OAKLAND — It took Aaron Brooks less than three years in the minor leagues before he made his major league debut. Drafted in 2011 out of Cal State San Bernardino, the 6-foot-4 right-hander rode a mid-90s fastball and a low-90s slider to Kansas City, where he threw 2 2/3 innings for the Royals in May of 2014.
Then, he was traded in the middle of 2015 to the Oakland Athletics, where he threw 51 innings for a team that finished with 94 losses. In his first season at the major league level, he posted a 6.67 ERA. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since.
“I’ve always heard that it’s easier to get here than it is to stay there,” Brooks said Tuesday, back in the Oakland locker room for a second go-around. “With the mental adjustments that I’m more comfortable with, I’m more comfortable on a big league field. I’m kind of hoping that’s what I needed to turn the corner.”
Brooks — acquired on Sept. 3 from the Milwaukee Brewers — joined the too late to qualify for the postseason roster. But, with Brooks having both starting and relieving experience, the A’s — in the thick of a playoff race — will be relying on him to get a tattered rotation through the end of the regular season.
“It’s a good time to be here,” said Brooks. “I haven’t thrown in a while. I think I’m going to get my feet went into a game out of the pen here soon, either today or tomorrow, then possibly join the rotation. We haven’t really talked about anything further.”
Oakland (83-56) trails the Houston Astros by 2 1/2 games for the division lead. The A’s are 3 1/2 behind the visiting New York Yankees for the first Wild Card and 4 1/2 ahead of the Seattle Mariners for the second. Every single member of the starting rotation set before the season has been on the disabled list. Since Brooks started 15 games this year, it’s not out of the question for him to slot into a starting gig for the final month of the regular season.
“We’ve used quite a bit of our bullpen here recently, and most of these guys are one- or two-inning guys,” said manager Bob Melvin. “It’s nice to have true length, a guy that, depending on the situation can give you four, five, six innings, being a starter. We’ll see where we go with him, but it’s nice to have him in the bullpen today, if that’s the case.”
Seven A’s starters in all have made visits to the disabled list, including the latest — Sean Manaea and Brett Anderson. Anderson will throw a bullpen on Wednesday as he works back from nerve irritation in his forearm, but the situation has gotten so dire that the A’s will sporadically try bullpenning — the practice of throwing multiple relievers over the course of the early innings, instead of relying on a single starter.
Liam Hendriks will start Tuesday against the Yankees, but Melvin was coy about who else would get in, save for Brooks, who has started and relieved this season.
“Whatever the team needs to win,” Brooks said. “Day by day, we kind of have to make adjustments. Whatever we need to win, I’ll do.”
Drafted in the ninth round as a junior out of San Bernardino, Brooks was a big-bodied righty with velocity who struck out 78 in 92 innings and sported a 2.74 ERA in his final season for the Coyotes. He moved steadily up the minors walking just 1.3 men per nine innings through the 2013 season.
Until his debut, though, his lowest ERA was a 3.88 during 2014 with Triple-A Omaha. After his quick cameo with the Royals — just two games — he was part of the trade that brought Sean Manaea to Oakland.
“Anyone who can make it here has the talent,” Brooks said. “In order to stay here, you have to make adjustments. You have to mature mentally.”
Brooks hadn’t done that. After his half season with the A’s, he was traded to Chicago, but never appeared in the majors.
“I felt good, but I was just having trouble getting guys out for some reason,” Brooks said. “Looking back on it, I’d say [it was] the pitch-to-pitch of just being able to make an adjustment right then and there, instead of not knowing how to make the adjustment or waiting too long.”
It was while with Triple-A Iowa that he had a small tear in his right shoulder in 2016, and because of its persistence, he threw just five games (four starts) with a 7.71 ERA in 2016. As he rehabbed, and got back on the mound, he took stock.
“Early in my career, I’d rely on the talent side of things, and I’d hear a bunch of people talk about the mental side, and I didn’t really catch on to it,” Brooks said. “Then, once guys start struggling, you hit a wall. You start to figure out what else you need to do. It took that for me to do that a couple years ago.”
It took Brooks some time to begin focusing on the hitters instead of on his body. When he did, Iowa Cubs pitching coach Rod Nichols, in particular, made sure Brooks stayed positive, and helped shepherd him through growing his understanding of pitching.
“The Cubs do a good job of having guys that are pretty much mental coaches,” Brooks said. “I kind of picked their brain a little bit … My coaches throughout the years, they’ve always said you can get here on talent — we’re all here because of talent — but it’s how do you stay and how do you make adjustments and get used to it.”
Throwing with a bit more velocity, but the same mechanics and the same repertoire this season for Triple-A Colorado Springs — a place that’s none too kind to pitchers — Brooks compiled a career-best 3.35 ERA, with 28 walks to 74 strikeouts in 99 1/3 innings.
“I was able to figure out why hitters do certain things, and what to look for in certain at-bats and make adjustments, pitch-to-pitch, instead of inning-to-inning, or even being able to make it out of the inning,” Brooks said. “Just being able to make it from pitch to pitch, I think, is huge for a pitcher.”
The A’s liked what Brooks had done in Triple-A, and because of the starting situation, were looking for what Melvin called “incremental upgrades.”
“We feel like this guy can give us something,” Melvin said.
Since he can’t be a part of a playoff roster, Brooks is just looking to show that he can continue to do that at the major league level.
“I don’t know, obviously I’d love to be in the playoffs, if that were to happen, but that can’t happen,” Brooks said. “I think for me, it’s just helping the team win every day, and going from there … Being able to repeat what got me here in 2015 and ’14, being able to stay is always the hope.”