Waiting Is The Hardest Part For Brackman
Andrew Brackman can't hide from anyone in the low Class A South Atlantic League this year. Not as a 6-foot-10, 240 pound pitcher whose next tallest Charleston RiverDogs teammate is five inches shorter. And certainly not as the Yankees' 2007 first round pick who signed a guaranteed $4.55 million major league contract that could pay out as much as $13 million with incentives.
Brackman, however, isn't trying to hide. He's too busy making up for the time he lost last season to Tommy John surgery. The big righthander found the going tough early on in the SAL.
"I'm not back to being myself yet," said Brackman, who had the surgery in September 2007 and spent all last summer rehabbing his arm. "They say Tommy John takes a while for you to come back from and your velocity is the last thing to come back. I'm waiting on that. I try every day to do what I can to build arm strength. It's a whole lot easier to pitch when you have your velocity, and I'm so used to pitching with that."
The Yankees drafted him because of that velocity. At North Carolina State, his fastball reached 100 mph and graded out as a plus pitch. Last fall, New York sent Brackman to Hawaii Winter Baseball, where his fastball touched 97 several times. But in spring training and in the first month and a half in Charleston, his high-90s heater topped out in the low 90s.
His first month in Charleston was a roller coaster ride reflecting his struggles with lost velocity. On April 9, he took the loss against Rome, giving up five earned runs and striking out five and walking three in five innings. His next two starts were solid—a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings of work. But in his April 25 start against Savannah, he surrendered seven hits, three walks and two earned runs in 42/3 innings.
"It's so hard to be out of the game for so long, competition wise," he said. "I'm not necessarily worried about it. I'm frustrated, but it's mainly just because I want to play so much at a higher level. I thought it would come sooner."
Adding to the problem is the fact that Brackman can't release his frustration the way he did as a forward for N.C. State's basketball team.
"I like playing basketball because when you get mad on the mound you have to control it and not show your emotions so you can make the next pitch," Brackman said. "If you get frustrated on the court, you can go bang underneath and throw some people around."
Brackman kept his cool in April and reflected on the month as an opportunity to develop his other plus pitch, his curveball, and improve his fastball command.
"It's probably going to be a blessing, because I can learn to pitch without (velocity)," he said. "When it does come back, I'll be that much better."
Brackman fought the urge to be too fine with his pitches. He said he's used to taking the mound and blowing the ball past hitters without worrying about location. But he said professional hitters, even at low Class A, won't bite on balls out of the zone. They also have a tendency to sit on the fastball, which has prompted the righthander to work on his changeup.
"At the beginning of the season I couldn't throw my changeup for a strike, then in my last outing all I did was throw it for strikes," he said. "It just takes time, and that's where my impatience can be an issue."
The Yankees, at least, are being patient. RiverDogs pitching coach Jeff Ware says he worked with Brackman in Hawaii to tweak his mechanics. The goal was to take advantage of his 6-foot-10 frame and have him throwing more over the top to create a downward plane on his pitches. Before, says Ware, Brackman threw with more of a drop-and-drive delivery.
Brackman made eight starts for the Waikiki Beach Boys, going 3-4 with a 5.56 ERA. His biggest problem was the 25 walks he gave up in 34 innings. The new delivery didn't take.
"I just wasn't comfortable with it," says Brackman. "I talked to some people within the Yankees organization. They said go out and do what you're comfortable with, so I'm trying to get back to how I was in college throwing. Hopefully, that will help with everything that comes with it and I can get back to being the pitcher I was in college."
That's just fine with Ware, as long as Brackman can be consistent.
"Being such a tall guy, his main thing is being able to repeat his delivery," says Ware. "He's still trying to build some of that coordination so he's able to spot his fastball in and out, up and down when he wants to."
In the meantime, Brackman is keeping his focus sharp. Not only is he waiting on his velocity to return, he's also experiencing his first season in professional baseball. He said it's certainly different from college, but in a good way.
"In my junior year of college, every game I pitched was make or break," said Brackman. "Everyone had 100 eyes on me seeing how I'd do, and my anxiety level was high. Here, you play a game every day and pitch every five days. If you have a bad outing, you only have to wait four days to pitch again."
Then there are the high hopes of the fans and Yankees player development staff that come from being a first-round draft pick.
"There is some pressure, mainly because the Yankees took a chance on me," Brackman said. "It's not so much pressure from the Yankees, because there's not really a timeframe for when I should be fully recovered. They understand the recovery from Tommy John surgery is different for different people. I just want to live up to expectations."
Brackman appears to be doing that. After that rough outing against Savannah, he posted a 2.40 ERA with ten walks and 26 strikeouts in his next 30 innings of work. It may not be happening soon enough for Brackman, but he's started finding himself standing out for all the right reasons in Charleston.
Chris Gigley is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.