Pittsburgh Pirates: What to do With JT Brubaker
By Noah Wright
JT Brubaker was developed as a starter. But could he be more valuable to the Pittsburgh Pirates as a high-leverage relief pitcher?
On Sunday afternoon, Pittsburgh Pirates right handed pitching prospect, JT Brubaker, made his debut coming out of the pen during the 6th inning. And for 2 innings, he was absolutely dominant.
He struck out four Cardinal batters. Those four being Kolten Wong, Tommy Edman, Matt Carpenter, and Dexter Fowler. What’s even more impressive is that Edman and Wong had very low strikeout rates in 2019, with Wong at 15.1% and Edman at 17.8%.
Brubaker showed some really impressive stuff on the mound. He threw his fastball and sinker both in the mid-90s with very noticeable movement. His slider was very darting, and was the pitches he got Edman, Wong and Fowler to strike out on. His change up was a nice change of pace. Not only did it show movement too, but it’s what he got Carpenter to go down on strike three on.
However, a relief role would be new to Brubaker. Aside from a short eight game stint as a relief pitcher in the Arizona Fall League, Brubaker has only appeared out of the bullpen twice, that being back in 2017.
As a starter, he was quite effective. In 2018, Brubaker had a 2.81 ERA, 3.21 FIP and 1.26 WHIP through 154 innings split between Double-A (35 IP) and Triple-A (119 IP). While he wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher with a 20.2% strikeout rate, he only walked 6.8% of the batters he faced and surrendered eight long balls, coming to a 0.5 HR/9.
The following year, Brubaker started four games at Triple-A before missing the rest of the year due to injury. But in those four starts, he only allowed 6 earned runs in 21 innings on two home runs, 20 strikeouts, and four walks.
Brubaker’s fastball has a future grade of 60 and his curveball has a future grade of 55. His slider sits with an average grade at 50, and his change up only has a future grade of 45. However, these are his grades as a starter.
At the minor league’s highest level, Brubaker has a 3.02 ERA, 3.43 FIP and 1.28 WHIP through 140 innings of work, all as a starting pitcher. He only has a 0.6 HR/9, and 6.8% walk rate. His strikeout rate might only be 19.7%, but those walk and home run numbers are hard to come by any more.
However, having a really dominant force out of the pen is really important in today’s game. The role of the closer is changing. Closers are no longer guys you save until the 9th inning. They’re guys you can put in the 8th or even 7th inning sometimes. After all, it makes sense. You should use your best relief pitcher when you need to. Not just the 9th inning.
One of the most dominant relief pitchers the last two seasons has been Josh Hader. Hader was once a starting pitching prospect, but has since turned into a high leverage reliever. In 23 of Hader’s 61 outings in 2019, he went more than 1 inning.
While I don’t think the Pittsburgh Pirates are about to completely abandon the idea to use Brubaker as a starting pitcher, especially in a year like this when you can experiment with whatever, I think his future is a high-leverage relief pitcher. In those 13 innings in the Arizona Fall League where he did work as a relief pitcher, he struck out 16 batters, allowed just 2 to reach on free passes, and gave up just one home run.
If Brubaker racks up strikeouts at a higher rate out of the pen, using him as a 2+ inning high leverage guy is really valuable. This would set up the 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates to have an extremely strong bullpen consisting of Brubaker, Clay Holmes, Nick Burdi, Cameron Junker, Nick Mears and Blake Cederlind.