GLENDALE, Ariz. – JT Brubaker wasn’t your typical projectable right-handed pitching prospect out of the draft.
He had the typical frame and potential to add velocity. He was tall, skinny, and while he mostly sat 91-93 MPH, he hit the mid-90s. Still, most projectable guys with dreams of a velocity increase come from the high school ranks. The idea is that they would grow into their bodies in their age 18-21 years, adding velocity in college. If you could sign them early, you could see that increase in the system.
This has worked for the Pirates with several prospects, including Mitch Keller, Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Clay Holmes, to name a few. But Brubaker was different, since he came from the college ranks. Still, the theory of adding velocity as a guy gets older isn’t an exact science, and isn’t limited to a certain age range.
That became obvious in this case when Brubaker started hitting 99 MPH this year, and sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball.
The velocity increase for Brubaker came late in the year in Altoona. It wasn’t as much of a result from adding weight to his frame. In fact, Brubaker said he wasn’t sure what he was doing different to see the increase. But pitching coordinator Justin Meccage had a few theories.
“He’s a little bit more athletic in his delivery, but I think the biggest part is his mentality,” Meccage said. “It’s in there. It’s just bringing it out a little bit more consistency. We challenged him on a daily basis that he needs to pitch every inning like it’s the 9th inning. That’s what I think contributed to that. A little bump in velocity, and the stuff played up a bit better.”
Brubaker was a starter in Altoona, but has pitched in relief in the AFL. He has continued with the higher velocity, sitting 95-97 and hitting 99. That impressed Matt Zaleski, his AFL pitching coach.
“Really impressive,” Zaleski said of Brubaker’s fastball. “He creates good angle from his higher arm slot. Has some tail sink to it. Changes speeds. He’s got four pitches he can throw in the zone. Talked with Justin and him about getting inside more. Not necessarily in for strikes, because he can do that already. It’s more in for effect. He’s showing some progress with that.”
As Zaleski noted, the Pirates sent Brubaker to the AFL with the focus of pitching inside more often. This isn’t the traditional form of pitching inside by throwing strikes all over the zone. Brubaker was already doing that. This is the form of pitching inside and getting aggressive, pushing opposing hitters off the plate. The belief is that Brubaker won’t be as easy to hit if he starts getting aggressive with his stuff, rather than just pounding the zone for strikes.
“I just think the level never told him he had to do those type of things,” Meccage said about the approach and Brubaker’s previous results. “And now the better hitters are telling him you can’t just throw the ball down the middle with a little bit of sink. Now they’re forcing him to make pitches, and they’re making him pay for the pitches he doesn’t make.”
The Pirates worked with Brubaker on this approach during the Fall Instructional League, then had him carry over the work to the AFL with Zaleski, where the discussions have also been about the approach on the mound.
“Talked with him a little bit about analyzing hitters,” Zaleski said. “He likes to see what the hitters do, and he wants to see what he should see in an in-game reaction. That comes with years of playing. I don’t expect him to notice ‘There’s where his hole is’ after he swings at one. He’s definitely like all the guys, willing to learn, and they’re very receptive. It’s awesome.”
The added velocity is flashy, but Brubaker will need this new aggressive approach to make it work. He was previously a guy who just pitched to contact with a 91-93 MPH sinker, pounding the strike zone the whole time. The velocity now comes mostly from the four seam fastball, although the sinker is still there to get ground balls, and Brubaker said that he’s still looking for those results.
The other pitches have seen some improvements in Meccage’s view.
“His sinker has good sink to it,” Meccage said. “His slider is actually a bit sharper and later. His changeup, when he’s doing things right, it has really good sink.”
Brubaker is one of many pitching prospects who will be competing for a rotation spot in Indianapolis at the start of the 2018 season. Coming into the 2017 season, we had his upside as a future back of the rotation starter or bullpen guy. The added velocity and a more aggressive approach will definitely help him get an inside track for a rotation spot in Indianapolis, and could help him realize his upside as a starter in the big leagues, with a chance to exceed previous expectations.