GLENDALE, Ariz. – Monday afternoon I was out on the field before that evening’s Arizona Fall League game, watching Austin Meadows taking batting practice. At one point he launched a ball to left-center field. It was nothing more than a high fly ball that would have been a routine out for a center fielder in normal position. On this day, there wasn’t a player in center field shagging fly balls. Instead, a player in the left-center gap ranged far to deep center, and made the catch.
It was a scene that would seem to be pretty uneventful. A player ran a perfect route to track down a fly ball, ranging a long way in the process, and making the catch look routine. It’s what you’d expect from any good outfielder with a good amount of range.
The only thing was, this wasn’t an outfielder. It was Pirates’ left-handed pitching prospect Steven Brault.
It also wasn’t a one time thing. Brault ranged far for several catches, and if you didn’t know who he was, you’d assume he was an outfielder with his speed, range, and the way he ran a perfect route to each ball.
“There weren’t many of us in the outfield today, so Eppler and I got in an extra workout running down fly balls,” Brault joked.
The scene wasn’t a total surprise. Brault might be the most athletic pitcher in the system. He was a two-way player in college, and that drew the attention of the Pirates. They didn’t get a chance to draft him, but ended up landing him in the Travis Snider trade at the start of Spring Training 2015.
“I like to pretend it’s still there,” Brault said of his two-way ability.
Don’t worry, Steven. It’s still there. And it’s not just the athleticism on the field. Brault got a chance to bat this year for the first time in his pro career once he jumped to Altoona, and went 7-for-16 at the plate, with some well hit balls. As a former two-way player, Brault loved the chance to get back in the batter’s box.
“When you’re little, what do you do really? You go hit,” Brault said. “Pitching is awesome, but hitting is so much fun. So that was cool to be able to get back in the box this year.”
A guy with good range in the outfield and good results in a small sample size at the plate. That’s not usually what you get from a pitcher. But pitching is clearly Brault’s bread and butter. He had a breakout season with the Pirates, putting up a 3.02 ERA in 65.2 innings in Bradenton, followed by a 2.00 ERA in 90 innings with Altoona. He has since been sent to the AFL to continue his work against upper level guys.
We’ve written a lot this year about what leads to Brault’s success. Starting in Spring Training, I noticed that his two-seam fastball really stood out. It didn’t have the best velocity, but had a lot of movement. He threw the pitch at the knees, and it had late cutting action that caused it to drop out of the zone at the last minute. Combined with some sideways movement, it was a difficult pitch to hit, and led to a 49% ground ball rate, along with great results despite a lack of great stuff.
Brault continued this success in Altoona, which is always a challenge for a lefty who doesn’t rely on stuff. In order to have success in the upper levels with this approach, you need great command of your pitches, and some pretty good movement. It was a bit of a rough start though, as Brault put up a 4.74 ERA in 24.2 innings after the promotion, with 27 strikeouts.
“When he got there, he wanted everything to be an out pitch,” Pitching Coach Justin Meccage said. “And sometimes he didn’t have efficiency because of that. Five innings, 85 pitches.”
The Pirates wanted contact early, and allowed Brault to go for the swing and miss with two strikes. He eventually started having success with this approach, posting an 0.96 ERA in 65.1 innings over his final ten starts, along with 53 strikeouts. The strikeout numbers went down, but the overall numbers were tremendously better.
But Brault isn’t going to be fully relying on the control, command, and movement approach going forward. The Pirates had him working on some mechanical changes in Altoona, hoping to tap into some of that athleticism and generate more power. The focus is staying back and incorporating his lower half in his delivery more.
“Getting into my legs a little bit more,” Brault said, explaining the specific focus. “Letting that get me a little bit more power. It’s worked for me. Who doesn’t like a little more velocity? Just trying to be able to keep my mechanics all together and stay fluid. It takes a lot of effort off my arm, and it feels good.”
Brault has put a big focus on his four seam fastball in the AFL, despite the two-seamer being his best pitch during the year. His goal is to be able to spot the ball where he wants on either side of the plate. As for the power, it’s starting to work out a bit, as he’s been flashing 93 MPH a few times in the AFL, which is something he didn’t show much during the season. Overall, the Pirates want him focused on improving that pitch, as it makes it so important for his chances as a starter.
“His bread and butter, from our perspective, is in on right-handed hitters, so that he can use [his] changeup,” Meccage said. “When he does that, he has a ton of success. And he can use the two-seam on the outer half. He’s going to have some success against left-handed hitters, just because he’s across his body and there’s some deception there. But right-handed hitters, it’s real important that he’s able to pitch in, and it’s a lot easier to pitch in on right-handers with a four seam.”
Along with improving the four seam fastball, Brault has been focused on finding a breaking pitch that he can use for outs. He threw a curveball and a slider, but neither pitch was good enough as an out pitch. Rather than continuing with both of them, he focused on improving the slider going forward.
“I think the biggest focus is getting a consistent feel for it,” Brault said. “Sometimes it feels different coming out of the hand. I know what it’s going to do when I throw it. So that’s what I’m looking for, consistent movement. A consistent break that I know where to throw exactly.”
Brault still has some work to do to be able to drop the slider in for strikes. Just like the four seam, he’s been using the pitch a lot in the AFL. He also has been focusing heavily on improving the changeup since going to Altoona, and started showing improvements with the way he would throw the pitch.
“We played a lot more catch with [it] in our throwing program,” Meccage said. “The arm speed got better. He would manipulate it at times, and slow down at times, so that got better.”
The goal for Brault is to have three pitches that he can throw for strikes when he wants. He’s not far off from that goal. What makes things even more difficult for opposing hitters is his deception. Meccage relayed a story from an opponent that went up against Brault, explaining how his deception worked for him.
“I talked to a hitter on the team the other day, they said they don’t see the ball,” Meccage said. “It comes out of his hand harder than 88-92, 93. The perception is harder than it looks.”
Brault’s profile heading into the year — sinker, low velocity, relying on movement and deception, and not great secondary stuff — had the profile of a back of the rotation starter, and a number four at best. But the improvements he’s working on this off-season could take him to a new level.
“I think he could be better than a four, if that velocity keeps creeping up, and those secondary pitches continue to get more consistent,” Meccage said. “The other thing about him, he’s very competitive. He’s very motivated. He wants it. It’s half the battle sometimes.”
This is all a massive leap from where Brault was this time last year. He was coming off a year where he spent most of the time in Low-A, putting up good numbers, but too old for the league to be considered a top prospect. It seems like a breakout performance to everyone else, but it’s something Brault expected of himself.
“It’s huge and it’s cool and it’s fun,” Brault said. “But really for me, I knew where I came from. I knew I was going to have to prove [myself]. I know I went to a small Division II school in Denver. It wasn’t anything I was surprised by. I knew I could do it. I’m still not happy with where I am. I’m never going to be happy with where I am. Keep pushing, trying to get better, and trying to keep proving that I deserve to be the guy that moves up.”
The big question going into the 2016 season is whether Brault will make the jump to Indianapolis. I asked Neal Huntington about this in September, and he said that Brault could be the exception to the normal trend of having pitchers throw a full season’s worth of innings in Altoona before such a promotion. As for Meccage, who has been coaching him in Altoona and here in Arizona, the decision is clear.
“I think his Double-A season has prepared him, and this has helped him to understand what he needs to do in Triple-A,” Meccage said. “I don’t know what the rosters look like, but I think he’s prepared to go there. If not, at some point next year.”
Obviously the big factor is whether there will be a spot open. Brault could be held back if the Pirates decide to go with a veteran starter in Indianapolis for immediate depth. But he should make it up to Triple-A at some point during the season.
“I’m going to go out there wherever they put me, and I’m going to do my best to prove I deserve to be at the next level,” Brault said.
When he first came into the system, I didn’t think Brault was anything more than a future depth starter. He really surprised me this year with his deception and his movement, and that led me to think he could make it as a back of the rotation starter. The changes he’s been working on this off-season could take him beyond that level. And when he eventually does make the majors, I think he could provide some hidden value with his athleticism and hitting skills, with some value at the plate and strong fielding skills that will only help his efficiency with his strong ground ball rate. Right now I’d say he’s a future number four, with the chance to improve to a number three, and some added value with his athleticism.