Despite allowing a pair of solo homeruns and some hard contact early in last night’s start against the St. Louis Cardinals, Steven Brault was able to settle in and continue his run of turning in good efforts on the mound for the Pirates.
Since the start of the 2020 season, Brault has turned himself into a pitcher that the Pirates have been able to count on. In a rotation that includes what is mostly a combination of young and inexperienced guys, the reliable veteran presence is exactly what the Pirates have hoped for.
Since the start of the abbreviated 60-game season last year, Brault has not pitched a lot, but when he has, he has impressed. In those 13 games (12 starts), Brault has a 3.31 ERA in 51.2 IP. He has recorded 8.0 K/9, 4.0 BB/9 and limited the opposition to just 4 homers (0.7 HR/9). Take out the lone relief appearance during that stretch, an outing where he allowed four earned runs without recording an out against the Detroit Tigers, and his ERA drops to 2.61 as a starter.
In the years prior to this stretch, from the time he made his debut in 2016 up until the end of the 2019 season, Brault pitched to a 4.88 ERA in 89 games (35 starts) over 273.0ip. Over that span, he yielded 1.1 HR/9, 4.6 BB/9 while recording 7.7 K/9.
So, what changed?
For starters, Brault has gotten the opportunity to work almost exclusively out of the rotation. From 2016-2019, he only made double digit starts out of the rotation once (25 games/19 starts in 2019). From 2016-2018, he made only 16 starts over his 64 appearances.
Diving into it more, Brault has used his fastball less and his off-speed more. Under the previous coaching staff, Brault used his fastball about 65-70% of the time. Remember when Brault opened the game with 69 straight fastballs vs. the Rockies in 2019?
Once Oscar Marin, Justin Meccage and the rest of the Pirates coaching staff took over, they suggested Brault go to the slider and changeup more. His fastball usage dipped to just over half of the time while the slider usage increased. And although he has not used it as much so far in 2021, Brault used his changeup almost twice as much in 2020 as he had for the rest of his career.
The increased use of the off-speed pitching has led to a trend that has helped Brault in getting, for the most part, and that is a lot of soft contact. Opposing hitters are swinging more and making contact more on pitches outside of the strike zone, and have not been able to square him up. In that, the average exit velocity against Brault went from the bottom of the league in 2019, to near the top in 2020.
All this, combined with limiting homeruns, limiting base on balls and throwing more strikes means that there are more than a few signs that indicate Brault will be able to sustain his new-found success.
While the sample size is not large, and Brault has had some luck on balls in play, though some of that “luck” is a result of inducing soft contact, Brault has become an effective pitcher in the Pirates’ rotation. The team is counting on Brault to continue this stretch to help anchor a young staff.