J. T. Brubaker stood in the green grass at Prince George’s Stadium here Thursday morning, surrounded by 12 other minor league pitchers with the Double-A Altoona (PA) Curve.
With game time about 90 minutes away in a special 11:05 a.m. start time for camp day, Brubaker and other prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates system did stretching exercises before grabbing a pitching partner and throwing down the left field line.
Tecumseh High School graduate Brubaker, 23, a sixth-round draft pick by the Pirates out of Division I Akron in 2015, has made perhaps the biggest move in pro baseball: from Single-A to Double-A.
It may sound pedestrian, but that is not the case for starting pitchers trying to navigate through some of the top hitting prospects in pro baseball.
“From one to nine (in the order) they have a complete game plan,” said Brubaker, standing outside the Altoona clubhouse before the drills. “That is different from the lower level. Each person (at Double-A) has their own game plan of what they can do, their strengths and weaknesses. I think that is the biggest difference.”
Brubaker is 4-2 with a 4.36 ERA in 13 games, with 11 starts, going into his start on today (Friday) in Erie, Pa. against the Double-A farm team of the Detroit Tigers. He had 59 strikeouts with 19 walks in 66 innings, with 69 hits (seven homers) allowed.
“I feel like I have pitched pretty well,” Brubaker said. “I have gone out and competed and given my best effort. You have some bad games, you have some good games. Right now I want to get to the point where I can be as consistent as possible.”
Altoona manager Michael Ryan, who played briefly in the Major Leagues with the Twins and Angels, was the skipper for Brubaker last season with high Single-A Bradenton in the Florida State League.
“He has been excellent. He is on his way to becoming a three-pitch pitcher,” said Ryan, sitting in his office before a game against Baltimore Orioles affiliate Bowie. “His slider is coming around and he is starting to use the change up more. He had a really great playoff run for us last year (in Florida) and I think that has put him over the top confidence wise.”
Ryan said Brubaker’s changeup has improved. Last year the pitcher was 6-11 with a 4.44 ERA in 22 starts split between the South Atlantic League and the Florida State League.
“The more you throw it the more you are comfortable with it. It has become a weapon for him,” Ryan said of his change.
“I would say my best off-speed pitch that is coming along is my changeup,” Brubaker said.
Ryan said the Pirates view Brubaker, who has a fastball in the mid-90s, as a starting pitcher down the road.
“I think he is a starter. That is what the organization sees him at. He puts the ball on the ground (getting ground outs) and gets ahead of some guys” in the count, Ryan said. “His velocity has been going up (to the mid-90s) and that is a good sign. His two-seam fastball runs and sinks.”
Brubaker worked out in the Springfield area last winter and then headed in mid-February to Bradenton, Fla., the spring training home of the Pirates.
Altoona played earlier this season in Akron, the only Eastern League team based in Ohio. Brubaker did not pitch in Akron but his family has made trips to Altoona to see him.
“It is small but there is quite a lot to do,” said Brubaker, noting there is golf, malls and restaurants. “It is not like you are out in the middle of nowhere.”
Brubaker enjoys playing for Ryan, who hit his first big league homer against veteran and still active John Lackey.
“He is awesome to play for,” Brubaker said of Ryan. “He brings energy. He is a great manager and a great guy.”
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