'A new way to love the game': Brown's journey to bullpen

February 28th, 2022

PHOENIX -- In 2018, Zack Brown was the Brewers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year and the sky was the limit. When he was in big league camp the following spring, Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell mentioned Brown among the pitchers expected to contribute at the Major League level in '19. Since then, everything has gone wrong.

Brown had his worst pro season in 2019. He lost ’20 to the coronavirus pandemic. And then in the spring of '21, he sustained a shoulder injury that lingered and lingered and lingered. Along the way, Brown tumbled down -- and then fell off -- MLB Pipeline’s list of Milwaukee’s top prospects.

He is entering 2022 with a new role -- reliever -- and a new outlook.

“It almost feels like a different career,” said Brown, who is one of the most seasoned players in the Brewers’ early Minor League camp. “I think it has created a broader love for the game, because you get to see so many positives and negatives within a short span. I think it just gives you a new perspective and a new way to love the game.”

Brown reached that realization at the end of his trying 2021 season. After his second outing in Spring Training, he noticed that his right shoulder wasn’t bouncing back as it should. A diagnosis remained elusive for days, then weeks, then months. Three times, Brown was shut down from throwing to allow inflammation to subside. At least twice, he underwent an MRI scan. Anti-inflammatory shots helped, but each time Brown resumed throwing, he would have a setback after a handful of sessions. In darker moments, he wished for doctors to tell him he needed shoulder surgery, if only because that would mean they’d pinpointed the problem.

Eventually, doctors settled on the notion that the problem was simply general inflammation, Brown said. He had to learn to push through the sensation that things weren’t quite right with the knowledge he wouldn’t do additional damage. Eventually, he made it to Double-A Biloxi, then Triple-A Nashville, and pitched mostly in short relief stints, picking the brains of his teammates to learn the new role.

It looks like the role will stick. Brown said he is preparing to be a reliever this season and beyond. He has eyes on finally making it to the Majors.

“Like, it's time to go,” Brown said, describing his mindset as, “Just go have fun. I think the fun aspect has been gone for quite a long time out there on the field.”

As he learns to love the sport again, Brown is learning life in the bullpen after years of being a starting pitcher, first at the University of Kentucky, and then in Milwaukee’s Minor League system after he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB Draft. In ’18, the year Brown was the organization’s Pitcher of the Year, he was 9-1 with a 2.40 ERA and a strikeout-to-walks ratio better than three to one (119:37).

In relief, Brown sought tips from Triple-A Nashville teammates Luke Barker and Thomas Jankins. He asked how they navigated pitching multiple days in a row, or two out of three days. He found himself throwing more breaking balls in short stints.

“I think I've got a pretty good plan of how to attack it,” Brown said.

In his head, he’s a reliever now.

“I think it'll be 2-3 innings, kind of like a long-relief role or a spot start if we need it,” Brown said. “I think that's OK. Obviously, in the big leagues, we have a pretty set starting five, and any way they can use me and get up there [to Milwaukee], that's the biggest goal. I think that's a good route for me to get there.”

Brown knows the clock is ticking. He is 27 and will be a Minor League free agent at year’s end. He will also be married in November to his fiancée, Hailey Burnett.

“It feels like I've grown maturity-wise and physically by like three or four years,” Brown said. “But I think I have a different outlook on what baseball is to me.”