Ben Braymer has been with the Nationals longer than you might think. An 18th-round draft pick out of Auburn University in 2016, the 26-year-old left-hander is entering his sixth season in the organization.
Considering his age, the year he was drafted (the same as Carter Kieboom and former Nats prospects Dane Dunning and JesÃºs Luzardo) and his progression through the minor league system, you might be surprised even still that Braymer finished 2020 as just the Nationals' No. 22 ranked prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com.
That ranking came out even after Braymer made his long-awaited major league debut on Aug. 28 and impressed over three outings, posting a 1.23 ERA in 7 1/3 innings.
Now in major league spring training for the first time, Braymer is taking that experience from last year to help him grow as the Nationals begin to stretch him out as a starter, having been used mostly out of the bullpen for a large portion of his career.
"Yeah, I think it's a wonderful opportunity to have the chance to be stretched out as a starter," Braymer said after his second outing of Grapefruit League play Wednesday, in which he pitched a scoreless fifth inning. "You know, 2019 in the minor leagues was my first full season as a starter all year and I felt like that went pretty well. So going into last year, a starter again, we all know how that went: made a couple relief appearances, started a game. Then heading into the offseason, they told me to stretch out as a starter, do my throwing program as I would. Anticipate throwing a lot of innings this year and be built up to probably two ups, three ups for the start of spring training. So I feel very confident in that."
That 2019 season as a full-time starter wasn't without its ups and downs for Braymer. He went 4-4 with a 2.51 ERA in 13 starts at Double-A Harrisburg. But when he made the jump to Triple-A Fresno in late June, he didn't find the same success, going 0-6 with a 7.20 ERA in another 13 starts. He also saw his hits (12.2), home runs (2.7) and walks (5.3) per nine innings spike while his strikeouts per nine (7.1) went down.
Then came his big league opportunity in the form of a relief role last August. In two appearances out of the bullpen, Braymer allowed just one earned run and struck out four over 2 1/3 innings.
But ironically enough, it was his final outing and only starting assignment that was the most impressive. He earned his first win while striking out four Marlins over five innings of one-hit, shutout ball in the second game of a Sept. 20 doubleheader in Miami. A performance that, according to Braymer, was a result of carrying over what he had learned at the Nationals' alternate training site throughout the summer.
"Yeah, so last year, my stuff was a little down from what it typically is, so I feel like, from the get-go, that sort of forced me to think outside the box and think outside the realm of how I would normally attack hitters," Braymer explained after his outing Wednesday against, you guessed it, the Marlins. "And when I look back on that, it forced me to really mix in my pitches a whole lot, especially at the alternate site. We were facing the same four or five hitters, literally, for five innings. So by the fifth inning, they were coming up to the plate and I'd seen them five, six, seven times. So they know how you pitch and kind of what they are looking for, so it became more of a chess match.
"And I think when you look back to that start in Miami, that's kind of what I did. I just mixed everything up and pitched backwards. Pitched traditionally off the fastball and just did a little bit of everything and I felt really good doing that, and I still feel pretty confident about that style of pitching. So that's something I'm going to take with me and move forward with. And as my stuff continues to get back to what it should be, and hopefully better, then that'll just serve me even more down the road."
The next stop on that road was this year's major league spring training. And with this new plan to stretch out as a starter, Braymer continues to learn by taking notes from other southpaws who are already staples in the Nationals rotation, like Jon Lester.
"Definitely a student of the game," manager Davey Martinez said of Braymer. "He's always trying to get better, he's always asking questions on how to get better and he watches everything. I saw him the other day watching Lester and his bullpen. So he's constantly trying to learn, trying to pick up things that will help him."
What sort of things is Braymer trying to pick up?
"I think, first and foremost, I mean, if you look at our rotation, those guys are so accomplished and they've been around for a long time," Braymer reflected. "Especially someone like Jon, who's been so healthy for so long, I think it's important for me to just kind of watch how he goes about his business, watch what he does, when the spikes come off in the weight room and the training room and stuff like that. Same goes for Max (Scherzer) and Stephen (Strasburg) and Joe (Ross) and all those guys.
"And their experience, they have a wealth of it. And I think if anybody were to ask me, especially a younger guy, I would say 'Just be a sponge. Listen to as many things as you can. Watch them.' That's kind of what I'm sticking to. That's what I did last year. I would say, probably, this year I'm a little more confident to speak up and ask questions to those guys, whereas last year I was more observant and stuff."
With his experience through the minors and reaching the majors last year, along with now being around established veterans and future Hall of Famers in West Palm Beach, Braymer is comfortable in any role the Nationals put him in this season.
"I also feel more confident in a relief role this year, as well, should that be where I'm at," Braymer said. "I think it's always easier to kind of go from a starter to a reliever than vice versa. That will allow my arm to stay in shape. So, should I still be stretched out as a starter at the end of the year, that's wonderful. I'm going to love the challenge of doing so, and I definitely feel confident in a starter's role, for sure."