PITTSBURGH — Steven Brault is a pitcher, of that much, he’s fairly certain.
Yes, he’s hitting a very un-pitcher-like .273 this season that not only leads the Pirates pitching staff, but is ahead of eight position players.
But Brault is definitely a pitcher. What’s more of an open question is what kind of pitcher he’s going to be.
Brault came up in first the Baltimore Orioles and then the Pittsburgh Pirates system as a starting pitcher and was a fairly successful one. In 2015 at Double-A Altoona, he had a 2.00 ERA with a 2.37 FIP. In 2016, he struggled with the initial adjustment to Triple-A, but in 2017 again put up sterling numbers with a 1.94 ERA and 3.29 FIP.
In the meantime, he made 19 major league appearances before the start of this season, with 11 of them as a starter and eight of them in long relief. He’s split his efforts between those roles again this season, starting five times and appearing as a reliever six times.
The Pirates aren’t trying to make Brault into a reliever. Instead, they just feel that he has little more to learn at Triple-A and can both get acclimated the to the majors and help the team win games by coming out of the bullpen. It seemingly worked with Trevor Williams, who started out in the bullpen last season before becoming a regular member of the starting rotation.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that this is the best way to continue to develop them at the most competitive level,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said this week. “They’ve done what they’ve done at Triple-A. There’s no more awards or trophies that need to be accumulated.”
So far, though, Brault has had far more success in the bullpen than he’s had in the starting rotation this season. In 26 innings pitched as a starter, he has a 5.54 ERA and a 5.34 FIP. In 10.2 innings of relief, he has a 1.69 ERA and a 1.27 FIP.
As a starter, Brault still looks like he hasn’t fully adjusted to the level. Both his 12.5 percent walk rate and 13.4 percent strikeout rate are big jumps in the wrong direction from his minor-league numbers. In 2017 in Triple-A, he walked 9.2 percent of hitters and struck out 22.7 percent.
The biggest difference between his starting numbers and relief numbers seems to be that when Brault is starting, he’s facing fewer lefties. With the right-handers representing the rest of the Pirates starting options, when Brault comes into the game out of the bullpen, he’s frequently facing lineups that are stacked with left-handed hitters.
That seems to be working out. Lefties are hitting .200/.263/.235 (.498 OPS) vs. Brault this season, with nine strikeouts and three walks. Their wOBA (.227) is 110 points lower than right-handers against him. Brault has always been a bit better against lefties, but this dramatic split is new.
“I kinda come down a little bit and I’m a lit bit on the side,” Brault offered as an explanation. “I don’t know. I’ve always been told by the guys that I know, facing me in Spring Training and stuff like that, that it’s hard to pick up. For whatever reason, it’s just deceptive.”
Outside of closer Felipe Vasquez, Brault is the only left-hander in the Pirates bullpen. With his ability to match up against lefties, it’s tempting to think of him as a possible left-on-left specialist or matchup option from the left side. Brault has had those thoughts, too.
“I’ve thought about it because when you’re put into a relief situation, once you get into the bullpen, obviously you want to have higher-leverage situations,” he said. “I think it’s fun. I don’t necessarily, at this point, in my career want to be pigeonholed as a lefty (only) guy, but I would love to be used in that role if it’s going to be able to get people out.”
The Pirates, though, don’t seem to be as on board with that idea. First of all, Edgar Santana’s new changeup seems to have turned him into quite the weapon against lefties. Second of all, the Pirates don’t seem to have given up on Brault as a starting option just yet.
“Nobody in the decision-making process wants to turn him into a situational lefty,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’ll see where it takes us, but we want to continue to get him on the mound with volume of pitches. If we shrink the arm maintenance, I don’t think that’s a benefit to him or a benefit to us in the long-term.”
Brault does provide value to the Pirates in long relief, as he showed in Thursday’s 5-4 win over the San Diego Padres, when he bailed out Chad Kuhl and went 2.1 scoreless innings to get to the new Santana-Michael Feliz-Vazquez back of the bullpen.
It could also just be that Brault’s adjustment process to the majors has been accelerated against lefties, and there’s still more improvement to come. His walk rate, in particular, has been uncommonly high compared to where he’s been in the minors, suggesting that he’s still working out the way the strike zone is called and how much of the plate he can catch with his admittedly not-overpowering stuff.
But it’s nice to know that in the worst-case scenario, it seems that Brault can be a useful major league option in at least some role.
“Hopefully, if nothing else works out, I have a really long career getting lefties out,” Brault said. “That’d be cool.”