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 we come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players we’re using can be seen here, and if we are 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 (when applicable!) and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Brandon Workman.
The Year in a Sentence
Brandon Workman didn’t spend the entire year in the major-league bullpen and was never quite one of the more trusted arms back there, but he served as a solid middle relief option for much of 2018.
How Workman’s 2018 season went at the major-league level depends entirely on how you think a reliever is best judged. If you think that the rate at which they prevent their own earned runs from scoring is the best measure — or, put more simply, ERA — then Workman had a solid year. He wasn’t dominant by any means, but the righty pitched to a strong 3.27 ERA over his 41 1⁄3 innings of work in the majors. By ERA+, he was 34 percent better than the league-average pitcher in terms of ERA after adjusting for park factors. That’s good!
Workman also came through with a strong first impression this season, pitching well early in the year in June when he was first called up from Pawtucket. From June 5 up until the All-Star break hit, the righty pitched to an impressive 1.62 ERA over 16 2⁄3 innings with 18 strikeouts and only four walks. Over 19 appearances he had just two in which he allowed any runs and nine in which he didn’t allow a single baserunner. First impressions can lead to some warped opinions by the end of the year, and Workman wasn’t able to keep up this success. Still, this was almost half of his season and he was a legitimate weapon during the early parts of the summer.
Looking at some other splits for the righty through the season, there are a few other numbers that stick out for Workman. For one thing, he was fantastic against left-handed hitting. We’ve talked about this a bunch through the year, but the Red Sox didn’t carry a lefty for most of the year because they trusted their righties to get the tough lefties out. Joe Kelly deservedly got most of the headlines among those righties, but Workman more than held his own as well. At the major-league level he carried reverse splits and held opposite-handed hitters to a slash-line of .204/.262/.407. Granted, this was not a huge sample and the Isolated Power over .200 is not great, but overall he was better against lefties than righties. It gets better when you add in his time in Pawtucket, as he held left-handed hitters to a .194/.243/.367 line over the entire season.
Finally, Workman was clearly much more comfortable pitching at Fenway Park in front of the home fans, as his numbers were significantly better in Boston. At Fenway, Workman pitched to a 1.96 ERA with 22 strikeouts and six walks over 23 innings while holding opponents to a .533 OPS. Compare that to his road numbers when he pitched to a 4.91 ERA over 18 1⁄3 innings with 15 strikeouts and ten walks while allowing an .899 OPS. Those are truly night-and-day differences, even over a small sample size.
Above I talked about how Workman’s season is judged differently based on how you judge reliever performance. By ERA, he was very good. By more advanced peripheral numbers, which often (but not always) tell a more complete story over smaller samples, he was not great. Workman didn’t really stand out in any of the three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks and home runs), striking out fewer than a batter per inning in an era when relievers can strike out nine batters per nine innings in their sleep. On top of that, he struggled with control at times, walking 3.5 per nine and he allowed six homers in just 41 innings. All told, he finished the year with a 4.42 FIP (six percent worse than league-average) and a 6.21 DRA (39 percent worse than league-average). He was actually below replacement level according to Baseball Prospectus’ WARP.
It wasn’t just the peripherals that cast Workman in a more negative light than the ERA, either. A big part of relief work is obviously coming in and cleaning up a mess with runners on base, but of course if those runners come in to score it doesn’t affect the reliever’s ERA. For Workman, he inherited 18 runners over the course of the regular season and allowed five of them to score for a rate of 28 percent. That’s not a terrible rate, to be fair, but it’s far from elite and his ERA would indicate he would have been better in this area.
Finally, Workman did get a spot on the playoff roster but he didn’t really perform all that well. To be fair, this is a sample so small it is mostly meaningless, but he was one of the few players not to perform in October. The righty made just three appearances over the Red Sox’ postseason run — two in the ALDS and one in the ALCS — and he allowed five total runs. Even in his one appearance in which he didn’t allow a run, the righty gave up two hits while recording just one out.
The Big Question
Can Brandon Workman make the adjustments to up his strikeout rate?
Workman came back to the mound after a long-term injury in 2017, and he mostly looked good in his first extended time back. The home runs were an issue, but that was always going to be the case. If he wanted to take the next step, however, he was going to need to get his strikeout rate up in line with other relievers around the league. As discussed above, he couldn’t do it and actually watched his K/9 decrease very slightly. It’s not the end of the world and you can still succeed with a strikeout rate under nine per nine, but that is kind of the line of demarcation in the modern game. For what it’s worth, Workman did increase his swinging strike rate in 2018, so there is some hope the K-rate can rise along with it moving forward.
The Year Ahead
Workman is going to head into camp fighting for one of the final bullpen spots, and he should have a built in advantage since he’s out of major-league options. If he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’ll be exposed to waivers and likely be claimed. Assuming he does make the roster, I’d expect a similar kind of season from the righty in 2019. Workman’s age kind of sneaks up on people — he’s going to be 31 in the second half of next season — but he still has a few prime years left. I don’t think he’ll even be the late-inning option so many thought he could be after that 2013 run, but he’s the kind of pitcher who can help out lower on the depth chart.