RailRiders starting pitcher Brody Koerner was at a career crossroad. After a promising start to his pro career was disrupted by an elbow injury, the right-hander struggled to establish himself in the high minors, culminating with a demotion to the bullpen in Double-A in 2018.
The Yankees gave him a chance to be a starter again in 2019 in Trenton, and he was a new man on the mound. He posted a 2.36 ERA with the Thunder, and after a promotion to Triple-A, has fully established himself as one of the top starting pitchers on the RailRiders staff. Without overpowering stuff, Koerner keeps hitters off-balance with a four-pitch mix, intelligence, and a rapid pace on the mound.
"I know what their weaknesses are and what their strengths are," Koerner says of his approach opposing hitters. "I pitch not just to what my strengths are, but [focus on] attacking their weaknesses and can be more successful that way." He notes, however, that this was not always the case throughout his career, and has been a more recent strategy - caring more about attacking weaknesses than staying within his comfort zone.
The Winchester, Virginia native has had a fast rise through the Yankees organization, but it hasn't always been the smoothest ride. He was drafted in the 15th round of the 2015 MLB Draft out of Clemson University, but he didn't possess the typical eye-popping numbers of a college draftee. He had a losing 5-7 record and a 7.00 ERA in three years with the Tigers, striking out 100 and walking 54 in 97.2 career innings.
Despite the sub-par results the Yankees saw something they liked in Koerner and drafted him as a junior - the first year he was eligible. Starting his professional career that season, he made 21 relief appearances between Rookie-level Pulaski and Single-A Charleston, notching eight saves and an impressive 1.23 ERA.
No longer needing to worry about innings limits, Koerner began the 2016 season as a starter with the Charleston RiverDogs. He pitched so well that after only three games he was promoted to High-A Tampa. That was where his season would short circuit.
On May 3, the right-hander suffered a stress fracture in his right elbow and underwent surgery 10 days later. He was completely shut down for six weeks and spent most of the rest of the season rehabbing. Medically cleared to pitch again on September 1, Koerner made his comeback with the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League.
The Yankees brought Koerner back conservatively, starting his 2017 season in extended spring training before he made his season debut on May 26 with Tampa. After six strong starts, he was promoted to Double-A Trenton.
It's often said that the hardest jump to make in the minor leagues is from High-A to Double-A, and Koerner experienced the trials and tribulations of that first-hand. He posted a 6-3 record in 12 starts with the Thunder, but his ERA ballooned to 4.08 after he posted a combined 1.57 mark in his first two pro seasons. His strikeout numbers plummeted and his walks and hits allowed both increased for a dangerous cocktail.
Brody decided that one of the best ways for him to adjust to the stiffer competition was to add a new pitch to his arsenal. Since he was in high school he relied on a sinker, changeup, and curveball, but heading into the 2018 season Koerner added a cutter.
Most notably used by Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, the cutter is a fastball variant characterized by sharp, late movement - or cut. When thrown by a righty like Koerner, the pitch cuts away from right-handed batters and in on lefties, making it an effective weapon against lefties. That was exactly what Koerner needed, as lefties hit .274 against him in 2017. He set out to work with Jose Rosado, the Thunder pitching coach at the time, to develop a grip and feel for the new pitch.
"It was brand new, so some days it would be there and some days it wouldn't be there," said Koerner of his new toy in 2018. Despite the lack of consistency, the results were clearly there for the pitch. In the 2018 season, left-handed batters managed just a .262 batting average against Brody.
He set out during the offseason to refine his cutter and find the consistency that would help take it to another level. He found a new grip for the pitch and settled into a rhythm with it, but it was still lacking in his mind. But a conversation with 42-year coaching veteran Greg Pavlick, the Yankees Rehab Pitching Coordinator changed that.
"I talked to Pav and he was like, 'Hey, this is how Greg Maddux threw his,'" said Koerner. "Obviously he was pretty successful … so I tried it and it's been pretty good since I switched to that grip."
Pretty good might be an understatement. Koerner has ridden the cutter to his best results since the injury that cut his 2016 season short. Opponents are batting only .234 against him in his time with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and have had a difficult time squaring up the ball.
The right-hander has effectively used his cutter down and away to lefties as a "backdoor" pitch but also likes to throw it down and in to right-handers. This combination doesn't result in a high number of swings-and-misses but produces the weak contact and groundballs that are a hallmark of what Brody wants to accomplish on the mound.
But despite his great results on the field this year, Koerner deflects a lot of the credit to his teammates, citing the great defense played behind him and the most potent lineup in the International League as big drivers of his success.
"The defense has played well behind me which is partly why I've been able to go deep in games, [and] they can flat out hit. It's fun to pitch when you know your team's got your back," he said. "Obviously when you go out there and pitch you want to do your job and put up zeroes, that's the main focus, but it is nice knowing if you give up a run or two, more often than not we're going to score more than a couple runs in a game."
For Koerner, the rest of 2019 is dedicated toward continuing to make small changes in his game to get to the big leagues. He is firmly entrenched in the RailRiders starting rotation, but to crack the Yankees roster Brody is "trying to make the misses small and be more consistent" in his approach. No pitcher is ever perfect - even the famed control artist Maddux missed his spots - but the very best pitchers miss by only a few inches and rarely hang balls up in the strike zone.
If he can do that, it won't be long before Brody heads to The Bronx as pitchers who can reliably generate groundballs are a huge asset in the current age of hitters trying to elevate pitches. As he works toward that goal, the righty will continue to take his turn every fifth day for the RailRiders and do his best to lead them to victory.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.