In June 2005, Brandon Erbe's dream came true.
The Orioles had long had their eye on the lanky 6-4 right-hander with the ability to dial his fastball into the mid-90's, and when a late season velocity drop made him available in the third round of the amateur draft, it was too much for them to pass up on. A $415,000 signing bonus convinced him to pass up a commitment to the University of Miami and he has been paying dividends for the team he grew up rooting for ever since.
"It was amazing," Erbe told Inside The Warehouse. "Everywhere I pitch is close. I graduated [from Mcdonogh] high school 40 minutes from [Frederick]. My parents get to see me play. Friends get to come see me play. I couldn't ask for a better situation."
In his professional debut, Erbe posted an astonishing 48 strikeouts in 23.1 innings for rookie-level Bluefield before a late-season promotion to short-season Aberdeen. Starting in low-A Delmarva in 2006, he served as the staff ace, posting a 133:47 K:BB ratio in 114.2 innings en route to a 3.22 ERA. Despite being just 18 years old at the time, the quality of his stuff made his success seem inevitable.
"I throw a fastball; a four seam fastball and a two-seam fastball- a little sinker. I throw a curveball, a slider, and a changeup. My fastball is in the low to mid 90's. My curveball and slider is probably a 7 or 8 MPH difference. My slider is in the mid to upper 70's. My curveball is in the low 70's. My changeup is probably 82, 83 MPH. My two seam fastball, the little sinker, is in the upper 80's. It's five different pitchers, but I'm basically a fastball, slider, changeup guy."
In the off-season that followed, Erbe's name began to surface in conversations about the best prospects in the game. He even landed the top spot in Inside The Warehouse's annual rankings of prospects in the Baltimore Orioles organization. Even with all of the attention that such honors bring, the teenager hasn't let it get to him.
"I wouldn't say it's added pressure, it's just that you're under the microscope a little bit more. That's good, I mean, pressure can be good. When people are paying attention to you, you want to perform. You want to live up to what everyone is saying about you. It makes things a little bit more fun. Sometimes, it makes things a little bit more difficult, when you hear about everything, but I'm kind of getting used to it. You try not to read that much and just go out there and pitch."
Entering the 2007 season, Erbe was made the youngest player on the high-A Frederick Keys. As Orioles fans have become accustomed to, things started out well. He posted a 3.18 ERA in the month of April and reinforced his status as one of the best prospects in the organization. The Orioles even gave him a chance to start the Hall of Fame exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 21st, where he struck out 6 batters over 4 frames while allowing only 2 runs to score.
"That was unbelievable. It was neat to get up there and kind of get a taste of what it's like. We went on the chartered plane with the [major league] players. We kind of lived their lives for two or three days. It was an awesome experience. I got to pitch against some big league guys. You kind of see where you stand amongst those guys. Although it was an exhibition, it was neat pitching against those kind of guys. I'll never forget that; it was unbelievable."
For the first time in his professional career, however, things are not going according to plan. Erbe's last four outings have seen him pitch into the 4th inning only once and his ERA has ballooned to 6.34. Never one to back down from anything, Erbe makes no excuses for his recent poor performance.
"I don't really think a whole lot has been going on. I've just been getting hit a little bit. Luckily, to this point, I haven't really had that much adversity in my career so far. Right now, it's just a learning process. I'm approaching hitters a little bit different than I have in the past and all the teams sort of know what I throw and what I am going to come at them with. It's just a learning process and I am trying to learn from all of this."
Although his early success may have indicated otherwise, the 19 year old knows that adjustments are a necessary part of his development.
"As you move up, the hitters get better and you have to throw off-speed stuff earlier in the game. I'm used to just going up there and throwing fastballs. The hitters are better than that now and they are looking for stuff right along with you and it's a mental game. You have to outsmart them, as well. You have to mix your stuff up early and be careful with what you do and where you put stuff [in the strike zone]. They will hit it if you make a mistake."
Frederick Keys Manager Tommy Thompson couldn't be happier with the chance to work with Erbe. Though he recognizes that his right-hander has hit a bump in the road, he does not expect that trend to continue.
"When you look at his velocity, his makeup, he is special. He's been throwing some breaking balls good. We haven't played good defense behind him, which makes their pitch count go up. We're protecting all guys in the organization, from Rookie ball to triple-A, on not throwing too many pitches. His stuff is there. He's just got to keep going out there and trying to attack the glove. Brandon Erbe's a special kid. A lot of people are going to read about him for years to come."
Despite the accolades from his Manager, Brandon Erbe refuses to take anything for granted. He has worked closely with Frederick Pitching Coach Blaine Beatty and has pinpointed some very specific things to work on.
"My ability to judge each hitter, to take each hitter differently [needs the most work]. Mixing stuff up early, throwing off-speed pitches first for strikes, and getting ahead of hitters. Pitching becomes so much easier when you throw first pitch strikes. When you get behind, it makes things a bit more difficult. If you can throw first pitch strikes and mix up what you're throwing, it makes things a whole lot easier."Every player dreams of a being successful every time they step on the field, but Erbe's unique level of maturity has allowed him to adjust his personal goals to account for his recent struggles.
"My goals have changed a little bit based on my last couple of outings. I just want to get back on the right track. I want to get deep into ballgames. I want to go into the 6th, 7th, 8th innings. I don't want to come out in the 3rd or 4th anymore. I just want to give my team a chance to win. Unfortunately, the past couple of times, I haven't been able to do that, but my goal for the rest of the year is to put my team in a position where they have a chance to score more runs than the other team."
Tommy Thompson isn't alone when he calls Brandon Erbe a special player and anyone that has seen him pitch knows why. Perhaps the most enduring realization of his recent tumultuous outings, though, is that Erbe's maturity outweighs even his ability.
If Brandon Erbe is able to actualize the adjustments he so readily admits he needs to make, he may even be able to repay the Baltimore Orioles organization one day and help a few of their dreams come true.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com