BRADENTON, Fla. – Steven Brault looks like he will be pitching out of the Pirates’ bullpen this year.
That was obvious from the start of camp, when Clint Hurdle revealed two things. First was that the rotation was basically set with the four returning starters, plus Joe Musgrove. The second reveal was that the Pirates felt that Brault and Tyler Glasnow would be better suited in the majors in some role, rather than going back to Triple-A for another season. Obviously any player would agree with a placement in the majors, rather than Triple-A. But Brault felt it was the right move for the sole purpose of advancing his career.
“I won’t say I couldn’t learn any more in Triple-A, because you can,” Brault said. “But I could never learn how to get big league hitters out specifically [while in Triple-A]. That’s what I really want to work on, and the only way to do that is to face big league hitters.”
That seems to be the plan for the Pirates, to get Brault and Glasnow adjusted to the majors, no matter the role. If everyone stays healthy during Spring Training, then Brault would be ticketed for the bullpen to get that experience. But for now, he’ll get extended innings, which could help keep him as a starting option, or serve his ultimate role in the pen.
“If a move to the bullpen happens, then we’ll be able to get some bullpen appearances later in the spring,” Brault said. “But for now, it’s getting built up, because even if I was in the bullpen, I would be a long guy.”
Brault’s friend and podcast partner, Trevor Williams, was in a similar situation last year. He was battling for the fifth starter role through the end of Spring Training, and was placed in the bullpen as a long reliever as the backup plan. Because he was stretched out, he was able to provide the Pirates with early season rotation depth. That allowed him the opportunity to stick in the rotation.
For Brault to do the same thing, it will require more than opportunity. He’s shown a good ability to put up numbers in Triple-A, with a combination of a high strikeout total and a low walk total. It has been the opposite in the big leagues, with his strikeouts down, and his walks up. He improved the walks last year, but saw the strikeouts take a further dip.
“I think a big part of it is understanding the difference between big league hitters and minor league hitters,” Brault said of those struggles. “One of the big differences is that those guys really stay in their approach really well. With a minor leaguer, it’s easier to get them to think something else. In the big leagues, a lot of it is just I need to be able to consistently throw my pitches, so I can get them to think one way for a while. And then I can go against it.”
One thing that could help Brault to switch up his approach in the big leagues is an improved changeup. That was his biggest focus this offseason, after he realized that the changeup “is a little bit more effective in the big leagues than the minor leagues.” He’s had to work on getting comfortable with the pitch, and it all came down to his mentality with throwing it, aiming to try and match the same arm speed as his fastball.
“I throw it like a splitter now, where I try to focus on putting my hand on top of the ball and pulling it down,” Brault said. “I don’t even think I actually do it, but in my head I think that way. I think it just helps me keep my head on top of the ball, so I get less sprays out to the left-hander’s batter’s box and more downward movement.”
An improved changeup could help him in a multi-inning role, or if he eventually gets back to the rotation. If that can help him figure out a way to bring his Triple-A results to the majors, with the same control and better strikeout numbers, then he could have a chance at sticking, even in a bullpen role. I don’t see Brault as being a big strikeout guy, due to the lack of a strong breaking pitch, but he doesn’t need to strike out a batter an inning to be able to stick as a multi-inning reliever or a starter (as we saw with Williams last year).
Brault will get his shot at the majors this year, most likely in the bullpen as a long reliever. That will give him a chance to ease in and show whether he can stick for the long-term.