INDIANAPOLIS – It seems like every left-handed pitching prospect gets compared to Tom Glavine at some point in time. It seems like it’s rare to find a left-hander with velocity, so when a left-hander who doesn’t have velocity starts posting good numbers, the Glavine comparisons come into play.
The comparison generally comes about as a counter to a mention that the specific left-hander doesn’t have a high upside due to his lack of stuff. Enter Glavine, who had some velocity early in his career, but who gradually lost his velocity and still remained a top pitcher due to his command and ability to mix up his pitches effectively. If Glavine could be a top of the rotation guy without a big fastball, then why can’t any left-hander do the same?
The problem with this line of thinking is that you can’t just put left-handed pitchers in one of two groups — hard throwers or potential Tom Glavine’s. The Glavine approach may not work for some pitchers, and may actually be a detriment. That is an issue that Steven Brault is finding out this year.
Brault is a lefty who largely relies on commanding his pitches, mixing up his offerings, and adding some deception with his delivery. He does have some velocity to his fastball, getting it up to 94-95 MPH. However, going with the power pitcher approach isn’t in his best interest.
At the same time, when he tries to get too fine, working around the edges of the plate and trying to be a finesse pitcher, he can also get thrown off his game. The key to success for Brault is finding something in that middle ground, between being a power pitcher and being a finesse guy. His manager in Indianapolis, Andy Barkett, had another way to describe how Brault’s approach should be.
“I don’t want him to be Tom Glavine,” Barkett said. “I don’t think he profiles as a Tom Glavine. I’m not exactly sure who you’d take him and compare him to. I don’t think he’s at a state where he needs to be a perfect control pitcher. He’s got too much life on the ball. Good enough life on the ball that he can attack the strike zone a little bit more and pitch to contact and get weak contact with the stuff he has, instead of trying to be nibble-nibble strikeout pitcher, a lull you to sleep kind of guy, not an attack kind of guy.”
Barkett said that one of the problems this year for Brault, from a command standpoint, is that when he tries to have better command, he ends up taking away from one of his strengths of being able to attack the hitter. This past week I saw Brault pitch one of his best outings of the year, in a start where Barkett described him as “pitching with his hair on fire.”
“He can pitch like that, with some reckless abandon. He’s much better when he does that,” Barkett said. “It’s a misconception that he’s got to have better command. Yes he does, but if he tries to be a command pitcher, that takes away from his strengths, which is to pitch with his hair on fire like he did tonight. When he does that, he’s got better life on the ball. He doesn’t have to be as fine, he’s just got to get ground ball outs.
In that start, Brault mixed both approaches well. The game plan with Elias Diaz was to pound the zone with sinkers and attack the opposing hitters early. If they could get through the first few innings quickly, that would allow them more leeway later in the game. So they attacked the lineup the first time through, and then mixed in more off-speed the second time. This avoided a common problem for Brault where he gets to two strikes and can’t put hitters away, while racking up a large pitch count.
“That was the plan going in, and Diaz and I worked really well together, executed well,” Brault said after that start. “Those innings where we can get ground balls instead of eight-pitch pop outs, that’s what we want.”
Of course, attacking the zone with your fastball to get ahead, and then mixing in off-speed stuff when hitters are hunting fastballs isn’t a new approach. It’s a pretty standard approach. The key is getting Brault to trust that his sinker can be effective every night when attacking the zone, rather than when he’s living on the edges of the plate. And a big part of that key is to stick with the approach, even when there are signs of trouble. Barkett has been telling Brault this all year, and the approach was trusted that night.
“Andy’s great at being the honest dad,” Brault said. “He’s the kind of guy that brings you in and just says ‘this is what you’re doing wrong and this is how you fix it, and you need to fix it now.’ That was one of the things we talked about. You’re out there, doing fine, and you get in a little bit of a jam and it breaks. He just wanted to make sure that we’re getting away from that stuff. He’s awesome and I love him as a manager. We’re having a lot of fun here, and that’s what he wants. He wants us to have fun. We started off a little slow, but now things are picking up.”
Brault was a depth option for the Pirates in the second half last year, making seven starts at the big league level. He remains one of the top depth options this year, but is currently behind his good friend Trevor Williams, who stepped into the rotation to replace Jameson Taillon.
“It’s awesome. Trevor is an awesome pitcher. He had a great spring,” Brault said. “He’s a good dude. He’s one of my best friends. I’m excited for him, and I think he’s going to be awesome in that role.”
That said, Brault wants to get back to the majors. As he puts it: “Nobody plays Triple-A baseball to play Triple-A baseball. We’re trying to make the big leagues and stay.” He’s got the stuff to make it to the big leagues, and he could do a better job than he did last year (4.77 xFIP) if he is able to attack hitters and command his pitches better.
“He showed tonight that he can pitch there,” Barkett said after his start last week. “He showed tonight that he can improve on things he needs to improve on. We got a good lead early. They’ve had some good leads early in the season and weren’t able to pitch through them. Tonight, to see him take that and run with it was really fun to watch, especially getting 11 balls on the ground like that. And then we didn’t catch the ball for him or didn’t make some plays. He took a step in the right direction towards the front of the line for that next start in the big leagues. It will be up to the powers that be to decide on that.”
Brault followed up that start with another outing where he allowed one run on two hits in six innings, striking out six and getting eight ground outs, albeit with three walks. If he continues this run, then he’ll be an easy choice for the Pirates if or when they need another starter.