Bratt wins CBN’s Wayne Norton Award, as top minor league pitcher

by Darryl Reid

By Kevin Glew

Canadian Baseball Network

Left-hander Mitch Bratt has won the Canadian Baseball Network’s Wayne Norton Award as the top Canadian pitcher in the affiliated minor league ranks.

The 19-year-old Bratt (Newmarket, Ont.) was outstanding in his first full pro season with the Texas Rangers’ Low-A Down East Wood Ducks, posting a 2.45 ERA in 19 appearances (18 starts) while striking out 99 in 80 2/3 innings.

“It’s an honour to receive the award,” said Bratt in a phone interview. “The pitchers who have won it before me – like Mike Soroka and Jordan Romano – helped paved the way for Canadians like me to be seen . . . I’m very thankful to everyone who voted for me.”

The Toronto Mets and Junior National Team alum tied for first among Canadians in the affiliated minor league ranks in wins (5), was second in ERA (2.45) and was third in innings (80 2/3) and tied for third in strikeouts (99).

Bratt earned five first-place votes from a panel of 11 baseball experts from across North America. Philadelphia Phillies prospect Noah Skirrow (Cambridge, Ont.), who tossed a combined 119 2/3 innings between double-A and triple-A, finished second, while Cade Smith (Abbotsford, B.C.), who recorded a 2.93 ERA in 44 relief appearances, split between High A and double-A, in the Cleveland Guardians system, was third.

Overall, Bratt’s season was a resounding success, boosting the 6-foot-1, 190-pound lefty up to No. 20 on Baseball America’s list of the Top 30 Rangers prospects, but the season wasn’t without its challenges.

In spring training, Bratt suffered a forearm injury and was shut down from throwing for two weeks. This delayed his regular season debut until April 30.

And when he did join the low-A Wood Ducks, after tossing three scoreless innings in his first start, he allowed four runs in the first inning of his next outing. 

“I remember my second game I got hit pretty hard,” said Bratt. “And that had never really happened to me. I had never been hit that hard before. So, I didn’t really know how to deal with it.”

So, Bratt placed a call to Rangers’ mental skills coach David Franco, who offered him advice on how to deal with adversity, as well as some breathing techniques.

“He helped me a lot,” said Bratt. “I think I gained a lot more out of that experience of being hit really hard and building off of it, compared to when I was succeeding.”

After that, Bratt rarely faltered. In a six-start stretch from June 11 to July 16, he didn’t allow a run in three of his starts and only a single run in two others. This included a start against the Carolina Mudcats on June 25 in which he threw five no-hit innings and struck out seven batters. His only blemish was hitting the second batter of the game.

“I had him 0-2 and I spiked a curveball and I hit him in the foot,” recalled Bratt. “I wasn’t too happy about that.”

He followed that up with a season-high nine strikeouts in five scoreless innings against the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers in his next start.

For his efforts, he was named Wood Ducks Pitcher of the Month for June and July and the Rangers’ Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Month for July. 

But Bratt says he’s most proud of his start on August 23 against the Fredericksburg Nationals. With his club battling for a playoff spot, he went toe-to-toe with Nats starter and 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge and threw a career-best six innings, leaving the game with the score tied 2-2.

“That was probably my best performance that I felt I had all season,” he said. “It felt like a playoff atmosphere.”

So, how was Bratt so successful in his first pro season?

Some of it can be attributed to his disciplined approach. He established a routine, but he’d also incorporate suggestions from his Wood Ducks pitching coach Demetre Kokoris. 

“I think the two things that really stand out about Mitch Bratt are No. 1 his competitiveness,” said Kokoris. “He’s the type of guy that wants the baseball. He’s not afraid. He wants to go after guys in big situations . . . And then the second thing that’s really elite is just his willingness to prepare. Whether it’s looking at a scouting report, attacking his throwing program, cleaning up the type of pitches that he has or cleaning up his execution, there isn’t a stone that’s left unturned by Mitch.”

Kokoris also marveled at Bratt’s maturity.

“You would never guess he was an 18- or 19-year-old kid,” said Kokoris. “He has a tremendous commitment to the game . . . I really have to commend his parents. They have done a great job raising him. He’s a very level-headed kid who takes things in stride, but also understands the importance of hard work.”

Bratt’s four-pitch arsenal also served him well. On top of his fastball (which can reach the mid-90s), a changeup and a curveball, he worked on his slider, which helped him collect 11 strikeouts per nine innings. 

“I think Mitch is unique because all four of his pitches profile very well,” said Kokoris. “I really don’t know if there is one particular pitch that is going to stand out in front of the other ones because I think all four of them are very important. I think Mitch is so competitive and he’s such a great student of the game that I think he’s going to be able to optimize all four of them and that’s what makes him special.”

After the season, Bratt went to the Rangers’ training complex in Surprise, Ariz., for a month to further develop his slider.

“We were working on refining my slider to be able to throw it harder and to be able to have a certain movement profile to it,” he said.

Honing a pitch at a big-league training facility is something Bratt likely couldn’t have fathomed he’d be doing when he was growing up in Newmarket, even when his father, Brian, a former catcher for the Durham College Lords, was sitting on a bucket in their backyard catching his pitches.

Bratt grew up a Toronto Blue Jays fan, but his favourite pitcher was San Francisco Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner. The young southpaw, who honed his skills with the local Newmarket Hawks and the Brampton Royals, didn’t really start focusing on pitching until he was 14.

One of the turning points for him came when he attended a tryout at the Canadian Futures Showcase (formerly T12) in 2018 when he was 15. 

“I remember throwing probably three or four fastballs there and then the scout or coach walked in front of the mound and told me to stop,” said Bratt. “I was like, “Uh-oh, what did I do?’ He gets on the phone and he calls another coach down from home plate and said, ‘Hey, you got to see this.’” 

The coaches asked him to start throwing again and after the session they told him he could have a future in baseball.

Shortly after he pitched at the Canadian Futures Showcase that year, he was contacted by Greg Hamilton who asked him to join the Junior National Team.

“I got that phone call and then a week-and-a-half later I was in Florida with the Junior National Team,” said Bratt. 

None of Bratt’s success surprises Rich Leitch, the Toronto Mets vice-president and director of baseball. The young lefty joined the Mets 16U team in 2019 and would work extensively with pitching coordinator Jordan Prosper.

“There was never a doubt with him,” said Leitch. “He was the guy for us. He’s a tireless worker . . . He knew exactly what he needed to do to be ready to pitch on the days he started and he was successful from day one up until today.”

Leitch describes Bratt as a “salt of the earth kid,” who’s a great competitor that has a lot going for him physically.

“The breaking ball was always really good for him,” said Leitch. “The thing about him when guys saw him at any early age was his really clean mechanics. The velo was good for a kid that age . . .  and he had really great pitchability. He could throw three pitches for strikes.” 

In 2019, Bratt would star for the Mets and the Junior National Team. He was with the junior squad on March 12, 2020 when they were playing the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., when Major League Baseball shut down spring training due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Like many other prospects, Bratt had to be creative to keep his arm in shape with all of the pandemic restrictions. He ended up building a makeshift mound with some old tires and bed frames and threw into a net.

“That was our mound for about two months and fortunately our backyard was just 70 feet, if that,” said Bratt. 

During the pandemic, he honed his pitches and added muscle to his frame. In February 2021, he was contacted by the Georgia Premier Academy (GPA), an elite baseball program in Statesboro, Ga., and invited to join them. With Canadian programs still shut down due to the pandemic, Bratt decided to head south that March.

With GPA, he had the opportunity to face high-end competition from the Southern U.S. before joining the West Virginia Black Bears of the MLB Draft League. In seven starts with the Black Bears, he posted a 2.57 ERA and struck out 44 batters in 28 innings and saw his draft stock rise. 

By this time, he had an advisor and had heard from scouts from multiple big-league clubs, so as the draft approached, he had a general idea of what round he’d be selected in.

His parents came down to be with him during the draft and they watched it in a hotel room in Morgantown, W.V. He received a text just prior to the fifth round from his advisor, notifying him that Texas would be taking him and when the Rangers announced his name, he was emotional. 

“I just remember hearing my name get called and then my parents were hugging me,” said Bratt. “It was pretty cool.”

The next morning, he flew to Texas with his dad to sign his contract.

After coming back to Canada to secure his work visa, he reported to the Rangers’ complex in Surprise, Ariz., where he began a throwing program. He eventually made four appearances for the Rangers’ Rookie club in the Arizona Complex League. In six innings, he struck out 13 batters without issuing a walk. His performance impressed the Rangers and laid the foundation for his outstanding 2022 campaign.

So, what can the Canuck lefty do for an encore in 2023?

Well, he hopes to continue his ascent up the Rangers’ ranks. He has been back in Newmarket, working out at the Toronto Mets facility, since the Canadian Thanksgiving. 

But today, Bratt can savor being named the Canadian Baseball Network’s 2022 Wayne Norton Award winner, as the top Canadian pitcher in the affiliated minor league ranks.

He says he appreciates the honour and is thankful for all of the help he received from his coaches over the years.

He’s also extremely grateful for the support he has had from his father Brian, mother Denise, stepmom Jessica and sister Emma.

“I can’t thank my parents enough. They were always supportive. They would drive me around to wherever I was playing before I had my license and before I had a car. They would work their work schedules around me,” said Bratt. “I didn’t realize until not that long ago how thankful I was for that and how much they really did for me.”