Brandon Cumpton: From Early Season Disaster to Great MLB Depth

If you would have told me during the first week of the 2013 season that Brandon Cumpton would have played an important depth role with the Pittsburgh Pirates, I would have thought:

1. The Pirates were going to have a disaster of a year.

or

2. You were crazy.

Cumpton had a horrible start to the 2013 season. He gave up eight earned runs in 9.2 innings of work in his first two starts in Altoona, and all of this despite returning to the level after a successful 2012 season. The Pirates promoted Cumpton to Triple-A after those two starts, but the promotion was mostly out of need. Phil Irwin had just been promoted to the majors, and Kyle McPherson went down with an injury for Indianapolis, which provided a need for additional starters in Triple-A. Cumpton had two more rough starts, giving up seven earned runs in 11.1 innings.

After that, something clicked and he started to cruise. By the end of the year, Cumpton was pitching in the majors, putting up a 2.05 ERA in 30.2 innings, including five key starts throughout the year at the major league level.

“I was trying to overthrow a little bit, and do things I don’t normally do,” Cumpton said on his slow start to the year. “I was trying to overthrow and strike out guys, and that’s not usually my game.”

Cumpton throws a low 90s four seam fastball, which gets a lot of sink and generates a lot of ground balls. He added a slider last year, switching from a curveball he had prior to the 2013 season. Cumpton has plans to bring the curveball back as a “show-me” pitch, although the slider will still be his go-to breaking pitch.

“I’m not a guy who throws hard, so I need every little advantage I can have,” Cumpton said. “If it somehow clicks with me, and I have a really good curveball, then that’s just something else to add to my repertoire to help me out.”

WATCH: Brandon Cumpton throwing a bullpen

Needless to say, trying to be a hard thrower who strikes out guys is getting away from what has brought Cumpton success. He’s a pitch to contact guy who does get some strikeouts, but mostly has success due to pounding the strike zone with great command, and generating easy ground balls. For a lot of young players, there might be the temptation to make these types of changes upon arrival to the majors. Cumpton received important advice from closer Jason Grilli once he arrived, which allowed him to avoid this temptation.

“Just stick to your game,” Grilli told Cumpton. “You got called up for a reason. Whatever you do, do it here. If you don’t strike out a lot of guys, don’t try to strike out guys here. Pitch to contact, get ahead.”

That’s exactly what Cumpton did. He threw his fastball 66% of the time, which was the second highest percentage of all starters on the team, behind only Charlie Morton. He threw 49% of his pitches in the strike zone, which was higher than the 44.7% league average. He got a first pitch strike 62.1% of the time, which was slightly higher than the 60.3% league average. He generated more swings, and much more contact than the league averages. And he got a ton of ground balls, with a 54.3% ground ball rate.

If you’re telling me at the start of this year that Brandon Cumpton could play an important depth role with the Pirates, I’d believe you. I don’t think Cumpton is as good as his 2.05 ERA last year, but I do think he’s got the talent to be a legit back of the rotation starter in the majors. He will be the number six or seven starter on the depth chart, working out of Indianapolis to start the year. If the Pirates run into rotation troubles again, Cumpton will be a great guy they can turn to.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • https://profiles.google.com/113824087346904673399 NHPirateFan

    The Indy rotation will be more fun than it has been at anytime I can remember. Cumpton, Irwin, Taillion, Kingham, Sadler & Locke. Any of them can be the next guy up. Kingham may start at Altoona, but should spend the bulk of the year in Indy.

    • michaelbro8

      You’re absolutely right. And the cool thing is, the Altoona, Bradenton (etc) rotations look pretty good too. So fun to see after so many years of a barren farm system !

  • Buccoinohio

    Tim, Just wanted to say how much I appreciate your site. I have been following it for awhile. I finally got around to registering so that I could comment. I also received my copy of Pirates Prospects several weeks ago. It is awesome. As a Pirates fan for about 50 years, it is great so see them end their 20 year drought. Keep up the good work!

  • piraddict

    Great to see the statistics that support Cumpton’s willingness to place the ball in the strike zone, especially early in the count. That’s what lead to his success. If Locke would adopt the same philosophy, instead of being too cute around the corners early in the count he would see better success as well.

    • deacs

      Yeah I don’t know if that’s intentional or not but it does appear that Locke tries to be too perfect on those corners.

  • Y2JGQ2

    agreed

  • Y2JGQ2

    although Cumpton is a different kind of pitcher…..if Locke throws the same pitches that Cumpton does…Cumpton will be relieving Locke a lot in the 4th inning

  • https://www.facebook.com/bruce.humbert Bruce Humbert

    I am trying to find some data/info on pitchers who performed better in the majors than they did in the minors – I suspect there are more than a few – last year I thought Cumpton might be one of these guys – and could be a very serviceable #4 or #5 starter…

    What is going on with Jeff Karstens – I have not seen any news lately on him – heard a rumor he was at Pirate City

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: One of the reasons I opposed the Morton extension was because I saw Cumpton as the 2nd coming of Charlie Morton only 5 years younger, and under control for 6 years. He works the 2 seam at 91+ and CM throws it at 92+, CM throws a Curve at around 83 and Cumpton throws a Slider at around the same mph. They both throw a changeup, but Cumpton has been throwing it more often than CM. The big difference is the MLB experience, and the fact that CM can reach back for the 95 mph 4 seamer. I have come around to appreciate the extension as a good baseball move, and I look forward to CM being ready to shoulder a lot more responsibility this year in the Rotation. If he pitches the 2014 season like he did the last half of 2013, the extension will be very worthwhile, and we will have found a rock-solid building block for 2015. I think Cumpton has 2 options left, and will only be in his age 25 season, so it looks like AAA to start the season, and we will see where it goes from there.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116269181038744632419 Shawn Inlow

    Yeah. What IS going on with J. Karstens? I’ve lost track of that guy. Long term injury?

    What?

    -Wabbit

  • https://profiles.google.com/116899082423235635777 Monsoon Harvard

    I just read somewhere that Karstens is training in Bradenton but not signed. He had surgery last season. He is supposed to throw for scouts on a set date in the coming weeks in an effort to get signed by a team.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116899082423235635777 Monsoon Harvard

    I was surprised that some team in need of starting pitching did not approach the Pirates about Cumpton this winter after the great major league numbers he put up, especially doing it in the pressure of a pennant race.

    • emjayinTN

      MH: He is sort of the type of pitcher you hope to steal, because he has too much in front of him to get a full-season chance. Other teams will not make an overture to NH to try to get him specifically, but will wait and hope to pick him up on waivers, or as a part of a trade where they can steal him as an add-on. It is sort of like us trying to find a 1B who is blocked from upward mobility. If we go after a guy like Matt Skole, 3B/1B of the Nationals, all of a sudden his price goes up. If we wait to the end of ST, he may be available cheaper (not sure of the number of options remaining) if we have something the Nats want. The same applies to Dan Vogelbach of the Cubs, Max Muncy of the Athletics, or Greg Bird of the Yankees. The club that initiates the deal usually pays a premium.