Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Ryan Brasier.
2019 in one sentence
After emerging as a shockingly important part of the 2018 bullpen down the stretch and in the postseason, Ryan Brasier disappointed in his 2019 encore with an inconsistent-at-best season.
On the whole it was certainly a disappointing year for Ryan Brasier, but that doesn’t mean it was one without any sort of momentum on which to build. At first glance at least, it appears strikeouts would be among them. The strangest thing about his breakout in 2018 was that he was able to do it with a pedestrian 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings, well below what you see from your typical late-inning reliever in today’s game. In 2019, the Baseball-Reference page looks better. However, while his increase of two strikeouts per nine innings looks great, it does overstate his jumps a bit. For reasons we’ll get into a bit later, he faced more batters per inning, giving him more chances to strike guys out. He still saw a jump in terms of K%, but it was from 23.4 percent to 25.3 percent. It’s still an increase and is more on track with being a reliable reliever in this era of baseball, but it’s not really the improvement one might assume just by looking at per nine innings numbers.
As far as more concrete and real positives go, one of his two main pitches was extremely effective this year. Brasier did switch up his repertoire a little bit, which we’ll get to later, but essentially he’s always been a fastball/slider guy. While the heater has eye-popping velocity at times, it’s the breaking ball that really makes him succeed when he does. That was the case again this year, with the offering even being potentially a little better than it was in 2018. His whiff rate was down slightly, but still up over 40 percent which is great. When batters did manage to make contact, their expected wOBA was just .223 and their actual wOBA was down to .193. Now, I should mention that these numbers can be a bit misleading as no at bat happens in a pitch-by-pitch vacuum. Brasier generally throws his slider when he’s ahead and counts and especially with two strikes, both of which are situations when the opponent is more defensive and less likely to smash the ball anyway. Still, the slider was an effective pitch even with the caveat and as you can see below he generally did a good job of commanding it in the bottom glove-side corner of the zone.
As far as actual, results-based performance, there were a couple of splits in which Brasier was successful. The first was that he was fantastic against right-handed hitters. He had the platoon advantage in 56 percent of his plate appearances, and righties hit .231/.277/.331 for a .259 wOBA. He struck out just under 30 percent of the opponents he faced with a 5.4 percent walk rate. Now, a guy who came into the year with the hope of being a late inning arm needs to be good against righties and lefties, and we’ll get to the second half of that equation in the second half.
Finally, Brasier actually was very good early in the season. It’s easy to forget because A) not much was going well at that point in the year and B) it was just a long time ago and because of human nature we’re always more inclined to remember the more recent events. Brasier got off to a hot start in 2019, though, pitching to a 1.32 ERA over 13 2⁄3 innings through the end of April with 12 strikeouts and only two walks. Things quickly fell off a cliff after that, but he carried over the results from 2018 early on in 2019.
Brasier finished the 2019 season with a 4.45 ERA, a 4.85 FIP and a 5.38 DRA. That is a negative, even though it’s probably not quite as bad as it seems since the run environment. Anyway, I had to get that out of the way because, well, it seems important.
Getting a little bit deeper into the cause of those numbers, though, I think you have to start with his fastball. We talked about his slider above, and while that pitch was fantastic it is called a “secondary” for a reason. Brasier’s entire game is built upon his fastball setting everything else up. While it’s a fairly big fastball velocity-wise — it averaged 96.1 mph this past year, per Baseball Savant — it’s not a big swing-and-miss pitch. He’s not regularly challenging guys with high fastballs looking for whiffs. Instead, it is a pitch he looks to command in locations that are hard to square up while still getting him ahead in counts. He failed in 2019. As far as being hard to square up, his xWOBA went from .209 in 2018 to .391 in 2019. That is a straight-up jarring jump even with the caveat about no pitch existing in isolation from above. Unsurprisingly, he was also much worse at commanding the pitch in 2019. Below, you’ll see that after doing a good job of keeping everything at or just above the top of the zone in 2018, he was in the middle much more often in 2019.
Obviously, it is easier to make good contact about pitches in the middle of the zone. In addition to that, though, Brasier also found himself getting fewer chases on pitches he did get above the zone. In 2018, according to Brooks Baseball, 52 percent of his fastballs above the zone resulted in swings including those off the corners. In 2019, that rate fell down to 33 percent. So, not only was he giving up more hard contact but he was also falling behind more often. That, in turn, meant he couldn’t (or, perhaps more accurately, wouldn’t) go to the slider we highlighted in the previous section. In a nutshell, this is what we mean when we say a pitcher works off his fastball, and in 2019 it was not a winning strategy for Brasier.
On top of the flip side to his slider success, there is the flip side of the platoon advantage numbers. While Brasier was great against righties, he was horrible when his opponent had the platoon advantage. In 110 matchups against lefties they hit .247/.351/.516 with two-thirds of the homers he allowed coming against lefties despite facing them only 44 percent of the time. His strikeout rate fell by nearly 33 percent while his walk rate more than doubled. He’s always going to be better against righties — fastball/slider pitchers are basically never going to be reverse split types — but by wOBA lefties were slightly better against Brasier than Gleyber Torres was in 2019. That’s not going to work unless Brasier is turned to a strict ROOGY.
Even beyond the fastball and the platoon issues, the most glaring issue for Brasier and the thing he needs to fix the most is his control. In 2018, he was able to succeed despite the low strikeout rate because he pretty much never put runners on for free. He pounded the strike zone around the edges, leading to quick and easy innings. This year, he walked 8.7 percent of the opponents he faced, a rate that came in slightly worse than average and was a 53 percent increase from the year before. Again, this comes from the lack of command on his fastball. He suddenly falls behind in the count, and he’s left with either leaving a relatively flat fastball in the zone, trying to get chases that weren’t coming or relying on a slider that by design often finishes out of the zone. There’s no good answer there.
The Big Question
How can Ryan Brasier balance out the regression coming on batted balls?
Coming into the year it was clear Brasier was going to have to fight some regression from 2018, as much of his regular season success was built on a .198 batting average on balls in play. It’s unfair to call all of that luck, but there’s no pitcher in baseball that can sustain that over a legitimate sample. To make up for the coming regression, which also included home runs, I opined that Brasier had to keep his stellar walk rate and get more ground balls. As I already discussed, the walk rate thing didn’t really work out. As for the ground ball rate, it fell from 43 percent to 33 percent according to Baseball Prospectus. This was seemingly by design, as Brasier almost totally ditched his sinker in 2019. Now, this isn’t entirely indefensible as the Red Sox defense is clearly built around the outfield and nobody could have known MLB was going to sub in golf balls for the regular season.
There’s really not many realistic scenarios that end with Brasier off the roster heading into the 2020 season. Or, at least the spring training roster. The righty has options, is not yet arbitration eligible and doesn’t exactly have a ton of trade value. There’s no reason to cut bait here unless it’s to make room on the 40-man roster, and there are plenty of options for that before you get to Brasier. He’s certainly not going to get the leash he got in 2019 and he won’t even have an Opening Day spot guaranteed. He’ll get a real look in spring training, though, in a cluttered group of righties including but not limited to Travis Lakins, Colten Brewer, potentially Heath Hembree and Trevor Kelley who will be fighting for middle relief roles. Obviously, the number of spots available depends on what happens this winter, but Brasier will likely have an inside track for a spot even if it’s not guaranteed.