Editorials

Is Steven Brault the Mariners’ Next Improvement Project?

The Seattle Mariners began this off-season by proclaiming themselves as playoff contenders entering 2021. With a strong likelihood of another season of the extended playoff format, it was a bold but not impossible goal.

In order to achieve said goal, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told fans that he was going to add 3-4 bullpen arms and a veteran starting pitcher. Thus far, Dipoto has added a handful of lottery tickets, including Chris Flexen, but has yet to add a clear upgrade to the projected six-man rotation in 2021. Could Steven Brault be that guy? Let’s take a closer look.

Steven Brault is a 28-year-old left-handed pitcher, currently of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Brault has pitched in parts of five seasons for the Pirates, mixing his time between the bullpen and the rotation. He has made 100 career appearances, 45 of them as a starter. But Brault has never really stood out in any capacity prior to 2020 and appeared to be a #6 starter in a 5 man rotation. In his one extended look as a starter in 2019, Brault was mediocre at best, posting a 4.69 FIP, a 4.92 xFIP, an 8.09 K/9, and a 3.95 BB/9 in his 95 innings out of the rotation.

But after becoming a permanent member of the rotation on May 29th of 2019, Brault reeled off an impressive 14 game stretch, where he posted a 3.24 ERA in 75 innings while allowing just a .681 OPS to oppose hitters. That stretch was derailed by an awful performance in Chicago in his third from the last start when he surrendered 10 runs in 2.2 innings.

That stretch was enough for the rebuilding Pirates to give Brault a chance to enter 2020 as a full-time starter and he didn’t disappoint, posting a 3.38 ERA, a 3.92 FIP, and an 8.2 K/9 along with an impressive 49.1% groundball rate. However, despite making just 10 starts, Brault only covered 42.2 innings and his walks per nine jumped to an ungodly 4.64 BB/9.

But Brault did do an excellent job at avoiding hard contact, largely by missing barrels. In 2020, Brault ranked in the 89th percentile in exit velocity, 76th percentile in hard-hit %, 59th percentile in xBA, 68th percentile in xSLG, and the 83rd percentile in barrel%. Brault is a low spin lefty, who is a good athlete, who pitches without overpowering stuff. In fact, both Brault’s changeup and fastball were difficult to square up in 2020, with the changeup serving as his best pitch. Hitters posted a .138 xWOBA against it in 2020.

Brault just became arbitration-eligible for the first time and is projected to earn between $1.5 million and $2.5 million in 2021. For the notoriously cheap Pirates who are half a decade away from contention, this is likely a salary they wouldn’t mind moving, especially since Brault’s age and stuff don’t suggest more than a #5 starter. Enter the Seattle Mariners, an organization with an elite reputation for helping pitchers find another gear they didn’t know they possessed.

Seattle has had success turning similar arms into quality big leaguers. And since Brault already has a plus changeup and a slightly above-average fastball velocity, there are already some things to work with for the team’s analytics department, including the mysterious disappearance of a solid cutter. In 2019, Brault’s cutter held opponents to a .155 average and a .239 slugging percentage, but the pitch was scrapped in 2020.

An athletic lefty with a good changeup and cutter who isn’t an overpowering arm? Well, that’s probably where the similarities end to Marco Gonzales, whose elite control Brault will likely never sniff. But when you look at some of the batted ball data, there are some similarities, including their abilities to limit hard-hit balls.

While Brault isn’t the big-name starter that will excite Mariners fans, he does come cheaper, both monetarily and in acquisition cost, than other names. Jake Fraley likely gets it done. Brault’s experience in the bullpen gives him additional value and Seattle would have the ability to control him for up to three years.

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