Gustafson: Why the start of Matt Brash’s Mariners career is turning heads

Apr 22, 2022, 10:08 AM
Mariners Matt Brash...
Matt Brash of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Houston Astros during the first inning at T-Mobile Park. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

One of the brightest developments of the Mariners’ start to the 2022 season has been the performance of rookie starter Matt Brash.

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Brash, 23, has made two starts already this season and has more than held his own against two of the more dangerous lineups in the American League in the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros.

Brash worked 5 1/3 innings in each start, but other than that, the outings were pretty different though impressive in their own way. Let’s break down why that’s the case and look ahead to Brash’s third start this Saturday.

First start vs Chicago

Brash was advertised as a flame-throwing right hander with nasty breaking balls. That was what he showcased in his first career start against the Chicago White Sox.

In his debut, Brash allowed four hits, two runs and a home run while recording six strikeouts and walking one. He threw 85 pitches with 58 being strikes.

Robert’s homer spoils Brash’s debut, leads White Sox over Mariners 3-2

Brash showed he belonged at the MLB level against a tough Chicago lineup, inducing 11 swings and misses. All of them came on his breaking balls, with six whiffs coming off the slider and five from the curveball, per Statcast.

Brash really mixed it up against the White Sox, throwing 30 fastballs, 27 knuckle curveballs and 24 sliders.

What helped Brash that day wasn’t just that his breaking balls were on point or that he was generating swings and misses, but that he was attacking hitters, recording 17 of 21 first-pitch strikes (81 percent).

Overall, Brash’s MLB debut was phenomenal. But one thing that did stand out from this start on the negative side was that the White Sox were really able to barrel him up.

Brash faced 21 hitters and allowed 10 hard-hit balls (95 mph exit velocity or higher), including eight over 100 mph off the bat, most notably the game-deciding home run by Luis Robert. But, that changed in his most recent start.

Second start vs Houston

In his first start at home at T-Mobile Park, Brash and the Mariners faced off with the Astros with a series win on the line.

Brash ultimately picked up his first win as a big leaguer, in what was a pretty different start overall compared to his MLB debut.

Matt Brash gets first win as Mariners beat Astros 7-2 to take series

Brash again went 5 1/3 on Sunday, and he allowed two earned runs and a home run, but his command was an issue compared to against the White Sox.

By the time his day was done, Brash had walked six batters and hit another. He threw 85 pitches again, but he threw just 44 for strikes, and 12 of his 21 first pitches (57%) were strikes compared to the 81% clip he had in Chicago.

Brash also had less spin on his breaking pitches and had nine whiffs compared to 11 in his debut, per Statcast.

So how was he able to get through 5 1/3 and pick up a win in what ultimately was a pretty good outing?

Brash allowed just four hard-hit balls to the Astros, per Statcast, so he was great at limiting hard contact, especially compared to the 10 hard-hit balls he gave up to the White Sox. He also picked up three double plays behind him and was the beneficiary of catcher Luis Torrens throwing out a runner in the first inning as Brash picked up a strikeout, thus ending the inning.

But Brash had to battle not just against the Astros, but also his command. And because he was working behind many of Houston’s hitters, he only threw nine curveballs, leaning instead on his fastball 45 times and slider 30 times.

Why the starts have been so impressive

It’s easy to see why Brash’s first career start was impressive. The rookie topped out at 99.2 mph with his fastball and showcased wicked breaking balls as he worked ahead of hitters and got plenty of swings and misses.

But why was his second start not just impressive but actually a potential good sign for this year and his career as a whole?

Something I think isn’t discussed enough with top-tier pitchers are the days when they don’t have their best stuff, command or a combination of both.

It’s easy to get caught up in the flat-out dominant outings that star pitchers have when their stuff is at its best and the command is on point. That’s what we saw with future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander last Saturday when he dominated the Mariners, throwing eight scoreless innings while picking up eight strikeouts and only allowing three hits. But days that the stuff and/or command aren’t there is when many star pitchers show just how good they truly are, putting together good to great starts without having all their usual tools at their disposal.

Before I look closer at Brash’s second start, I’d point to Robbie Ray’s opening day start against the Minnesota Twins to showcase what I mean.

Ray is an electric starter. He has the highest strikeouts per nine innings mark in MLB history among pitchers with more than 1,000 innings pitched at 11.1. He also recorded the most strikeouts in MLB history for a pitcher through 1,000 innings pitched.

But in Minnesota on a chilly Friday afternoon, Ray didn’t have his best stuff. His fastball velocity was slightly down, his slider was good but not great and he walked four batters and hit another while recording five strikeouts.

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All that being said, Ray still pitched a fantastic game, going seven innings and allowing just one run. His misses were good, especially with his fastball. Rather than missing over the middle of the plate, Ray missed out of the zone where he couldn’t be hurt. Ray’s stuff and command weren’t quite what we’ve come to expect, but he still delivered a great outing against a dangerous Twins lineup.

I bring that up because while watching Brash’s second career start, my thoughts were first, I think he was more amped up for pitching at home than he was for his MLB debut, and second, that it reminded me of the feeling I got watching Ray in Minnesota.

Think about this: Brash allowed seven free baserunners on walks and hit batters, including leadoff walks in each of the game’s first three innings.

But the Astros still couldn’t get to Brash to take advantage. He focused in, made good pitches, worked out of those self-inflicted jams and got enough swings and misses – and some big double plays to work through those innings.

That Brash in just two MLB starts has already shown he is able to navigate through a dangerous lineup without his best stuff or command is absolutely something to be encouraged by.

Plus, as noted earlier, Brash only threw nine curves against the Astros compared to 27 against the White Sox. But he was still able to generate nine whiffs. That’s because he got six whiffs on the fastball compared to none in his first start, and still got three swings and misses with the slider. So even without the best breaking stuff in part because he was behind a lot of hitters, Brash was able to use the fastball as a swing-and-miss pitch, which he didn’t and couldn’t do in his MLB debut.

It can be easy to look exclusively at box scores and say that the second start was a little rough, but the fact that he worked around his walks and was able to limit the Astros to just four hard-hit balls and only two runs is nothing short of encouraging. That’s what top-of-the-line starters do, and in a small sample size, Brash has shown he has the makings of that.

And in both starts, Brash showed that he doesn’t let the game speed up on him. He, much like fellow young Mariners starter Logan Gilbert, are cool, calm and collected out on the mound even when things are going the other team’s way, and that’s very much a good sign.

Next start

Brash will make his third MLB start Saturday at home against the Kansas City Royals.

The Royals don’t offer the same challenge that the White Sox or Astros do, but still have some good hitters in the lineup in 2021 American League home run leader Salvador Pérez, MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 prospect Bobby Witt Jr., the ever-pesky Whit Merrifield and outfielder Andrew Benintendi.

So what should we be looking for?

Well, first-pitch strikes will be key again. Being at or closer to that 81% clip Brash posted in Chicago will be important so he can better utilize his two breaking balls, especially to generate swings and misses. And if Brash is able to get whiffs with the curve and slider, it will be interesting to see if he can get also swings and misses on the fastball. If all three are missing bats, Brash has a chance to really put together something special.

Additionally, after throwing 85 pitches and 5 1/3 innings in each of his two first starts, Saturday is a good chance for the rookie to work deeper into a game for the first time in his young career.

If Brash has the stuff and command he had in Chicago, then watch out. And even if he doesn’t, he’s already shown he can put together a very good start without that. And that’s what great pitchers – top-of-the-rotation pitchers – do.

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Gustafson: Why the start of Matt Brash’s Mariners career is turning heads