(This is part one of a two-part interview with Brandon and Joe Marklund, recorded at their home in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, as Brandon had just recently returned from the Premier-12 Tournament in Japan.)
Twenty-seven kilometers east of Vancouver, on the north bank of the Fraser River in British Columbia, sits Port Coquitlam, a town of slightly more than 58,000 people. It’s the home of Brandon Marklund, Kansas City Royals prospect, Vancouver native, and the latest addition for an organization that’s becoming rather well-stocked.
It’s been a pretty busy year for him: somewhat unheralded out of Bryan College, he has taken an indirect route to affiliated baseball. From the Coastal Plain League, to the first professional baseball team in New Zealand, all the way back to the United States and a tryout with the Royals.
Marklund dominated the South Atlantic League. He won a championship ring. He pitched for his country on the international stage.
It was, as his father Joe puts it, “not bad for a non-drafted free agent.”
I had the opportunity to speak with both Brandon and Joe at their home in Port Coquitlam. They each had much to say about the wild ride that was the 2019 season.
“It was a bit of a transition because my first pro experience was just spring training and extended,” Marklund began, “and it’s a little bit different when you’re playing at the complex. I mean, I played in front of numerous fans before in stadiums, but I definitely think showing up in Lexington and playing in front of that crowd was a little bit of a shock to the system.”
All players know what it’s like to perform in front of large, noisy crowds. Marklund found himself going from a small college in Eastern Tennessee, halfway around the world to New Zealand, and back to the States again to play in his first year in the affiliated pro ranks. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
“I mean, not in the sense of being nervous or scared or anything,” he continued. “but kind of having that excitement of finally being where I’ve wanted to be for all this time.”
“So I think it took a little bit, at least a couple of games just to get acclimated into it.”
Indeed, it didn’t take long for Marklund to settle in, once he had the first few outs in the books.
“I felt after my first hour, after I got the first three outs, that it was business as usual and I was getting ready for the season.”
Part of making that adjustment is becoming accustomed to the coaching staff, and while organizations as a whole may have a particular philosophy regarding the sort of coaches they hire, opinions among players often vary. Some players never quite hit it off with a coach at one level, then get along famously with the staff at the next. Marklund was effusive in his praise for the Legends’ staff.
“Great coaching staff. I like ‘Stet’ (pitching coach Mitch Stetter), and we talked a lot. He was kind of a funky lefty when he was in the big leagues and I’m a righty. But the cool thing about baseball is, it doesn’t really matter what type of player you were, because the same game and same rules still apply. And I learned a lot from him and was able to pick his brain a little bit.”
“And our manager, Brooks Conrad. He’s a great guy, an easy guy to talk to, very approachable. He’s a big Braves legend. A lot of my friends from Bryan, they asked me how I liked playing under him. It was great cause he’s also a great manager. He always had your back and you never had to worry about any of the coaches not being there or standing for the players. Not Coach (Glenn) Hubbard, or Coach (Jesus) Azuaje, or Coach Stetter.”
Though he didn’t have as many interactions with Coach Hubbard as he did with Coach Stetter, Marklund also fondly remembers the first-base coach as being open and approachable, willing to share his experiences and enthusiastic about teaching minor-league prospects.
“Anyone can approach (Coach Hubbard), and he’ll talk about anything you want,” Marklund recalled. “If was baseball, or life in general, he was very easy-going. And I always thought it was super-cool that a former big-leaguer with so much experience, so much history behind them, would go to a Low-A team and just be so willing to help. I always thought that was really a commendable quality of his.”
Marklund also credits Coach Conrad with being able to read his players and their needs, on a day-to-day basis.
“Maybe a guy needed a couple of rounds off of BP, or he didn’t need to hit that day or take grounders. He always kept the conversation open to where all you had to do was go and talk to him. He was all for it, as long as that conversation was there. And I think that’s why he was so approachable. Guys knew that you could go into his office and talk to him about anything. And obviously it’s not always going to work out the way a player wants it, but he’s always willing to listen.”
“You see some of coaches in the news, in different sports…you wonder if the primary issue isn’t just that they’ve never been able to maintain that person-to-person contact; instead of just being a by-the-book manager, it could sometimes be just two human beings, talking.”
He was getting his feet wet, settling in with a new team and a new organization, and hadn’t yet hit any memorable speed bumps. But it was a particular road game that impressed upon him both the level of talent he would face, as well as how he should approach hitters in the Sally League.
“I started off pitching every couple of weeks, and I was getting my innings that way. But the first time that it dawned on me what the competition was like at this level was during a series at Augusta. We’d faced them a couple of weeks before, but I didn’t get to face them at the time.”
“They had some really good hitters, some of the best in the league. I knew beforehand that it would be a challenge, and I was excited about facing them. It was always a fun battle, every time we faced them. I would really get up for it.”
Marklund already knew the role in which he functioned most effectively, and that was out of the bullpen. He relishes the pressure of short, high-pressure situations; he thrives under those conditions. But living in the Southern United States was an entirely new experience for him, an enjoyable one, at least when he was able to spend some off-field time exploring his pro tem hometown.
“My first experience with living in the South (Dayton, Tennessee) was, I think, a city of only 10,000 people. I’m used to living in a bigger city, so it was kind of nice to come to Lexington. I mean, we’re playing every day, too. It was hard to see a lot of the city, but I thought the stadium (Whitaker Bank Ball Park) was great. The workers, they all worked hard, always. They really want the city to see a good ball team, and it was a great place for a minor-league team, I think.”
Along with high praise for the coaches, Marklund was especially pleased that the organization has added the analytics of Rapsodo at Lexington. The hardware and its accompanying application made its first appearance at Lexington on April 11th during a visit by the Columbia Fireflies, with Kansas City assistant pitching instructor Jason Simontacchi in attendance to speak with Coach Stetter and the pitching staff about its use.
“I think it definitely gave us more specific information that could normally only be explained by a coach based on what he saw,” said Marklund, describing the use of Rapsodo’s spin rate data and its integration into the team’s training. “They might say ‘hey, your fastball’s got a little more rise today,’ or ‘it’s sinking more.’ So it was all the ‘eye test’, before Rapsodo.”
“Now, we get information on spin rates and spin axis and pitch tilt, so I think it was definitely beneficial. And at this level, there’s a lot of fine-tuning that goes on, on a mound.”
“At the same time, if your play on the field is showing different results, it’s not really beneficial to say ‘hey, your spin is really high’, but then batters are hitting .800 off of that pitch. So obviously it’s ideal to have the data, as well as the coaching experience in order to put it into proper perspective.”
From a personal level, Marklund said Rapsodo gave him useful data on his slider, both in terms of spin rate and its tilt.
“I knew my slider had a pretty high spin rate; it was getting up close to 3000 RPM, so that was pretty good. But I try not to get too wrapped up in any of that information. It’s nice to know, but I try to let my play dictate more of how I go after hitters than just, say, the data alone.”
As the season progressed and Marklund’s stats continued to show his dominance of Class-A batters, the team’s pitching kept them in the playoff race even when the offense lagged. Lexington’s 4.18 runs/game placed them ninth out of the fourteen-team league, but their team ERA of 3.65 was tied for sixth, they were fourth in the league in both total pitching strikeouts (1276) and K/9 (9.4), while their 3.1 BB/9 was tied for third-best. Catchers Freddy Fermin, Chase Vallot, Nick Hutchins, and Chris Hudgins combined for a 41% caught-stealing rate, second in the league.
Much like the 2018 iteration, this year’s roster was extremely long on talent. Marklund noted that, perhaps ironically on a such a loaded team, one of Lexington’s strengths was that none of the players in the clubhouse would put their own interests above the needs of the team.
“It never seemed like ‘hey, this is the guy’ either on or off the field. No one made their presence bigger than the team. I think everyone had their own way of standing out, but not in a selfish way.”
“It was always ‘team first’.”
“But I guess one of the guys who stood out a lot for me was my first roommate in Spring Training, Andres Nunez. We were roomies in ST and extended. Then, when he got called up, I followed him to Lexington the next week. He’s a guy that’s always working hard. He doesn’t make excuses. If we go to the field and we see we’re going to be doing a ton of running or we’ve got a really hard workout ahead of us, he never complained. He’d be like ‘hey, we’re gonna get it done.’”
“He was a big motivator, too. So let’s say it’s, like, Day #110 of the season and guys are sort of dragging their feet, he was a guy who would pick them up. He wouldn’t let them fall behind. So he definitely made his presence felt not only as a friend to me, but just an overall great team guy. He puts in a ton of work, on and off the field, and I really think he’s a guy to watch for 2020. I think he’s going to have a big year.”
The Legends, by way of their first-half, first-place finish, already had a playoff spot waiting for them in September. A 7-3 record in their final ten games, including a four-game winning streak heading into the All-Star Break, put them only one-half game ahead of both the Augusta GreenJackets and Charleston RiverDogs. Paradoxically, their 37-32 record in the Southern Division was a result of their 23-12 road record; they were only 14-20 in first-half home games. The team was unfazed, regardless.
“We all knew what we needed to do,” Marklund remembered. “We needed to go out there and win. The guys definitely knew what we were playing for. I don’t think it changed anything.”
“We weren’t going to back down. And I think that shows just the group of guys that we had, as well. There are a lot of good ‘character’ guys in there, also.”
Game One of the SAL Semifinals saw a masterful performance by starter Jon Heasley, who allowed only one run on a solo homer by Augusta SS Tyler Fitzgerald in the seventh inning, striking out six. Marklund took over in the eighth, dealing fourteen of nineteen pitches for strikes over two perfect innings to earn his first postseason save. He would do it again two days later in relief of Daniel James, who went 2 2/3 perfect innings in relief of Zach Haake. Marklund put up another outstanding performance, giving up only one hit over two innings, walking one and striking out two for his second save, clinching Lexington’s second championship appearance in as many years.
Heasley once again took the mound to start the series vs. Hickory, going five innings while giving up three runs (two earned), walking two, and striking out three. James, Kyle Hinton, and Marklund teamed up to allow only one unearned run over four innings, walking two and striking out three. Hinton got credit for the win, while Marklund got his first save of the series and his third in six days.
Game Two of the championship was the only postseason game in which Marklund wouldn’t appear; Carlos Hernandez pitched five shutout innings, striking out six to get the win. Tyler Gray struck out the side in the sixth, while Emilio Marquez earned a three-inning save, giving up one hit and a walk while striking out three.
Hickory would counter with a Game Three win at Lexington on the strength of homers by Miguel Aparicio and Tyreque Reed, getting to Charlie Neuweiler for three runs on seven hits over 4 2/3 innings. Bryce Hensley held the Crawdads to one run on two hits and a walk over 3 1/3 innings, striking out five. Hinton finished out the game, allowing one run on a hit and a walk, but the damage was already done.
With Lexington still firmly in control of the series, Haake started Game Four by pitching six hitless innings, walking two and striking out six. Hickory RF Pedro Gonzalez tied the game in the seventh with a solo shot off of James. That’s when the real drama began, a moment for which Marklund had prepared while pitching for the Bryan College Lions.
(In Part Two, Brandon speaks about winning a championship with the Lexington Legends, being chosen for Team Canada, pitching in the Premier-12 Tournament, and his father’s influence in Little League and high school. Also, Joe Marklund talks about Brandon’s early amateur days and his road to the pro ranks.)