PITTSBURGH — After Nick Kingham’s stunning MLB debut Sunday afternoon, it seems the Pirates’ bullpen will once again feature two young pitchers who have trained as starters.
Not that Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault are in positions to get comfortable anyway.
Both are still trying to prove themselves as viable pitchers at this level, with Glasnow getting seven low-leverage appearances in relief so far, and Brault making five starts before the Pirates announced Kingham will stay with the team.
The continuing acclimation process for Glasnow (24 years old) and Brault (26) necessarily includes adjustments of several varieties, whether they be tangible or intangible.
Sometimes, those changes are easy for laypeople to understand, like when Glasnow decided to start throwing a brand-new slider during Friday’s excellent three-inning shutdown of the Cardinals at PNC Park.
“It’s just been easier for me to throw for strikes,” Glasnow said. “I’ve been playing with it in my throwing sessions and off the mound. It’s a breaking pitch that I can throw for a strike, a lot easier than a curveball, so I have two pitches for ‘put away.’ ”
Glasnow said his addition of a fourth pitch was inspired by his revamped mechanics, which have had the side effect of putting more glove-side cut on his high-90s fastball. (A particularly unfair 99-mph offering to Jedd Gyorko on Friday broke the entire width of home plate.)
While Glasnow’s curveball is still sharp, he said he finds the release of the slider easier to execute in the same manner as his fastball. After toying with a slider grip a bit last year, he began throwing it last week in side sessions and during bullpen work, to the point that pitching coaches Ray Searage and Justin Meccage took notice and asked him to try it in a game.
Pitch-tracking technology registered the six sliders Glasnow threw Friday as curveballs, but let it be known to MLB Advanced Media that he’s likely to fire off more sliders in the future.
“It just kinda goes down,” Glasnow said, describing the slider’s curveball-like break. “It has really late movement and spins the same as my fastball. … I think I’m going to stick with it. Changeup has been really hard for me and getting ‘on the side’ of pitches has been really easy for me.”
His manager seemed more impressed with how quickly Glasnow got the job done than anything else. Glasnow worked through three innings in 33 pitches, including six hitters retired in three pitches or fewer. Two outings ago, Glasnow was similarly effective, but needed 38 pitches to get through two innings.
“Efficient work, pitch count was down, throwing strikes,” Hurdle remarked late Friday. “Really good. Good stuff.”
However, the reason Glasnow was even called upon Friday was due to Brault’s letdown earlier. For the first time in five starts, the left-hander failed to go five innings, with the Cardinals chasing him after 4 2/3 and five runs across.
The quality of contact for St. Louis was such that Hurdle made the rare move of pulling the plug after an out, when Yadier Molina scorched a liner to third baseman Colin Moran.
“There were some balls that were hit extremely hard,” Hurdle said, also noting Gyorko’s third-inning homer. “The last out with Molina, you give up five runs and you line out to third … (Brault) didn’t let the game get completely away, but it wasn’t his best stuff.”
Speaking of stuff, Brault’s is nowhere near the quality of Glasnow’s, but he worked with enough variety in Friday’s first two innings — using changeups and sliders to keep hitters off his average fastball — to retire the first six Cardinals he faced.
Brault said afterward that he was pleased with the first two innings. Maybe too pleased.
“I think I got a little too comfortable,” he said. “Kinda took my foot off the gas. Something that can’t happen, obviously. Felt pretty good in the first two innings. Learn something from every start. This start, I learned that no matter how it’s going, I need to have the same effort level, the same everything the whole way through.”
With Brault likely headed back to the bullpen this week, the issue of what to do after two effective innings might not come up again. Still, he’s concerned enough about his lapse in focus to label that as his chief takeaway from the opening month of 2018.
He described how an intangible mental approach affects his tangible results.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to spot up every pitch, that’s just not what I do, but I need to be able to have better command,” Brault said. “For me, I have better command when I just rear back and let it go. If I take my foot off the gas a little bit, kinda get relaxed, then I have trouble with that.”
For Glasnow and Brault, there’s plenty to keep their minds occupied. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see either sent back to Triple-A at some point this season, whether for performance issues or to get them more regular work.
Then there’s the psychological side of things. Both men mentioned how much it has irked them to walk back into a quiet clubhouse after a loss, knowing they didn’t help the Pirates’ cause.
“You come into the clubhouse after a bad game and you sit around … ” Glasnow said, trailing off before continuing. “We’re not in a good spot, we’re not winning a lot, and I’m not contributing to the team. This year, I’m in a better position to contribute to the team.”
At the moment, Glasnow’s stock seems higher than Brault’s, and not because the big righty’s ERA (4.70) is slightly better than his counterpart’s (4.97). As Friday’s comeback win showed, an effective ‘mop-up’ stint out of the bullpen is superior to a struggling start in terms of building confidence.
“I think you just treat every inning the same,” Glasnow said. “The only difference is the pressure you put on yourself.”