Just last week, I attempted to answer a question which has been steadily entering the minds of Pittsburgh Pirates fans recently: Is JT Brubaker an ace? The answer, at least as I saw it, was that he is the Pirates’ ace, but I would hold off on calling him an ace in general. Then, Brubaker went into St. Louis and pitched in what was probably his worst outing of the season.
On May 18, the Pirates lost to the Cardinals, 5-2, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Brubaker, that day’s starting pitcher for Pittsburgh, lasted 5.2 innings, allowing five runs on eight hits and three walks, while striking out three. What went wrong in the midwest? In short, Brubaker got hit — hard.
Between the two clubs, 13 different balls were hit 100 miles per hour or harder. Of those 13, 10 came off the bat of a St. Louis Cardinal. Of those 10, nine were Brubaker offerings. As is often the case, not all of those hard hit balls wound up being base hits. For example, the hardest hit ball of the game, a 110.1 mile per hour groundball off the bat of Harrison Bader, turned into a routine groundout. But they did result in four singles, a double, and a home run.
The trouble started with Brubaker’s inability to miss bats — or, at the very least, the fat part of bats. On the season, the Pirate starter controls a 29.6 percent CSW% (called strikes + whiffs percentage). Against the Cardinals, that number was 22 percent. To reduce that number to simple whiffs: Brubaker averages a whiff percentage of 26.4 percent on the year, whereas he only got batters to whiff 19 percent of the time in St. Louis.
Figure 1 (below) shows Brubaker’s heat map for all pitches in that St. Louis game. Although he was successful in locating down-and-away from right-handed batters — throwing 22 pitches overall in that zone — he missed over the plate more than he’d care to in a given outing.
There’s a higher concentration of middle-outer third and inner-upper third of the plate than is normal. Even though the plays where Brubaker really got burned — like the Nolan Arenado home run — didn’t cross middle-middle, when a pitcher is consistently getting the ball over the plate in hittable areas, batters have the ability to get more aggressive and cover greater portions of the plate.
In Figure 2 (above), Brubaker’s heat map for the entire season is shown. As you can see in the map, Brubaker has largely stayed away from the major danger areas in the zone, often working down-and-away to right-handed batters. Although Brubaker did show the ability to find that part of the zone against St. Louis, he was often missing over the fatter part of the plate.
While I was writing this piece, Brubaker made another start — this one coming in Atlanta against a powerful Braves club. The Pirate starter lasted 5.1 innings, allowing seven runs on seven hits. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out seven.
Over his last two starts, Brubaker has seen his ERA balloon from 2.58 to 4.20, an obvious shift in the wrong direction. For the Pirates — a team whose relative success this season has been on the backs of the pitchers — watching Brubaker devolve as we approach June is troubling.
Of Pirate slip-ups, Jacob Stallings said, “Just about every mistake we made went out of the park,” according to The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel’s recent piece.
For example, on a slider that Stallings was calling for low and away from the right-handed hitting Austin Riley, Brubaker left the pitch on the middle of the plate on the outer-third of the zone. Riley capitalized on the mistake for his first of two home runs on the afternoon.
Later in the game, Stallings was calling for a fastball down-and-away from Riley — just as he had called for the slider — but Brubaker missed at the letters on the inner-third part of the plate. Riley was able to inside-out the 93 mile per hour offering into the right-centerfield bleachers.
In recent starts, Brubaker has shown a trend of failing to properly execute his pitches — something that’s crucial for any pitcher, but particularly for one who doesn’t have significant plus movement or velocity. In my recent article highlighting Brubaker’s strengths, I noted that his success was contingent on hitting locations and getting batters to make weak contact with the ball. In his last two starts, he’s failed in that regard.
Eventually, I’m sure we all expected Pirates’ pitchers to return to earth a little bit. The hope, I think, surrounding the club was that contributors like Brubaker would be able to continue on this steady ascension. Sure, two poor starts doesn’t necessarily spell disaster — after all, Brubaker experienced a tumultuous freshman year at Akron — but it does lend more credence to the belief that perhaps Brubaker was pitching as the exception, not the rule, to his ability.