The mininum requirement to be a successful major league reliever is typically two good pitches. Having three pitches, more often than not, makes you at least a candidate to start.
So how has Brad Brach, who wields a 95-plus mile-per-hour fastball, and out pitches in his changeup and slider, never started a professional game in his life?
That question, which even the Orioles' brass has asked, is one that dates back eight years of professional experience.
"When I got out of college, I didn't really have the stuff I have now," Brach said. "I was touching 90 [mph] — 91 every once in a while. My slider was all right. My changeup was good. But for some reason, when I got to professional ball, I just couldn't with the seams the way it was, I couldn't really throw it. But I could command my fastball really well."
For now, Brach and the Orioles are happy with him dominating out of the bullpen. He's in position to inherit save opportunities if closer Zach Britton's sprained ankle keeps him out.
At Monmouth, Brach won a school-record 29 games and struck out 277 batters in four years. The San Diego Padres took him in the 42nd round of the 2008 draft, and put him in the bullpen that summer after he threw over 80 innings in the spring.
"When I started my first season in the Arizona rookie league, basically if you throw strikes there, you're going to have success," he said. "Coming from a small school, they stuck me down there to close. I did really well, and I think they just didn't want to mess with success. So I closed through until I got called up to the big leagues. I think it was just one of those things where I did well. I was a late-round pick, so they just didn't want to mess with anything."
By the time he earned his first major league call-up in 2011, he had converted 112 of 120 minor league save opportunities. He was up and down for two seasons in San Diego before the Orioles acquired him after the 2013 season for pitcher Devin Jones. It was only in his first season with the Orioles — and sixth as a professional — that starting crossed his mind.
By then, his fastball was averaging 94 mph and he had his slider and change-up developed to the point they were both weapons. His slider was seldom-used in college, but the reliever life of throwing every day and doing flat-ground work helped him hone that pitch to where it is now. He had adjusted to the baseballs and regained control of his changeup, too.
"I honestly never thought about it until a few years ago when I threw that four-inning outing in Pittsburgh I had," Brach said, referring to the four shutout innings he threw on May 21, 2016. "After the outing, [pitching coach Dave Wallace] came up to me and was like, 'Hey, you never started before in professional ball?' 'Not once, not since college.' 'You've never started? You have three pitches, you've never started?' I said, 'No, I never got a chance.' He said, 'All right.'
"Next you know, I'm being sent down, and they said, 'We're going to have you go down and you're going to start. We're going to build you up to 75 pitches.' But then they saw I had a little bit of a shoulder thing in 2012, so they said we're just going to keep you as a reliever so we have you. Honestly, it was the first time I'd thought about it since college, and it's just one of those things that I never really had a chance to do."
Now, he says, it's too late. He's 30-years-old, and his first year as a starter would probably only allow him to throw 120 innings over 20 starts. "That does nothing for anybody," he said.
"I think it's just one of those things where I'm glad for the role I'm in now," he said. "It would have been nice if it was five years ago it happened, but I like what I'm doing now."
There's little reason for him not to like it. Behind Britton and set-up man Darren O'Day, Brach is the most reliable and relied-upon reliever in the Orioles' bullpen. In 2015, he had a 2.72 ERA with 89 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings.
This year, he's allowed just 10 base-runners (five hits and five walks) with a 1.26 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 12 appearances (14 1/3 innings). Since he joined the Orioles in 2014, he's stranded 80.3 percent of all of his inherited runners, 13th-best in the American League.
And he believes it's the fact that he has a starter's repertoire—a good fastball with command, plus two off-speed pitches—that has allowed that success.
Parroting the words of bullpen coach Dom Chiti, Brach said the break on both pitches — the slider that tails glove-side and the changeup that fades arm-side — essentially gives the hitter twice as much plate to cover.