Sunday, February 5, 2017

Braves Add Lefties Kirkman and Brothers

The Braves keep adding players to the mix as they look to add depth and this week added left-hand relievers Michael Kirkman and Rex Brothers. Will these two play a role for the 2017 Braves?

Let's start with Kirkman. Thirty years-old, Kirman was originally a fifth rounder by Texas all the way back in 2005. Five years later, Kirman made it to the majors with a reputation for mid-90's heater with sinking action and fairly good control. In the majors, the latter never really appeared.

A starter in the minors, Kirkman has been a reliever in each of the 96 games he's appeared in as a big leaguer. A 21% strikeout rate isn't great, but certainly not bad. However, you can't get by with a 11% walk rate in most cases. It's a big reason Kirkman has carried a 4.46 FIP throughout his career with a 4.53 xFIP. SIERA gives him a bit more love with a 3.94 mark.

Velocity-wise, Kirkman used to reach high-90's with his four-seamer, but in limited action over the last three years, I haven't seen him hum it in there at higher than 93 mph. He sits a tick or two below that on average. He started to use a sinker in 2014 at about 90 mph, but he'll go to his 83-84 slider more often. A typical slider, it bites into righties and away from lefties with little break. Because of this, he'll use the fastball/slider duo against lefties while mixing in his other pitches to try to keep righties off-balanced. This includes a mid-70's curveball and a mid-80's splitter. The splitter acts as almost a change-up to his fastball as it has a similar look to it, but only slower and with less break. His curveball is a tight spinner.

Kirkman spent last year mostly in the minors for Colorado Springs (MIL) and El Paso (SD). He was hit up pretty good in the PCL, though he, as usual, struck out his fair share of batters. He also appeared in one game each for the Padres and Brewers with zero success. Career-wise, he has carried reverse splits in the majors with lefties managing a .346 wOBA against him while righties check in at .316.

The #34th overall selection in 2009, Rex Brothers has had some success at the big-league level. A reliever-only option, Brothers reached the majors in 2011 for 48 games with the Rockies. Even as a rookie playing in Denver, Brothers more than held his own with a 2.88 ERA/2.88 FIP/2.65 xFIP complete with a 34% strikeout rate. He would not be nearly as dominant the next two seasons, but was still a good pitcher with a 3.32 FIP/3.46 xFIP profile. He was solid enough against righties to handle full innings, but owned lefties.

However, Brothers would struggle to find the strikezone in 2014 and continued poor efforts landed him in Triple-A the following year. The Rockies traded him to the Cubs after that, but after failing to impress there, he was released during the 2016 spring training.

So, what happened in 2014 to turn a formerly dominant reliever into Triple-A filler?

Well, velocity-wise, his average velocity fell from 96 mph in 2012 to 94.5 mph the following year. He lost another tick in 2014 and while his heater has stabilized from there, that's a drop of roughly 2.5 mph from 2012. The decreased speed has only made his fastball, which has always had movement, more difficult to control. Since Brothers works 2/3's of the time off his fastball, that's a big loss. His slider has also changed from more of a typical slider to having a bit of a hard curveball feel. Brothers also has a sinker and changeup, but rarely uses those.

Interestingly, his troubles also seemed to come from an effort to get more on-top with his pitches and throw more over-handed. Typically, that might help a pitcher find more depth with his pitches. In the case of Brothers, it seems like it has had the opposite fact while also robbing him of speed. That is just a guess, but that's what the numbers appear to be telling us. Let's take a look in video form at the differences between the Brothers of 2011 and 2014. I'm including a clip from his major league debut and a clip from his 2014 highlight, an "immaculate "inning" against the Giants. Pay special attention to the release point and delivery, especially how he drops the ball down as he begins his wind-up.




Perhaps Brothers is fixable? The Braves certainly want to give it a try. He did not receive an invitation to spring training, but we will still likely see him with the big league club especially for split-squad games. As a lottery ticket, you can do much worse.

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