In May of 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed catcher Paul Brands out of the Netherlands right before his 18th birthday. They had another catcher from the Netherlands in the system at that time in Danny Arribas, who was signed four years earlier. There were some similarities between the two players when they signed. Both were announced as catchers, but they were raw behind the plate. Both were very athletic players as well, with the ability to move around the infield. Arribas is no longer in the system after being released mid-season in 2017, while Brands showed some real signs of progress this year.
Baseball is far from the most popular sport in the Netherlands. Not surprisingly, soccer is the main sport, so a lot of baseball players in the country took up the sport later in their youth. Brands wasn’t one of those players who took long to get into baseball. He told me that he started playing when he was five years old.
Since so many kids participate in soccer and other sports, the level of competition at a young age isn’t what you would see in the United States or other countries like the Dominican Republic, where baseball is much more popular. Brands has been a baseball-lifer though, who really broke out as a prospect before the Pirates signed him.
“I played my first few years in my hometown Hoofddorp,” Brands said. “After that I got selected to play in a baseball academy. I was 12 years old when I started playing with that team, staying until I was 16. In the time I was playing with the academy, I played for the national team under-16. ”
The under-16 team is almost exactly what it sounds like. Players who are 16 years old or younger, represent their country in tournaments around the globe. He would go on to play for the under-18 team as well, which is where he really got noticed. The better you are, the earlier you can join those teams, which are a good representation of the best players for each country in those age groups.
Outside of his time at the Dutch academy, Brands competed often against top international competition. He was one of 49 players selected to the MLB European Elite Camp in July of 2014. He then played in the Fall Academy tournament later in 2014 and the 2015 MLB Spring Academies tournament in April of 2015. When he returned to the Netherlands, he was also playing against the best players there for a time before signing.
“After that [the academy], I went back to my hometown team in Hoofddorp,” Brands said. “I started playing in the rookie team of Hoofddorp and I played some tournaments with the under-18 national team. The next year I played in the head class of The Netherlands. During that time I got signed and left for the States.”
Daniel Arribas was signed out of the Dutch academy by the Pirates, but it’s the international tournaments that usually get the players the most notice. Brands knew the Pirates were watching him when he went to the 2015 Spring Academies tournament and he put on a show for them. While there, he had a three-hit game against France, then two hits in each of the final two games. Less than a month later, he was with the Pirates.
I mentioned that Brands made a lot of progress and that’s what got him noticed. He was named as the best hitter during that 2015 MLB Spring Academies tournament. Just six months earlier, he hit .200 during the 2014 Fall Academy tournament. He basically went from one of the worst hitters in one tournament to the best hitter in the next one.
Growing up in The Netherlands, Brands played a lot of positions. He occasionally caught, but he mostly played infield and that’s where he preferred to play. As he got older, his time was split more evenly among catching, infield and outfield. That was when he was 16, which he said gave him about a full year of catching before he signed with the Pirates. Besides the advanced hitting for his age, the Pirates also took note of the athleticism and strong arm, which combined to allow him to play anywhere on the field.
The Adjustment to Pro Ball
Brands had a quick adjustment to make once he got in pro ball. He needed to get a work visa to stay in the United States, so while that was being sorted out, he took a two-week trip elsewhere to get in some game action and stay ready to play.
Back in 2015, Tim Williams made a trip to the Dominican Republic to see the Pirates at their academy and catch a couple of DSL games while he was there. That just happened to line up with the two weeks Brands spent in the Dominican while he waited for his visa. Tim Williams saw him make his first pro start, collect his first pro hit and draw his first two walks, so it was a nice first impression. For Brands, it was a tough experience at first, but one he really appreciated afterwards.
“It was a tough but good experience,” Brands said. “I didn’t know a word of Spanish, so communicating with the players over there was tough, but I made some friends at the end.”
As a catcher, it was a great chance to get to know some of the pitchers he would be working with over the next few years. They may not have spoken the same language at the time, but the language of baseball has a way of bridging gaps.
Brands played just three games during his time in the DSL, then joined the GCL Pirates on July 1, 2015. He was somewhat over-matched during that first shot in the league, but that was to be expected. His .352 OBP was strong for the league, but he didn’t catch much and didn’t hit for any power or average during his rookie season.
In 2016, the Pirates used Brands in multiple roles. That allowed him to get his time behind the plate, but also extra time in the lineup to get more at-bats. During Extended Spring Training, he was playing second base when he wasn’t catching. The GCL Pirates were a little short-handed last year, so he ended up playing 11 games at third base during the season. He looked a little better at the plate, but much better behind it, where he made just one error and threw out 37% of base runners attempting to steal.
Brands made significant improvements in 2017, which earned him a promotion to Bristol. He came into camp hitting the ball better and showed some agility behind the plate. I asked him about his biggest improvements this year on offense and defense, then asked around for what others who saw him the last two seasons had to say about his improvements this season.
“On offense, working on staying in the middle with my head not leaning back, hitting to all fields,” Brands said about his biggest offensive improvement, before moving on to defense. “Defense-wise, my biggest improvements was blocking pitches in the dirt.”
The scouting reports from others backed up what he said. They saw someone who was really driving the ball well this year, especially to the opposite field. He pitch blocking was definitely noticed, along with doing better on his throwing to bases. That isn’t something that showed up in the boxscore, as runners were more successful against him this past season. That could be a combination of things, especially with a staff full of young pitchers in Bristol, meaning that an improvement can get lost in the stats.
The fact that the Pirates trusted Brands with some of their top young talent in Bristol is a good sign of his progress on defense. The team had Braeden Ogle, Travis MacGregor, Domingo Robles and eventually Max Kranick. That’s four teenage pitchers who the Pirates believe have high upside, and Brands was out there more than half of the time as their catcher. He spent a lot of time on that part of the game, trying to help those young pitchers along all season.
“So I kind of knew their strengths and how they try to work already before going in to the season,” Brands said about the young pitchers. “So I was just trying to get the best out of them every game.”
Brands also got help from someone he first met when he got to Bristol. The Pirates drafted catcher Jason Delay in the fourth round and sent him to Bristol. That was a low placement for Delay, done on purpose to work with the young pitchers. He spent four seasons as the starting catcher in Vanderbilt, where he was known for his above average defense and ability to work with pitchers. He could have easily went to the West Virginia Power and started everyday, but he ended up helping Brands out by going to Bristol. Brands credited Delay with teaching him how to handle the pitchers when they aren’t at their best on the mound.
“He is a great guy,” Brands said of Delay. “We talked a lot about how to help the pitcher better, and what he likes to do when it’s not working out for them during games.”
Brands went to the Fall Instructional League in September, where the main focus was working on catching, although he did play some first base. He had played some second base during Extended Spring Training this year, though just like 2016, he didn’t see any games there during the season. His main off-season focus now is to add more muscle, while still staying athletic. The Pirates give each player a specialized workout program for the off-season.
Brands really showed improvements on both sides of the ball this season and the more experience he gets the better he should get behind the plate. His biggest defensive weakness right now is pitch framing, as he tends to lose some strikes for pitchers with his glove movement. On offense, he could cut down on his strikeouts, although he showed added power this season and there could be more to come soon as he fills out and continues to drive the ball well. He’s an athletic kid, who could be helped by that versatility as he moves up the system.
The Pirates have a lot of catchers with potential right now, but no top 30 prospects in the system behind the plate, so that is a spot for someone to step up and grab. Brands would love to be the player who takes that top spot. There’s still a lot of work for him to do, but there’s also potential for that to happen down the road.