Daulton Jefferies has simple advice for anyone recovering and rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Get a dog. In his case, the canine was an Australian shepherd border collie mix named Oakley.
"It's the best investment you can make," he said. "Going through rehab, you're going to have some tough days, but you try calling it a bad day when you come home with a dog wiggling up to you like that. It's tough to have bad days."
The further Jefferies has gotten from his elbow procedure in April 2017 -- one that kept him off the mound full-time until this past spring -- the fewer bad days he's had. Last month he had one of the best days of his young career, featuring a call from A's assistant general manager Dan Feinstein informing Jefferies that he had been added to Oakland's 40-man roster ahead of his Rule 5 Draft eligibility.
"I'm just so happy to throw the ball," said the A's No. 12 prospect. "Nothing else matters. There are just so many experiences I wanted to get under my belt finally. I know it doesn't sound luxurious, but even the 12-hour bus rides, the gas-station food stops, stuff like that, they're all the stuff I missed in my first three seasons. I just kind of expected to get my feet wet with the Minor Leagues, but it ended up being a good season. That didn't even set in until the offseason, and then to get the phone call about the 40-man, that only heightened my excitement for everything that's still coming in my career."
There were high hopes for Jefferies the moment he entered pro ball. The right-hander was taken by Oakland with the 37th overall pick in the 2016 Draft out of the University of California, Berkeley might have gone higher had he not dealt with shoulder injuries as a junior. After signing for $1.6 million, he made five appearances in the Rookie-level Arizona League that August to show his regained health. All looked promising entering 2017 before Jefferies lasted only two starts with Class A Advanced Stockton. A week after the right-hander's second Ports outing on April 13, the A's announced he needed Tommy John surgery. Outside of a brief rehab appearance in the AZL in 2018, Jefferies didn't appear again on a Minor League mound until April 4, 2019.
Video: Jefferies records sixth K
What happened in between was a lot of time spent around the A's rehab facilities in Arizona, tackling recovery on the right elbow day by day. While others externally might view Tommy John as a lost year and nothing more, it's not as simple for the players. It takes slow, excruciating steps at times to get to a point at which throwing a ball is even a possibility.
See where having a pup could be helpful?
"It's all about setting goals, even the little goals, and accomplishing those," Jefferies said. "Like the first one for me was just brushing my teeth. Anyone who's had Tommy John will tell you it's tough brushing your teeth with your other hand. After I could finally do that, OK, that's one goal down. What's next?"
Once Jefferies was cleared to start a throwing program, he perhaps had it a little easier than others. One of the biggest positives on his scouting report was always the cleanliness of his delivery and his ability to throw strikes. He walked only two (while fanning 17) in his 11 1/3 frames in the AZL in 2017, and before that, he finished college with just a 1.9 BB/9 rate over three seasons with the Golden Bears. So when it came time to stop throwing and start pitching, he at least had the muscle memory of being able to spot his fastball, not to mention the approach.
"It was more focusing on getting the repetition down and finding the command first," he said. "My delivery is up and down, pretty rotationally simple. The rehab staff and I wanted it to get back there, but that was actually pretty easy because, even from college, I've been a smooth, pitchable guy. It makes it a lot easier than trying to find my arm action and cleaning up my delivery at the same time. Plus, I just don't like walking people. That's not fun for me. Let them get a hit, so they can earn it. I hate walks so much."
In 2019, Jefferies walked only two batters over 15 innings with Stockton in April and didn't issue a free pass at all in his first eight appearances (24 2/3 innings) for Double-A Midland. The 24-year-old right-hander finished with only nine walks allowed in 79 innings, compared to 93 strikeouts over that same span. His 2.8 percent walk rate was sixth-lowest among the 836 Minor League pitchers to toss at least 70 innings in 2019, and his 10.3 K/BB ratio was second-best among the same group. It helped, in part, that the A's limited Jefferies to three innings in most appearances -- he went over twice and only to throw 3 2/3 and 3 1/3 frames on June 7 and 13 respectively -- but the strategy was effective in that the Merced, California, native pitched from early April to mid-August before getting shut down.
But control alone wasn't going to get Jefferies quality outings, nor would it have been the sole reason for his addition to the 40-man. With more regular appearances, he was able to hone in on his stuff. His 90- to 93-mph fastball earned plus grades for his ability to spot it everywhere in the zone, and his changeup -- his own "favorite pitch" -- drew raves for its ability to fade away from batters, fooling those that sat on the heater.
What needed to make a jump were his other offerings. While some believe Jefferies' slider and cutter are the same pitch, he contends they are two different types. His cutter sits around 89 mph, while his more traditional breaking ball can be around 79-81. It's the latter that needed the most work if Jefferies' post-surgery return to the mound was going to be successful. So prior to his 2019 breakout, Jefferies sat down with former A's closer Blake Treinen during Spring Training at a Cal-Pepperdine game at Grand Canyon University. Jefferies wasn't going to miss a chance to see his alma mater so close by, and the former National Treinen wanted to see former manager Dusty Baker's son, Darren, suit up for the Golden Bears. The conversation in the stands quickly turned to the slider.
"I threw it in college, but I never really got it back because I didn't throw it in rehab," Jefferies said. "His slider was a lot better than mine even when I could throw. So we're sitting in the stands and he's helping to show the wrist action on his. I started adding it in little by little and studying it on the Rapsodo and all the other gadgets, and I really feel like it ended up being a strikeout pitch because of those wrist changes by the end. It used to be a show-me pitch earlier, but it's a lot more than that now."
With a fuller arsenal, Jefferies finished with a 3.42 ERA over 79 innings between the Texas and California Leagues. He was the only Texas League pitcher with a K/BB above 10 (10.3) in at least 60 innings (64 in that circuit alone). The stuff and results were too good for the A's to leave Jefferies unprotected in this year's Rule 5 Draft, despite Oakland having a full 40-man roster ahead of the protection deadline. In the end, the A's chose to designate Jharel Cotton -- another pitcher with Tommy John in his past -- for assignment to make room for Jefferies on the 40-man, where he joined fellow promising arms Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk.
It wasn't the first time Jefferies was grouped with those two. Luzardo, another Tommy John recoverer, was in the same Draft class as Jefferies in 2016, going in the third round to the Nationals before his trade to the A's in July 2017. Puk, on the other hand, spent the bulk of 2018 rehabbing right alongside Jefferies and No. 13 prospect James Kaprielian. With Sean Manaea also needing Tommy John in late 2018 and heading to Arizona for rehab, it was possible to look around the A's facility and see the bulk of the future Oakland pitching staff all in one place, just not where they wanted to be.
"I think we all knew about the situation around us," he said. "We all pretty much keep to ourselves, those types of guys. Soft-spoken. Humble. We all have a silent assassin-like quality to us. Keep our heads down. Work on what we needed to do that day. Granted, you'd look around and see the types of players we had in our rehab groups and where they are now, and all I can think is that what I'm trying to do is be part of that group again."
Offseason MiLB include
Since that time in 2018, Luzardo and Puk have made the Majors, Manaea returned to the rotation and Kaprielian climbed as high as Triple-A Las Vegas. With a 40-man spot now secure, Jefferies, who just recently began his offseason throwing program without issue, is one transaction away from The Show. But first, he will have his spot in Major League Spring Training camp, where he'll still be setting small goals. Brush his teeth. Pet the dog. Get on the bus. Enjoy each step.
"There are so many things that are going to come up, I'm sure -- pitch sequencing, grips, routines," he said. "But the big thing for me is it's a long season without many off days. I haven't done 162 yet. I've done 140ish once. So what do they do to keep fresh and keep it going? Someone like Marcus Semien, who played every day, I'll have to pick their brains a little bit.
"Overall, I just know I'm very fortunate to be in an organization that moves guys when they're ready. This organization does a really good job of finishing guys off and turning them into Major Leaguers. It doesn't take much of a look around that room to see it, and I can't wait to be a part of it."