John Brownell never considered himself a strikeout pitcher but the record books beg to differ.
Brownell, who is in his seventh season pitching for the Ducks, set the Atlantic League all-time strikeout record earlier this month, whiffing his 738th batter and passing Tim Cain, who pitched 10 seasons in the league, including with the Ducks in 2006-07.
After striking out three batters in his last start — a 7-4 win over the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs on Aug. 22 — Brownell had 753 career strikeouts.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Brownell, 35, said of the record. “A lot of great players have come through here. I’ve been fortunate that the Ducks have given me an opportunity for so many years and it’s great to be a part of this organization and this league.”
“He pitches,” Ducks manager Kevin Baez said, simplifying Brownell’s career to a simple phrase, adding that he “hits his spots, doesn’t groove too many pitches over the middle of the plate. He doesn’t get rattled, either. He makes the next pitch that he needs to make.’
It’s been a season of milestones for the Ducks. Shortstop Dan Lyons set the team record for games played (864) on Aug. 5.
“It’s a lot of fun to be achieving some individual milestones with the guy that’s been playing behind you for six years or so,” Brownell said. “I’m just happy for him that he’s had a lot of success as well.”
In every sense of the word, Brownell is not a traditional strikeout pitcher. He’s never blown batters away with a blazing fastball nor has he had hitters gasping for air on their way back to the dugout. Instead, the looks from dejected batters are more quizzical, with Brownell using finesse, movement, and a keen mind for the way hitters think to record outs. His velocity clocks in the low to mid-80s.
“I try to live on the edges, because, when you don’t throw as hard, you can’t leave the ball over the plate,” Brownell said. “My offspeed has been really good over the last handful of years that I’ve been in this league. If you can throw that stuff — your secondary pitches — for strikes, it helps keep hitters off-balance.”
Brownell was a late-round draft pick by both the Rockies in 2002 and the Phillies in 2006 but, aside from a 19-game stint in Class-A with Philadelphia in 2006, has only played in International and Independent leagues.
Brownell’s secondary stuff developed, ironically, during the worst season of his career — 2010. That season, he went 4-9 with a 5.31 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 21 starts with Lake County of the Independent Northern League. The struggles forced him to refine all his pitches, eventually allowing him to use them more effectively.
“You learn a lot about yourself when you’re down in the valley, and how much strength you have to climb back up to the top of the mountain,” Brownell said. “I just kept battling and grinding through it. I was slowly learning who I was as a pitcher and how to use my arsenal.”—
There have been valleys this season, as well. After years of being the ace of the Ducks staff — with multiple opening day and playoff Game 1 starts under his belt — Brownell, who is also the Ducks pitching coach, is no longer the most feared arm in the rotation. By his own admission, 2018 has been a rollercoaster ride.
Brownell was 9-10 with a 4.56 ERA in 21 games (20 starts), after Wednesday night. The walks (40) have been more frequent, something that’s contributed to his overall frustration. He walked 51 batters in 24 starts last season and 38 in 25 starts in 2016.
“Because I throw a lot of offspeed pitches, which are harder to throw for strikes, guys were a little more patient because I wasn’t throwing the fastball for a strike,” Brownell said. “Now, I’m getting back to throwing more strikes, but I’m just leaving it over the plate a little too much and giving up more hits than I’d like. So, it’s finding a fine balance between the two.”
Francisco Rodriguez was 2-1 with a 2.43 ERA and 24 saves in 34 appearances, entering play Saturday. He struck out 33 batters and walked 15 in 33 1/3 innings. Thanks, in part, to an off-day and a rainout, Rodriguez only made one appearance this week — a scoreless ninth to save the Ducks’ 6-4 win over the Road Warriors Friday.