4-2-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
Persevere, adapt, execute.
Three things that JT Brubaker has had to learn to do in order to reach the major leagues, now he has to again adapt to the challenge the league has presented him.
JT entered 2020 fresh off a disappointing 2019 that saw him only throw 27.2 innings between AAA and rehab in Single A. As our own Craig Toth has documented in this space, desperation for pitching help led the Pirates braintrust at the time try to accelerate his recovery, costing him months.
To his credit, he came to camp strong and took advantage of a rebuilding roster to take hold of a spot in the rotation with the big club and left that shortened season as one of the team’s few bright spots.
As we moved into 2021, we wanted to see more and he obliged by throwing more innings than anyone else on the team, 124.1 to be precise. He hadn’t thrown more than 47.1 since 2018 and visibly wore down as the season progressed.
An admirable achievement by anyone’s standard, but it came with 28 homeruns. This of course made his numbers devolve into poor, potentially even put himself right back in fighting for his spot territory.
We in Pittsburgh knew he was safe, we’ve been following the Pirates and this slow burn rebuild long enough to know replacing a cheap controllable pitcher who has a proven record of eating innings and fighting through fatigue was going to almost ensure he’d get another whack.
So, what caused the homerun issues? It’s never been a thing in his career coming up. For perspective JT only allowed 38 walks to go with his 28 homeruns, so it’s not like this is a guy not hitting most of the spots he wants to. His K/9 numbers of 9.3 were the highest he’s ever had in his career at any level, in fact nothing he did last year lines up with a career high, by far mind you, HR/9 of 2.
Pundits and folks like me put forward that he was just tired, but the homeruns weren’t so disproportionately toward the end of the season for that to be the case. Spin rate was brought up with all the sticky stuff discussion last season, nope, his numbers actually ticked up a bit in that regard.
As Pirates fans the next logical reason was of course geared toward the club forcing him to pitch to contact, but that ignores that this regime doesn’t preach from the same pulpit, and again, his K/9 numbers were the highest he’s ever achieved.
So let’s dig in.
Brubaker has a 5 pitch mix including a slider, curve, changeup, sinker and 4 seam fastball and he throws all of them, least of which is the changeup at around 6% of his pitches.
The curveball is in the 89th percentile in the league for spin rate and surrendered only 2 homeruns.
He’s getting beaten on the slider, sinker and 4 seam fastball, especially with two strikes. It’s easy to see why when you look at the placement. Meaning hitters are pulling the trigger on velocity from JT, and his willingness to challenge hitters with his stuff works against him.
In other words, hitters know he isn’t going to walk them, they also know they’re most likely to get speed, and when they catch up with it, they’re making him pay.
His sinker tails, rather than sink and he often leaves it in a very hittable area. The Slider has nice shape to it, but he too often goes for the backdoor against lefties who are more than ready when it enters the zone. The 4 seam is almost exclusively thrown high in the zone and not quite high enough. In fact look at the launch angle disparity for when JT gets his pitches lower in the zone versus up.
It’s stark. coupled with his proclivity to chase the strikeout by attacking the zone, guys are teeing off.
There are adjustments to be had here. He could throw the offspeed stuff a bit more in these situations, or he could even start adjusting the placement of the hard stuff, but what he can’t do is continue to just give hitters exactly what they want and expect.
The reason for optimism with JT is his stuff being plenty good. Now it’s about becoming a pitcher, something Roberto Perez is notoriously good at doing with guys.
Being predictable is not a pitcher’s best friend. Take a look at what I’m talking about here. the only pitch that’s really well spread out is the sinker, and if we’re being blunt here, that’s not a pitch you really want to place where he has.
The curveball is rarely in the zone so it becomes easy to spit on. The 4 seam is almost exclusively up, the slider is primarily outer third, the changeup is rarely thrown but left up too much and the sinker/2 seam is all over the map.
His spin rate on curveballs is elite, but he renders them much less effective by rarely threatening the zone with the pitch. The 2 seam fastball could be effective, but needs to find it’s way to the bottom of the zone much more frequently and he needs to learn to use the 4 seam fastball to establish the zone.
These are basic things that I’m sure are on the Pirates radar, but knowing it, and trusting it are two very different things.
It’s clear Brubaker will get another shot to be in the starting rotation this season, he’s a good pitcher, with quality stuff and a proven track record for eating up innings. If he’s going to be successful this season I think we need to look for a few signs he’s changing up some things with his approach.
Either learn to challenge inside to lefties with the slider or eliminate the pitch. It’s just too close to his 4 seam in velocity and doesn’t move enough to pretend it doesn’t matter.
Challenge hitters by letting the curveball at least threaten the zone.
Increase the use of the changeup to keep hitters off balance.
Isolate the 2 seam to the bottom half of the zone .
Use the 4 seam in a more diversified fashion to stop hitters from recognizing the shape of everything else.
Now, that seems like alot, but it’s really not all that much. It’s not like learning a new pitch, it’s more about learning to use them to his advantage.
Brubaker has overcome challenges his entire career, 2022 will be his next, best chance to take a step from borderline MLB starter to MLB reliable starter.