Saturday, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steven Brault was sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis after another brief major-league stint. Brault has failed to spend significant time with the big-league club in 2017 after making seven starts a year ago. What do the Pirates have in mind with Brault’s future?
When a Triple-A pitcher performs as magnificently as Pittsburgh Pirates left-hander Steven Brault has in the minors, he typically doesn’t have to hope for a call-up. It’s more of a matter of ‘when’ instead of ‘if.’
To call Brault’s work with the Indianapolis Indians magnificent might be an understatement. He’s been that good. In 21 games (20 starts) Brault is 10-5 with a 1.94 ERA, 3.29 FIP and 1.07 WHIP. His ERA is tops in the International League and it’s his personal best at any level where he has made at least 10 starts. Nonetheless, Brault has not found a consistent roster spot in the majors.
By this point last season, Brault had only made two starts. With three appearances in 2017, Brault has surpassed his work to this point in 2016 in terms of appearances, but surely he isn’t satisfied. Of his three appearances this season, none have been starts. This is odd for Brault, because of the 49 games that he has appeared in the minors and majors for the last two seasons, 43 have been starts. Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping intended starting pitchers stretched out, adding to the confusion.
Of the seven starts that Brault made in 2016, four of them came in September. Do the Pirates view Brault as a depth starting pitcher option or do they believe he can be a consistent major-league performer in the future?
2016 in review
Last season provided excitement for Brault. After splitting 2015 with High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona, the Baltimore Orioles’ 13th round pick in 2013 opened the season in Triple-A. On July 5, after only nine starts with Indianapolis, Brault made his major-league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals. In a spot start, Brault allowed two runs (one earned) over four innings. He struck out five batters and walked two.
Brault made two more spot starts in late July and August, respectively, then became a rotation regular in September. One consistent problem plagued Brault all year long: he didn’t pitch very deep into games.
Only once did Brault pitch at least six innings. Brault never allowed more than three earned runs in a start, but with as few innings as he pitched, he made for a bottom end of the rotation starter.
A big reason that Brault never went deep into ball games is because of his pitch counts. He only exceeded 100 pitches once, but was close every time and would have exceeded 100 had he pitched another inning.
Those struggles weren’t just in the majors. In Triple-A, Brault only pitched at least six innings four times in 15 starts. Brault pitched seven innings or beyond just once.
Perhaps a big reason that Brault wasn’t stretched out more in 2016 was due to a left hamstring tear in a start on May 8, 2016. Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington admitted to MLB.com’s Adam Berry that the injury affected Brault’s performance even after returning from rehab.
“Steven Brault prior to the hamstring [tear] was a different guy than we saw at the Major League level last year,” Huntington said. “More power. More quality of stuff. More crispness of the stuff. If that guy’s back again, he’s going to open some eyes.”
Brault told Berry that the injury made it tougher for him to find consistency. Perhaps it did, but prior to the injury on May 8, Brault only pitched at least six innings once in six starts.
Even though it’s been over a year since the hamstring injury, the Pirates may still be hesitant
Early takeaways in 2017
As mentioned before, Brault has been fantastic with Indianapolis this year. He’s improved from his 2016 struggles of pitching deeper into games. In his last start on Aug. 12, Brault tossed his 10th consecutive quality start. The last time Brault didn’t throw a quality start, May, 25, he only allowed one run over 4.2 innings.
Brault has only made three MLB appearances in 2017, all in relief, so his stats should be taken lightly. He has had his struggles, giving up multiple runs in two of his three outings. That said, his 4.50 ERA is so high largely because in his first appearance of the season, July 25 vs Colorado, Brault allowed two runs in one inning. Besides that outing, Brault has only allowed two runs in seven innings.
One improvement that Brault has made in 2017 is the addition of a curveball. After not throwing one in 2016, Brault has used it in each of his three major-league appearances. This is important because it shows he’s taken steps forward.
Additionally, Brault’s velocity has increased in 2017. It’s only three games worth of samples, but nearly all of his pitches have gained velocity.
Particularly of note is Brault’s changeup. After being worth -0.2 runs below average in 2016, it’s up to 0.2. It’s not a huge improvement, but his changeup’s velocity has been the most consistently improved pitch in terms of velocity in 2017.
The organization’s thoughts
Brault is currently the Pittsburgh Pirates No. 7 prospect, according to MLB.com. However, the report does not declare him to be a slam dunk All-Star major-leaguer.
“The athletic lefty doesn’t have plus stuff, so if he doesn’t buy into mixing his pitches and his sequencing, as he did in the Minors, he’s going to get hit. He can pitch off of his average fastball because he typically commands it well down in the zone with sink, creating weak contact on the ground. He now features just one breaking ball, a slider that continues to improve and flashes plus on occasion. His changeup has become a better weapon against right-handed hitters.”
Despite the improvements in his pitches, Huntington still hasn’t called Brault up.
That’s not for a lack of excitement about Brault’s season. In an early May edition of his weekly radio show, Huntington expressed his pleasure with Brault’s early progress.
“Steven Brault is providing us more of what we saw last year pre-hamstring injury, and now we are at a point where if we bring one of them up to the bullpen, we’re chipping away at our SP depth.”
Brault has been exceptional, but consistent time in the majors ultimately isn’t his decision.
Hoping for his next call-up
Brault’s minor-league numbers have been great and management did say he just missed out on making the Opening Day rotation. Seemingly, he should be the top call-up option if a starter struggles or gets hurt. That’s just the problem though. No one has gotten hurt or struggled as of late.
Brault’s best chance to join the rotation was in June when Tyler Glasnow was sent down. Instead of calling up Brault, the Pirates moved Trevor Williams into the rotation. After a rough first start, Williams has filled in nicely as a No. 5 starter.
Brault is still thought of highly in the organization. Remember, he was called up before Williams last season. However, Williams’ success is the primary reason that Brault hasn’t made a major-league start in 2017.
Despite this, it’s puzzling how the Pirates have used Brault this season. He’s essentially been called up to be used as a long reliever when the team’s bullpen depth is thin. This is not the proper way to use such a stellar Triple-A arm. If he is brought up, it should be for a spot-start or a long term rotation spot. The struggles of last season aside, Brault has proven in 2017 that he deserves another shot as a starting pitcher.
Brault is back in the minors, but his return might not be far away. It just depends on the health and effectiveness of the major-league rotation. Management still believes in him, but needs to make a decision on Brault soon.