By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — For two starts, Brandon Maurer looked like a rookie who was in way over his head.
Over the next three, however, the Seattle Mariners’ right-hander looked like an ace in the making. After seeing Maurer come back to earth in his most recent start, last week’s 7-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, it’s pretty clear that the truth lies somewhere in between.
Maurer, the 22-year-old who made the leap this year from Class AA to the major leagues, is pitching like, well, a 22-year-old who just made the leap from AA to the major leagues. To be the surprise of spring training, winning a spot in the rotation; to convince Mariners manager Eric Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik that he was ready to make the leap, Maurer had to show a pretty rare level of talent. But the reality is that, despite all that talent, Maurer is still learning how to pitch at this level, and it has shown.
The struggles were evident in his first two starts — Maurer didn’t even get out of the first inning in his Safeco Field debut. And the talent was evident in the next three, with Maurer going six-plus in all three starts, allowing four earned runs while striking out 13 and walking five.
Then last week, Maurer barely got out of the first inning, then pitched pretty well over the next three.
In other words, hang on, it could be a bumpy, but at times thrilling, ride.
“Every day he goes out, he’s going to get better whether he throws well or not,” catcher Kelly Shoppach said after Maurer’s last start. “Experience in this game is invaluable. He came back and kept us in the ballgame there. He battled really hard.”
Trying to figure out which Maurer might show up is going to be a challenge early this season — though the number of left-handed hitters in the opposing lineup could tell that story (more on this in a moment). But given the choice between an up-and-down rookie or a mediocre journeyman starter, isn’t this the more compelling option? Yeah, Maurer, who was skipped in the rotation the last time through with the Mariners having two recent days off, may not survive two innings next time he takes the hill. But he could also put on a performance that has you dreaming of a bright future. And after years of watching the Carlos Silvas and Miguel Batistas of the world, wouldn’t you rather take a chance on potential?
And it’s not as if the Mariners believe they’re throwing Maurer to the wolves. Despite his young age, he has been in Seattle’s farm system since 2008, a big reason why he, and not any of the “Big Three” of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, made the rotation. As Zduriencik always likes to point out, players need to learn how to struggle, then bounce back, before they get to the big leagues. Maurer has done it in the minors, which should help him get over the obstacles he faces this season with the Mariners.
“Look, it’s not like he’s a baby,” Shoppach said. “He’s a grown man learning here at the big-league level. He’ll tell you the same thing: ‘I’m a man, I can take it, I’m going to go out there and compete.’ And that’s one thing he has that we can’t teach him — his competitive nature and the way he has no fear out there on the mound. That’s a great base for him to have. For him to compete the way he does makes us feel pretty good every time he goes out.”
Maurer’s learning will take place over the course of the season, but can also be seen on an inning-to-inning basis. In last week’s loss to Baltimore, it quickly became evident Orioles hitters were looking to attack early in the count. That led to a four-run first, but once Maurer did adjust, throwing more first-pitch off-speed pitches, he held the O’s in check for the next three innings.
“You’ve got to notice that they’re doing that and then go and not throw a fastball first pitch, or if you do, maybe two-seam outside that’s not easy to hit,” Maurer said.
In addition to adjusting to hitters, Maurer’s other big challenge appears to be figuring out left-handed hitters. In 69 plate appearances, righties are hitting .250 against Maurer with a .664 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 16 strikeouts, two walks and one home run. Lefties, on the other hand, are hitting .358 against Maurer with a 1.141 OPS, four home runs, six walks and just two strikeouts.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Wedge said of Maurer’s struggles against lefties. “He needs to alter his approach a little bit against lefties with regards to what he’s throwing at certain times, his sequences. I think the left-handers are showing him that up here. That’s something that sticks out a little bit. But we’ve seen that before whether it be young left-handed pitchers against right-handers or the other way around like we’re seeing now. So we’re going to be able to make that adjustment.”
It’s just one of many adjustments Maurer is trying to make in his rookie season. It won’t always be pretty, but sometimes, it will be pretty spectacular.
And when those inevitable hiccups occur, just try to take the advice of Maurer following his last loss: “I’ve got to go out there next time and not even worry about this one.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.