Pittsburgh Pirates: JT Brubaker Pitching His Way to a Long-Term Role

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 19: JT Brubaker #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at American Family Field on April 19, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 19: JT Brubaker #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at American Family Field on April 19, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher JT Brubaker has been a solid arm the last two months, but has he done enough to earn a long-term role?

Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander JT Brubaker has been quite solid this year for the team. After stumbling to the finish line last season, Brubaker has recently strung together a handful of excellent starts. With his hot streak now extending from mid/late April into mid-June, should the Pirates consider Brubaker a long-term part of the rotation?

As Marty recently pointed out, Brubaker has recently turned a corner, and when you look at his last 11 starts, the numbers support it. Since his third start of the year up until now, Brubaker has a 3.84 ERA, 4.13 FIP, and 1.31 WHIP. His strikeout rate currently sits at 22.9%, while his walk rate comes in at 8.3%. Home runs were a massive issue for Brubaker last year, but he cut his HR/9 from over 2.00 to just 1.28 through his latests 56.2 innings of work.

Brubaker’s average opponent exit velo comes out to just 87.8 MPH, which is above the average league rate of 88.4 MPH. He’s also had a sub-20% line drive rate and ground ball rate right around league average. His xFIP and SIERA also clock in below 4.00, coming in at 3.92 and 3.98, respectively.

Now, none of those numbers might scream all-star or Cy Young candidate, but they’re perfectly fine as a third starter in the rotation. Pirates starters overall have been rock solid since May 1st, having a 4.13 ERA and 3.87 FIP. It’s worth noting that those numbers are a little inflated. Of the 79 earned runs Pirate starters have given up in this time, Bryse Wilson is responsible for 16.5% of them, 13 to be exact. However, he’s only responsible for 2.5% of their innings pitched.

Just like how Wilson has inflated the Pirate starting pitching numbers over the last month-and-a-half, Brubaker’s overall numbers this year are inflated by the first two starts of his 2022 campaign. He’s only given up 30 earned runs all season, and eight of those came in early April. Those two starts make up just over a quarter of all earned runs he’s given up (26.7%, to be exact) despite making up only 12.5% of his total innings this season.

Brubaker is a little old to consider him a long-term arm, being 28-years-old, but he is a late bloomer. He didn’t make his debut until his age-26 campaign (2020) because he missed a good chunk of 2019 due to injuries. So what other reasons besides a hot start to 2022 is there to consider the right-hander a long-term rotation arm potentially?

Brubaker has significantly changed up what he throws and where he locates it. He has become very sinker/slider-heavy, using each pitch over a third of the time this year. He’s also using his four-seam fastball a lot less than during 2021, nearly cutting his pitch usage in half from 24.5% to 12.1%.

He’s also drastically changed where he throws his sinker. Last season, he lived a lot in the middle of the zone with his sinker but now lives on the edge of the zone near the right-handed batters’ box. He is also throwing his fastball much higher in the zone and is more consistently hitting the right-handed batters’ box corner of the strike zone with his changeup. Another positive is he is hitting the zone with his curveball more often.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have plenty of options for the rotation for next season. Roansy Contreras will be at the top of the rotation and Zach Thompson doesn’t appear to be letting go of a spot any time soon. At this point next season, Quinn Priester will likely be knocking on the major league doorstep. Carmen Mlodzinski and Kyle Nicolas may also make their debut later this year. Cody Bolton will likely be called up soon. The question now becomes if someone can replicate or outperform Brubaker.

Brubaker has been decent over the past two months. He’s pitching as expected now, being a 3.80 ERA pitcher with a FIP around 4.00. But that isn’t the highest ceiling to clear. Bolton might even be able to replicate that. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Brubaker shouldn’t be considered for the rotation long-term.

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Brubaker is a solid right-handed pitcher. He may never be an ace, but you’re never going to fill a rotation with no. 1 starting pitchers. Having solid and reliable back half of the rotation arms is what killed the Pirates in 2013-2015, and there’s no such thing as too much pitching depth. If Brubaker can give the Pittsburgh Pirates over 160 innings of work and keep pitching to a ~3.80 ERA or better, I would highly consider him part of the rotation for the long haul.