(Note: Welp, as you probably know by now, Bryson Brigman was traded to the Marlins on Tuesday in exchange for Cameron Maybin. Totally fine, not like I just did a 30-minute interview, transcribed said interview, and crafted 2,430 words out of it. That’s something a foolish person would do.
In all seriousness, Bryson was a fantastic interview. The entire Lookout Landing staff wishes him luck in all of his future endeavors. The following interview, conducted while he was a Modesto Nut, offers some fun insight into the Mariners’ system and some playful digs at Brigman’s now-former home. The incredibly unfortunate timing of this publishing is entirely due to my laziness.)
Minor league baseball is many things. It is a ballplayer’s first taste of the professional game, an incubator for their big-league dreams, and for many, their first full-time job.
For former Mariners’ infield prospect Bryson Brigman, the minor leagues took him from a California oasis – Brigman grew up in San Jose and played collegiately at the University of San Diego – to the booming metropolises of Everett, WA and Clinton, IA. Upon returning to California, the 23-year-old hit .304 for the Modesto Nuts at the Class A – Advanced level, with a .373 OBP and 112 wRC+. After his average dipped below .300 with an 0-for-4 night on July 15, Brigman went 18-for-50 (.360) with eight RBI, including his first homer of the season on July 25. One night later, the former USD Torero went 4-for-4 with a triple and a stolen base.
Brigman is in his third season of pro ball after being taken in the third round of the 2016 draft. 68 games with the AquaSox in ’16 preceded 120 with the LumberKings in 2017. Now, with over 1,100 professional at-bats under his belt, the promising prospect feels fully acclimated to the rigors of the game, and how it differs from the NCAA to MiLB levels.
“The biggest difference was honestly just playing every day. Getting used to playing every day and getting your body ready to play every day was the biggest thing,” Brigman said of the adjustment. “I feel like I was decently prepared. [USD head coach] Rich Hill does a pretty good job. He has his own way of doing things, but he wanted to win, and he knew what he was doing.”
Brigman’s alma mater has produced several big-league contributors in recent years, including Kris Bryant, James Pazos, and Sammy Solis. While lifestyle and schedule changes are typically the biggest for incoming minor leaguers, especially ones who have ascended the levels every year as Brigman has, the shortstop also says mechanical changes were necessary to excel in High-A.
“There’s minor tweaks in there for sure, especially in this last offseason. I was just trying to get on plane earlier. I felt like I was kind of steep to the baseball. My barrel kind of came straight down, which caused me to hit a lot of ground balls. I would barrel stuff up but I wouldn’t hit anything with authority.”
Of course, as the baseball world shows increased interest in batted ball data, the launch angle revolution gains more steam with each passing day. For Brigman, he hopes an optimal launch angle can be the product of his hitting equation rather than the start of it.
“I’m not huge on the whole launch angle stuff. I do want to hit the ball more in the air, rather than hit a ground ball,” he concedes. “I’m not really thinking about hitting the ball in the air, just getting the bat on plane early so that I can have more room for error. I’m not doing any crazy launch angle thing where I’m trying to hit it at a certain degree or anything like that.”
At 53.7%, Brigman’s groundball rate is the lowest of his pro career, and an encouraging decline from the 62.7% he put up as a 2016 AquaSox. He is also pulling the ball more, going from a 37.7% pull rate with Everett to 40.4% last year in Clinton to 46.9% this season. Hitting the ball to his pull side may be contributing to the right-handed speedster’s career year, but he claims it’s not something he’s necessarily trying to do.
“My intent is actually to hit a bomb to right center. I know I’m not going to hit a whole lot of bombs to right center, but my intent is to do that so it keeps my direction up the middle and toward right center. A lot of times I would pull off the ball when I was trying to pull it, and I wouldn’t have anything behind the swing, which is why I think I would hit a lot of ground balls. My hands are quick enough, where if I keep my direction the right way I can still adjust to an inside pitch and pull it. That could be why I’m pulling the ball more, but I’m actually trying to do the opposite.”
Just like peanut butter sandwiches and late-night bus rides, bonding with teammates is one of the staples of playing in the minors. Sometimes this camaraderie comes from hours of video games in various hotels across the nation; sometimes it comes from the shared love of the game. Brigman was one of several 2016 Mariner draftees on the Nuts’ roster, joining fellow infielders Joe Rizzo and Nick “Nicky Three Sticks” Zammarelli III, as well as pitchers Michael Koval and Reggie McClain. However, it was Seattle’s 2017 first-rounder that Brigman credits with some hitting advice that brought the two closer.
“There’s one time I can remember specifically, I was talking to Evan White and said, ‘Man, every time I take BP I rarely ever hit a ground ball. I always pretty much hit line drives or fly balls, I rarely hit a ground ball to shortstop,’” Brigman said. “But then every time I got in a game, I had a streak where every day I hit a ground ball to the shortstop. Evan said, ‘Yeah man, it seems like you’re coming forward. You’re not really staying on balance. You’re kind of reaching for the baseball. That’s forcing you to just put it in play without driving the baseball.’ I looked at the video and said, ‘Yeah, he’s right.’”
Brigman says the players in Modesto regularly critique each other and offer suggestions for improvement. In other words, these Nuts are easy to crack.
“There’s been a lot of times like that – and vice versa – where I’ll notice something in Rizzo’s swing or Zammarelli’s swing, and say ‘Hey man, look at this.’ It’s good because we’re all kind of going through the same stuff and seeing the same pitchers. The value of information shared between us, even during games, is really important. The more information we can come up with, and work together, the better chance we’ll have.”
Id like to start by thanking the Seattle Mariners for giving me the opportunity to begin my professional baseball career...I’ve made so many lifelong friendships that go beyond the game of baseball and have learned so much about the game and what it means to be a professional...I will always cherish those moments and bring my very best to the Miami Marlins organization. I am super excited to begin the next chapter of my career and can’t wait to see what is in store for me out in Florida! Thank you to everyone who has supported me and helped me get to where i am today, you do not go unnoticed!! #ByeNuts #JustGettinStarted
Of course, trade deadline season carries extra anxiety for any professional player, but especially those enjoying success. Play well in the minor leagues, and risk being traded to a faraway organization in exchange for three months of service from a big leaguer. When asked if getting traded ever crosses his mind, Brigman gave an honest assessment of his experience.
“I’d say yes. In the first two years I never really worried about that type of stuff. It never really crossed my mind. It’s not a reality to you. You start to see guys from High-A or Double-A get traded, you kind of see the bigger trade where guys will get traded for a big leaguer. But once you get to this level and start to play well, there’s definitely that rumor. It’s not really a worry, but you’re aware of it for sure.”
(Note: In the time between conducting this interview and publishing this article, Brigman’s teammate Seth Elledge was traded to the Cardinals for Sam Tuivailala. Also, Brigman was traded to the Marlins. Again, bad timing.)
While midsummer can spell the end of teammate relationships, it can also introduce new ones. Two of Brigman’s teammates in Modesto this summer – pitcher JT Salter and infielder Beau Branton – were 2018 draftees. In their short time with the Nuts, both players made an early impression on Brigman.
“JT has been super good,” Brigman said with a noticeable excitement. “He’s a big dude, he has that presence on the mound. He throws pretty hard.”
Fans of Salter already knew that the righty casts an imposing shadow and features a fastball-curveball combination. But in just four innings with Modesto before being sent down to Everett, Salter flashed a secret weapon that caught his teammates off-guard.
“I saw him throw a knuckleball too the other day that was pretty sweet,” Brigman quipped, laughing either at the audacity of the move, the physical comedy of it, or both. “He struck a guy out with it. In a game! He’s definitely going to be good. He’s got good stuff, good kid, good attitude, everything. He’s a pretty cool guy.”
As for Branton, the former Stanford second baseman picked up a new moniker in Modesto after Jerry Dipoto nabbed him in the 28th round.
“Beau Branton has already got the nickname Beau Barrels. Every time he comes up to the plate he barrels it,” Brigman explained. “He had two walk-off hits for us in a row. Everyone loves him, and he’s hitting really well. He’s a good guy to be around, and a good addition to the organization.”
As with any organization, the lower levels of the Mariners’ farm system occupy some of America’s least glamorous cities. Situated in the northern end of San Joaquin Valley, a far cry from the beaches of San Diego or $17 lattes of Silicon Valley, Modesto translates quite literally to “modest”, and ranks as the 18th-most populated city in California. The city hosts the world’s largest privately-owned winery, a rich agricultural history, and, according to its Wikipedia page, “many street gangs”. Wikipedia also lists Modesto as one of the top cities for car theft in the United States, and a difficult place for people with breathing issues to live. One of the town’s most notable historic places is a post office.
“It’s actually not too bad,” Brigman said of the area, before offering an important bit of information. “I’m in Turlock which is a couple towns over. I think Turlock is a little nicer for sure. Around the field can be a little dodgy, you might not want to hang out there for too long. It’s kind of tough being in a place where you don’t know any of the roads, you don’t know where you’re at, you don’t know where any of the food is. I think that’s a tough part for the first few weeks. Once you get used to it, it’s not too bad.”
(Note: According to Wells Dusenberry, Brigman will report to the Marlins’ High-A affiliate in Jupiter, FL.)
Aside from its not-too-badness, Modesto was also close enough to Brigman’s hometown for his family to come to games. Brigman’s father, Vince, is a former collegiate player at the University of Pacific. He installed a batting cage in the family’s home so Bryson and his younger brothers Dawson (soon to be a freshman on the Santa Clara baseball team), Keenan (playing at University of California-San Diego), and Coleman (entering senior year at Valley Christian High School in San Jose) could sharpen their skills. To this day, Bryson still values the advice of those who know his hitting habits best.
“We all have similar things to our swing. I don’t think they really know how much I trust in what they say and what they see,” Brigman said of his brothers. “I think they more think, ‘Oh, Bryson has the most experience. He’s the oldest. He’s at the highest level.’ They’ll come to me and ask, ‘How do I approach this?’ rather than giving me some advice. They don’t really know how much they actually know about the game. It’s always good talking with them.”
As for his father’s teachings, Brigman says that it worked in harmony with the things Modesto’s coaching staff preaches.
“This year, it’s actually been pretty on point with that the coaches are saying,” Brigman said, referring to his father’s tips. “When I came into Spring Training I told them that I wanted to stick with one thing. The year before in Clinton, I was changing a whole bunch of things with my swing. I’d be trying different things, the coaches would say, ‘Why don’t you try a leg kick?’ My dad would say, ‘You don’t need to do that, you’ve never done that.’ The coaches and my dad both know that I want to stick to one thing, and they both believe that’ll help me be more successful. It’s been pretty much coherent across the board. We’re on the same page this season.”
When he wasn’t squaring up his dad’s pitching in a homemade batting cage, Brigman was also playing youth hockey at an extremely high level. As a kid, he would fly to Los Angeles on the weekends, trading his cleats and bat for skates and a stick. Playing for the Los Angeles Selects program in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade was something that Brigman considered a secondary sport. While he opines that playing hockey may have helped him develop quick hands and coordination, he admitted to Jesse Geleynse of the Everett Herald that his style of play involved mostly “standing in front of the goalie and getting those garbage goals”. Unfortunately, due to Modesto’s civic restrictions, hockey became a thing of Brigman’s past.
“I have not seen any skating rinks in Modesto so far,” the Nuts’ shortstop complains. “I’ve always wanted to go out and mess around, but never really had the chance. The extent of my skating so far has been, like, Christmas in the park ice rinks. But that’s about it.”
Luckily for baseball fans, Brigman has found a home on the diamond rather than the ice. He says he’s settled, and comfortable, at shortstop. He played primarily shortstop growing up until arriving at USD, where Yankees’ 2015 first-rounder Kyle Holder, the incumbent at the position, bumped Brigman to second. He’s acutely aware of the players manning the middle infield spots at Safeco Field, and, like many of us, fell victim to the whirlwind of emotions encapsulating the 2018 season.
The aforementioned nice play by infield prospect Bryson Brigman pic.twitter.com/ZJM73VEja1— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) March 18, 2018
“I’ve seen a good amount of the Mariners. It’s just the highlights, obviously. I rarely ever get to see a full game. To see Jean get the All-Star bid, it’s tough not to want to be like him. He absolutely rakes. We have that similar gap-to-gap power swing. He finds barrels all the time, hopefully he can keep it going for the boys here. When Robbie comes back, it’ll be that last little push.”
Expected or not, the last four months in the Mariners organization have certainly been eventful. Whether it culminates with the ultimate postseason goal, the big club’s early success has brought trickle-down inspiration to the minors.
“We all knew we had that ability,” Brigman says of his former MLB brethren in Seattle. “But I don’t think we expected to be doing as well as we are.”
Brigman paused, and finally offered a near-perfect summation of Mariner participation, fandom, and investment in the year 2018.
“It’s crazy to see how good they’re doing, man.”