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40 in 40: Brandon Brennan

The Mariners’ reliever had a tumultuous rookie season and also played the role of MLB Forrest Gump

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Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

What’s in a name? For Mariners reliever Brandon Brennan, almost the exact same letters and sounds.

The repetitively-named pitcher overcame these obstacles though to become a wonderfully unexpected surprise for Seattle’s faceless 2019 bullpen, doing so mostly with the help of a vicious changeup.

Brennan arrived in Seattle via the 2018 Rule 5 Draft. As a 27-year-old rookie, the White Sox castoff made a grand entrance. In the first eight games of his pilot flight, Brennan navigated 10.2 scoreless innings while striking out 11 and limiting hitters to an edgeless .143/.184/.143 slash line.

His scene-stealing moment came on March 30 against the defending champion Red Sox. Brennan came in for the seventh inning and promptly struck Andrew Benintendi out before swindling Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers into groundouts. Upon returning for the eighth, he allowed J.D. Martinez to single, but then fanned Xander Bogaerts on three pitches and got Mitch Moreland to bounce into an inning-ending double play. Not bad for a guy who posted an 8.09 ERA for the White Sox’ Double-A squad in 2016, then found himself in two of baseball’s scrapbook moments for 2019.

Unfortunately, the rest of the season wasn’t as kind to our alliterative pitcher. June in particular was a trying time, as in, seven walks and 11 earned runs in four innings. For those keeping sadistic score at home, that’s a 24.75 ERA, with hitters posting an OPS of yikes.

After a particularly rough outing in Minnesota in which Brennan gift-wrapped the Twins four runs without recording an out, Shannon Drayer reported that trainers examined him for back and fatigue-related issues, possible perpetrators of his month-long struggle. The righty would hit the IL with a shoulder strain and miss roughly eight weeks before logging a 2.03 ERA in 13.1 strong innings to finish the season. All told, the man who Scott Servais once eloquently described as having “good movement on his fastball with a really good changeup” finished 2019 with a 4.56 ERA, 24% strikeout rate, and a .198 batting average against. While the entire month of June launched a personal attack at him, Brennan still managed to finish his debut season with 0.1 fWAR and one of the better changeups of any reliever in the game.

Among relief pitchers who completed at least 40 innings, Brennan ranked third in changeup frequency. If you had a pitch that could consistently fool elite baseball players like this, you’d probably throw it all the time too.

People who are much smarter than me have written in-depth about this pitch – both at FanGraphs and The Athletic – so make your way over there if you want to impress people at parties with your nuanced understanding of spin rate and xwOBA. Also, if you’re going to parties where people encourage these types of conversation and you haven’t been inviting me just know that we are now fighting. It’s fine, really, I just wish I meant more to you.

MLB: JUN 13 Mariners at Twins

As is typically the case with 27-year-olds getting their first taste of MLB action, Brennan carved a winding road through the early parts of his baseball life. Originally drafted by Colorado in 2010, Brennan instead chose to enroll at the University of Oregon. Despite having the chance to sunbathe in the glow from Ryon Healy’s smile, Brennan told The News Tribune that the fit wasn’t great for him in Eugene.

“I loved the school, loved all of the guys who were there, loved Healy,” Brennan said. “The baseball and the coaching staff there was not for me. It was easier for me to just make a transition somewhere else, so I decided to go back home.”

Going back home meant driving down the coast and landing at Orange Coast College, where he met (and even lived with!) former Mariner Boog Powell. That stint back in California got the Mission Viejo native back on his feet, and he heard his name in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, this time plucked by the White Sox. Things in the White Sox system were…not great.

Brennan tried to make his way as a starter in 2013 at the A-ball level. He had trouble striking people out and also loved walking them, which should really be more celebrated as an act of selfless generosity. Instead, it was deemed “bad” and “not what you want” by less sympathetic evaluators than myself. Sure, a starting pitcher with a 14.7 K% isn’t the brightest light on the tree, but it’s certainly not uncommon for players to have issues making the jump from rookie ball.

The real concern began when Brennan had to start 2014 back in rookie ball, a tough demotion for a fourth-round draft pick. Then, upon getting summoned back to Single-A, he walked even more people than he did the first time. Brennan wouldn’t even reach Double-A until 2016, four years after being drafted. The sun only finally, mercifully, began to peek through in 2018. Pitching in what would end up being his last year for the White Sox organization, Brennan got his walk rate down to a much more palatable 7.4% while posting a full-season WHIP under 1.10 for the first time ever. This earned him a brief cameo in Triple-A and, presumably, the Mariners’ attention. When Brennan went unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, our starry-eyed front office swooped in. The rest, hopefully, will be redemptive history.

Ground balls have, understandably, always been there for the changeup specialist. Strikeouts have not. He’s essentially a sinker-changeup pitcher, two pitches that are great for keeping the infielders awake but susceptible to detonation if left up in the zone. Brennan gave up six home runs in 2019, but one of them was against the Astros so we’re going to go ahead and say that doesn’t count.

I have no idea how Scott Servais is going to use this bullpen in 2020, or how many will even make it to the end of the season. If nothing else, the sheer act of Brandon Brennan making it to the big leagues given where he was four years ago is something to smile at. He could maybe be the closer this year, he could be a multi-inning setup guy, or he could be added to the pile of bearded white guys the Mariners bullpen has churned through. But if that changeup is dancing and he can reel in the walks a little bit, Seattle will have a Rule 5 success story that helps validate the front office’s ability to identify—and act upon—untapped potential. Brennan’s prolonged presence would also fill the gaping hole at the Irish grit lord position left by Shawn O’Malley.