Brigham adjusting to relief role

The Texas Rangers recently moved hard-throwing righty Jake Brigham into the bullpen at Double-A Frisco. After scuffling in his first four outings, Brigham has found more success of late. Lone Star Dugout spoke with the 23-year-old about the transition to the 'pen.

Since right-hander Jake Brigham returned to action from Tommy John surgery in 2009, pure stuff has never been his issue. As a starting pitcher, Brigham routinely throws his fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, topping out at 96 and 97 mph on occasion. His curveball has shown flashes of being a true hammer pitch capable of missing bats at all levels.

But since returning, Brigham hasn't consistently posted the results to match the stuff. He logged a 5.52 ERA while giving up 104 hits in 89.2 innings with Single-A Hickory in '09. After a strong spring training last year, he was assigned to Bakersfield and posted a 6.93 ERA in 10 starts.

Brigham appeared to turn a corner when he returned to Hickory around mid-season last year. While playing for the Crawdads, he worked with pitching coach Brad Holman on introducing an easier-to-command slider into his repertoire. Brigham began commanding his fastball low in the zone more often, and he was working deep into games for the first time in his career.

The 23-year-old built on that momentum with another strong spring this past March and earned an opening-day assignment to Double-A Frisco. After holding his own early in the season, Brigham began to scuffle. In his first eight Texas League starts, the prospect had a 3.74 ERA and appeared to be trending in the right direction. But over his next six starts, he surrendered 27 runs in 28.2 innings.

As it turns out, Brigham's last start––for now, at least––came on June 18 against Corpus Christi. The 6-foot-3 hurler was told he'd be going to the bullpen, and he says he's not yet sure if it's a permanent move.

"They just said they were going to try this right now," Brigham said. "I really don't know too much, so I really don't have much to say about that. But I've got to learn it. It's totally different than pitching as a starter––the routines and stuff like that. I've got to learn my arm and how quick I can get ready."

A move to the bullpen always seemed like a possibility for Brigham, who still struggles with his changeup and has never shown pinpoint fastball command. As a reliever, he can rely solely on his plus velocity and two breaking balls.

With both a curveball and slider, Brigham has a couple of options for a go-to secondary pitch. But for right now, he's still trying to see which one he prefers in the relief role.

"I've thrown both (the curve and slider) in these first few outings," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to end up with. Me and (Frisco pitching coach) Jeff Andrews have been talking about which pitch to go to coming out of the bullpen with two pitches.

"I think I'll probably use both the curveball and slider coming out right now. I do like them both, but I've got to figure out which one I can get hot with the quickest."

Brigham has experienced an adjustment period while making the bullpen transition. In his first relief outing, he was socked for four runs on four hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning.

Though he surely wasn't happy with the results, Brigham did learn a few things from the experience.

"What I learned is that you've got to make every pitch count," the Florida native said. "Early on in games when you're starting, you can get away with fastballs over the middle and guys might roll over it. They aren't going to be as aggressive.

"Late in the game, they're going to be aggressive. The game is on the line and there aren't very many at-bats left. You just have to take care of each pitch that you throw."

He also learned about controlling his adrenaline level. He has struggled with elevating his fastball too often in recent years, making him hittable despite the plus velocity. And when Brigham was over-amped in his first few relief appearances, his fastball was doing just that––staying up in the zone.

"It was a lot different," he said of his first few relief appearances. "You're going 100 miles an hour, and you've got to find a way to slow down a little bit. But it's just part of the development of learning this side of pitching."

Along with harnessing the adrenaline comes learning to get loose in the shorter time span. As a starting pitcher, Brigham often got 30 minutes to warm up and was able to begin with long toss. In the bullpen, he is limited to a 65-to-70 foot area with much less time.

In his first four relief outings, Brigham yielded 11 runs on 13 hits in five innings, walking three and striking out three. The next (and latest) four have been much better––8.1 innings, three hits, no runs, three walks, and nine strikeouts.

The former sixth-round pick is mostly throwing his fastball between 93-96 mph out of the bullpen, although he reached 95-97 mph in a dominant two-inning appearance against Arkansas on July 10. He also threw his slider harder in that game, reaching the upper-80s.

When Brigham found success with Hickory last season, it was largely because he was getting ahead with his fastball and commanding it low in the strike zone. It led to a shrinking home run rate and by far the highest ground ball rate (2.37) of his career.

If Brigham gets ahead and locates his fastball in short bullpen spurts, he has the raw stuff to become a late-inning reliever. For now––in spite of the inconsistent season––Brigham feels he is on the right developmental track.

"I think I'm on the right track," he said. "The numbers may be a little different, but I don't really look at numbers. I look at development, how I'm feeling, and how I'm throwing the ball over the plate with all my pitches. I feel I've done everything they've asked of me. I'm working hard to get better every time I go out there and learn now."

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