READING, Pa.–Last week, Double-A Akron was on the road in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where righthander Bobby Brownlie was mowing down hitters with ease . . . until the skies opened up in the top of the sixth inning.
After allowing just one hit and whiffing three over five innings, Brownlie sat in the dugout with his right shoulder wrapped, staring out at the field while front office employees scattered in all directions to get the tarp in place over the infield.
“They only usually give you a half hour of this until you’re done,” Brownlie said to no one in particular, obviously praying for the rain to stop.
Forty-five minutes into the delay, Brownlie walked down to the other side of the dugout to discuss the situation with Aeros manager Tim Bogar and pitching coach Greg Hibbard. When the coaching staff got word that the band of precipitation was subsiding, catcher David Wallace emerged from the clubhouse, Brownlie strapped on his glove and began to warm up again in the bullpen during a steady downpour.
“It’s a little different now, because these guys don’t have anything invested in me,” Brownlie said. “I can get away with more and I need that to be able to just keep pitching, keep going after it.”
How times have changed for the 21st overall pick of the Cubs in 2002 out of Rutgers. Even as early as a year ago, Brownlie wouldn’t have even thought of asking if he could return to the mound after a rain delay. He’d already be showered, ready to see if the bullpen could finish what he started.
But after four unsuccessful seasons in the Cubs’ organization, Chicago cut ties with the player in whom they invested $2.5 million–the fourth-highest bonus in club history.
Brownlie went back to his native New Jersey and started throwing pens at Rutgers before hooking on with the independent Newark Bears. After going 8-4, 3.41 in 90 innings in the Atlantic League, the Indians took a chance on the 26-year-old, who’s looking more and more like the Bobby Brownlie of old.
His fastball velocity has climbed back in the 88-91 mph range with above-average sink, and he’s commanding his secondary pitches better than he has in three years.
Since signing with the Tribe, Brownlie is 1-2, 3.12 in 43 innings.
We sat down with Brownlie to talk about what went wrong in the Cubs’ system, what adjustments he’s made this season and how it felt to go from first-rounder to indy leaguer in the span of just under five years.
BASEBALL AMERICA: You went 14-12, 3.25 over your first two seasons (at high Class A Daytona and Double-A West Tenn) after the draft. How did you feel after those two years of putting up fairly decent numbers in good leagues?
BOBBY BROWNLIE: After my first year, they shut me down early because of the way the negotiations went (Editor’s note: Brownlie was represented by Scott Boras and didn’t sign until March, 2003) and I’d been throwing all winter. But after that ’04 season I felt like I was getting close. Obviously I had some rough games and stuff, but I put up pretty good numbers throughout the year. I didn’t eat up as many innings as I would have liked, but I had a feeling I was getting relatively close. I was pleased with it, but I knew there was still stuff I was going to have to do to get better.
In hindsight, looking back on it, the following year in 2005, it would have been better to go back and repeat Double-A. But at the time, I was pissed–I was really mad–that they were thinking about sending me to Double-A. Now that I’ve seen kind of how it works–I didn’t know . . . I just thought Triple-A was an easier way to get to the big leagues . . . At that time I wish someone would have sat me down and said, ‘Listen, this is what you need to do–go back to Double-A.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re in Double-A or Triple-A, in terms of getting to the big leagues you’re right there at either level.
BA: So instead, you go to Triple-A and things really started to fall apart.
BB: Yeah, I was the fifth guy in the rotation. My starts were getting skipped because they had guys on plans to go up to the big leagues. I didn’t pitch sometimes for like 10 days and it was just really hard for me to get into a groove.
BA: Which ultimately led you to the bullpen in Iowa.
BB: Right. Well, I went on the DL that year after tweaking my elbow. They were going to take me and work me back into the starting rotation from the bullpen. I put together something like 14 outings out the pen and had a 1.20 or 1.30 ERA. I had an idea of when I was going to be throwing, and it just so happened that I was following the same guy in the rotation–it was almost like I was piggybacking him.
BA: During this time were you doing a lot of side work?
BB: I wasn’t really doing as much side work, but instead of having four days off I had three days off and did a lot of flat ground stuff. It helped to have an idea of when I was throwing because I could prepare a little more. The following year in ’06, that was the first time I started hearing, ‘Hey, get Bobby up.’ It was the first time I didn’t know when I was going in.
BA: Last year you made just eight starts and spent the bulk of that season as a ‘true’ reliever, but what happened? Is there something you can point to that led you to those 3-11, 5.64 numbers in Double-A after you got sent down from Iowa?
BB: I think it had something to do with my mechanics, and I was trying to throw the ball too hard. I was trying to throw 95 (mph) all the time. The thing was, when I used to throw 95, I never tried to throw 95. That’s something me and (Akron pitching coach) Greg (Hibbard) have been working on–trying to be free and easy and allow the velocity to come. My velocity the last two times out–since I made an adjustment on my front side–my velocity is coming.
BA: Here in Reading you were 88-91 . . .
BB: Yeah, and that’s the hardest I’ve thrown all year. When I first got here I was like 86 and touched 90 every once in a while. Since I made that one adjustment, I’m averaging 88 or 89 and seeing those 91s consistently. And that’s just since we’ve been working on my front side. Once I start to get more comfortable with it I think it’s going to get better. Last year, out of the bullpen I was trying to throw so hard that it took miles-per-hour off the ball and I wasn’t throwing my breaking ball and my changeup for strikes.
BA: Does losing that velocity get into your head?
BB: I was in the bullpen for a long time and you only get so many opportunities. I had a bad outing my first time last year and my ERA was 36.00. OK, well, I put together a couple good outings and you’re ERA is still at 10.00. You start thinking to yourself, ‘I’m not a 10.00 ERA pitcher.’
BA: And that’s similar to when you got sent down from Triple-A last year. You had a high ERA, get a spot start and next thing you know you’re on a plane to the middle of Tennessee.
BB: Yeah, I allowed three in the first inning during a spot start and then threw three shutout (innings) after that. I really felt like I was getting it, and they sent me down after that. They sent me down and then I was mad that I was sent down. I told them, ‘I pitched well for you out of the pen last year, this is the first time I’m really figuring things out. Give me a month to get my feet under myself–hang with me a little bit.’
I don’t want to say going to independent ball has given me a different view on things, where as long as I’ve got a uniform on I’m good. That’s the way I used to think. Now, it’s as long as I have a uniform on I have a chance. When I had that uniform taken away from me, I really felt like I’d messed up my chance.
BA: What was it like getting released, especially as a first-round guy?
BB: It was hard because the first things that came into my head was how much my wife Kimberly has given up a lot of things for this, for me to follow this. I look at a lot of things she’s given up to support me and be with me and it hits you . . . Did I just play my last baseball game? What am I going to do for medical insurance? Just little things like that. When you’re married and thinking about having kids, these are things I never thought about when I was 20, 21 years old and being on top of everything. Things can change in a hurry.
I knew if I didn’t pitch well in (big league) camp that I might get released. But I got four innings in camp and they released me. I got rained out one day. Sure, I had a rough year last year and I’ll be the first one to admit it–I didn’t pitch well. There were more bad times than good times, but I felt like maybe if I got 10 innings in spring training I could prove myself a little. I had four innings with a week left, so it was kind of like they had their minds made up to let me go.
BA: Let’s talk about the adjustment that’s allowed you to increase your velocity and help get better movement on all your pitches. What exactly have you and Hibbard done?
BB: My front side’s closed off a little more, but I’m not closed off to the point where it’s blocking me out. Pretty much what I’m trying to do is I have the tendency to really be firm with my front side which was getting my (front) arm real stiff and muscular with it. I think that was causing me to squeeze the baseball a little too much. Now, when I break, what I’m trying to do is show the hitter the pocket of my glove. That keeps the left hand open, and you really can’t be tense on your back side with that hand open. From there, I’m able to clear my front side and really get down through the ball. I’m getting the sink I haven’t had in a long time because my hand’s behind the ball.
BA: When was the last time you had that kind of sink?
BB: Probably college. In college I was a guy who got a lot of ground balls. There were times in indy ball and times in my first couple starts here where I was getting all fly balls. Ground balls were kind of non-existent. But now the ground balls are coming, and a lot of that has to do with the sink. It’s also really helping my breaking ball. I always had a real good curveball. I feel like the things we’re doing now with my front side are enabling me to have that again. Other times when I’d fly open it’d get sweepy and I’d leave it up a little bit. But staying behind it I’m able to throw it down and I’m getting a real good sharp bite to it.
BA: You’re changeup’s been pretty good too; and you got to show that against a big leaguer when you got Chase Utley to hit one over to the right side.
BB: I know he was on rehab, but that was a great opportunity for all our pitchers to kind of measure up and see what you got. I know he was coming off the hand injury and he wasn’t as locked in as he’s going to be, but I threw him a changeup and was still able to get him out on his front side. To get someone who hits like that out on his front foot, you know you have the right kind of spin on the ball. Even he was getting back into it, you can see the spin on your ball is pretty good. You want the hitter to see nothing but white–you don’t want them picking up seams.
BA: People talk about first-rounders being coddled, which you no doubt went through. It was really interesting to see you go out there after almost an hour of rain and start warming up again. What is your mental approach as a failed first-round guy trying to make his way back and earn that respect that originally came along with such a big price tag?
BB: I feel like I have something to prove every day. I was given a tremendous opportunity just to play and it’s not like my dream of pitching in the big leagues will ever end in my mind. I know I’m a good pitcher. I know I can get it done. It’s just a matter of consistency. If I didn’t feel like I was getting better every time out or if I didn’t have the drive to get better I wouldn’t be here. I’d be thinking about moving on to the next phase of my life. I’m not ready to do that. I feel like I can prove to people that they might not have thought I could do it, but I know I can do it.
I thought I was going to have my six years with the Cubs. Looking back on it, I took going to the ballpark every day and putting on a uniform for granted. Now I don’t take anything for granted.