Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Brandon Workman.
The Question: Can Brandon Workman get more strikeouts in his second full season back from Tommy John?
For whatever reason, and this is surely more of a me problem than anything, I’ve been forgetting about Brandon Workman a lot when I think about the Red Sox bullpen possibilities. For whatever reason, until about a week ago he was someone I just assumed would be the odd man out in this unit, and there seemed to be something of a consensus on that front. To be fair, there are reasons for them, and the biggest is out of his control. Workman has minor-league options, and the team understandably will want to preserve as much depth as possible. That being said, it feels as though Austin Maddox has gotten more hype than Workman to this point, and I’m not sure that’s justified. That’s a conversation for a different day, though. Today it’s all about work, man.
Workman has a pretty fascinating history with the Red Sox that has lasted a long time even if he still feels like something of an unknown. The righty burst onto the scene in 2013 after lingering as a solid but unspectacular starting pitching prospect in the system. That year he came up in relief and ended up playing a key role in a World Series run that even included an inexplicable at bat. (I will tell me grandchildren who will surely exist about that at bat.) Then, he converted back to the rotation in 2014 before going down with injury and eventually needing to undergo Tommy John surgery. As is always the case, that kept him on the shelf for a while, and he didn’t make it back to game action until later in the year in 2016, and he’d spend that entire season in 2016. Workman finally made it back to the majors last year after impressing in Triple-A, and while he was certainly fine and made 33 appearances at the highest level, it also wasn’t really anything to write home about.
Now, entering his age-29 season, Workman now has a full season of work under his belt from the surgery and is presumably fully recovered. That’s not to say he’s ever going to be the same guy again — as trivial as this procedure has seemingly become in recent years, it’s still a major surgery and shouldn’t be taken lightly — but it does mean that we can’t really lean on rust or anything like that as an excuse. If Workman is going to become anything more than a replacement level middle relief arm, this is the year for him to take that step. If he’s going to make that step, the easiest road would be for him to find a way to get some more strikeouts.
Last season, Workman showed off some strong stuff in Triple-A when he struck out over 30 percent of the batters he faced, but he wasn’t able to carry that over to the majors. In those 33 innings of work, the righty struck out just under 23 percent of his opponents. For context, the league-average rate for relievers in 2017 was about a half percentage point higher than Workman’s. That’s not awful, of course, but he doesn’t have elite control (though it was certainly above-average in 2017) and he has a bit of a home run problem, so he needs that strikeout rate to jump if he’s going to stand out at all. Looking at his plate discipline numbers from Baseball Prospectus, he struggled to get batters to swing on pitches out of the zone and had trouble inducing whiffs on pitches in the zone.
Digging a little bit deeper, his issue seems to come down to his repertoire. Specifically, it comes down to his fastball. The righty leans heavily on the four seamer, throwing the pitch over half the time while mixing in a curveball and a cutter along with it. The issue is that the fastball just isn’t overpowering enough to get strikeouts with it as the lead pitch. There are times when he can get it up around 95 mph, but more often it sits around 92 or 93. As a result, only 17 percent of swings against the pitch were whiffs (per Brooks Baseball) while his other two offerings produced rates above 35 percent.
There are two possible solutions to this. The first is to find a way to increase his fastball velocity on a more consistent basis. Obviously, that’s a lot easier said than done and a concerted effort on this front could very well lead to another arm injury. The other, and more logical, option would be to move away from the fastball and start utilizing the secondaries more often. It makes sense that, if you don’t have big velocity, you should throw more pitches with movement. As it turns out, that’s exactly what Workman did in September. In that month, he started throwing his fastball less than half the time for the first time all season, and his strikeout rate jumped to 29 percent for the month.
Workman isn’t going to start the year as a major part of the bullpen, though with the questions Boston has behind Craig Kimbrel the door is open for anyone to move up in the pecking order in relatively quickly. If Workman is to be that guy, he needs to find a way to stand out from where he was in his fine but ultimately average 2017. The easiest way for that would be to up his strikeout rate. That’s not something that can be done easily by anyone, but the good news is that Workman already laid out the best blueprint to achieve that goal last September.