Billy Butler remembers the day last year when Aaron Brooks made his first major-league start, summoned by the Kansas City Royals on short notice to pitch in place of injured Yordano Ventura on the road against the Blue Jays.
“He got to Toronto,” said Butler, the Royals’ designated hitter at the time, “and they didn’t even have his cleats.”
In fact, Brooks recalled this week, he got the call from the Royals while on the road with Triple-A Omaha and didn’t have his blue cleats with him. He didn’t have his passport either – his family had to overnight it to him from California. The morning of his May 31 start, Brooks bought a pair of cleats at a sporting goods store in Toronto, where he said they cost “like $160.”
It all happened so fast, Brooks said, that he hardly remembers the game. Granted, he wasn’t on the mound for long. Brooks faced 11 batters, allowed seven runs, recorded two outs and was removed in the first inning. The next morning, he was on a plane back to Triple A.
“I knew it was obviously a letdown, as far as my first major-league start goes,” Brooks said. “But I knew it wasn’t going to be the last one. I just had to continue to work from there – have that be my ‘welcome back to Earth’ type of moment, and keep on working.”
7 Runs allowed by Aaron Brooks in 2/3 of an inning in his first major-league start last season for Kansas City
Next week, Brooks will return to Toronto with a different team, in a different situation, and his cleats – white this time – should be waiting for him. In two starts since being acquired by the A’s in the trade that sent outfielder Ben Zobrist to Kansas City, Brooks has impressed enough to earn a spot in the Oakland rotation.
Of the five players the A’s received in their trades of Zobrist, Scott Kazmir and Tyler Clippard before the July 31 deadline, the 25-year-old Brooks was the only one advanced enough in his previous organization to potentially help Oakland immediately. Still, the A’s were unsure what to expect from Brooks, whose big-league experience amounted to four outings for the Royals, three in relief.
Brooks’ debut for the A’s on Aug. 1 amounted to an audition – Oakland had the option of sending Brooks back to Triple A and using Felix Doubront as a fifth starter – but Brooks nailed it, pitching into the eighth inning of a 5-1 victory over the Indians to earn his first major-league win. He followed that by allowing one run in seven innings against the Astros in an extra-inning loss on Thursday.
“We’ve liked what we’ve seen so far,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said Saturday. “Two really good starts for us, getting deep into games, pitch count controllable. All good.”
1 Run allowed by Brooks in seven-plus innings in his first start for Oakland
Brooks was drafted by the Royals out of Cal State San Bernardino in the ninth round in 2011 and rose quickly through their system, earning Omaha’s Pitcher of the Year honors last season by going 12-3 with a 3.88 ERA. But Kansas City didn’t have room for Brooks in the major-league rotation, and amid sporadic call-ups over the past two seasons, Brooks felt he “never actually was able to show my identity, or show I could make adjustments along the way.”
Being traded initially surprised Brooks, but he said he’s “thankful” to Kansas City for dealing him to a team with an immediate major-league opportunity.
“To come in here and have (the A’s) show confidence in me,” he said, “being able to take that and feel like I’m part of the club is huge for me.”
A’s pitching coach Curt Young said he knew little of Brooks before his arrival but has been impressed by his pitching style. The right-hander throws a fastball in the 91- to 93-mph range, a changeup that he considers his best secondary pitch, a slider and a curveball, and has shown the ability to throw off-speed pitches for strikes both early in counts and after falling behind.
“I’d say if I’m a hitter facing him, I really have no idea what’s coming,” Young said. “He has that type of mix and will throw any pitch at any time.”
In the minors, Brooks’ strikeout-to-walk ratio was nearly 5-to-1, and he has justified his reputation as a strike thrower by issuing one walk with 12 strikeouts in 141/3 innings for the A’s. Young said Brooks, at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, has “almost a perfect pitcher’s body – he’s got some height to him, some strength, looks like he’s flexible. I just felt like he was waiting for this opportunity, and he’s going to do his best with it.”
One thing Brooks does remember about his first major-league start is the sound as he walked off the mound in the first inning: Blue Jays fans clapping “because I gave them so many runs.” He spent the rest of that night at the Royals’ hotel, talking to family over the phone.
It was a markedly different scene in his A’s debut last weekend, as Brooks left the field in the eighth inning to a standing ovation from the crowd at O.co Coliseum – sincere this time – with family and friends forming a loud pocket in the stands. Afterward, Brooks said, they all went out to dinner and “reflected, celebrated a little bit,” the circumstances so different now as he prepares to return to Toronto, where he is scheduled to start for the A’s on Wednesday.
“I try not to think about it,” Brooks said. “I’m sure once I get there it’ll be a little bit of a reminder. But I think it’s going to be big for me, just being comfortable with the guys I’m around right now, and not even having to worry about what happened the last time I was there.”