, I was definitely way better at baseball than the other sports. So I kind of just stuck with it.
CPB – When did you take up pitching?
CC – Not until I stepped on campus at UL. I was kind of recruited to UL as an outfielder. It was kind of shown that I wasn’t going to play much. We had a lot of older guys so pitching was the only thing that was going to get me on the field. So I didn’t complain, I just got after it.
CPB – There’s a lot of two-way players in high school, but did you pitch at all or was it when you got on campus, that was the very first time you basically climbed the moiund?
CC – Yeah, I think I took BP the first day of my freshman year. And then after that, it was just pitching. When Beggs came in, he really liked how athletic I was and everything. So he had me taking BP here and there, running bases. I have one collegiate stolen base and one or two run scores. So it counts as a two-way. (laughs)
CPB – Football and basketball. How did that help you out as a baseball player?
CC – Football more just the mentality and kind of the off-season aspect to it. I really like to lift heavy, do explosive stuff and did a lot of that with football. So that carried over and just playing sports and trying to stay as athletic as possible. It just helped me out.
CPB – You report to the Blue Jays. What was that like? The orientation, when you get drafted, I hear it’s whirlwind. You meet lots and lots of people when you’re down in Dunedin. Take us through what it was like your first few days as a professional ballplayer.
CC – The first few days, weren’t all that special because we had to quarantine. It was the midst of COVID. They had us in our hotel rooms for two or three days until we could go have our tour of the PDC. After that, like meeting everyone, just having a good time with everyone. It was a great first two weeks because like it almost felt like you were a freshman again, like every you’re starting over and you were the new guys and with this group, it was a pretty easy transition, especially with all the staff of the Blue Jays,
CPB – The Player Development Complex in Dunedin. Is there anything it helped you out with as a pitcher?
CC – Everything. I mean there’s nothing like it, you know, the pitching labs, everything. Just all the resources we have over there. It’s just unreal. The stuff we got over there, everything helped me out with strength and conditioning. Just technology, just all of it.
CPB – Did you learn anything about yourself that maybe you didn’t know before?
CC– I didn’t do many plyo balls until I got to the Blue Jays and learning how to do that properly. And then just the different technologies we have, like the catapults and stuff like that, track workload and all that. It’s just definitely helped me out a lot to kind of realize like how my body works and stuff like that.
CPB – Getting your feet wet at the professional level. The first time you climbed the mound, what was that like for you?
CC – Oh, it was awesome. I mean nervewracking for sure. But I mean, it was awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a better debut so it was nice.
CPB – You get here to Vancouver, how did you find out about it?
CC – We had just played a game against the Phillies in Clearwater and a few days before I had a really good start and it was the last day of the week. They just called me in there and told me it was my time, told me I’d been working hard. My stuff was good enough and it was time to leave.
CPB – So they didn’t play any practical jokes on you or (Dunedin manager) Donnie Murphy giving you an especially hard time or anything like that?
CC – I’m surprised they didn’t. They did it with most everybody else, but not me.
CPB – They let you off the hook.
CC – Yeah. They’re kind just like, ‘Hey you’re out of here.’
CPB – I know you’ve started. but right now with Jol Concepcion gone up, it looks like they’re looking to you now as the closer. How do you like being the man at the end of the game?
CC – Oh, I love it. The adrenaline rush is awesome and it’s nice throwing more than once a week. You know, closing’s really fun. Really fun, especially here.
CPB – What is it like being on the mound here at Nat Bailey Stadium with 5,000-6,000 fans in the stands?
CC – It’s loud. A lot of energy. It’s really fun. It’s the best way I can put it. It’s just a lot of fun.
CPB – Talk about what you’re throwing right now. I believe you have four pitches in your arsenal?
CC – As of right now, I’m throwing a lot of fastballs, sliders, change up and then I have a second slider. That’s more of a harder one. I have a two-seam (fastball) and a curveball that I don’t use very often but they’re there.
CPB – Would you say your fastball is your best pitch and your slider would be your second best right now?
CC – Probably or vice versa maybe.
CPB – Anyone who taught you the slider or showed you that grip? You said there were two different sliders.
CC – The guys back at the PDC, Matt Tracy, Cory Popham. They showed me the slider grip, the, the one I’m using now. And then the newer, harder one, our pitching coaching in Dunedin Drew Hayes. He’s the one that showed me that.
CPB – As far as 2022 goes, what are your goals?
CC – Just continue to perfect my craft. Make my pitches better, gain more velo. Just be more consistent, lock down my routine, get everything locked down and continue to get better at every aspect.
CPB – Is there something someone should know about you that maybe they don’t? Maybe a hidden talent?
CC – I’m going to get some words for this one, but I can jump really high with the best of them.
CPB – Maybe you and Nick Frasso might have a basketball duel or something like that?
CC – We tried to set up a dunk contest but they wouldn’t have it.
CPB – Who’s the better dunker, you or Nick?
CC – Who can do better dunks? Probably Frasso. But who can jump higher? Me, for sure.
CPB – Bo Bonds was just recently drafted by the Blue Jays (13th round in 2022) from your alma mater, the Ragin’ Cajuns. Both of you wore the same number, number 2. So it’s kind of interesting two number 2’s getting taken like that.
CC – Yeah, for sure. Great number. I don’t know him very well but I know he is nasty so it’s good that we got him.
CPB – Did he reach out to you?.
CC – Yep. Just to ask questions, see how it was going to go the first few days around here.
CPB – What kind of advice would you give to any professional player about maybe what to expect that first year?
CC – It’s a lot more work than you used to, you know. Like you’re used to playing, 40, 60 games in college and just turn around and play 150 so definitely a change, definitely a grind,. But yeah, just the workload. It’s a lot more, you just gotta manage it.
CPB – Did you have a favorite major league team or pitcher that you followed?
CC– I don’t, really. My Dad really liked Roy Oswalt growing up so that’s kind of why I wore 44 up until college. Other than that. No, not really.
- Uniform Numbers – Wore number 2 with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette from 2019 to 2021 and wore number 41 with Dunedin in 2021. Wore number 2 with Dunedin in 2022.
- Instagram – @cooke_connor
- Twitter – @connorcooke440
- Basketball Connection – Connor’s mother Christine (Sheridan) Cooke starred on the basketball court at McNeese Sate and ranks among the Cowgirls’ all-time leaders in points and rebounds.
Thanks a million again to Connor Cooke and to C’s play-by-play man Tyler Zickel for setting up the latest episode of C’s Chat.