Feature Photo: Brandon Leibrandt, LHP, Phillies
(Photo by Frank Mitman)
A year ago, Philadelphia Phillies left-handed starting pitching prospect Brandon Leibrandt was in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, finishing up a year-long rehab process from left shoulder surgery. Now Leibrandt finds himself with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and he’s become a part of regular conversations for a call-up to the big leagues as soon as this year.
Leibrandt’s road to recovery was arduous.
“Rehab was a long, meticulous process. A lot of early days and a lot of doing the same stuff: the rotator and scapula exercises,” Leibrandt said. “But now, I feel great. My arm feels as good as ever. It doesn’t feel like I had surgery two years ago.”
Leibrandt is pitching like someone who isn’t concerned about the health of his shoulder. He has a 2.86 ERA and a 75:33 SO:BB rate in 100 2/3 innings split between Double-A Reading and the Triple-A IronPigs this season. With six weeks remaining in the season, Leibrandt is poised to zoom past his career-high in innings pitched, which was 108 1/3, set in 2015, the season in which Leibrandt ended on the operating table.
Before the surgery, Leibrandt was making steady progress through the Phillies’ farm system after a three-year career at Florida State, where he posted a 2.89 ERA in 227 innings as a starter. Leibrandt missed much of his junior season with a knee injury, however. Viewed as a crafty lefty with a chance to contribute in the big leagues as a back-end of the rotation starter, Leibrandt landed with the Phillies in the sixth round of the 2014 MLB Draft (#172 overall) despite the time he missed with the knee injury. Leibrandt was healthy enough to throw 60 2/3 innings in his pro debut season, and he impressed, posting a 2.82 ERA in 60 2/3 innings spread between the GCL Phillies and the Short-Season A Williamsport Crosscutters New York-Penn League.
Leibrandt’s strong debut allowed him to jump a level at the start of the 2015 season up to the High A Florida State League. Shoulder problems began to impact Leibrandt that June. He attempted to return without surgery, but landed on the disabled list for good in early August. Before he was shelved, Leibrandt had a 3.11 ERA in 107 1/3 innings for the High A Clearwater Threshers.
After rehabbing in the GCL for four starts last season, Leibrandt re-joined the Threshers on August 2. He made six starts in the Florida State League and finished the 2016 season on a positive note with a 2.25 ERA in 28 innings. Leibrandt jumped to Double-A to start the 2017 campaign, and then earned his first call-up to Triple-A on June 26. He says the transition from Double-A to Triple-A has been smooth.
“It’s different than Double-A in terms of ballparks and a few more fans. But in terms of hitters and talent, I don’t think it is all that different,” Leibrandt said. “I just think that guys are more advanced in their approach and more consistent with what they do. I’m just trying to learn off of that.”
Leibrandt’s results at the Triple-A level thus far have been even better than they were in Double-A. After posting a 3.34 ERA with Reading in 72 2/3 innings, Leibrandt’s ERA with the IronPigs is 1.91 through his first six starts and 33 innings pitched. Leibrandt points to an adjustment he made as one of the main keys to his early success in Triple-A.
“I would say my breaking pitches have gotten a lot better, especially within the last couple of starts. Our pitching coach, Dave Lundquist, noticed something that I was doing on my curveball and that change has upgraded the curveball to where I can use it more as a weapon as opposed to a steal-a-strike type of pitch,” Leibrandt said.
In college, Leibrandt’s fastball averaged 86-to-88 mph, occasionally touching 90 mph. After his first year year of professional instruction, Leibrandt picked up a few miles per hour on his fastball. He has returned to that 87-to-90 mph range post-surgery. Even with the added velocity, Leibrandt knows the key for his fastball is not speed but location and movement.
“Fastball command is huge for me,” he said. “I don’t have the 95 mph fastball, so that command allows me to move it around and get guys off of that and be able to set up [my secondaries].”
Leibrandt’s command has slipped some in Triple-A, where he is walking 3.82 per nine innings. He’ll need to get that number down to find consistent success against upper-level hitters long term. He has a clean delivery that he repeats well. The left-hander has good balance over the rubber and he has a long, smooth throwing motion that generates easy, but limited, velocity. He doesn’t overpower anyone, but Leibrandt grades well for knowing how to use his pitches effectively. His best pitch is his changeup, which is a plus offering at present. He throws the changeup in the low 80s and it is a swing-and-miss offering. Leibrandt also throws a cut fastball.
“The changeup is my bread-and-butter. That’s what is going to make-or-break me,” Leibrandt said.
Leibrandt’s overall approach to pitching — and his arsenal — are similar to that of his father, Charlie Leibrandt (LHP, four teams, 1979-1993). The elder Leibrandt won 140 games with a 3.71 ERA over his 14 big league seasons, despite throwing a fastball that sat in the middle 80s. Like his son, Leibrandt featured a cutter and good change-up and breaking ball.
Brandon says his dad’s advice for him is to pitch his game and stay within himself.
“Hitting is hard,” the younger Leibrandt said. “My dad says execute your pitches and more than likely, the results are going to be in your favor. He also says to trust yourself. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Try to improve each day.”
One area Leibrandt has focused on improving in Triple-A is his pitch selection.
“I think the sequencing of hitters has been the biggest challenge. Trying to see what they are trying to do up there against me,” Leibrandt said. “Going against that and making those pitches. It’s a learning experience in that sense.”
Leibrandt is also learning to pitch while knowing that he is only a phone call away from the big leagues. He isn’t letting the possibility of a major league call-up distract him.
“It definitely feels like you are closer, but in terms of looking at what is going on up there, I try not to do that,” Leibrandt said of pitching in Triple-A. “I try to control what I can control and I try to put myself in a good spot. Otherwise, you can drive yourself crazy.”
Leibrandt’s main goal for the rest of the season is simple.
“I’ve got a pretty good routine going on right now, so it’s just making sure that I stay on top of that,” Leibrandt said. “It is that grind period. My goal this year is to stay healthy and that’s what I’m still trying to do.”