Braves' Beachy Sets Sights On Minors ERA Title

Braves righthander Brandon Beachy put an exclamation point on his breakout season with a performance that could win him the minor league ERA title. And in a serendipitous turn, his final start of the year for Triple-A Gwinnett at Durham just so happened to fall on his 24th birthday.

Beachy struck out eight batters and walked none over six shutout innings on Friday, dropping his season ERA to 1.73 over 119 1/3 innings. He needed every one of those scoreless innings, too, because prior to locking horns with the Bulls on Sept. 3, he did not project to meet the innings threshold needed to qualify for the ERA title.

"I had been told by (Gwinnett teammate Erik) Cordier that some guy had passed me," Beachy said by phone the day after his final start. "But I'm not thinking about that when I'm pitching. If I do get (the ERA title), that's great. But if I don't, then it doesn't take anything away from what's happened this year."

The "other guy" who temporarily passed Beachy for the ERA lead was Twins righthander Liam Hendriks, a 21-year-old Australian who also has enjoyed a breakout year. He last pitched for high Class A Fort Myers on Wednesday, Sept. 1, setting him up to start again on Monday, Sept. 6, the final day of the season for most minor leagues.

However, Fort Myers concludes its schedule a day early, on Sunday, so if Hendriks is to qualify for the ERA title he'll have to do so with a relief outing—or a promotion to a club that plays on Monday.

Hendriks enters play Sunday with 108 2/3 innings pitched, while needing 110 2/3 to qualify. An additional two innings without an earned run would give Hendriks a slim ERA advantage at 1.71.

As it stands, Beachy leads by the slimmest margin possible: one one-hundredth of an ERA point, 1.73 to 1.74. The rest of his numbers aren't too bad either. Across two levels and in two roles, he struck out 148 (11.2 per nine innings) and walked 28 (2.1), while allowing just 93 hits (7.0) and five home runs (0.4) in his 13 starts and 22 relief appearances.

Change Of Pace

When Beachy's pitching exploits first came to the attention of Baseball America in mid-July, around the time he pitched in the Double-A Southern League all-star game, we knew him as a fastball/curve pitcher who had just moved from the bullpen to the rotation for Mississippi.

The pitcher who took the hill Friday topped out at 93 mph in the fifth and sixth innings (and never dipped below 90 all game), while mixing in a changeup that seemed to get better by the inning as the righthander's fastball command improved.

Beachy says he uses a standard two-seam changeup grip, giving him plenty of fade and, especially, drop as the pitch crosses the plate. His best changeups against Durham registered at 80-82 mph, with lesser ones coming in at 83-85. But even when his change was not perfectly executed, Beachy often caught the Bulls' righthanded batters out in front, inducing lazy fly balls to left field.

"I'd like to get more groundballs with the changeup," Beachy said, "But I don't mind the flyballs as long as the they're not hitting it hard."

A scout who has seen Beachy in the International League this summer concurs, saying that the changeup is a separator, and that he likes the righthander as a potential No. 4 starter or high-leverage reliever. Beachy also makes a favorable impression with scouts because he works quickly and throws strikes, with no wasted motion.

"I worked on that changeup a lot last year (in Class A ball)," Beachy said. "I've had it basically all year, though it hasn't always been a strikeout pitch. Now I can throw it more often for strikes."

At no point was this more evident than in the fifth inning, the only point in the game at which Durham mounted a real threat to Beachy's pursuit of the ERA title.

Bulls catcher Nevin Ashley, in just his fourth Triple-A game, opened the inning by striking out on five pitches, the final one a called strike on a 76 mph curveball. Leslie Anderson, the DH, followed with sharp single to right field off an 83 mph changeup. Beachy then came a little too up and in on third baseman Angel Chavez, hitting him with a 92 mph fastball that simply got away from him.

Beachy clearly did not intend to hit Chavez, so he might have been a little shaken up when he surrendered a first-pitch single on a 91 mph fastball to the next batter, shortstop Omar Luna. This loaded the bases with only one out and brought right fielder Fernando Perez to the plate.

In Beachy's words: "My catcher (Orlando) Mercado told me before the inning that he wanted to go first-pitch changeup to Perez because he had been an aggressive hitter all series. As it turned out, I threw one of my best changeups in that situation."

Perez, a former switch-hitter who bats exclusively from the right side these days, nearly twisted himself into the ground swinging over the top of the 82 mph pitch for strike one. Then he watched a 93 mph fastball cross the plate low and away for a called strike two. Beachy finished Perez off when he swung and missed at a 76 mph curveball, probably Beachy's best of the night. Two outs, and he had used all three of his pitches to record the strikeout.

Beachy turned the Bulls away by striking out second baseman J.J. Furmaniak on seven pitches, of which all four fastballs registered at 93 mph on the Durham Bulls Athletic Park radar gun. Furmaniak ultimately went down swinging at an 82 mph changeup.

Fittingly, Beachy's night came to a close one inning later when he struck out Ashely with an 82 mph changeup to end the sixth.

What's Next?

As mentioned, Beachy sat mostly at 91-93 mph in his final start of the season. Durham batters struggled all night to square up the pitch, as they didn't seem to see the ball well out of his hand. Plus, Beachy's fastball features plenty of tailing action to his arm side, a trait that helps the pitch play up to a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale. In relief stints, Beachy has touched 94 mph this season.

"I've not really tried to throw as hard my last couple of starts," he said. "It's an effort to not exert myself as much as I used to. I've learned that a fastball located low in the zone is still a very good pitch."

Beachy throws a four-seam fastball most of the time but said that he threw 10-12 sinkers against Durham. "Most of them weren't very good," he said. "I like to throw the two-seamer to lefties or to get in on righthanders."

But where his big-breaking curveball was a go-to pitch in the past, Beachy struggled to throw it for strikes on Friday. Eight of 17 he threw missed the zone, and he generated only one swing and miss (to Perez). Four other curves landed for called strikes, while three were fouled away. Bulls first baseman Chris Richard put a curve in play in the second, lining a soft single to right field.

"When my curveball is on, it's a great pitch," Beach said. "But for the last month it hasn't been as sharp. Thankfully for me, the changeup has been there to pick up the slack."

Regardless, Beachy has shown he can throw three pitches for strikes—of his eight strikeouts, four came on changeups and two each on fastballs and curves—and that he can pitch effectively under a starter's workload. This is crucial because he worked mostly as a reliever as an amateur (at NAIA Indiana Wesleyan) and in his first two pro seasons (he started just eight of 41 games).

The Braves do not intend to call up Beachy in September, but they did assign him to the Arizona Fall League. He'll report to the Phoenix Desert Dogs after taking a month off to relax after a fruitful season, one that could end with him as ERA champion of the minors.