Ely Sussman analyzes the early-season performances of seven Marlins players who are possible pending free agents: Garrett Cooper, Dylan Floro, Yuli Gurriel and Joey Wendle (unrestricted free agents), Jorge Soler (2024 player option) and Matt Barnes and Johnny Cueto (2024 club options). Then, Marlins right-hander Karson Milbrandt joins the show (38:00) to take us inside his first full season as a professional.
Enjoy Episode 195!
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The full transcript of the Karson Milbrandt interview is posted below (lightly edited for clarity).
Fish Stripes: Before getting into you specifically, I wanted to get your reaction to news just a few days ago. The Marlins called up Eury Pérez all the way from Double-A straight to the majors. He’s only a year older than you are! Wondering what do you think when you see somebody that’s almost your age already pitching important innings in the major leagues?
Karson Milbrandt: You know, it’s crazy. First of all, he’s an awesome guy. We reported January 15 for early camp and he was there. He obviously doesn’t speak a lot of English, but you have conversations with him. It’s so cool to just watch him throw in his bullpens or honestly watch him go about his business. He handles it very professionally. You’re watching him throw ‘pens, you’re like, “that guy, he’s a major league pitcher.” He has all the tools. It’s awesome to see. It’s really cool.
FS: Going back to you, there’s a lot to cover here on you. Just going back to beginning, do you remember how old you were when you became a pitcher and what it is that made you want to focus on that?
KM: Growing up, basketball was my main sport. I was all on basketball. But obviously, reality hit—I was a 5’6” point guard on the B team. So I was like, basketball is fun [but] not the way to go. My freshman year, I got a few innings on varsity and I really started to enjoy it. I had a really good team, really good coach since my freshman year of school. Ever since freshman year, I kinda realized I was better at pitching and just kinda worked on it then and I really enjoyed it.
FS: Is there any particular MLB pitcher that back then or even now that you try to pattern your game after, that you think you have a lot in common with?
KM: It’s actually kinda funny. When I was in sixth grade, the Royals—I’m from Kansas City obviously, so I watched a lot of Royals games—Johnny Cueto. I loved watching him throw. I’d go to a lot of his starts, I think it was like sixth or seventh grade. But they won the World Series, so I saw the parade, saw him. It’s actually really funny because he’s with the Marlins now, so I saw him at Spring Training and all that. It was so cool to see that.
FS: You made pretty rapid progress from that freshman year in order to become a really legit draft candidate right out of high school, but you were committed to go to Vanderbilt...Could you just lead us through that whole decision process, leading up to the draft and then making the call to turn pro a couple weeks later?
KM: My mom and my family is very important to me. You usually ask for their opinion, but this time, they’re just like, “pray to God. Whatever feels best for you, you go with that route.” I was actually at Vanderbilt for a week and a few days taking a summer class before I flew home for the draft. So I got that taste of college, moved into my dorm. Really liked it. Vanderbilt was awesome. But I got drafted, I really liked the number and just pulled the trigger on it, and I’m really happy I did.
FS: They moved the draft date—it’s a little later than it used to be. So it creates an awkward situation where, as you said, you’re already proceeding as if you might go to college and you don’t know yet because the draft hasn’t come yet...From your perspective and other guys you may have talked to, do you think it’d make more sense if the draft moved back earlier to where it used to be in June instead of pretty deep into July?
KM: You’d think, because it was super weird. I moved in and then a week later, I moved out from my dorm...It’s definitely weird, for sure.
FS: Could you lead us through each of the different pitches that you have in your arsenal and the situations that you like to use them in, how they kinda play off each other?
KM: I got a fastball, curveball, changeup. Sometimes my curveball moves like a slider, so people think it’s a slider, but the whole time it’s a curveball...I’m kinda learning how to use my pitches, but obviously, you got the fastball up, curveball down. It’s kinda reading swings, so a guy will foul a fastball back, you’re like, “that guy’s on it—I probably shouldn’t throw it again.” Slow down his bat with the changeup. Our pitching coach (Glenn Dishman), he does a really good job of helping me with that. It’s kinda new to me, but I’m slowly figuring it out.
FS: Which of the individual pitches would you call from favorite at this point, and is there any particular one that this season, you’re focused most on developing/improving/getting more consistent with?
KM: My favorite, it’s gotta be the fastball. I really love my fastball. I can place it pretty much anywhere I want and I really like it. But we worked on my changeup a lot in Spring Training in early camp and that’s slowly becoming one of my favorite pitches, just because it’s kinda new. Whenever I throw a good one, it’s a really good feeling. It’s kinda like relief, “I’ve been working it on that for so long.” It just feels so good.
FS: They usually tell me that it’s just a certain number of reps, right? After a while, you just throw (the changeup) as much as possible, you play catch with it more often than you used to and then eventually, it just clicks. Is that what you’re figuring out?
KM: I never really threw a changeup in high school—there’s no reason for a changeup. The first week they had me here and had me pick out a grip, just what feels comfortable to you. Just throwing it a ton—that’s the best way to develop it. I threw it all the time in Spring Training and they even tell you, “I don’t care if it’s over the guy’s head, I don’t care if he hits it 500 feet. You can’t develop it if you don’t throw it.”
FS: Getting back to your fastball, sitting about 94 mph so far, and more so than the velo, it’s about the movement that you get on this pitch, the late life that you have, both horizontally to the arm side and then the way that it dips toward the end...Do you have any theories as to how why it is you get that great, late life on it?
KM: I honestly have no idea. It’s like a normal fastball, but I do have huge hands. All my coaches have always said the ball looks really small in my hands, so it could be the big hands. I honestly have no idea...It’s just a normal four-seam. I’ve heard it spins really good and has good movement.
FS: You’re also pitching at a level (Florida State League) where it’s hooked up to a lot of the same stat-tracking that we get in the majors...How much do you dive into those numbers when you’re either preparing for a start or evaluating what you did after the fact?
KM: Before the start—I throw on Fridays—I watch three games (of the series) and then I [chart pitches] the game before I throw. I don’t really dig into the numbers that they’re hitting, but you can kinda see it. You’re watching the game, here’s a guy coming up to bat and I saw this guy swing at a curveball in the dirt. He doesn’t pick up spin very well, so spin him a curveball. That’s kinda the way I prepare for it. But after, it’s actually really cool because there is a lot of data and stuff on my pitches throughout the game. You kinda see where it plays, maybe why the guy hit this pitch or maybe I shouldn’t have thrown that pitch at this time, so it’s cool to see that stuff.
FS: I noticed that you made your Jupiter debut, it was last September and you were throwing to Cameron Barstad in that game. For most of your starts this year, you were throwing to Barstad as well. He recently got moved up to High-A. I’m wondering from a pitcher’s perspective...What is the value of that relationship and how does it change when you have a different catcher responsible for you the next time out?
KM: Barstad’s awesome. He knows how to call a game. He’s very good at what he does. He’s really good behind the plate. We’d go out to lunch or breakfast—we’d hang out a lot. It’s not different to have a new catcher because our team is very close...I had Sam Praytor. It’s kinda a different build behind the plate, but they’re both very good at what they do. I like them a lot. The relationship’s there.
FS: The team obviously wants you to develop as much as possible, but they understand that you’re not used to throwing a certain number of innings...There’s a certain limit, I guess. By the end of the year, they want to make sure you aren’t going too far. Is that stuff communicated to you in advance, how far you’re allowed to go in this particular game? Or do you just go as hard as you can until they say it’s enough?
KM: It’s kinda communicated. They have a line...You just kinda go out there and compete. Obviously, you want to keep the pitch count down. Usually it’s like five innings or 75 pitches, but I’ve thrown more than 75 pitches. You can kinda bend the line.
FS: Are there any other particular “friends” of yours that stick out now that you’ve been in this organization for almost a year, guys who you have a lot in common with or find yourself spending a lot of time with on and off the field?
KM: Yeah, our draft class is super tight. Everyone gets along super well. But obviously, Jake Miller is my roommate. So is Josh White, so those are the people I’m around the most. I’d say I get along with them the most.
FS: What are your goals and expectations for the rest of the season? It’s a long season and we’re only about a quarter of the way into it at this point. Where do you want to be at the end of this year relative to where you are now, whatever things that you’re focused on individually that would make this a success when you’re all said and done?
KM: At this level, like you said, it is mainly about developing things. So I’m really trying to develop my curveball and changeup where I can throw them in any count. And obviously, I want to go out there and compete every start. Hold myself accountable on those.
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