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.