CHARLESTON, WV – Through eight starts, we’ve seen the best and worst of JT Brubaker. Our 30th ranked prospect started the season strong with five runs over four starts, but he has been stuck in a rut for his last four games. On Thursday night, Brubaker suffered through his shortest start of 2016, earning the loss after giving up four runs on seven hits and three walks in four innings. Last night, he gave up three runs in six innings. His ERA has steadily increased to 3.98 from 2.14 in the last four outings.
Brubaker has been plagued by walks and home runs, in particular. He and West Virginia pitching coach Matt Ford have narrowed the problem down to mechanics.
“My arm falls behind,” said Brubaker. “Some pitches [have been] up. It’s my lower half going toward the plate before my hands are ready to go.”
Partially this has to do with Brubaker’s lanky build. He clocks in at 6’4”, 175 pounds. His size and athleticism were what first drew Ford’s attention as Brubaker’s assistant coach at the University of Akron in November 2011. Even as an 18-year-old, Brubaker showcased excellent mobility, poise, and an easy delivery.
Brubaker struggled as a freshman, giving up 3.29 walks per nine innings and finishing the year with a 7.25 ERA. Ford helped him cut his ERA almost in half by the end of his sophomore year, but still, his walk rate was extraordinarily high, averaging 4.68 walks per nine innings. By junior year, his final year in college, Brubaker’s stats looked to be those of a solid prospect: 3.63 ERA, 72 strikeouts, and a walk rate of 3.03.
“I called the game, relayed the signs to the catcher,” said Ford, “so [Brubaker] became comfortable with my style of coaching.”
When Pirates took Brubaker in the sixth round of the 2015 Draft, the pair reunited on the West Virginia Black Bears and changed their focus. In college, winning was everything; in the minors, coaches, including Ford, are looking for development. In that area, Brubaker didn’t disappoint. After allowing fifteen runs in an abysmal five-game stretch to start last season in Morgantown, the big righty allowed a mere eight runs through the final ten games. More surprisingly, Brubaker issued a mere twelve walks in his fifteen games with the Black Bears.
“In Morgantown, I started off rough, but then throughout the season I just stuck with a routine there,” said Brubaker. “I think I found a good routine that works with me.”
Unfortunately, that routine has faltered. This season, Brubaker has had mixed success. He got the call on opening day in Greensboro and excelled in his first four starts, striking out at least six batters per game. The high strikeout totals can be credited to Brubaker’s willingness to work off of his fastball, which sits in the low 90s and tops out at 94. He’s been using a curve with sharp, late action to induce swinging strikeouts. In his first seven games, Brubaker has struck out 43 batters, six shy of his total in fifteen games last year.
“I feel very comfortable throwing [the changeup],” said Brubaker. “It’s getting into the situation and knowing when to throw it too.”
However, Brubaker’s mechanical issues have affected his changeup along with his fastball.
“If the timing is off, the changeup is going to be elevated, or you’re going to cut it, and it will go [the wrong way],” said Brubaker.
The wrong way for Brubaker often lands in the seats. Through eight games, he has allowed seven home runs, many of them mammoth shots deep onto the outfield concourses. This puts him in the lead for most home runs allowed by a Power pitcher this season. He has allowed a 39% ground ball rate, which only adds to the home run problems.
To make matters worse, Brubaker has a habit of compounding his flaws.
“Free passes aren’t good,” Brubaker said, “but if I can get back on it when it does happen, and don’t let it snowball, it will work itself out.”
For now, Brubaker seems optimistic despite his high walk rate and penchant for home runs. Until he finds his release point and learns to keep the ball low in the zone, his struggles will continue. He’s got the potential to be a starter in the Majors one day, but will need to spend most of the current year in West Virginia working on his current mechanical issues before that becomes close to being a reality.