Case Study: Dewon Brazelton
Dewon Brazelton was a college star at Middle Tennessee State, going 13-2, 1.42 his junior year with a 154/24 K/BB ratio in 127 innings, allowing just 82 hits. Middle Tennessee State doesn't play the best competition in the world, but Brazelton also thrived from Team USA, eliminating any doubts scouts had about his performance against strong competition. In college he showed a 94-97 MPH fastball with movement, an outstanding changeup, and sharp control. His curveball was mediocre, and improving it was the main thing he needed to do as he transitioned into pro ball. The Devil Rays made him the third-overall pick in the 2001 draft, and he was projected to reach Tampa Bay by 2003 at the latest. It was not a controversial selection, and I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2002 book.
Brazelton began 2002 in Double-A, going 5-9 but with a fine 3.33 ERA in 26 starts for Orlando, with a 109/67 K/BB in 146 innings. He made one start in Triple-A, throwing five shutout innings, then finished the year with a couple of mediocre starts for the major league team. He continued to show a 93-95 MPH fastball, although some concerns were expressed that it was rather straight, and the strong changeup. His curveball, however, remained erratic, and this was reflected in his K/IP ratio which has slightly below Southern League average. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2003 book, but warned that he needed a full dose of Triple-A to polish the breaking ball, and that the Devil Rays would likely regret it if they rushed him ahead of schedule.
The D-Rays sent Brazelton to Triple-A to open the 2003 season. He went 2-2, 4.21 in five starts with an 18/11 K/BB ratio, at which point he was promoted to the majors and inserted into the rotation. He pitched very poorly, overthrowing and losing the touch on his command. His curveball and changeup both regressed, his confidence fell apart, and in late June he was demoted all the way back to Single-A, to try and rebuild his game. He did not pitch well in the California League, going 1-5, 5.26 with a 42/19 K/BB in 50 innings and 62 hits allowed. He pitched a bit better late in the year, earning a promotion back to Double-A where he went 2-0, 2.53 in two starts. But '03 was clearly a disastrous season for him all-around. To try and right the ship, the Rays sent Brazelton to the Arizona Fall League to work on his mechanics and his curveball. He performed well there, and went into spring training 2004 with a chance to win a spot in the major league rotation once again.
Brazelton pitched fairly well in spring training but opened the year in Triple-A. He went 4-4, 4.71 in 10 starts with a 38/15 K/BB ratio in 50 innings. In need of pitching, the Rays promoted him to the majors in June and he spent the rest of the season in the rotation, going 6-8, 4.77 with a 64/53 K/BB ratio in 121 innings. At times he was very effective, but his curveball was still mediocre, his changeup was not as good as it used to be, and his fastball, while fast, was often too straight. He was even worse in 2005 (7.61 ERA in 71 innings, mostly in relief), and in '06 the Rays gave up on him completely and shipped him to San Diego for Sean Burroughs.
He has spent '06 and '07 mostly at the minor league level, and at age 27 he seems fully established as a journeyman pitcher. He still has a good arm, but the secondary pitches just haven't developed. He's developed a reputation as a hard worker, but also as a pitcher who battles himself and lacks confidence.
What the hell happened here?
The easy theory is that Brazelton was never as good as he looked in college, that the gaudy stats at Middle Tennessee State misled everyone. But the fact is that he also pitched great for Team USA (pitching better than Mark Prior did actually). I don't think his success there was an illusion, and his fastball and changeup were really outstanding back then. Something else happened here.
Scouts knew from the beginning that he had problems with his breaking ball, and sabermetrically this was apparent in the weakish strikeout rate in the minors. But why wasn't he able to develop a better one? I think there is no question at all that he was promoted to the majors too quickly in 2003. He wasn't ready, and it showed, and every part of his game went backwards after that. He's the kind of pitcher who would definitely have benefited from a bullpen apprenticeship, rather than being thrown into the rotation for a bad team. Maybe with better handling he would have adjusted, and maybe he wouldn't have. Maybe he should have ditched the traditional breaking ball and tried something different like a forkball or splitter, especially when being used out of the bullpen.
Dewon Brazelton is still relatively young, and he still has a major league arm. With the right coach in the right situation, he could still make a contribution at the major league level.