Two years ago, the Yankees selected righthander Andrew Brackman with their first round pick, knowing full well that he might need elbow surgery at some point, perhaps as soon as that summer. Brackman showed tremendous raw stuff and considerable potential as an amateur, the reasons why he was ranked so high in pre-draft rankings (Keith Law had him as the third best prospect in the draft class). The Yankees were willing to gamble and wait on his talent, especially with a pick so late in first round.
As expected, Brackman underwent Tommy John surgery soon after signing a Major League deal worth $3.35 million guaranteed with incentives that could push the total value of the contract to $13 million. At the time, it was potentially the richest contract in draft history. Brackman spent all of 2008 rehabbing but returned to action in the now defunct Hawaii Winter Baseball League last fall where he was ranked the number two prospect by Baseball America (subs. req’d).
Brackman’s long awaited full season debut didn’t go as smoothly as planned this year. It featured a few ups but considerably more downs. His overall season line — 106.2 IP, 106 H, 79 R, 76 BB, 103 K — isn’t pretty, and his 26 wild pitches were second most in all of minor league baseball. The way I see it Brackman’s season can be broken down into three distinct periods, which I’ll arbitrarily call Good Brackman, Bad Brackman, and Reliever Brackman.
Over the next three days, we’ll take a look at each version of Brackman in depth, starting today with Good Brackman.
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Coming into the season, expectations for Brackman were high, but cautiously high, if that makes sense. As always, the most important thing was staying healthy and gaining experience. After that, we wanted to see his stuff return to what it was in college and for him to make progress with his command and mechanics. As ugly as the stat line ended up at the end of the season, Brackman actually started out pretty well, believe it or not.
The usually aggressive Yankees took the conservative approach with Brackman, sending him to Low-A Charleston instead of High-A Tampa. In his first nine starts, he threw 50.2 innings, pitching to a 3.55 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. His peripherals were strong as well:
By no means was it a blow-you-away type of performance, but it was encouraging to see Brackman take the ball every five days coming off Tommy John Surgery and miss so many bats. Even though he was older than the competition, his lack of pitching experience somewhat leveled the playing field.
He allowed two runs or fewer in seven of his first nine starts and walked no more than three batters in any of those nine starts. According to minorleaguesplits.com, Brackman was generating close to 60 percent groundballs during these starts. This was a promising figured because tall pitchers tend to be extreme flyball guys since they have trouble getting the ball down in the zone. Sure, he was a bit homer-prone in the early going, but it was too small of a sample size to consider it a trend just yet.
While the performance was solid, Brackman’s stuff wasn’t quite up to snuff in the early going. According to this BA report (subs. req’d again, sorry), Brackman’s once powerful fastball was topping out in low-90’s.
“I’m not back to being myself yet,” said Brackman, who had the surgery in September 2007 and spent all last summer rehabbing his arm. “They say Tommy John takes a while for you to come back from and your velocity is the last thing to come back. I’m waiting on that. I try every day to do what I can to build arm strength. It’s a whole lot easier to pitch when you have your velocity, and I’m so used to pitching with that.”
Brackman admitted to being impatient and frustrated but did note that without his usual blow-you-away fastball he was forced to work on his secondary pitches, particularly his changeup. Of course the real concern isn’t that Brackman’s stuff wasn’t fully back post-TJ; it’s that his stuff showed signs of decline even before the 2007 draft. Here’s part of a KLaw report from two months before he was drafted:
Brackman pitched Saturday at Boston College, and wasn’t quite the same guy. He was throwing across his body, almost as if someone told him he had to work on getting the ball to his glove side (or as if he decided it himself), resulting in erratic command in addition to the long-term injury concerns that come with those mechanics. His breaking ball was also worse than it was last summer, with a softer, early break. His command of both pitches was way off.
He’s still a superb athlete with a plus fastball (88-95 this week), and it’s too easy to let the one look this weekend erase what he showed he could do last summer.
So the question goes from “Will his stuff come back after TJ?” to “Is TJ why his stuff is down in the first place?” While the results were encouraging, the reports on his stuff were not. After adjusting his delivery in Hawaii under the guidance of pitching coach Jeff Ware (also his pitching coach with Charleston) and struggling with it, Brackman went back to his original mechanics. How much that factors into his declining stuff, we may never know.
The numbers were pretty good in the early going, not quite what you’d expect out of such a highly touted draft pick, but certainly nothing that would trigger any red flags from someone on the outside looking in. That goes double for a guy coming off major arm surgery. However, the first nine starts of Brackman’s season show exactly why stats, especially those in the low minors, are just a tiny piece of the equation. The scouting report had changed in a bad way, and the worst was yet to come.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at Bad Brackman — a ten-start stretch in the middle of the season when not just the wheels but the axles and drive train came completely off the bus.