Back in January, I got help from right-handed pitcher John O’Reilly on an article talking about players from cold weather states and how it affects their progress as a player. He was one of the best players in the system to ask because he grew up in north New Jersey and went to college at Rutgers. He had 3-4 months of good baseball weather every year growing up, while players from such states as Florida, Georgia and Texas had a much longer season. O’Reilly talked about practicing in the snow at times and how it was tough to get in a lot of work as a pitcher due to the short schedule. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was writing the first part of his professional baseball story.
O’Reilly was a starting pitcher in college, who went to the Gulf Coast League after signing as a non-drafted free agent last year. He would get bumped up to Bristol to finish the season. Neither his stats nor his scouting report blew people away, but there was at least a glimmer of hope by the end of his first season in pro ball. He saw slightly better velocity with the Pirates and he started to put on some good weight.
The cold weather article was written in part to help save time in future articles covering the draft. There are always highly rated players from cold weather states, and instead of explaining the subject every time I mentioned one of them, I could link the article to show why scouts believe it gives them more projection.
I wasn’t trying to predict future progress from O’Reilly with the article, but if you go back at read the link at the top, you’ll see that he clearly qualified as a player who could see some projection in pro ball, even if it did come at a later age than many of the high school players who get that cold weather tag in the draft.
Back in college, O’Reilly worked his way up from a mid-80s fastball to sitting 88-91 MPH in his senior year. He had a big 6’5″ frame that scouts love to dream on, but he was a bit lanky at 185 pounds. With the Pirates the results were almost instantaneous, with consistent 91-92 MPH velocity last year. After a trip to the Fall Instructional League in September, the 2018-19 off-season was a big one for O’Reilly. Being a non-drafted free agent (NDFA) sticks with you, so you have to do something to separate yourself. He set out to put in the work to make sure he could show he belongs in pro ball.
“I knew I had to get bigger and stronger if I wanted to get better,” O’Reilly said. “I gained 20 pounds thanks to my mom and dad cooking like crazy and my brother working out with me every day, and those two things really paid dividends.”
Many pitchers really hit their stride around their sophomore year of college. You see some struggles from them as freshmen, then they really make a name for themselves the next two years leading up to the draft. O’Reilly hit that stride this year at age 23, and it started very early in his off-season throwing program.
“The first I noticed added velocity was in my first two times throwing off a mound in late January,” O’Reilly said. “I wasn’t pushing it by any means and was throwing 89-91 fairly easy. As I got to Spring Training, it seemed every outing I was getting one mile per hour higher.”
We got reports that O’Reilly was sitting 92-95 MPH in late Spring Training and he was having success mixing that sinker with a high-80s cutter. It appeared that he had a good chance to make the Greensboro roster on Opening Day, but he ended up in Extended Spring Training. While remaining at Pirate City has to be a letdown, it seemed to only motivate him even more.
Four weeks after the 2019 season opened, O’Reilly got the call that he was going to Greensboro. The continued hard work paid off and it was time to show that he was ready for the challenge. After debuting on May 5th, he didn’t allow his first earned run until May 30th. In 29.1 innings over 20 appearances in Low-A, he posted a 2.15 ERA and a 1.36 GO/AO ratio.
Those were nice numbers, but he really didn’t kick it into second gear until he reached Bradenton. Hidden behind that strong ERA, O’Reilly had a .297 BAA and a 1.53 WHIP in Greensboro. He was great at keeping runs off the board, but not at keeping runners off the bases. He also had just 17 strikeouts in those 29.1 innings. The success came from keeping the ball of the ground and limiting the hard contact, but he needed to do better than that to get notice.
The move from Greensboro to Bradenton is a fairly even step for pitchers and much tougher for hitters. You’re going up against better competition as a pitcher and some of the things that work in Low-A, won’t work against High-A hitters. The flip side is that you’re also going from a park that slightly favors hitters, to an entire league that favors pitchers. This is where things really got going for O’Reilly.
In 19 innings of High-A ball between July 20th and August 29th, O’Reilly allowed one earned run. This time there was nothing hidden behind the ERA. Batters hit .208 against him and he had a 1.05 WHIP. Those results led to him being promoted to Altoona to finish off the season. He tossed a scoreless inning in his only appearance, giving him a final season ERA of 1.46 in 49.1 innings over three levels. It was a finish to the season that O’Reilly didn’t see coming when he was still at Pirate City until early May.
“Getting to go to Altoona was just something I could have never imagined back when my name was on the extended list,” O’Reilly said about his season, before talking about the success in High-A. “Honestly, Bradenton was awesome. The stadiums and bullpens were incredible. I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of my time with other bullpen guys, and those guys were always so positive and excited for each other. Being in an atmosphere surrounded by people that truly want to see you do well is amazing. Fortunately I worked really hard and was given great opportunities with great guys the whole way.”
His hard work got notice from the Pirates. The late promotion was a reward for the season he put together, but he also turned some heads with what was showing on the radar gun. That early season 92-95 MPH velocity I mentioned was up to a consistent 94-96 MPH late, even hitting 97 MPH at one point. He mixed it with the 86-89 MPH cutter that was strong from day one and an 83-86 MPH changeup. That three-pitch mix didn’t result in a lot of strikeouts, but it helped him out every night on the mound.
“My cutter was great for me this year,” O’Reilly noted. “A majority of my outings were quick, early count outs. As a reliever my goal was to get a zero late in a ball game, not just go for strikeouts. The sinker/cutter combo allowed me to get a lot of ground balls and do my job more efficiently.”
The Pirates liked what they saw, and that led to another invite to the Fall Instructional League two months ago so he could add some more innings and work on a breaking ball. Both things were designed to help him move into a starting role next year. He made four appearances in instructional league games, plus he threw four bullpens and got extra side work.
The work on the breaking ball is a very interesting story because we have heard that the Pirates had the same advanced technology as other teams, but they didn’t always put it to good use by sharing results with the players. So I asked O’Reilly about the decision making process behind him working on the breaking ball in instructs.
“The Pirates approached me and said they want me to have a fourth pitch so I can start next year. I was able to work with some of our pitching coaches using the rapsodo machine trying to determine which grip gave me the best action and spin,” O’Reilly said. “Eventually I’m looking for a slider. Right now it still has some curve shape to it but that will be fixed before Spring Training. It certainly was not easy and we tried a bunch of different things, but I feel like we made a ton of progress.”
The rapsodo machine is designed specifically to help pitchers find their best pitch. The coaches he noted above were Scott Mitchell (Senior Pitching Coordinator), Scott Elarton (Special Assistant, Baseball Operations), Drew Benes (Bradenton pitching coach), and TJ Large, who is the Coordinator of Minor League Operations. That’s a nice group of coaches to work with for the four weeks of instructs, and it sounds like they put in the time to help O’Reilly get to the next level in his game.
There will obviously be some changes in the minor league operations this off-season due to the front office restructuring, so you can’t guarantee right now that O’Reilly will be in a starting role next year. You can say that he will at least be more prepared for that role because he’s not resting on his laurels.
“Now that I’ve had some success, it just makes the hunger grow that much more,” O’Reilly said about the off-season plans. “So if it means adding another 15 pounds to get close to 220 pounds and help maintain for a larger quantity of innings, then that’s what I’ll do. I am taking October and November off, then starting to throw a little earlier this year (December 1st) to make sure my breaking ball is ready for Spring Training.”
While the future role is in some doubt for now, there is no doubt that John O’Reilly is in a better place than he was at this time last year. He has much better velocity. He has a strong second pitch with his cutter, and he’s putting in the work on his new breaking ball. He’s in much better physical condition to handle a full-season of innings and he’s had success in High-A, with a late bump to Altoona to get a brief taste of upper level baseball.