Phillies bullpen: Meet the guy who pitched in and helped Connor Brogdon become a big-leaguer

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Jim Salisbury
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Meet the guy who pitched in and helped Connor Brogdon become a big-leaguer originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Connor Brogdon's nerves were crackling like an exposed electrical wire when he was called into a tie game in the 10th inning by Phillies manager Joe Girardi on Thursday. Here it was, opening day, the year after the Great Bullpen Disaster of 2020, and Brogdon, still a rookie, had a man on second base with the reigning National League MVP due up and the league's reigning home run/RBI champ on deck.

The wind was howling out to right on a frigid day as Brogdon stared in at Freddie Freeman, the Atlanta Braves great lefty-hitting slugger. One mistake and Freeman would line one into the gap, or worse, clunk one into the right-field seats and the dread of 2020 would rise from hibernation and infect the Phillies and their fans on a day when charting a hopeful new course was so vital, tangibly and symbolically.

Thank goodness Brogdon wasn't alone out there on the mound.

His journey to the big leagues and to this moment had been impacted by many, from an organizational decision in his first few weeks of pro ball, to the team's support staff, to an old college teammate named Henry McAree.

"If we weren't teammates, I don't think I'd be in the big leagues," Brogdon said one recent day. "I'm confident saying that."

Brogdon threw seven pitches and received a huge defensive assist from centerfielder Roman Quinn and catcher J.T. Realmuto in putting up a zero in the top of the 10th inning Thursday. The Phillies won the game on a two-out hit by Jean Segura in the bottom of the inning.

Brogdon got the win. 

Five of the seven pitches that he used to retire the lethal duo of Freeman and Ozuna were changeups, the pitch he learned from McAree when they were teammates and NAIA champions at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho.

McAree still remembers the day. It was the fall of 2016. The pitching staff had just finished playing catch in the outfield. A few pitchers were milling around, still tossing with each other, working on their pitches on flat ground, having fun. McAree started throwing changeups and they were really dancing. One pitcher marveled that it was difficult to even catch. Brogdon jumped in and asked McAree to throw him one.

"Nasty," Brogdon said.

"Here comes a better one," McAree said.

The ball started up by Brogdon's glove and moved downward, left to right.

"You trying to take out my shins?" said Brogdon, amazed at how the pitch moved.

A few moments later, Brogdon approached McAree.

"Seriously, man, what was that?" he asked. "Can you teach me?"

McAree was more than happy to help his teammate. The two had played together the previous spring and McAree believed that Brogdon had great tools — a 6-6 frame, a power arm, a good breaking ball and long fingers.

"I always believed Connor was our best pitcher, and not just because he threw 96," McAree said. "He had a great slurve. In fact, I'm surprised they don't call it more up there.

"But I'm always looking to see if a guy might be capable of throwing a changeup. I'm biased, but I believe it completes a pitcher. 

"Connor has those long fingers, like Pedro Martinez, who had a great changeup. He had a great feel for the pitch right away."

Henry McAree, Anthony Balderas and Connor Brogdon after winning the 2017 NAIA title. Balderas is now the pitching coach at Lewis-Clark State College.

McAree grew up in Shoreline, Washington. As a youngster, his dad would not let him throw a curveball. Mark McAree instead taught his son to throw a changeup. Henry was fascinated by the pitch, not just the change of speed it provided but also the movement it created on the ball. When young Henry wasn't throwing the pitch on a ballfield or in the backyard, he was laying on his bed, tossing a ball in the air and catching it, studying how different grips created different spins.

In Shoreline, McAree grew up with Blake Snell, the 2018 American League Cy Young winner from the Tampa Bay Rays. Snell's dad, Dave, is a coaching legend at Shoreline Community College, where McAree pitched before heading to Lewis-Clark. One day when he was in middle school, McAree was throwing some pitches in the bullpen when Dave Snell showed him a tweak in his changeup grip.

"Nasty," McAree thought to himself after throwing one.

"I think that's your new pitch," Dave Snell told him.

Brogdon had a similar Eureka! moment with the pitch. After picking McAree's brain about grips — both pitchers use a circle grip with the middle and ring fingers over the sweet spot — and arm speed, and practicing the changeup on the side for a few weeks, Brogdon broke it out in a game, though only he and the catcher really knew it. The pitching coach and the catcher had their signs messed up. So, every time the pitching coach signaled for a slider, the catcher actually called for a changeup. 

"Slider's looking good today," the pitching coach told Brogdon in the dugout after the second inning.

"I haven't thrown a slider," Brogdon said.

Brogdon laughs about the confusion now but says the moment was a game-changer in his career.

"It had so much movement that from the side they thought it was a slider," he said. "It was kind of an accident. But it left no doubt in my mind that it could be a pitch for me.

"That discovery was purely because of Henry. He had the best changeup in the Northwest. Seriously. I heard those exact words come out of a scout's mouth one time."

The Phillies selected Brogdon in the 10th round of the 2017 draft. Coming off his senior season, he received just a $5,000 signing bonus. So what. He had a chance.

A few weeks into his pro career, Brogdon was encountered with another unexpected event that turned out to be serendipitous. The Phillies had also selected Spencer Howard and Connor Seabold in that draft and those two were going to piggyback in the last spot in the starting rotation at Class A Williamsport. The decision was made to move Brogdon to the bullpen.

He loved it. He found that he didn't have to pace himself like starters sometimes unconsciously do. He saw a jump in his fastball velocity and, of course, he had the changeup that he learned from his college buddy and that was wowing people.

By the end of June in 2019, Brogdon had pitched himself to Triple A and was putting up strikeout numbers that he could not have imagined as a starter.

"Going to the bullpen was a blessing in disguise," Brogdon said. "It opened my eyes to a whole new world. The lifestyle of pitching three or four times a week really agreed with me. I love being able to throw consistently.

"My career could have taken a whole different path if I didn't move to the bullpen. Who knows, I could have gotten buried behind other guys because my stuff as a starter wasn't what it is now."

Brogdon made it to the majors last season and had a forgettable debut; he allowed a three-run home run on the first pitch he threw. But it's not how you start, it's how you finish. He went back to the minors for a few weeks and came back throwing that breaking ball that his old friend McAree had always liked. It added a new wrinkle to his repertoire. His fastball velocity jumped a tick and he hit 98 mph late in the season. That only made his changeup, which sometimes comes in at 83 mph, better. Over his final 8⅔ innings, he gave up one hit, two walks and struck out 14 to put himself firmly in place for a spot on the 2021 opening day roster.

During the time Brogdon was back in the minors — or the alternate site, to be exact — last season, the Phillies support staff noticed that the skinny pitcher was getting even skinnier. His weight was down to 185. Alexa Scully, one of the team's nutritionists, started the process of beefing him up. He's 193 now.

"Every day, I'd show up to the field and there would be a shake waiting for me," Brogdon said. "We were trying to get 4,000 calories a day and anything over that was gravy. I was running it up there pretty good on calories and when I got back, I felt like I was more explosive. Our nutritionists, Alexa Scully and Ellen Rice, have really helped me."

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Brogdon’s last 7 appearances dating back to last September: 9⅔ innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 2 walks, 14 strikeouts.

Brogdon, 26, hails from Madera Ranchos, California, near Fresno. His parents, Mike and Stephanie, were among the crowd of 8,526 as fans came back to the ballpark Thursday. It was an incredible thrill for them to see their son get the win on opening day.

And out in Shoreline, Washington, Henry McAree was elated, as well, and not just because he had recently picked his buddy for his fantasy league team.

McAree is 27 now, working as a MAT (muscular activation technology) practitioner. He was selected by the Miami Marlins in the 29th round of the 2017 draft, the same year that the Phils picked Brogdon. McAree's pro career lasted just a few weeks. His shoulder, which had already "been hanging by a thread," gave out and he ended up in surgery.

Two years after the procedure, McAree still misses the game he loves.

"I don't know if there's a word for it," he said. "I think about it every day. Every time I turn on a game. Man, I wish I still could ..."

His voice brightened.

He recalled hearing about his buddy Brogdon's promotion to the majors last summer, how he gushed to "random people on the street that one of my best friends just made the major leagues." He's proud of his friend and most happy for him, and he should be because he's played a big part in the journey.

Connor Brogdon himself will tell you that.

"For him to reference me like that and say I helped kick-start his big-league career," Henry McAree said, pausing for a moment.

"It's just an honor and it makes me emotional to think about."

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