No matter where I look this offseason, every conversation concerning the Red Sox seems to center around their bullpen. Or, rather, their lack of one. Joe Kelly signed with the Dodgers. Craig Kimbrel remains a free agent, despite my best efforts (my GoFundMe page has raised $23 out of our $100 million goal). Still, the Red Sox steadfastly maintain that they’re happy with what they’ve got, which is…lackluster. Meanwhile, the Yankees recently signed Adam Ottavino, presumably putting the finishing touch on what is by far the best bullpen in the Major Leagues. At least, it will be the finishing touch until Mariano Rivera uses his Hall of Fame acceptance speech to announce his comeback with New York, completing the juggernaut.
As arch rivals, the Red Sox and Yankees naturally draw comparisons. Whatever one does, the other is expected to retaliate promptly, and if they don’t, fans and media members alike are quick to point out the issue in remaining complacent. The Red Sox bullpen, thus, has been put through the ringer this offseason as the Yankees have continued to accumulate elite arms. Ken Rosenthal poked fun at the Red Sox list of question marks in the bullpen in this tweet. Bob Nightengale applauded the Yankees fearsome group in this one. And Jon Heyman tweeted out this cryptic message, perhaps another harmless Heyman typo, but most likely something far more nefarious: yet another jab at the ragtag group of Red Sox relievers. Bullpens are in vogue in baseball right now, and as the Yankees have amassed a really big one (no, literally, a REALLY TALL bullpen), pointing out that the Red Sox are going to have to rely on Heath Hembree has offered up some easy internet points.
But Ryan Brasier has had enough of it. At least, I’m assuming he has. I’ve never talked to him about it, or met him, but I have stared into a photo of his beard for two straight hours before, so I feel like I know him on a truly spiritual level. And that soul-to-soul connection is telling me that Ryan Brasier is done being overlooked.
Hey, I’m guilty of this too. I’ve pleaded with the Red Sox to upgrade the most questionable area on an otherwise elite team, but this wasn’t because of Brasier; rather, it was because of basically everyone else. Don’t you try to clump Brasier in with the rest of those ne’re-do-wells! Don’t you put that evil on him, Ricky Bobby! The Red Sox need depth to make sure the Carson Smith’s and Tyler Thornburg’s of the world aren’t pitching meaningful innings, but they are not lacking, as many people have been implying since the middle of 2018, the a relief ace. They already have one right in front of them.
In his half a season of work in 2018, plus the postseason, Ryan Brasier was elite. Yes, elite. Not just good or great, but elite. Nonpareil, if you will (and I certainly will). Among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched in the second half of 2018 – Brasier debuted on July 9th, and threw 28.2 of his 33.2 innings after the All-Star break – you’d be hard pressed (foreshadowing for a Ryan Pressly mention coming up soon) to find one as effective as Brasier. And the components he used to find that success indicate that it can and will be repeated in the future.
We ask relievers to do three main things: don’t walk batters, strike a lot of them out, and don’t give up home runs. If they can accomplish those tasks, generally we can live with the rare outing where seeing-eye singles come in bunches and all of a sudden their ERA has ballooned to twice it’s usual size (we call this “Cody Allen-ing”). The most valuable relief pitchers control what they can control, and do it awfully well. In the second half this season, only 18 relievers had walk rates of less than 5%, a dominant mark. Only 11 of those 18 also had an above-average strikeout percentage (greater than 22.1%, the league average mark for relievers as of 2015, the last year data was available). And only six of those relievers had a HR/9 mark lower than 1.00, another elite baseline. Here are those relievers:
Those six pitchers were practically unmatched in the second half. They did everything we ask a reliever to do, and they did it better than almost anyone else. Ryan Brasier, as you should have noticed, is on that list. The same list as Blake Treinen, arguably the best reliever in the game, the same list as Ryan Pressly, arguably the best reliever post-trade deadline, and the same list that the likes of Edwin Diaz, Kenley Jansen, and everyone on the Brewers, which is basically just a team comprised of 24 outstanding relievers and Christian Yelich, failed to make. Some relievers excel in one of, or even two of, those categories, but only these six were able to combine all three into the baseball version of a megazord.
The results speak for themselves. Brasier’s strikeout numbers might not be as gaudy as Treinen’s or Pressly’s, but it’s clear that his dominance wasn’t a result of a string of good luck or a fluke; rather, it was the cumulative effect of him limiting walks and homers, and striking out a decent portion of batters. The only legitimate knock on Brasier is his xFIP, which I will address in more detail later on. For now, I want to analyze what has allowed Brasier to reach this level of success,.
A big reason for Brasier flourished was his excellent command. We could keep talking about his 4.7% walk rate, but this component of his game is also reflected in how good he was at making batters swing at pitches they wish they wouldn’t have. Pitchers can accomplish this in a myriad of ways, but often it begins by throwing first pitch strikes. Brasier did that a lot. 69.8% of the time, in fact, the fourth best mark among relievers in the second half.
Getting ahead allows a pitcher to be more aggressive, while still limiting mistakes made in the strike zone. Brasier only threw 44.8% of his pitches in the zone, which is actually on the higher end for relievers, but even when he was throwing it outside the zone, they weren’t bad pitches: 43.2% of his offerings were on the edges of the plate, compared to the league average of 39%.
So, Brasier threw a lot of first pitch strikes, and didn’t throw a lot of pitches in good spots for hitters to hit. This forced hitters to be more aggressive against Brasier, which often played right into his hand, allowing them to make contact, but not good contact. This table shows how often Brasier was able to get batters to swing at pitches both in and out of the zone:
While the contact rates are only above average as opposed to elite, his out of zone swing rate is one of the top marks in the game, as is his overall swing and miss rate. Apart from his ability to attack the outer edges of the zone, Brasier makes a lot of batters chase due to his consistent release point. Baseball Savant estimated that his average release was 5.7 feet above the ground, a mark in which every pitch in his four-pitch repertoire was within 0.2 feet of. He attacked hitters from a consistent delivery, got ahead of them, and then ate around the corners at a top-10 mark league wide. Brasier’s overall stuff isn’t nearly at the same level as someone like Treinen; you won’t be seeing him all over Pitching Ninja. However, any pitcher who can get batters to make most of their contact on pitches out of the zone is going to get a lot of soft contact, and will have a lot of success.
Still, with those numbers, it’s surprising that Brasier didn’t strike out more batters. With some pitch adjustments next year in two-strike counts, that could change. Brasier threw his fastball in strikeout counts 50.39% of the time, and while it is his best pitch, batters aren’t missing it that frequently:
That’s a pretty uninspiring whiff rate for a guy who has an overall swing and miss mark that was so good. You’d think that a pitcher throwing bullets like Brasier might induce a few more swings and misses, but he seems to be suffering from a case of whatever Jordan Hicks has got. Perhaps a few more sliders in strikeout situations could make secure a few more K’s, it shouldn’t really matter. Even if Brasier keeps pumping fastballs, and batters keep hitting it, nobody is hitting it well. Here is heat map showing the slugging percentage batters put up against that pitch:
Like I said, it’s his best pitch, which explains his reliance on it (52.3% usage rate). It’s average velocity of 96.8 miles per hour puts it in the 95th percentile league-wide, and his spin rate, in the 73rd percentile, isn’t anything to scoff at either. You can live with a bit of contact as long as it keeps being as soft as it has been.
However, it would still be nice if Brasier could increase his strikeout rate in 2019 if only to offset the bump he’ll likely see in HR/FB ratio. This brings us back to Brasier’s xFIP, which sat at 3.53, the highest of the six relievers we examined earlier. While this is still a fine number, it’s a far cry from the 2.71 FIP and 1.88 ERA Brasier posted in that same timeframe. xFIP diverges from other ERA estimators in that it attempts to evaluate how many home runs a pitcher should have surrendered. A typical HR/FB ratio for a pitcher hovers around 10%. Ryan Brasier’s was 5.7%.
It would be great if Brasier continued to limit home runs (or, even better, just not give up any), but it’s bound to at least somewhat normalize in 2019. HR/FB ratio is usually pretty volatile season to season, and while some pitchers have shown they can consistently put up around 8%, that would still mark a relatively significant increase for Brasier. According to Baseball Savant, 60.2% of balls put in play off of Brasier in 2018 were in the air. Brasier, a pitcher who surrenders a lot of contact, and not a lot of it on the ground, is just asking to cluster some homers this season that just by chance stayed in the park in 2018.
If Brasier can continue to make batters chase outside of the zone, than this shouldn’t be too much of a concern. His hard contact rate in 2018 was a stellar 33%, and he only allowed barreled balls on 3% of balls put in play. That, combined with his propensity to counter pull hitters (Brasier only allowed hitters to pull the ball 28.4% of the time against him) bodes well for him to limit homers at an above average rate, and ensures that, when he does give them up, they aren’t game breakers. Kenley Jansen had a HR/FB ratio of 15.9% last season, and he was still the second best reliever on the Dodgers, and the second most-beloved (finishing behind Ryan Madson in both categories). Limiting home runs is great, and I’m confident Brasier will remain very good at it, but his xFIP was still only at 3.53 even accounting for a normalized home run rate. The man can pitch.
The Red Sox probably need bullpen help. The current group isn’t very deep, nor is it likely to be counted on to produce multiple shutdown innings at a time. However, even if help does come – in the form of Craig Kimbrel, a lower-tier free agent signing such as Sergio Romo, or even in a trade – Alex Cora and company have made it clear that they trust Ryan Brasier, and with good reason; he was one of the very best relievers in baseball after his debut. So, next time you’re bashing the Boston Red Sox bullpen to seem cool around your friends, just be sure not to forget about Ryan Brasier. He’s tired of being overlooked.
Featured Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ryan_David_Brasier.jpg
Thank you for the outstandingly insightful and metrics based article. Braiser has huge upside – he can also get outs up in the zone – and will be an asset in the BoSox quest for a repeat! I must say that I have great hope for Carson Smith in 2019 – he’s healed and ready miss a lot of bats!