Baseball’s winter meetings are in full swing. Trades are being made, free agents are being signed and the Atlanta Braves are making moves. New faces will be featured in the 2013 starting rotation as the Braves have traded Tommy Hanson to the Los Angeles Angels and non-tendered Jair Jurrjens, making him a free agent. But Braves fans are equally anxious for the return of starting pitcher Brandon Beachy.
It’s been over five months since Beachy underwent season ending Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, and I recently sat down with him and his lovely girlfriend to talk about that fateful pop, his rehabilitation regimen and playing with the iconic Chipper Jones during his last season.
This past April marked Beachy’s second full season in the majors, and it was stacking up to be a record breaking year for the 26-year-old pitcher.
Through his June 16 outing against the Baltimore Orioles, Beachy had compiled a MLB leading ERA of 2.00 after 13 games. His impressive stats, including 68 strikeouts to 22 walks over 81 innings and a WHIP of 0.89, put him in some early Cy Young conversations. But the snap of Beachy’s ulnar collateral ligament in the third inning of the Orioles start postponed his progress and put him on the disabled list and bench for the remainder of the season.
The injury, it turns out, wasn’t all too shocking to Beachy.
“It was something I had been battling with and dealing with for quite a while. I felt its progressive symptoms. I had a cortisone shot a week before my last start, and then they pushed my start back a few days. I felt good enough to start the Orioles game. But during that start I threw a first pitch curveball that landed 10 feet in front of home plate, and there was a sharp pain in my elbow. I tried to throw another one and it felt the same. Then I reared back and threw a fastball and the radar gun read 86 (miles per hour) and I knew it would be my last batter.”
I’ve always felt that the way a person deals with adversity speaks volumes about their character.
While it would have been easy for Beachy to be angry with the baseball gods or develop a pessimistic attitude, I was glad to know he carried this cross with grace and optimism.
“The support I had behind me with my family and faith all played into how I was able to handle it and not get too down.” Beachy, the oldest of seven children, had the luxury of having one of his younger brothers, Kirk, spend the summer with him. “Having my brother down here was amazing when I had to go through the process of surgery, rehab, and only using one arm. He helped me literally and figuratively. The company and the help made a huge difference in my outlook.”
Braves Country will be glad to hear that Beachy’s rehab is going well and is right on schedule. He admitted that at first it was a long and boring process. “I started out wearing a brace and all they would do was yank on my arm to straighten it out and get my range of motion back. Then I added in the pink and purple one-pound weights and did a lot of shoulder work and manual resistance.”
And with no setbacks so far, Beachy has been allowed to do what comes so naturally to him—throw a baseball.
“The throwing itself is kind of a tease. The first time I stood 15 feet away and threw little rainbow tosses that I can throw better with my left hand than I can my right. But I quickly moved back to 30, 45 and 60 feet. It felt good coming out naturally at 60 feet.”
When I spoke with Beachy last Wednesday, he had just been cleared to throw from 90 feet. “Ninety feet today was a little bit of a hurdle, but it went seamlessly and felt normal. I just mark off each day on the calendar.”
What makes Beachy’s story even more captivating is that he didn’t become a starting pitcher until his Single-A season with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and he didn’t even start pitching until college at Indiana Wesleyan University. Moreover, Beachy was signed in 2008 as an undrafted free agent, and his rise through the majors is an anomaly at best.
During the 2009 season, Pelicans pitching coach Guy Hansen saw potential in his reliever and wanted to get Beachy some starts so he could throw more innings.
Beachy ended up back in the bullpen to start the 2010 season until Double-A Mississippi Braves pitching coach Marty Reed saw the same raw talent and wanted to convert him into a starter. “We were in Jacksonville and the pitching coordinator Dave Wallace and Coach Reed pulled me aside and reiterated the same thing. They wanted to get me more innings and starts, but they weren’t sure if or when it would happen. It was only a week and a half later when a starter was struggling so they gave me an opportunity and I just got to it.”
Beachy had a completely different approach facing hitters this time around, and his strategy paid off as he eventually found himself on the list of September call-ups that year when the Braves were in the thick of a postseason wildcard race. “That time around I made a point to attack the guys no differently than I had as a reliever, and not look ahead to seeing them the second or third time through the order. I took it one batter at a time.”
Spend five minutes with Beachy and you’ll realize this guy is a perfectionist and an extreme competitor, even in a “friendly” game of darts.
Beachy won the fifth spot in the 2011 starting rotation after out-pitching then roommate Mike Minor during spring training. He showed improvement and consistency and quickly became known for his ability to strike out batters. Heading into the 2012 season, however, Beachy had specific goals in mind.
“In 2011 I did okay and struck out a lot of guys so my numbers looked good, but I’d only go five or six innings. I led baseball in no decisions and that weighed on my mind. I wanted to help my team more, especially because Eric [O’Flaherty] and Jonny [Venters] were taxed and had thrown a lot of innings. I wanted to alleviate that pressure from the bullpen this year.”
Going seven or eight solid innings usually satiates most starting pitchers, but Beachy wanted a complete game. His dream became reality on May 17 when he notched not only a complete game, but led the Braves to a 7-0 shutout over the division foe Miami Marlins. Over 122 pitches he gave up five hits and fanned six without walking a batter.
“It was something I’d never done before, and I knew when Fredi [Gonzalez] let me hit in the seventh inning that they were going to let me take it all the way."
Pitching coach Roger McDowell emphasized to Beachy that his pitch count was high but they were going to give him a chance. “They weren’t going to let me go out there and rack up the bases loaded and get my pitch count up even higher. It worked out, and the ninth inning was a lot of fun.”
Beachy was able to share that moment in his career with one of the game’s legends who was wrapping up an incredible career of his own. When asked what it was like to play with a caliber athlete like Chipper Jones, Beachy had much to say.
“He was someone I grew up watching on TBS. At first when I got called up in 2010 it was intimidating. I’ll never forget it because he was hurt and done for the year, and he wasn’t there for my starts in Philly and Washington. But later on he asked me if I had time to sit down with him and let him give me some tips. He had a lot of encouraging things to say, and I took it to heart and really appreciated it. I saw over the past few years how he took Jason [Heyward] under his wing too. He did that to everyone. His locker wasn’t too far down from mine so I got to be a fly on the wall and hear him talk to other players about opposing pitchers and about hitting in general. The things he did in his final year were incredible. The things he did are stuff that legends are made of and it was special to be along for that.”
I imagine it won’t be long before Beachy starts taking rookies under his own wing. Mentoring is something that comes naturally to him. Before catching his big break, Beachy was studying for the LSAT and planned to attend law school. During his summer breaks, he had the eye-opening and sometimes frustrating experience of working with troubled teens.
“I interned in a prosecutor’s office in college, and I really enjoyed that experience. I met a lady who worked at a juvenile placement home so I worked there during the winters when I played minor league ball. I learned a lot about kids, and I have a soft spot for troubled teens and youth.”
Ultimately, Beachy sees coaching as the perfect fusion for his passions of mentoring and sports. And so far Beachy’s athleticism and intellect have made him a force to be reckoned with on the pitching rubber. But before he looks too far ahead at hanging up his cleats, there’s still work to be done and goals to achieve.
Eyeing his mid-June return to the mound, I can sense Beachy’s eagerness masked by an air of patience. “I’m just looking forward to getting back and being able to contribute alongside my teammates. Being a part of it again.”