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The Braves Go to Beachy

Shortly after it was announced yesterday that breakout prospect Brandon Beachy would be making a spot start for Jair Jurrjens, Craig Calcaterra tweeted this about the week’s series between Philadelphia and Atlanta: “Philly starters: 765 career starts. Braves starters: 59. 52 of those are Tommy Hanson‘s.” The other seven belong to Mike Minor, whose August debut I profiled in this space. I figured it was only fair to extend the same courtesy to Beachy. Where Minor pitched against a hapless Astros team in his debut, Beachy’s first test was a much taller order: on the road, against the rival and hottest team in baseball, in the midst of divisional and Wild Card races.

You could excuse a 23-year-old kid, particularly one who was an undrafted free agent and former NAIA pitcher, for being a little nervous. And there’s no question he was often during his 82-pitch debut, for which he was ultimately credited with the loss. Beachy allowed three runs, but just one earned – as Jason Heyward dropped a line drive for a three-base error to start the fifth inning and the bullpen allowed its lone inherited runner (Chase Utley) to score – in 4.1 innings. He walked three, two of them intentional — albeit one IBB was after two normal pitches missed the strike zone — and struck out just one (Chase Utley) of 21 batters faced. In fact, Beachy induced just five swinging strikes all night, two on fastballs and three on change-ups.

It was mostly just those two pitches for Beachy, as just eight of his 82 pitches were curveballs. The 6-foot-3 right-hander used the pitch in a weird fashion, throwing 5 of the 8 to left-handed batters. In a game against four right-handed hitters, just three times did he throw the deuce. One of them, and perhaps this was why the usage diminished, was a hanging curveball that Carlos Ruiz smacked to left field for an RBI double. Only once did┬áBeachy drop the pitch in the dirt — it’s more of a control pitch that he uses to freeze hitters expecting an early-count fastball.

The book on Beachy, which was unwritten entering the season, is centered around his excellent control. He walked just 2.1 batters per nine innings this year, matching his career minor league rate, which is 208 innings long. Given his overall success, the implication of control AND command certainly exists, and the Braves television team reported to hearing just as much within the organization. But while color man Joe Simpson said in the fourth inning that Beachy was “locating his fastball real well,” I certainly beg to differ. I can’t fault the kid for being off given the environment, but let’s not pretend something was there that wasn’t. Beachy did not have good command for the majority of last night, neither with his fastball nor his change-up.

For the most part, however, the Phillies good offense didn’t make him pay. The team hit three or four balls hard but foul, including an almost-homer on a fastball to Raul Ibanez that caught too much plate. In the next at-bat, a 10-pitch battle with Carlos Ruiz, another missed fastball was almost a double.┬áBeachy learned quickly that you can’t miss the catcher’s mitt with a 89-92 mph fastball at the Major League level.

Generally speaking, though it received more derision from Simpson, the change-up was the better commanded pitch for Beachy. Though that should be clarified: the change-up hit the vicinity of the catcher’s mitt more often than the fastball, but he had a couple misses with the change-up that promise his HR/9 ratios (just 0.3 in the minors) will see an up-tick in the Major Leagues. To lead off the third inning, Beachy threw change-ups to Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco that he was truly lucky weren’t put over the fence. Unsurprisingly, the next nine pitches were all fastballs.

But where I can’t see the swing-and-miss in Beachy’s fastball, not at that extreme over-the-top arm angle with that velocity, his change-up will have to be the out pitch for Beachy to post requisite strikeout numbers in the big leagues. At times we saw it, including in the aforementioned 10-pitch at-bat versus Ruiz, which included a swinging strike one, a good miss low-and-away, another just-miss that Ruiz offered at, and another pitch he dribbled foul. Four change-ups in one at-bat, and all of them were good. The pitch has potential, and I started to really find that to be true later in the game.

In that way, it was sort of a funny outing for Beachy. I thought he was getting better at the end, though that’s when the “damage” came. He threw two really good change-ups in the fifth inning, including the one that Placido Polanco dribbled to shortstop for the second-run of the game. His final batter faced was Utley, who he initially froze with a curveball, then jammed him inside with a fastball, and then Utley executed some great hitting skills by taking a good low-and-away fastball and smacking it to center field. Where I thought he deserved a beating early, there were some redeeming traits shown later in the outing that, because of the runs, probably were unnoticed.

Given the sheer depth of the Braves pitching staff, it’s hard to project a starting role for Beachy in this organization. He throws 3 pitches, but not one of them is a plus offering right now, and I think maybe only the change-up profiles at plus. He’ll need better command to have any success, because I think he’s going to have problems sustaining his strikeout and home run ratios given the fairly pedestrian stuff. If the young right-hander can paint the black with his fastball, and refine his change-up into an out pitch, he could be a back-end starter in the big leagues. I’m willing to believe that better stuff will be seen in subsequent outings, in less hostile environments, but for now he gets a second-divison starter or middle relief grade from me.