A few weeks ago on the podcast — The Red Seat Podcast; subscribe, rate and review but only if you’re going to be nice about it — Jake asked me if I thought Ryan Brasier could emerge as a true, late-inning arm in the Red Sox bullpen. It was prior to the trade deadline when the back of the bullpen was really in focus, and Brasier had just recently been called up and started to show his surprisingly strong stuff. His velocity in particular was eye-opening. My response: A scoff, and a hard no. There were no hedges, no qualifiers. Nothing but a no. Well, it hasn’t been that long since. this happened, and it seems I’m already wrong. Brasier has done nothing but look fantastic, and at this point he’s clearly the number three in the bullpen. One could make an argument that he’s pitching even better than that, though I’d argue that’s underselling Matt Barnes. I’m not going down that rabbit hole, though. The point here is that Brasier has been fantastic, and he deserves every bit of praise he’s gotten.
It’s not a surprise that Brasier caught just about everyone off-guard with his sudden emergence, given that he was nowhere close to the radar back when the season started. He did come in and impress the coaches in spring training, but there wasn’t really anyone outside the clubhouse who was considering him as an actual contender to make an impact on this team. He really is a great story, having been drafted way back in 2007 and making his major-league debut in 2013. (What do those two years have in common? Omen?!) In 2014, he underwent Tommy John surgery and it seemed like Brasier’s career could be over. he toiled in the minors for a couple years, then went and pitched in Japan last season. That’s where the Red Sox found him, and whatever scout put him on the radar deserves a hearty raise.
So, yeah, Brasier came out of nowhere, but the numbers don’t look like someone with that kind of backstory. We are only talking about 18 appearances and 19 innings, but they’ve been dominant. He’s allowed just two earned runs in that time (0.95 ERA) with 18 strikeouts and just five walks. As he also hasn’t allowed a home run, he has an excellent FIP at 2.08 and his DRA isn’t too far behind at 3.13. For context, that last number makes him 30 percent better than league average after adjusting for park. These are top-of-the-line numbers. The question has to be asked. How in the hell is this happening?
Imagine your memory was wiped out in a very specific way and you didn’t know anything about individual players but still knew what a good baseball player looked like. You also don’t know how to read statistics. I don’t know what happened to you, but this is your life now. Basically, you can only rely on the eye test. If you were to watch Brasier under these circumstances, you’d have little doubt that he was great. The righty pumps fastballs at an average velocity of 97 mph and throws a nasty slider that has gotten whiffs more than a quarter of the time he’s thrown it. Fastball-breaking ball relievers are surely the most common, and Brasier has the combination to succeed. So, clearly, the stuff is the number one reason.
Looking a little bit deeper, it’s deception that is putting Brasier on a new level. A lot of pitchers have big fastballs, but the slider is really what puts him over the top. Though he’s walked only 2.4 batters per nine innings, Brasier does not hit the zone that often. According to Baseball Prospectus, he only throws a strike 45 percent of the time, putting him in the bottom 25 percent of the league. Normally, that would suggest more walks are coming. Maybe that’s coming, but Brasier is able to counteract this by getting a ton of swings on these pitches. There are 513 pitchers who have thrown at least 250 pitches this season, and only eight have gotten a higher rate of swings on pitches out of the zone. Furthermore, Brasier isn’t only getting swings, but he’s getting whiffs, ranking 40th among that same group of pitchers. So, not throwing strikes isn’t great, but he’s getting a ton of swings and misses, and even when he doesn’t the contact on these pitches is going to be weak much more often than not. His current .191 batting average on balls in play will come up a bit, but based on this data it may not come up as much as we’d originally think.
Ultimately, the sample is still too small for me to say this is who Ryan Brasier is, or even that he’ll stick as a top-three arm in this bullpen even when someone like Nathan Eovaldi joins the group. That being said, he’s done nothing to dispel the notion that he can. The concern would be that, since he came so far out of nowhere, teams still don’t have a ton of information. As more scouting is done, hitters may start laying off his slider more, leading to more walks and forcing Brasier into the zone more. It could be a big adjustment that changes things. That being said, laying off a slider like his is easier said than done, and at this point he’s probably earned the benefit of the doubt. I doubted Brasier when he first came up, but all he’s done in 2018 is make people like me look dumb, and as long as he keeps his deception he’s going to continue to do just that.