A Breakout Season Has Put Steven Brault in the Pirates’ Future Rotation Plans

BRADENTON, Fl. – A year ago on Saturday, the Pirates acquired Steven Brault as the player to be named later in the Travis Snider trade. He was seen as the smaller part of the deal, and there weren’t many expectations for his upside. In fact, when the deal was just about to be completed, there was a brief rumor that Brault was the guy coming over, and that led to the following reaction from me:

“Brault wasn’t in Baseball America’s top ten, and ranked as the 16th best prospect in John Sickel’s rankings. He received a C+ rating, borderline C, and was described as a potential back-end starter. He had good numbers in A-ball last year, and should make the jump to Double-A this year.

That, alone, doesn’t seem like it’s worth dealing Snider. The second player would have to be good to make such a deal worthwhile. And it appears that the Orioles are trying to get this done without giving up two players.”

One year later, I’m sure the Orioles would balk at trading Brault alone for Snider, and that’s not even considering the hindsight of how Snider worked out for them. Brault’s value has gone way up from where he was last year, after a big season split between Bradenton and Altoona. He posted a 3.02 ERA in 65.2 innings in Bradenton, with a 6.2 K/9 and a 2.9 BB/9. He went up to Altoona and actually improved his numbers, with a 2.00 ERA in 90 innings, along with an 8.0 K/9 and a 1.9 BB/9.

We wrote several articles last year about what led to Brault’s success. I followed that up by catching up to him in the Arizona Fall League, where he said he was moving beyond just relying on control and deception, and was looking to use his four seam fastball a bit more in the future, which was touching 93 MPH in the AFL.

Overall, the quick summary for Brault is that he’s a lefty who relies on a sinker that usually sits in the upper 80s, but has a lot of late, cutting movement. His fastball can hit 93 MPH on a regular occasion. He previously threw a curveball and a slider, but neither worked as an out pitch, so he switched to only focusing on the slider, which has improved in the last year. He also has improved his changeup. His strong control remained, even in Altoona. All of those improvements and strengths led to his breakout season.

The thing about Brault is that he’s constantly looking to improve his game, no matter how good he’s doing. And so even after a breakout 2015 season, which put him in position to potentially start in the majors in 2016, he is still focusing on ways to improve.

“I always want my location to get better and better, so that’s something I’ve been working on a lot,” Brault said of his focus this year. “And right now, a lot is being able to throw my changeup consistently for strikes.”

The changeup might have been the biggest improvement for Brault in the last year. He said that he didn’t really learn the pitch until last year, and got more comfortable with the offering the more he threw it. Right now, he’s looking to add consistency to the pitch. But why didn’t he throw the pitch much in the past?

“It just wasn’t very good,” Brault said with a laugh, being very honest about the quality of his pitch before 2015. “I didn’t really have a grip that I liked, that I could take off any speed and still be able to make it do stuff. That was the biggest part, was finding a grip that worked for me. It developed over the last year. Right now this works for me, and it’s been working well.”

He ended up settling on a looser grip with his fingertips, which allowed him to throw the ball as hard as he could, with the same arm speed as his fastball, but still have the pitch go slower. That’s the key for any changeup, to disguise the pitch by making it look like a fastball out of the hand, but not having the same velocity. Brault seems to have this down now, although the next step will be that consistency he talked about.

Along with the changeup, the slider has improved, but still needs further work. He didn’t have a strong breaking pitch before joining the Pirates, and rather than have him continue throwing two bad breaking pitches, they had him drop the curve and focus on the slider.

“It’s progressively getting better,” Brault said of the slider. “That’s another thing, trying to get the location, trying to throw it for a strike when I want to, trying to throw it for a ball when I want to. Just working on getting consistent spin, consistent movements. It’s always going to be a work in progress. I’m never going to be happy with it. I’m never going to be satisfied with it. Just keep throwing it, keep working on it.”

In talking with pitchers in the past, there are two big aspects to learning a breaking pitch. The first is being able to spin the ball, so that you get the movement you want on the pitch, rather than having a flat offering. The second thing is knowing where to throw the pitch so that it ends up where you want. So which one is the big thing that Brault needs to work on going forward to improve the pitch?

“It’s more of a consistency thing, where I’ve thrown it to where I like it,” Brault said. “I’ve thrown it with a good location and good spin before. And I can see it when I throw it, and that’s what I want. But I need to get that consistently. I need to be able to do that more often. I guess, more often than not, I can get more movement and less of the location. I’d like to get them both together.”

The location of a breaking pitch largely depends on knowing where to start the pitch, in order to get it to end up where you want. Brault noted that’s a bit of a challenge when you consider moving the pitch around the zone.

“I guess it’s weird to try to be able to throw the exact same thing, get the same spin, but start it at different places,” Brault said. “It’s kind of weird to tell myself in my head to do it.”

One thing that was interesting about this situation is that Brault has so much movement on his sinker, but manages to command the pitch well. So can he take what he does with the sinker and apply it to the slider?

“It’s a little bit different,” Brault said. “The sinker that I throw, I can still throw it mostly like a fastball. That pitch, most of the time I’m trying just to throw a first strike to get a weak ground ball. For a slider, it’s not always weak contact. Sometimes you want to use it as a strikeout pitch. So I guess you have to be a little more intense with the location when it comes to a slider than a sinker. A sinker you don’t want to throw up over the middle, because it gets hit really far. It’s the same idea, but it’s a little more focused in a slider.”

Brault will be throwing the sinker, changeup, and slider in 2016. As noted in the AFL, he will also be focusing a bit more on the four seam fastball, adding some more power to his game. That’s still the focus, with locating the pitch at key spots being the most important thing.

“One of the things we talked about with Ray [Searage] was being able to throw the four seam to four corners,” Brault said. “They’re big on going up and down. That’s something that I wanted to be able to do whenever I want. That’s still something I’m going to work on a lot in my bullpens, is being able to locate that four seamer wherever I want, whenever I want. Which is obviously never going to be the case, but as close as possible. That’s going to be a focus forever.”

Brault just recently started working with Searage for the first time in mini-camp, and more recently in the last week of the early days of Spring Training. But there haven’t been any magical changes yet.

“For the most part it’s been location right now,” Brault said of his work with Searage. “We’ll get in more in-depth stuff, but right now it’s just location. I’m sure once we get into a more intense setting, once we’re in Spring Training, it will become more in-depth. Right now it’s mostly about get your work in, get ready for the start of Spring.”

Is that focus on location a mechanical issue, or just knowing how to throw his pitches or which spots to hit? The answer was a phrase repeated many times in my discussion with Brault.

“It’s a consistency thing. I guess it all comes back to that. That’s my word of the day,” Brault said. “For that, it’s just being able to replicate my delivery the same way every time. So that’s something we worked on a lot when I was with the Orioles. We worked on a lot of mechanical consistency. And that’s something they do here. It’s not always going to be perfect. Especially when you go from the stretch and you’ve got to change your timing, it’s a little bit tougher.”

Brault had a big breakout season last year, which put him on the radar as a potential future member of the Pirates’ rotation. He had the breakout by improving his changeup, improving his slider, and the constant strive for better location. He still needs improvements on the off-speed pitches, and better command of the four seam fastball. Fortunately, Brault is the type who never seems satisfied with his game, which means you can look for him to work hard on improving those offerings in 2016. And if things go as well as they did in 2015, then he could be an option for the MLB rotation sooner, rather than later.

  • I’m still wondering why Keith Law didn’t have him in his Top 20 and included Taylor and Escobar over him (AND Tarpley).

    It gives me pause for thought.

    • Law does seem to have a tendency to exhibit some contrariness, but he does get a lot of attention as a result.

      I thought he was reaching in his evaluation of Newman and now Escobar, who is #48 in the P2 Prospect Guide. I hope he is right because that means better talent than most others think. The summary on Escobar in P2 touts his mid-90’s FB, but also explains his lack of consistency so far – therefore, enough room for him to accelerate quickly up the list, but the reality that he is very young and #48 is a fair evaluation at this time.

      • The problem with ranking Escobar that high is something we have learned from in the past. There is nowhere to go, but down. Even if he starts this year in West Virginia, he will be there all year. Due to his age, he would probably move one level at a time afterwards, making him at best, a mid-2019 arrival. If you have him #12 now and players ahead of him will lose their prospect ranking, then a decent season would then have him around #7 on the list, and maybe higher if someone struggles. That would be ridiculous. He would need to fix his command issues overnight at age 19 and develop his two off-speed pitches a lot more to be ranked that high.

        As for Taylor, he has potential to be very good, but he also won’t pitch in 2016, so why be very aggressive with his ranking. I think Law rated him somewhat high in the draft, so he wants to justify that ranking, ignoring the obvious reason why you don’t rank someone about to miss a year, with two innings of GCL ball to his credit.

  • Love his work ethic. A student of the game that has a lot of talent is really fun to watch. Hopefully Tarpley ends up doing just as well.

  • Too bad we couldn’t have traded Pedro Alvarez to the Orioles this past offseason and raided the Orioles farm system again.

  • More importantly, is that a tattoo on Brault’s right arm or are carbon fiber body parts now allowed?

  • Fantastic interview and article.

    Couple points I found particularly interesting…

    *Traditional changeups are choked in the back of the hand, not thrown loosely off the fingertips.

    *His comments on the Pirates focusing more on also throwing fastballs at the top of the zone. This really caught my attention. Clubs like Houston and Tampa are proving that the high fastball might be the most underrated pitch in the game, and that’s something that has been missing from the Pirates sinkerballers. They almost always focus solely on the up-and-in corner, which is great for guys with plus command but not so much for the Mortons and Lockes of the world. Umpires don’t call the pitch for strikes, and it gets less swings from batters than a ball at the top – or above – the strike zone but out over the plate. Not only could this add more K’s to the sinkerballing portion of the staff, but it’ll also help keep hitters more honest.

    Playing in PNC Park, in front of the outfield defense the Pirates will trot out every night, there’s really no reason to be afraid of fly balls.

    • Basically, that was the major change Happ made once he got here.

    • It should also make the sinkers more effective, changing the eye level and keeping hitters from sitting on pitches at the knees.

      • Exactly!

        I’m still having flashbacks of opposing hitters sitting all day on stuff down in the zone from the two guys I mentioned above towards the end of last year.

  • I’m trying to figure out the rotation by mid 2017.

    • Barring injury and/or meltdown…

      I assume Cole, Taillon, and Glasnow are locks.

      After that? Meh…probably Liriano. Unless he has excess trade value in his walk year and the Pirates think they can replace him.

      So…#5 is? Niese? If he pitches well enough for his option(s) to be exercised…2/21 is pretty cheap these days. If he’s still on the team…is he traded for someone to be promoted? Kinda risky…a contending team going that young of a rotation…but the Mets seem like they’re going to give it whirl.

      So…#5? Kingham should be back to full speed, Kuhl might be ready, Williams, Brault? Someone else really obvious that I’m missing off the top of my head?

      That’s nine guys for five slots…sounds like a fair amount…and I have totally ignored Locke/Sadler/Cumpton…but these kinds of things always seem to work themselves out with injuries, trades, and poor performance…

      Heck, this time last season the team was looking at 2015 depth as Liriano, Cole, Burnett, Morton, Worley/Locke with Sadler, Cumpton, Taillon, Kingham, and Sampson in the wings…and we saw how that worked out… 🙂

      • Oh for f’s sake with the Niese stuff!

        Even assuming he returns to a ~2 WAR pitcher this season, why would they commit that type of money to a role that by all accounts should be filled internally by any number of prospects *or* a high upside reclamation arm they’ve had such amazing success with in the past?

        If there’s truly a need for Niese in 2017 and beyond, it’ll frankly mean somebody needs to be moving on with their life’s work on the drafting and development side of the org. This is *exactly* the type of guy the Pirates *shouldn’t* be paying.

        • Barring injuries, 2017 should start with Cole, Liriano, and Glasnow – that’s three “guarantees.” You could play it safe with Niese (@ $9 mil) and Locke (@ about $6 mil) and that would be your starting five.

          I would agree that at the very least one (but hopefully two) of Taillon, Kuhl, and Brault would be ready to replace Niese and/or Locke. Niese being more expensive would be the obvious choice to trade but that would depend on 2016 performances.

          The internal options analysis:
          – Taillon: should start the season with the club but how many innings will he pitch in 2016 and will the performance be enough to lock up a spot?
          – Kuhl: super steady performer with the preferred pitch of the Pirates. Good enough to start but not so good that they will hold him back from starting on opening day (and thereby losing a year of control)
          – Brault: super steady performing leftie who could ease the loss of the two lefties. Same as Kuhl in terms of starting the year with the team.
          – Kingham: Based on his projected talent, he should get the fifth spot but innings might be limited and his talent is good enough that they probably wouldn’t want to start the year with him and lose a full year of service time – likely mid-year call up.
          – Williams/Sadler/Cumpton lower talent levels that if healthy would only be injury back ups only

          • It’s going to be fun watching the nightly prospect watch STATS on these guys. That advanced feature wasn’t around until mid season last year. Thanks Tim for getting that done.

        • And it never happened in baseball history that a guy like Niese or Locke got his act together and became a 3-5 WAR pitcher? After all they are in the hands of the great and powerful Searage! Your attitude and language sucks by the way…

        • Come on…it was a question of who has the potential to be in the rotation.

          As he’s under contract for ’17, he has the potential.

          Now, if he goes down in flames, in ’16…sure the team doesn’t exercise his option and he’s gone. End of story.

          But, if he returns to ’11-’14 form…the option gets exercised…unless the Pirates fall out of contention. If he’s pitching well and they’re out of it in July…sure, he probably has more value in trade than he does for a non-contending team. But, if the team does well and so does Niese, there’s no way the Pirates are going to let a lefty who puts up 170 innings, 3.62 FIP, and 2.4 WAR walk away. Perhaps they keep him in the rotation for ’17, maybe just he’s a sign-and-flip in the offseason.

          If the option is exercised, it’s because of his performance…whether he’s in the ’17 rotation will, most likely, be determined by other factors…Who gets injured? Who gets traded?

          PURE SPECULATION ALERT: I was going to include: “How do Taillon and Glasnow fare?” In the list of things that determine his fate…but I’m not sure it’s all that important. If they falter, the need to keep him increases. But I’m not sure it decreases if they succeed. Let’s say they live up to expectations and both enter ’17 as solid #3’s on the way to becoming top of the rotation stuff…that would slot Niese as the #5…do you really want to pay a $5 $10M?…meh, probably not…but the total rotation cost for keeping him would be about $31M…definitely not a burdensome amount.

          Conversely…if you trade him…who takes the spot? Let’s just say one of the AAA pitchers. Heck, Trevor Williams. Going into ’17, that gives them back three pitchers a combined 40 starts in the ML’s…that’s a little light. Instead of going with the young arms…do you sign the reclamation project? That’s getting dicey. Do you sign a guy for $7M who you hope you can fix…or pay a guy $10 who you already have repaired?


          Again, all this is irrelevant if Niese doesn’t return to ’11-’14 form.

      • Hell, Niese and Locke don’t project to be appreciably different pitchers (~.5 WAR) moving forward, and the Pirates can keep one for about half of what they’ll have to commit to the other.

        • You are assuming that pitcher WAR projections are +/- 0.1 WAR. Actually, the standard deviation is probably about 1.5 WAR, which means that there is about 1 chance in 6 that either Locke or Niese has a 3+ WAR season (and an equal chane that they will flame out).

          The old baseball adage that, “You can never have enough pitching.” is oh so true.

  • Do you see him making an impact in 2016?