Steven Brault can exhale — sort of. For the first time in his major league career, the relentlessly upbeat Pittsburgh Pirates lefty is not spending spring training freaking out over whether he’ll have a job at the end of the month.
The 28-year-old will be in the starting rotation when the regular season begins on April 1. Heady territory for player who has done a little bit of everything since breaking into the big leagues in 2016. He has started 45 times in 100 appearances, worked in long relief and short relief as a left-handed one-out guy and has one career save under his belt.
The Pirates, however, don’t need him to be versatile. They need him to become a reliable option every fifth day, something he was in 2020, particularly late in the season after the training wheels came off. Brault went 1-3 with a 3.38 ERA last year and ended with a flourish. His last two starts were a complete-game two-hitter against St. Louis and seven shutout innings against the Chicago Cubs.
It was enough to earn him a promotion to a full-time starter, though he insists he hasn’t altered his mindset.
“If we had signed four big-time starters coming into this year and I wasn’t guaranteed a spot again, I would go in with the same mentality,” Brault said Wednesday after throwing one scoreless inning against Tampa Bay in his spring training debut. “I don’t think it changes too much but yeah, I think a general ‘Ooh, it’s spring training’ instead of like, ‘Oh, got to earn a spot.’ It’s kind of nice.”
Brault doesn’t overwhelm hitters with overpowering stuff, which has led to issues with walks. He has attempted to adjust by trusting himself more. That means focusing on working quickly, and if that means pitching to contact — meaning putting the ball in the strike zone more often — so be it.
“I want every pitch to be competitive around the zone because even when I don’t get my pitches exactly where I’m trying to get them, most of the time they still work as long as they’re in the zone,” he said. “That’s what I’m going for.”
That means starting his two-seamer in the middle so it runs back to the corner on left-handers instead of starting it on the inside corner and hoping the batter swings anyway.
“I used to nibble,” he said. “I try not to do that anymore. Nibbling is more passive for sure. You don’t want to nibble. Nibbling is lame.”
Saying goodbye to friends also is lame, which is something that became commonplace over the winter. Starters Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer and Trevor Williams all left the Pirates in the offseason, leaving Brault and Chad Kuhl as the longest-tenured pitchers on the staff. All that turnover could be uncomfortable, but Brault’s disarming manner makes him the de facto clubhouse mayor, one who embraces making the sea of new faces feel at home.
“When you have a guy like Brault that is outgoing and embraces people and talks to them, it is helpful, because there’s young guys in camp that are finding their way,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We want to make sure that the guys that have been here, especially the guys who were here last year, that they’re able to educate them and talk to them and articulate what their plan is.”
Articulating is never a problem for the chatty and multitalented Brault. He’s an accomplished singer — he put together a Broadway-inspired album in 2019 — and cohosted a podcast with Williams. The podcast is on hiatus with Williams now pitching for the Cubs.
“He’s done. We’re no longer friends,” Brault said with a laugh. “Actually, we did work out every single day together this offseason, so we actually are still friends.”
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