If you would have asked me anything about Steven Brault’s potential prior to Wednesday morning, I probably would start by discussing his last two outings of the 2020 season; including the chemistry he and Jacob Stallings exhibited in developing and executing a successful game plan, followed by the fact that I more than likely have him penciled in as the Pirates number four or five starter in next year’s rotation. At no time did the possibility of a trade involving Brault enter into my mind, but I guess it obviously should have based on today’s news as reported by Jon Morosi of the MLB Network.
For Brault his journey to this point has been less than direct and often filled with major uncertainties, some of which arose as recently as the beginning of the 2019 Major League Baseball season. After appearing only twice out of the bullpen for the Pirates over the first nine games, he was optioned to the AAA-Indianapolis Indians. When he was recalled a few days later there was a period of a little over a month where he bounced back and forth between a relief role and spot starts before finally earning a place in the rotation at the end of May. Unfortunately Brault found himself back with the Indians in the beginning of August; this time due to a shoulder strain rather than performance. On the year as a whole he earned a 4.99 ERA, a 1.484 WHIP and 3-5 record in 19 games started. None of these numbers jump off the page as being anything other than below average. However, during the off-season I did a deep dive behind the numbers on Brault, and every other Pirates pitcher for that matter, for my previous employer to determine if there was any room for improvement with a change in pitch selection.
During the 2019 season he threw his four seam fastball almost 50% of the time, while utilizing his his slider only 20% of the time. When Brault threw his slider he got a 22% Swinging Strike Rate and only allowed a .202 AVG, with a .595 OPS. His fastball was not as successful as it resulted in an .285 AVG and a .883 OPS. However, the biggest problem with this pitch was the low 8.4% Swinging Strike Rate. Brault’s second best pitch was his changeup, which is a good compliment to the fastball and slider. It yielded his second highest Swinging Strike Rate (14.1%) and his second lowest AVG allowed (.217). During this article I suggested that Brault would be wise to drop two of his least effective pitches, his curve and his sinker. His curveball was only thrown a little over 1% of the time and when it was Brault struggled with his command; apparent by the 1.000 OPS on zero hits. The second pitch was the dreaded sinker, which each and every team the Pirates faced exposed for .326 AVG and .869 OPS, while only causing a 2.6% Swinging Strike Rate.
When Spring Training began this past February it looked as if Brault was going to get his shot at the starting rotation, but was ultimately shut down on March 2nd, for at least two weeks, with a left shoulder strain. It seemed as if he was not going to be available for Opening Day. At that point in time no one knew that the season wasn’t going to start until the end of July. Even with the unexpected time off Brault still needed to be built back up and stretched out over his first four appearances; throwing a maximum of 37 pitches. After this he was hot and cold over his next five outings, prior to the aforementioned two strong outings to end the season. In his final 16 innings he allowed only one run on four hits, while striking out 14; finishing the season with a 3.38 ERA (2.53 as a starter) and a 1.195 WHIP. These performances, along with the overall numbers, obviously left quite an impression heading into the current off-season; evident by the somewhat unexpected interest. Nevertheless, I am still left wondering if this intrigue is justified? And more importantly, if Steven Brault is actually a legitimate trade chip for General Manager Ben Cherington and the Pirates?
My assessment was initiated by a quick evaluation of Brault’s rankings on Baseball Savant as it pertains to his advanced metrics.
It is abundantly clear that his improved numbers were a direct result of the ability to induce soft contact, which was a career low 85.8 mph; almost a full 5 mph lower than the previous season. The success level of the majority of his pitches, other than his curveball, also didn’t hurt at all. Batters hit .160 against his four seamer, .121 on his change, .211 facing the sinker and .235 off his slider. One main concern for me is his BB/9 which has been well below the league average of 2.9 for his entire career; and despite having a breakout year, it still sat at 4.64. That in conjunction with his xERA of 4.49, FIP of 3.92 and xFIP of 4.85, makes me think there is potential for regression back to a pitcher who is closer to a full earned run on average higher than his career low of 3.38.
So, what’s the appeal? Well, I believe that most of it has to do with his cost and control. In his year of arbitration eligibility, he is expected to earn around $1.5 million dollars in 2021 and is not a free agent until 2024. It probably also has to do with the overall market surrounding left handed starters, coupled with his ability to fill roles as both a starter and long reliever.
Now, what does all of this mean as far as trade value? Honestly, it’s hard to gauge based on the newfound attraction, as well as a sporadically effective track record. However, since it is teams approaching the Pirates and not the other way around, I have to think it would involve at least one low level prospect that could ultimately be bolstered by a “piggyback” trade situation; requiring Pittsburgh to add another enticing player to go along with Brault. Either way this recent development isn’t something that Cherington can ignore. Instead it should be weighed with the utmost consideration as to how it can help the Pirates of the future; just like every other move he makes this off-season and beyond.