Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Ryan Brasier.
The Season in a Sentence
Ryan Brasier came out of nowhere to go from Japan’s minor leagues to spring training closer to Triple-A breakout to solid middle reliever to a key piece of a World Series bullpen in about one calendar year.
Considering where the year started for Brasier versus where it ended, you will not be surprised to learn that there are many more positives to be found than there are negatives. Looking at his numbers, and really just watching him pitch all year, the number one thing that stands out is/was his incredible control. Brasier joined the Red Sox bullpen right around the halfway point of the season, and while Boston’s relief corps pitched well basically all year there was always some frustration with its control. Many of Boston’s top relievers lost the strike zone a little too often, and Brasier’s ability to simply throw strikes was a breath of fresh air.
Over his 33 2⁄3 innings on the year the righty walked only seven opponents (1.9 per nine innings). He was surprisingly in the bottom half of the league in terms of zone rate according to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers (336th out of 510 pitchers with at least 400 pitches). He made up for that by having the third-highest swing rate out of those 510 pitchers, ranking fifth on pitches in the zone and ninth on pitches out of the zone. Sources tell me it’s tough to draw walks when you swing. His slider in particular was key here. His fastball gets the buzz because it can hit triple digits, but when he’s at his best he has opponents flailing at that slider when they’re sitting waiting for that heat.
Brasier drew a lot of swings from his opponents, and unsurprisingly that led to quite a few balls in play. In an era where relievers especially are leaning on the three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks and home runs), Brasier allowed a ton of balls in play. He had tremendous success with this style. Now, I’ll get to this a little bit later in the post, but the Red Sox setup man certainly benefited from some serious luck. As mentioned above, he threw only 33 2⁄3 innings in the regular season, so some small sample is to be expected. Sure enough, he allowed a .198 batting average on balls in play and call me crazy but I don’t believe that’ll prove to be his true-talent level.
That being said, he did prove somewhat hard to square up, finishing in the top half of the league in both hard-hit and soft-hit rate, per Fangraphs’ batted ball data. He was also one of the hardest pitchers in baseball to turn around, finishing with the sixth-lowest pull rate among the 468 pitchers with at least 30 innings. (Matt Barnes and Crag Kimbrel were also in the bottom ten here.) Brasier isn’t going to maintain that kind of sub-.200 BABIP, but there were some signs he could regularly post lower-than-average numbers.
Looking at Brasier’s platoon splits also make you feel good about his future, although again the samples here are super small. Still, if you’re looking for a true late-inning arm, one quality you need is for said arm to be good against hitters of either handedness. Simply put, you can’t have opponents being able to exploit late-inning situations with pinch hitters. Brasier checked this box. He was utterly dominant against righties, holding them to a .109/.131/.182 line, but he was quite good against lefties as well. They hit .232/.290/.357 against Brasier, and in a couple more plate appearances than righties received. Obviously, there’s some disparity, but A) that’s because he was bananas against righties and B) you’ll take that .647 OPS against opposite-handed hitting.
Finally, we can’t talk about Brasier without talking about his performance in the postseason. He wasn’t the best or most impressive Red Sox reliever in October — Joe Kelly gets both of those if we don’t count the starters — but Brasier was eye-opening. It’s easy to forget now, but after Game One of the ALDS it looked like the stage was too big for him. He was visibly shaken by the Yankees lineup and struggled in that appearance. Then, he came back out for Game Two, told Gary Sanchez to get back in the fucking box, and pitched a scoreless inning with three strikeouts. The Red Sox lost that game, but Brasier showed he’d be just fine on that stage. That continued the rest of the way. Overall, he allowed just two runs in 8 2⁄3 innings in the postseason.
Really, there aren’t a lot of negatives to be had with Brasier, even without adjusting for expectations. However, if you’re looking for one criticism of the righty you can point to his strikeout rate. He really doesn’t fit the mold of the modern late-inning reliever, especially ones with his kind of high-velocity fastball/slider combination. Those are the kinds of guys who rack up strikeouts like its nothing. When you consider how often he drew swings, you’d think there would be more strikeouts than the 7.8 per nine innings. The good news is that he did induce a decent amount of whiffs, ranking 83rd among that group of 510 pitchers mentioned above. In other words, he was in the top 17 percent of the league. The issue was that too many hitters fouled off his fastball, and eventually he’d allow a ball in play. It’s much easier said than done, but if Brasier can add a little more movement on the fastball it would pay huge dividends, even if it takes a tick or two off the velocity. He could also turn to his slider more often in two-strike situations. Either way, considering we’re all but certain to see an increase in his BABIP next year, striking out more batters is the easiest way to offset that.
The Big Question
The Year Ahead
Brasier is going to be one of the most interesting players on the 2019 roster. His exact role is tough to project right now since the expectation is that Boston will add one or two more good relievers this winter. As of now, he’s the second best reliever on the roster, though I’d expect him to be third-at-best on Opening Day. That said, he’s going to play a big role wherever he ends up on the depth chart, and if he can prove that 2018 was no fluke it’d be a massive development for Boston’s bullpen.