A Conversation With Brandon Mann, Who Has Been Around the Block

Brandon Mann has had a fascinating career. Drafted out of a Seattle-area high school by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2002, the now-36-year-old southpaw has played for six major league organizations, and he’s had multiple stints in both independent ball and NPB. His big-league experience consists of seven games with the Texas Rangers in 2018. With the Chiba Lotte Marines last year, Mann rejoined the Rangers this past offseason, only to be released on June 1.


David Laurila: You’ve been in pro ball for nearly two decades, with almost none of that time spent in the majors. Why have you kept at it?

Brandon Mann: “I’ve asked myself that question a lot. Pretty much every year I go into the offseason thinking, ‘Man, this might have been my last one.’ But I’ve always had that desire. I know that I can pitch in the big leagues, so I’ve just never felt ready to walk away. Every time I’ve been released has kind of built up the ‘I’ve got to prove somebody wrong’ mentality that I have.

“Over the years I kept training harder and harder, and as I got older I actually started throwing harder. Meeting Driveline, and a lot of the right people, has been a big part of that. But it’s a great question, because I’ve contemplated it many, many times.”

Laurila: How much money have you made in baseball?

Mann: “That’s another good question. Let me put it this way: If I hadn’t have gone to Japan when I was 26 years old, I probably would have stopped already. And I actually went to Japan out of indie ball, which is pretty rare. I was playing in the Atlantic League and a scout who saw me decided to get me a tryout. The next thing I knew, I was playing at the top level over there after having been released out of High-A.

“I didn’t give up a run in my first 18 innings in Japan. It was like, ‘I can do this.’ Even though I ended up having some ups and downs over there, I came back to the States feeling that I could pitch in the big leagues. Of course, it took me another five years to do it.”

Laurila: How did money in Japan compare to your minor-league salaries over here?

Mann: “In 2011 and 2012, I made over six figures [pitching in NPB]. In 2013, I only made $4,000 in Japan, but that’s because I was playing indie ball [there]. In 2014, I was making $13,000 a month with the Pirates; that was for two months, then I got released by them. From there, I went to indie ball [in the US] and made next to nothing. In 2015, I played indie ball the entire season.

“When I came back from Japan, I was paid as though I had big-league experience. For example, in 2016, I made $14,000 a month [in Triple-A]. In 2017, I was in Double-A the entire season and made $15,000 a month. That’s pre-tax, of course. And then 2018 and 2019, I did OK, as well.”

Laurila: What exactly did you get paid in indie ball?

Mann: “My first time, I think I made $1,200 a month. My second time, I think it was $1,100. Then, when I went to the American Association, it was something like $2,000 a month. That’s decent for indie ball.”

Laurila: That was over here. You said you played indie ball in Japan, as well?

Mann: “Yes, and I could write a book about it. I lived with another player, and I’m not joking, we had to walk, in uniform, to the field about half a mile, carrying our own bags. After practice, we would walk a mile to the gym, still in uniform. Then, when we got home, we had to wash our uniforms. There was no locker room. There was no food. There was nothing. Every day we had to sweep the dugouts, rake the field, tamp down the mound. 7-Eleven was like our heaven over there. It was quite the experience. I was literally living in the mountains of Japan. I saw those giant murder hornets all the time. Seriously.”

Laurila: How did you land in indie ball over there when you’d already played in NPB?

Mann: “This was 2013. I’d gone to big-league camp with the Nationals and they released me with three days left in camp. The Nationals traded for Ian Krol, and the next day I showed up to the field and was told that I was being let go. I told my agent that I wanted to go back to Japan, and at that point in time [indie ball] was my option.

“The first half of the season I went 1-9. Mentally, it was really tough for me. The second half, I became a reliever and actually started throwing sidearm. Akinori Otsuka, who used to play for the Padres and the Rangers, came over to my team as kind of a player-coach, and he talked to me about going sidearm. I went something like 32 inning and gave up one run. The SoftBank Hawks gave me a tryout, but the Pittsburgh Pirates also saw me throw, and that’s who I ended up signing with. But again, I ended up getting released by them. That was out of Double-A with a 2.90 ERA, and throwing sidearm. Of course, I’m back over the top now.”

Laurila: Let’s back up to the start of your professional career. You were a 27th-round pick out of high school [by Tampa Bay]. What was that time like for you?

Mann: “When you’re in high school, you’re the best player. You’re kind of ‘The Man.’ Then I showed up to pro ball and was possibly the slowest thrower on the team. I was a little overwhelmed. Half of my team didn’t speak English. There was definitely some culture shock. I’d just turned 18, and was in the back woods of Princeton, West Virginia. It was very discouraging in a way. I realized just how far away I was from the big leagues.”

Laurila: Even with a “prove-somebody-wrong” mentality, did you ever consider calling it quits?

Mann: “I actually said, ‘Screw this. I have to get a real job,’ in 2006. I didn’t play in 2007. I worked at Whole Foods and started going to a community college. Tampa reached out to me and said, ‘We’re putting you on the restricted list, but if you ever want to play again, we’d love to have you back.’ Around August, I told them that I’d like an opportunity to show up at spring training the next year. They said OK, although there young pitchers ahead of me and I’d have to earn a spot. I ended up repeating high-A in 2008.”

Laurila: Fast forward to 2015: You were 31 years old and pitching for Fargo-Morehead in the American Association. Thirteen years after playing in Princeton, you were, for all intents and purposes, still a long way from the big leagues.

Mann: “I set the American Association strikeout record that year, and from there the Oakland A’s gave me an opportunity. I was really streaky with them [in Double-A]. I’d have a month where I’d give up no runs in 18 innings — this was out of the bullpen — and then I’d have a stretch where I’d give up 10 runs in nine innings. I was that up-and-down. But I knew during those good stretches that if I could figure it out, I’d be a big-leaguer.

“Come 2018, I was basically able to diagnose the biggest issue I had. A lot of that was Driveline, and going over all the data. Data helps pitchers understand who they are, and how to use their stuff. Prior to that season… in 2017, Oakland had given us access to all of our TrackMan data, and we all started to look at it, but we didn’t really know what we were looking at. That offseason, I went to Driveline.

“For the most part, my slider was pretty much un-hittable in 2016 and 2017; I had a 40-plus swing-and-miss rate, and I think my batting-average-against was somewhere around .140. My average spin was 2,900, and I got up to 3,200 or 3,300. I was always told, ‘Your slider is so amazing.’ But my four-seam fastball, especially to righties, was getting hit at a .390 clip. Moreover, when I would go in to righties, it was like a .460 clip. But to lefties it was good.

Trevor Bauer throws the two-seam at a lefty’s hips, and it comes back. He has that laminar-express pitch, or whatever he calls it. So I started picking his brain about how to throw a two-seam, and then started throwing two-seamers. In 2018, I had a really good year in Triple-A and made it to the big leagues. My batting average to righties, on my fastball, was .190 in Triple-A. Being able to make that adjustment to a two-seam, and pairing it with my slider, is what allowed me to get to the big leagues.”

Laurila: Why did it take so long to make that adjustment? You’d been in pro ball for what, 15 years?

Mann: “Before, when I would throw a two-seam, the pitching coaches would always be like, ‘It just runs, it doesn’t have sink, so you should just throw four-seams.’ Basically, I was being told that if I was going to throw a two-seamer, it had to sink.’ But then I start learning about all this data with TrackMan and Rapsodo — all of these pitch characteristics — and I realized that my two-seam staying on the same plane and running like that was actually a very good pitch.”

Laurila: What was it like to finally get called up to the big leagues?

Mann: “When I was first told, I actually thought it was a joke. I remember calling my parents and my wife. They broke down crying, because they knew how hard I had worked for it. But I felt very ready. My very first game — it was in Houston — I came in with the bases loaded, and I just felt calm. I felt like it was my time. Whether I’d be getting into many more games, or not, it just seemed right.

“Call it God’s timing. That same night we got on a plane and flew to Seattle — my hometown — and following a day off we played a two-game series, one of which was on my birthday.”

Laurila: Later that season you got sent back to the minors.

Mann: “Yes, a crazy part of 2018 is that I got DFA’d in early August, and nobody claimed me, so I went back to Triple-A. They then didn’t give me a September call-up, so I came home. I went to Driveline the next day, and kept throwing bullpens.

“The Rangers happened to come into Seattle for the last four games of the season, to play the Mariners. Mike Minor does Driveline stuff, and he came in for an end-of-season evaluation. Doug Brocail, the big-league pitching coach, came with him. I gave Doug a hug and said, ‘Yeah, man, I’ve been throwing bullpens.’ Blah blah blah. He was like, ‘You’ve been throwing bullpens? “I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ That night, I got a phone call from Josh Boyd, the assistant GM. He said, ‘Do you want to come pitch the last three games of the season with the Rangers?’

“The next day I drove to Safeco. First game, I warmed up and didn’t get in. Second game, I pitched an inning; I got a double play and a strikeout. The next day I warmed up and didn’t get in. Who gets called up for the last three games of the season after they’d been DFA’d?”

Laurila: The Rangers released you this spring. This was well after camps had been shut down due to the pandemic. Were you surprised?

Mann: “I was both surprised and not surprised. Based on the conversations I had before we all had to go home, I thought I was probably safe. My understanding is that if this season had happened, I’d have been in Nashville, in Triple-A. But I totally understand. When the minor leagues got shut down — they haven’t officially been shut down, but we all know they’re shut down — I know that as a 36-year-old, I don’t fit in their plans anymore. It’s more important for the Rangers to bring in an Alex Speas or a Cole Uvila, and give them an opportunity, than it is to give it to an older guy like myself. From a business standpoint, it makes complete sense. For me, knowing it could possibly end my career, it was kind of ‘Wow, this might finally be it.’”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Lunch Anglemember
3 years ago

what a journey, thanks for sharing!