The road back from Tommy John surgery has been one that was grueling and strenuous for Thunder reliever Brooks Kriske. The Yankees drafted the then 22-year old USC product with their sixth-round draft selection (188 overall) in the 2016 draft after an uptick in velocity into the mid-’90s during the back end of his collegiate career for the Trojans.
Kriske signed quickly and impressed immediately – striking out a batter per inning over 13 appearances for Staten Island in his pro debut that summer. After feeling some discomfort in late August that season, an MRI revealed that he needed elbow surgery and as a result would miss all of the 2017 campaigns.
The news came as a blow to both Kriske and the organization. As a seasoned college reliever out of an ultra-competitive Pac-12 conference, the Yankees likely had eyes on fast-tracking the hard-throwing right-hander to help them sooner than later.
“I think the whole Tommy John process just makes you mentally tougher in general,” Kriske said. “It could have happened at any point in my career. Being off of the field for over a year and then just getting back into the swing of things for another six months was mentally draining.”
In a mid-June return last summer, just under two years after undergoing surgery, Kriske returned to action and pitched in 16 combined games between Staten Island and Low-A Charleston. In 28 2/3 innings of work, Kriske had fanned 39 batters and yielded just five runs before the season came to a close.
“It did feel different last year,” Kriske admitted. “I made some mechanical adjustments during the off-season, and now it feels better than it ever has. There is that little grace period when you feel it, and you know that it’s different; it’s not necessarily pain, it’s just different. I had to get acclimated to that, and it all feels good now.”
Despite being drafted over three years ago, Kriskie is pitching in the first full-season of his professional career at 25-years old. With a clean bill of health, he has opened the eyes of the organization and has gotten the attention of scouts around baseball.
After a triumphant return to the mound last summer and a clean bill of health heading into 2019, the Yankees assigned Kriske to High-A Tampa to open this season. The righty made seven appearances for the Tarpons and dominated Florida State League opposition; holding them to a .111 batting average with 16 strikeouts in 12 innings in which he did not yield an earned run.
After learning of his promotion to Trenton on April 27, a scout that I check in with regularly that evaluates the Eastern League reached out to me and advised me to pay close attention to Kriske. “Watch this kid Kriske coming your way from Tampa,” he said. “He is a true backend guy, and he is going to move quickly.”
That scout seems to have been on to something. Since putting on Thunder pinstripes back in April, Kriske has proven to be one of the best bullpen arms in the Eastern League.
“It was a very long road coming back from Tommy John,” admitted Kriske. “I am glad to be healthy again. This offseason, I was able to get back to my old strength and athleticism; you kind some of that during Tommy John. That was a main focus in the offseason, and I am feeling good right now.”
Manager Pat Osborn has used Kriske in backend and high-leverage situations, and he has risen to the task. In 21 appearances for the Thunder spanning 28 1/3 innings of work, Kriske has yielded just six earned runs, four of which have been surrendered in two outings. Before allowing two runs earlier this week against Reading, the reliever had gone eight appearances (10 1/3 IP) without allowing a tally on the scoreboard.
Before 2019, Kriske had tossed just 44 2/3 innings during his entire career, and he has nearly matched that having tossed 40 1/3 frames heading into action on Sunday with almost two and a half months remaining this season. While the organization plans to stay cautious with the Kriske moving forward, Eastern League opposition has scuffled against him, hitting a mere .158 against while striking out 36 times in 28 1/3 innings since his promotion.
With a heater that generally sits 94-96 MPH and a good slider, Kriske has now added a third weapon into his arsenal, and it coincides with his recent run of dominance since early June when he posted a 0.79 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .081 batting average over nine appearances in the month.
“I was able to pick up some velocity, which helps,” said Kriske. “Scott Aldred and Norty (Tim Norton) showed me a splitter, so I was able to add in a third pitch, and that has helped out against the left-handed hitters a lot. It is just another pitch that the hitter has to have in the back of their head that can help the fastball and slider and take the pressure off of those other pitches.”
The reason for neutralizing the lefties? Kriske has held right-handers to a .067 batting average while left-handers having hit .232 against him.
“I added that splitter about a month ago, and I feel like for this last month, things have been going a lot smoother with that third pitch,” said Kriske. “That has been my main adjustment to the league – adding that pitch and giving guys some different looks off of me. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself with the slider – trying to make it probably better than it needs to be, and Scotty (Aldred) came out and said that it would help to neutralize lefties and could use it against righties as well. I was lucky that I got a pretty good feel for it quickly.”
Kriske added, “I am grateful for every day that I am healthy and out here playing. It has made me love the game a lot more.”