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The Book on Steven Brault

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The Pittsburgh Pirates will call up Steven Brault tonight, with the left-hander making his MLB debut. As usual, a prospect making his debut means another edition of “The Book on…” series.

So far this year, I’ve done these features on Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Adam Frazier, and Jacob Stallings. I’ve covered Taillon for six years. I’ve covered Kuhl and Frazier for three, including a full year in Bradenton in 2014. I’ve covered Stallings four years, once again with a full year in Bradenton. So in those cases, I had years of interviews and background to put this article together.

Since Brault only joined the Pirates last year, I’ve only covered him for a little less than a year and a half. Despite this, I feel like I’ve got just as much information on him as any prospect I’ve covered for years. Part of this is because he came into the system the year we switched to subscription, giving us more resources to cover him (including a key interview during the Arizona Fall League). But a bigger part is because Brault is a great interview, very smart, and very insightful. So despite covering him for a much shorter time, this article was just as easy to write, and packed with as much info as the other players called up this year.

And now, here is The Book on Steven Brault.

Where Did Brault Come From?

Brault was one of two left-handers acquired from the Baltimore Orioles prior to the 2015 season, in exchange for Travis Snider. The deal was originally Stephen Tarpley and a player to be named later for Snider. Prior to the trade, it was rumored that Brault was going to be the biggest piece in the deal. He ended up being the PTBNL instead.

At the time of the deal, Brault was seen as the clear second piece. Tarpley was a left-hander who could get his fastball up to 97 MPH, and had a lot of upside coming from Low-A. Brault was a guy who mostly worked in the upper-80s, relying on control and command to be effective, which isn’t always a recipe for upper level success for a left-hander. He was making the jump to High-A, so that part of his game was still in question.

Brault ended up answering those questions. He had a 3.02 ERA in 65.2 innings in Bradenton last year, and was promoted to Altoona mid-season. At the new level, he did even better, with a 2.00 ERA in 90 innings, along with a 22% strikeout rate, which matched his totals in Low-A. He hasn’t pitched much in Indianapolis this year, due to a hamstring strain. However, he does have a 2.57 ERA in 35 innings this year, along with a 28.2% strikeout rate. In his last outing, he went five shutout innings, allowing four hits, two walks, and striking out six.

The Fastball

Before Brault arrived, the reports were that he could touch the low-90s with his fastball, but usually worked in the upper-80s. That doesn’t have a lot of appeal on the surface, although his value is something you have to see live. I first noticed Brault’s appeal toward the end of Spring Training last year. I was watching his start from the third base side of the field at Pirate City, and that’s where I really noticed the angle and movement of his pitches. His two-seamer was coming in at a downward angle, consistently hitting at the knees or lower, with a sharp cut at the end where the pitch would fall off the table. The pitch also has some horizontal movement, running in on right-handers. That can make the pitch devastating for right-handed hitters, as you’ve got a pitch that runs in on you, arrives at the knee level, and drops off when it reaches the plate.

But Brault isn’t just a soft tosser, relying only on the two-seam fastball. He also throws a pretty good four seam fastball, with the ability to touch 93-94 MPH. He was showing that off a lot in the Arizona Fall League, aiming to get more power from his athletic frame, rather than simply relying on control and command. That four seam fastball makes it even easier for Brault to pitch inside against right-handers, giving him a good extension fastball with more velocity. He also got some advice from Ray Searage this Spring about working on throwing to the four corners with the pitch whenever he wants, and he’s done a good job of that so far.

The biggest thing that works with Brault’s fastballs is his deception. He hides the ball well in his delivery, making it seem faster than it actually is. I talked about this with Justin Meccage — Brault’s pitching coach in Altoona and the AFL last year — who relayed some stories from opposing AFL hitters.

“I talked to a hitter on the team the other day, they said they don’t see the ball,” Meccage said. “It comes out of his hand harder than 88-92, 93. The perception is harder than it looks.”

Between deception, movement, control and command of the pitch, and the ability to get some velocity when needed, it’s easy to see why Brault’s fastball is what fuels most of his success.

The Changeup

The fastball was the main selling point for Brault last year, but he didn’t have much else when he joined the Pirates. His secondary stuff was poor, and he didn’t really have much of a changeup. The biggest improvements he saw last year came with the changeup. He didn’t throw the pitch often, and didn’t really learn the pitch until last year. And if you’re wondering why he didn’t throw a changeup often, it was all due to the quality of the pitch.

“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.”

Brault settled on a looser grip with his fingertips, allowing him to throw the ball as hard as he could, using the same arm speed as the fastball, while still having the pitch go slower. He’s also learned to trust the grip to do the work, and doesn’t manipulate it to try and get movement or make it go slower. The improved changeup gives him a quality secondary pitch to turn to.

The Slider

Brault came into the Pirates’ system with a slider and a curveball, although neither pitch was a good offering. He dropped the curveball last year, and started focusing exclusively on the slider. The pitch has improved, and is an average offering now, but it’s still something he needs to work on, and is clearly his third pitch.

The trick with improving a breaking pitch is learning how to throw it where you want it, assuming you already know how to spin the pitch, which Brault does with the slider. He’s been able to get good movement on the pitch, but can’t always control the location. The key here is knowing where to start the pitch, but that was a challenge for Brault when I talked to him about the offering in Spring Training.

“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.”

The slider is the clear third pitch in Brault’s arsenal, behind the fastball and the changeup. But it can be good enough to get MLB hitters out when he’s locating the pitch.

The Athleticism

Brault was a two-way player at Regis University, hitting for a .970 OPS in 184 at-bats while also putting up a 2.63 ERA in 78.2 innings. He’s one of the most athletic pitchers that the Pirates have in their system, and might be the most athletic pitcher they have. When I was covering the AFL last off-season, Brault’s athleticism really stood out.

Every player in the AFL wears their organization’s jersey. I saw a Pirates player shagging fly balls in center field, showing off a lot of speed and range, while also looking natural in his routes to the gaps. The only thing was, the Pirates didn’t have an outfielder in the AFL, other than Austin Meadows, who was hitting in the cages at the time. I quickly realized that it was Brault looking so good in the field.

He’s also looked good at the plate in his limited appearances, going 8-for-20 with a double in his minor league career. On the flip side of that, he did hurt his hamstring running the bases, coming down hard on the bag. Brault obviously isn’t going to be seeing time in the outfield, but could add some value at the plate while he’s in the majors.

What is Brault’s Upside?

Brault has the upside of a back of the rotation starter, with the chance to be a number four starter, thanks to the improvements on his secondary stuff. He would need the slider to improve to above-average or better in order to be higher than a fourth starter. He probably won’t be up for long right now, making just a spot start with Jameson Taillon on the disabled list. There’s a chance he could also start on Sunday if Gerrit Cole isn’t ready to return from the disabled list.

Going forward, it might be difficult for Brault to crack the Pirates’ rotation as a regular. That says nothing about his talent level, but more about the competition. He’s got Cole, Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chad Kuhl ahead of him as higher rated future starters, putting him in the mix for that fifth spot. But if this season has taught us anything, it’s that the Pirates will definitely need more than five starters. If he’s not one of the starting five, Brault could be used out of the bullpen in the future, and would be a top option as a depth piece in the rotation.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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