Brandon Maurer Takes Issue With Big Three

This guy - USA TODAY Sports

Not many people knew what a Brandon Maurer was before spring training. Now he might be the Mariners' third best starter.

In the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft, the Texas Rangers selected Justin Smoak 11th overall out of USC. This is the same draft that the Mariners selected Josh Fields 20th overall out of the University of Georgia, only to ship him to Boston in the Eric Bedard deal (and is now a Rule 5 selection by the Houston Astros). This is the same draft where the Mariners selected Brandon Maurer in the 23rd round pick out of Orange Lutheran High School. Trivia sometimes overwhelms me.

It's not entirely unique that players selected in the 23rd round, or any later round, turn out to be useful. But they certainly don't have the same level of hype. Or expectations.

Amidst all the optimism about the "big three" pitching prospects the Mariners have in their stable, Brandon Maurer is kind of an imposter. Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Danny Hultzen are all former first round picks (asterisk for Paxton, of course) and the expectations were understandably high.

And yet Maurer appears to have arrived. If arriving can be defined as being a member of a major league starting rotation, that is. Because yesterday the Mariners announced that Maurer will be the fifth starter to begin the 2013 season, and I'm not sure there were too many people that thought this was a likely scenario entering spring training.

So what do we know about Brandon Maurer?

Maurer was drafted as a 17-year-old out of Orange Lutheran High School with the 702nd overall pick. Orange Lutheran must have had one hell of a pitching staff in 2008, because two other pitchers were selected that year from that squad. You might recognize the name Gerrit Cole, a first round selection by the Yankees (and later by the Pirates) and Aaron Gates, whom you probably don't recognize and I know nothing about. But Maurer wasn't even the best pitcher on his high school team.

He spent the better part of three seasons in rookie ball, pitching pretty well, but nothing other-worldly. Over roughly 100 innings, he amassed a 3.28 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and struck out 90. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice (name the Dom Deluise character that's quoted from and I'll send you my Steve Trout baseball card).

In 2010, Maurer pitched in the Australian Baseball League, and it seems that's where he started to make scouts turn a curious eyebrow and do the Dr. Evil pinky thing. He started nine games for the menacing Adelaide Bite (no really, they're called the Bite), tossing 48 innings, giving up just 38 hits and striking out 51. The following season, they moved him up to Clinton with their single-A affiliate where he dominated with a 3.41 ERA (2.82 FIP) and a 29% strikeout rate over 37 innings pitched. The club quickly shuttled him to High-A High Desert where he struggled a little bit with a 4.90 FIP and a 20% strikeout rate over 42 innings, but he demonstrated improved control, with just a 6% walk rate. It was around this time he started showing up on "prospect lists."

Last year, he spent the whole season with AA Jackson, making 24 starts, throwing 137.2 innings, posting a 3.20 ERA (3.05 FIP) with a 20% strikeout rate and 8.4% walk rate. His name started getting floated as a possible Spring invitee along with their blue chippers. And so far this Spring, he's obviously pitched quite well. A 0.90 ERA with a 9.9 K/9 rate over 20 innings rightly got someone's attention.

I write all this merely as context because Brandon Maurer really wasn't supposed to be here today. He's not been considered among the top arms the Mariners possess until only recently, and his minor league track record is good, but not spectacular. But on the scouting side, it's his stuff that gets people's heart rate up.

Because some of the ballparks down in Phoenix use PitchF/X, we can actually get a feeling for his repertoire and how he's been attacking hitters. So far this spring, Maurer has used five pitches - a four seam fastball, sinker, slider, change-up, and a sparingly used curve. His fastball has averaged a hair over 93 mph, occasionally touching 96. That ain't bad. He throws what many refer to as a "power sinker" inasmuch as it's not terribly distinguishable by speed, registering at an average 92 mph. His slider has been his out pitch, going to it when ahead in the count or with two strikes almost 40% of the time versus right handers and almost half the time vs lefties.

The only game that I could find with a decent camera angle was his start against the San Francisco Giants. Here's a few quick gif's for you in case you haven't had the pleasure of seeing him in action. The first is an 0-2 slider thrown to Cole Gillespie:

Maurerk1

This is a 1-2 slider thrown to Guillermo Quiroz, who misses the ball by about a foot.

Maurerk2

Here's a full count slider thrown to Wilson Valdez. Notice it was near enough the zone that it might have even been called for a strike.

Maurerk3

And here's the look that Valdez gave his bat after that swing:

Maurerbat

Wasn't the bat's fault, Wilson.

This is not to say Brandon Maurer is going to strike out every right handed batter he faces. This is not to say he's only going to face hitters like Wilson Valdez, Cole Gillespie, and Guillermo Quiroz. I'm just a visual learner. I could talk about his slider all day long, but these three little gems kind of sum the pitch up nicely. What I particularly liked about watching this start was how well he hit his spots.

His sinker has become his go-to pitch when he's behind in the count and he's looking for contact. This spring he's gone to his sinker about 48% of the time when behind in the count, inducing swings 55% of the time, and his whiff rate on the pitch is a very low 3%. When hitters are swinging at it, they're putting it in play about half the time -- and better than half of those balls in play have been grounders. It might not be his best pitch, but his sinker is going to be an important one for his success.

Borrowing from Brooks Baseball, looking at a birds-eye view of his repertoire by handedness, you can see he uses his four seam fastball to pump strikes. Versus lefties, he works that sinker away and the slider in:

(vs. LHB)

Versus righties, as evidenced by the video above, he works that slider away and busts his sinker in on the hands. Notice for both, the sinker is on or near the black -- and if this is a pitch he uses frequently when behind in the count, that strikes me as particularly encouraging:

(vs. RHB)

He's still just 22 and I've heard more than once in talking to scouting types that he's "starting to learn how to pitch." The cynical side of me thinks that just means that he's getting better results, but the more objective side of me realizes these people watch a whole lot of pitchers throw baseballs, and what they're seeing out of Maurer right now is a more polished version of himself. Which is ostensibly very good.

There's also mention of him getting "comfortable with his body*." The 12-year-old in me giggles at this, and the old man in me realizes that when he was drafted he was listed at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds. Prospect sheets almost always add pounds, so you can probably bet he was 190 lbs. soaking wet. He's now listed at 215. I don't really know what this means, but it's information.

I talked to Marc Hulet (who does prospect work for Fangraphs.com among other sites) about Maurer just recently, and his comments were pretty succinct:

"Bulldog guy with great makeup that gets the most out of his abilities -- Four-pitch mix with mid-90s fastball and slider being his two best offerings. Control is currently ahead of his command. Injuries have slowed his ascent but when I spoke with the Mariners they were as excited about him as Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton. No. 2 or 3 ceiling."

I'm not sure how much you read Hulet's work, but I think he's typically conservative when projecting a player ceiling, so for him to say number "2 or 3" gets me all irrationally flushed with enthusiasm. In which case I need to go re-read my first 500 words of this post.

For now, we appear to have Brandon Maurer in the Mariner starting rotation, and given their other options, it actually seems like an excellent choice. Try as I might to temper expectations, I'm awfully interested to see what he can do at this level. We'll get to see the early returns on the road against Oakland just seven days from now.

*For an incredibly hilarious take on the terms scouts use to assess prospects, go to YouTube and search for Rob Delaney Scouting Report. Oh, and uh, NSFW.

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