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Thursday, May 17, 2012
Brandon Beachy, baseball's underrated ace

By David Schoenfield



Baseball lore is full of great scouting stories, like the tale of the scout who was driving through rural Maryland one day and stopped to ask a kid working in a field for directions. The kid -- future Hall of Fame Jimmie Foxx -- raised his plow with one arm and pointed: "That way."

The scout, seeing the kid's raw strength, asked him the obvious question: "Do you play baseball?"

Who knows, maybe Brandon Beachy will become one of those stories.

Beachy played mostly third base and first base at Indiana Wesleyan and pitched a little, but went undrafted. A Braves area scout named Gene Kerns saw Beachy one July evening pitching in relief in the Virginia Valley League, a college summer league. He saw a kid with good size throwing in the low 90s.

After the game, he asked Beachy if he'd been drafted. (He wouldn't be allowed to talk to him if he had.) When Beachy said no, Kerns, as he relayed in a 2011 interview, then asked the obvious question: "Do you have an interest in professional baseball?"

Kerns convinced the club to sign him as a non-drafted free agent. Barely two years later, Beachy was in the major leagues. Now, after a sterling rookie season, Beachy is 5-1 after throwing his first major league complete game and shutout in a 7-0 victory over the Marlins. Beachy threw 122 pitches, struck out six, walked nobody, allowed four singles and one double and showcased why he leads the major leagues with a 1.33 ERA.

In less than four years he has gone from an undrafted college infielder to minor league reliever to maybe-he's-a-prospect to major league starter to ... well, what do we call him now? The most underrated pitcher in baseball? A possible All-Star? I'm not sure. For now, let's just call him very good.

Beachy isn't overpowering, usually settling in around 90-91 mph with his four-seamer, occasionally cranking it up to 94. He gets some running sink/cut on his fastball, although it's not a cutter. He tweeted earlier this season that "No, I don't throw a cutter. Just 4-seams and an occasional 2." He mixes in a changeup, a slow curve (72-74 mph) that he commands well and a slider. Yes, he relies to some extend on a deceptive delivery that makes it difficult for batters to pick up the ball, but he's excelling on more than deception; his stuff is better than advertised.

He was in control all game against the Marlins. They did get two runners on with two out in the fifth, but Jose Reyes lined out to right. In the seventh, Giancarlo Stanton doubled to lead off the inning and Chipper Jones made a nice diving stop on Gaby Sanchez for the first out. Beachy induced Emilio Bonifacio to ground out to second on a 94-mph four-seamer and then struck out Brett Hayes on a lovely changeup.

From there it was six up, six down and the shutout.

Last season, Baseball America ranked Beachy as Atlanta's No. 8 prospect, behind more heralded arms Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor and Arodys Vizcaino. But Beachy beat out Minor -- a former No. 1 pick -- for the No. 5 rotation slot out of spring training and never looked back. He made 25 starts and finished 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA, striking out 169 batters in 141.2 innings, the highest strikeout in the majors for pitchers with at least 100 innings.

His biggest issue as a rookie was an inability to pitch deep into games. The strikeouts were nice, but also meant he ran up his pitch counts, leading to early exits. He pitched seven innings just twice. Thursday was the fourth time in eight starts that he's gone at least seven. While his strikeout rate is down -- 6.5 Ks per nine -- he has been even more effective. His ground ball rate is up from 33.8 percent to 43.1 percent, he has allowed just one home run in 54 innings and his walks are down. There may be a little luck going on here --- the home run rate is absurdly low for a fly-ball pitcher and his .214 BABIP will surely rise -- but at this point you have to call him one of the best pitchers in the majors.

I asked Braves fans if they've been surprised by Beachy's sophomore campaign. A few responses:
Somewhere Gene Kerns was probably watching a baseball game tonight. I hope he got a chance to check out a few innings of Brandon Beachy. And if he wants to somehow involve a plow in future retellings of how he discovered Beachy, I think that sounds perfectly fine.

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