Brandon Tyler Webb was born on May 9, 1979, in Ashland, Kentucky. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) His father, Philip, worked as an oil-plant engineer, and his mother, Dreama, as a medical secretary.
Ashland, a town of 35,000 in the coal mining region near the Ohio and West Virginia borders, is best known as the hometown of country stars Billy Ray Cyrus and Naomi Judd. As Brandon recalls, the most fun thing you could do in Ashland was to hop in a car and go to the mall in Huntington, West Virginia.
That is, when you weren’t playing baseball. Brandon began to show an aptitude for the sport at a young age, and his parents encouraged and supported him as he became the star of his Little League team. Philip still talks about his wife crying her eyes out when Brandon pitched in the 11-and-under state championship.
Brandon enrolled at
Ashland High School in 1993 and established himself as a first-rate pitcher.
He stood a gangly 6-2 in his senior year and threw a fastball in the high
80s. This got him nowhere in the 1997 draft, but it did earn scholarship
offers from several top schools. He accepted an offer from the University
of Kentucky. Brandon looked forward to playing for coach Keith Madison,
and hoped to follow in the footsteps of former Wildcat pitching luminaries
Scott Downs, Jeff Parrett and William Van Landingham.
The Wildcats went 26-31 in Brandon’s freshman season, 12-18 in the tough Southeastern Conference, where hurlers like Josh Fogg, Brad Wilkerson, and Matt Ginter ruled the roost. In 1999, Kentucky slogged through another down year, but Brandon began to work his way into a starting role. Poor grades won him his first start—not his, but those of a teammate who flunked out after academic struggles. Brandon took the hill against Vanderbilt in a key SEC showdown, and was a nervous wreck the entire game.
Kentucky improved to 38-20 in 2000, thanks to Brandon’s 7-3 mark. In his 113 innings of work, he fanned 123 batters. Brandon could get it up to the plate at 93 or 94 mph, but got a high percentage of his outs with his slider—perhaps wary of the damage aluminum bats could do against straight pitches. Every so often, he would take a little off his heater and the ball would dive into the dirt, accentuating the natural sink his two-seamer. Ironically, he never thought of this pitch as a “weapon,” mostly because it was too hard to control. The Wildcat coaches knew, however—they were always yelling “lower and slower!” when he tried to overthrow his fastball.
Among Brandon’s teammates on the Wildcats was future big leaguer Andy Green, who became the school’s all-time hits leader. During his junior year, Brandon decided to declare himself eligible for the draft. While some scouts were turned off when he missed a couple of mid-season starts with tendonitis, the Diamondbacks had three guys on him and thought he was worth a pick—especially after he handed powerhouse South Carolina one of its rare defeats in the '00 campaign.
Brandon was selected by Arizona in the eighth round. As a pro, he realized he wasn’t going to overpower anyone with his heater, nor fool anyone with his slider or change. Instead, he decided to concentrate on accentuating the natural sink on his two-seam fastball. Working with the organization’s coaches, he began turning his “sinker” into a valuable weapon.
Brandon made his professional debut in the summer of 2000. After a brief stint with Rookie League Tucson, he was promoted to South Bend. The Silver Hawks had a number of top pitching prospects, including Bret Prinz, Chris Capuano, Duaner Sanchez, Jose Valverde and Oscar Villarreal. Brandon fit in nicely. In his first 12 appearances, all in relief, he held opposing batters to a .172 batting average. But just as he was finding his rhythm, a sore arm ended his season.
Despite his limited action, it was clear that when Brandon had control of his two-seamer, he was almost impossible to hit. When he did not, however, he often got himself in trouble with walks. In 2001, he earned a promotion to Class-A Lancaster, where he learned what it was like to be a staff ace. Brandon started 28 games for the JetHawks and set a club record with 16 strikeouts in one game. He finished fourth in the California League in Ks, but only went 6-10 before suffering another injury. This time it was hip pain that cut short his year.
His abbreviated seasons aside, the Diamondbacks had no questions about Brandon’s durability. They moved him up to Class-AA El Paso to start 2002, and he seemed on a fast track to the majors. Brandon blew away Texas League batters and was named to the circuit’s All-Star Game. Two shutout innings in that contest helped earn him a trip to AAA Tucson, where he made an emergency start on July 4 as a replacement for Erik Sabel, who had just been called to the majors.
Brandon did not disappoint. Though he arrivied just an hour before the game in New Orleans due to flight delays, he twirled seven innings of three-run ball. Brandon then returned to El Paso, where he compiled a record of 10-6 against a 3.14 ERA. Brandon later pitched for Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League and allowed only one earned run in 16.1 innings. By now he had discovered that his out pitch broke best when he took a little off it. Instead of gunning his two-seamer at 93 to 95 mph, he dialed it down to 89-91 and it rolled off the table.
Brandon came a step closer to the majors with a promotion to Tucson to begin the 2003 campaign. He started three games before a call from the big cloub came. The Diamondbacks were struggling with injuries. including Randy Johnson, who was complaining of soreness in his right knee. Brandon made a relief appearance against the Montreal Expos in late April and pitched a scoreless inning in his debut. Five days later, he made his first big-league start, tossing seven shutout innings while striking out 10 in a win over the New York Mets. He set the tone for a day in which the D-Backs established a major league record for most strikeouts in a doubleheader with 27.
Brandon gave the staff the jolt it needed. While Johnson and Curt Schilling relied on heaters and intimidation, Brandon’s sinking fastball broke bats and frustrated enemy hitters. He went on a tear of 16 consecutive quality starts, the most at the start of a career in 30 years. On June 28, Brandon became the first Arizona rookie to toss a complete game shutout when he blanked the Detroit Tigers. By the end of the season, Brandon had recorded 542 outs, only 54 caught by an outfielder. The sinker was sinking and the infield was backing him up.
In all, Brandon started 29 games in '03, finishing with a 10-9 record and a 2.84 ERA (which was fourth best in the National League and sixth best in the majors). He proved to be unflappable in hostile environments, posting a 2.27 ERA on the road. Baseball writers took notice, as he tallied the second most votes in Rookie of the Year balloting.
The Diamondbacks went through a major overhaul over the winter and entered 2004 depleted at nearly every position. During the season itself, Steve Finley, Roberti Alomar and manager Bob Brenley disappeared from the Arizona dugout. The loss of veteran leadership showed. The club finished 51-111, buried deep in last place in the NL Westr. Brandon logged a 7-16 record, but still managed a respectable 3.59 ERA.
With Schilling gone to Boston and Johnson the subject of constant trade rumors, Brandon worked all year long as the de facto staff ace. He responded to the role, tying for the major league lead in starts with 35. In 20 of those, he allowed three or fewer earned runs. But Brandon also struggled at times, walking a league-high 119 batters while throwing 17 wild pitches, (a league-high, too). He was also ejected from a game against the Cardinals when he threw at St. Louis pitcher Woody Williams after giving up a home run to Mike Matheny.
Arizona's brass—and the team's fans—gladly overlooked his lack of experience. Indeed, when Brandon was on, he was nearly untouchable. He went six consecutive starts in June surrenedring two earned runs or less. Of course, as was typical that year, he won only once during this stretch. His sinker remained solid and he easily outdistanced the rest of the major leagues in groundball-to-flyball ratio (3.35).
The 2005 edition of
the D-Backs fared much better, thanks to a much-improved infield of Troy
Glaus, Royce Clayton, Craig Counsell, Chad Tracy and Tony Clark. Brandon’s
grounders were being converted into outs once again, and he went 14-12
for a sub-.500 team. With Johnson now wearing Yankee pinstripes in New
York, Brandon established himself as the Arizona ace. He started the season
6-0 (one short of a team record) and turned in a pair of double-digit
strikeout performances as the Diamondbacks entered the season’s
stretch run in contention in a weakened West.
Brandon led the Diamondbacks in wins, innings (229), and ERA (3.54). And after working hard on his control throughout the off-season, he cut his walks in half to 59. Once again, Brandon topped the NL in groundball-to-flyball ratio, posting a 4.34 mark. No one else in the majors was even close. He was rewarded for his efforts with a three-year contract for more than $20 million, making him the new top gun in Arizona.
For the second year in a row, Brandon began the 2006 season on a 6-0 roll, with an ERA just over 2.00. Arizona still struggled to score, and juggled its closers during a catastrophic June swoon. Still, Brandon racked up nine victories by the All-Star break, earning a ticket to Pittsburgh for the Mid-Summer Classic. He pitched one inning, and retired Derek Jeter, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. Against Jeter, Brandon threw seven straight sinking fastballs, but he kept fouling them off. When he dropped a curve on Jeter, the Yankee captain chased it for strike three. Ortiz then popped out to third and A-Rod grounded out.
The big difference now with Brandon is his pinpoint control. A May 20th masterpiece against the Braves featured Brandon at his best. Baffling Atlanta hitters for nine innings, he tossed a complete-game, four-hit shutout in 13-0 laugher. But it wasn’t jus the win, it was the way he got it. Of the four hits Brandon surrendered, all were singles and he didn’t walk a batter until the ninth. He recorded 18 groundball outs, along with eight strikeouts. No Brave hit a ball out of the infield until the eighth.
Brandon finds himself as the go-to guy on a team long with potential but short on experience. The Diamondbacks are hoping their kids will grow up fast in the anything-goes NL West, and they're counting on Brandon to show them the way.
The book on Brandon is simple. Batters know his sinking two-seamer is coming, and they have to prepare to hit up on the ball. That’s easier said than done, especially since Brandon started mixing in a changeup.
As many hitters will attest, Brandon’s sinking fastball acts like a split-finger pitch, but it is not. It has terrific late movement, action that is virtually indistinguishable until it is too late. He also has a sharp curveball that he’s improved on every year, and a four-seam fastball that starts inside against lefties and taisl back over the plate.
Brandon does not have
a glaring deficiency on the mound. It’s when he comes off the hill
that things can get ugly. He is one of the poorest defensive pitchers
in baseball, which doesn’t bode well for someone who lives for the
groundball. He also has a hard time holding runners on base. But for a
guy who has risen from relative obscurity in a short period of time, these
weaknesses are likely temporary. In other words, Brandon will work hard
to correct these flaws in his game.
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