JT Brubaker had a satisfying summer. The 26-year-old right-hander didn’t dominate the stat sheet — neither his 4.94 ERA nor his 4.08 FIP was anything to write home about — but the fact that those numbers came in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform was a reason to smile. A sixth-round pick in 2015 out of the University of Akron, Brubaker debuted in late July and went on to throw 47.1 solid innings. Initially used out of the bullpen, he finished the season having made nine of his 11 appearances as a starter.
Brubaker was somewhat of a question mark coming into the campaign. He tossed just 27.2 minor-league innings in 2019 due to an arm ailment, and as a result garnered no better than a 40 FV and a No. 25 ranking on our 2020 Pirates Top Prospects list. As Eric Longenhagen opined back in February, the Springfield, Ohio native, “should fit in the back of a rotation or in a relief role [and] his health may dictate which.”
Brubaker discussed his debut, and his impressions of a season played amid a pandemic, following his final start of the year.
David Laurila: How would you describe the 2020 season?
JT Brubaker: “It’s been fun for me. It’s my first year in the big leagues, so I’ve enjoyed it. I feel like players have shown a little bit different side of bonding in baseball. They’re having fun with each other. I’ve seen more teammates laughing and joking with each other. The Cubs, for instance. That’s one team I’ve noticed just hooting and hollering in the dugout — stuff you might not be able to hear when there’s a crowd there.”
Laurila: What was it like not having fans in the stands?
Brubaker: “All of these stadiums have been funneling in crowd noise over the speakers, so while you don’t see actual human beings in the stands, you still kind of get a representation of it. In a lot of ways, you really don’t notice the fans when you’re playing.”
Laurila: A few players who made their debuts this year told me they weren’t as nervous as they expected to be, in part because of no fans.
Brubaker: “Yeah, I can see that. I made my debut in St. Louis, against the Cardinals, and that’s a diehard baseball city. They always seem to pack the house, so the difference between no one being there, compared to it being sold out, is pretty big.”
Laurila: I want to ask about your debut, but before we get to that, what were your expectations coming into spring training? You’d missed much of the previous season with an injury.
Brubaker: “I walked into camp wanting to prove that I was healthy. I wanted to show that the elbow strain — the first injury in my career that sidelined me for more than just one game — was in the past. I wanted to show that I was mentally strong, and that I wasn’t favoring anything, or worried about anything coming back up.”
Laurila: When and how did you learn that you’d made the team?
Brubaker: “I found out in the second spring training. I think we were in between the exhibition games against Cleveland. [Manager Derek] Shelton called me in, and I was told by our pitching coach that I wasn’t going to pitch in that last game. Then Sheltie told me that I’d made the team.”
Laurila: What was your reaction?
Brubaker: “I was excited. I had my mask on, and he goes, ‘Hey, you can pull down your mask. That way I can see you smile.’ So it was enjoyable, but I don’t think it it really hit me until we got onto the flight to St. Louis to start the season.”
Laurila: What about the debut itself? While some guys have told me that they weren’t all that nervous, others have admitted to not being able to feel their legs running in from the bullpen.
Brubaker: “Yeah, that was the big thing. Stepping out of the bullpen, the first thing I remember doing was just admiring the stadium. That’s one thing about no fans: you actually get to admire how big the stadium is, and what it looks like with nobody in it. That was probably the most, I guess, peaceful moment. I was really soaking it in, thinking, ‘This is the real deal.’ Then, once I started the run, it was sort of, ‘Don’t fall, don’t fall, just make it to the mound.”
Laurila: You were actually thinking that?
Brubaker: “Kind of, for the first couple steps. But once I got in there it was like a switch flipped. It became go-time.”
Laurila: You K’d the first batter you faced. Did you allow yourself a moment to soak in what had just happened?
Brubaker: “When we didn’t throw the ball around the horn… I was actually kind of shocked when the ball came right back to me. I was like, ‘Wow, I just struck the guy out, and now I’ve got the ball back.’ It was, ‘OK, let’s go again,’ so I didn’t really have that chance to take a breath, and take a walk around the mound. So it wasn’t until between innings that… I’d gone down underneath to grab a water — we didn’t have coolers in the dugout — and that’s where it really hit me that I’d gotten my first big-league strikeout.”
Laurila: What else stands out about the game?
Brubaker: “I got to share it with Sheltie’s first big-league managerial win. That was pretty cool.”
Laurila: I assume you had a lot of texts and voicemails after the game.
Brubaker: “Oh yeah. I pitched the sixth and seventh innings, so when I went in after we hit in the top of the eight, my phone had already been blowing up. It was a continuous wave of texts and social media notifications.”
Laurila: You went to Wrigley Field a few days later. What was that experience like?
Brubaker: “When we got there, I walked around the warning track. I was told not to touch the ivy, so I didn’t touch the ivy.”
Laurila: You were told not to touch it?
Brubaker: “Well, you can touch it, but don’t pick the ivy. I guess they kind of frown upon that. So I touched it — I felt it — but I didn’t take any.”
Laurila: You ended up getting your first big league win at Wrigley later in the season. Where does that rank among this season’s accomplishments?
Brubaker: “I’d say it was a little more special than my first strikeout, although it’ll never rank up above my debut. But to get that first win is something that, as a pitcher — especially as a starting pitcher — is going to be a goal. It’s going to be a dream. So yeah, it was really special.”