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 Colten Brewer.
2019 in one sentence
Colten Brewer came into the year with some mild sleeper potential in a Red Sox bullpen that needed someone to step up, but never showed the consistency needed to grab a consistent role in the unit.
Brewer, as mentioned above, was the one new player on the Opening Day roster, meaning he was sort of the odd-man out without any sort of predefined role. Obviously, the team had a plan for him just like they do for everyone, but we hadn’t seen it in action. I would argue that, a year later, that remains true. That said, he did have a couple of skills that could play well in a specialized role. First and foremost, he was a good ground ball pitcher. Granted, this is a little bit of a stretch in that we’re not talking Zack Britton or prime Brad Ziegler or anything, but Brewer did get grounders 53 percent of the time (per Baseball Prospectus). That was particularly useful in 2019 when approximately 78 percent (figure may be slightly exaggerated) of balls in the air went for homers. Brewer still allowed a homer per nine innings, but given his relative lack of swing and miss and inconsistent command, that’s actually solid. It’s certainly not the most valuable skill set, but it doesn’t hurt to have a guy you can call on for a double play in the middle innings.
The other specialized skill Brewer can lean on is his reverse platoon splits. Thanks to a somewhat unique repertoire which we’ll get to soon, the righty was actually better when facing lefties. At the major-league level, lefties hit just .244/.337/.360 for a .301 wOBA. Furthermore, he had a good 26.5 percent strikeout rate with a manageable 10.8 percent walk rate along with very little hard contact and a ground ball rate approaching 60 percent. To put it more concisely, pretty much all of the good in his overall numbers come from facing lefties. Obviously, single-year platoon splits for a reliever are a small sample, but this wasn’t a one-year blip for Brewer. He had big reverse splits in the minors in 2018 as well and his splits were even in 2017. The bad news on this front is that it would have been more desirable for this team in most any recent year before 2019. However, Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor both emerged as intriguing longer-term pieces this past year and they are less in need of someone to pitch against lefties.
The reason he’s able to have success when lefties are at the plate, as mentioned above, comes down to the repertoire. Yesterday, we talked about Ryan Brasier and his need to build everything off his fastball. For the majority of pitchers in the game, that is the case. Brewer, however, doesn’t even throw a fastball. Instead, he leans most heavily on his curveball and pairs it with a cutter and the occasional slider. It’s the curveball that really does the heavy lifting, though, and especially against lefties. In those situations, according to Brooks Baseball, 51 percent of his pitches are curveballs. (It’s 40 percent against righties.) His curveball was very effective in 2019, too. According to Statcast data from Baseball Savant, he gots whiffs on nearly 40 percent of his curveballs and his expected wOBA on the pitch was .291. It’s hard to get by without a fastball, but Brewer’s curveball is at least a good start.
We have to start with the other side of that repertoire coin, though, which lead to all of the issues that prevented him from being a truly effective pitcher in 2019. As I said, Brewer doesn’t throw a fastball and instead his second most used pitch was his cutter. This pitch was not effective at all this past year, resulting in whiffs less than 20 percent of the time and producing an expected wOBA of .379. For context, Rafael Devers had a .377 wOBA in 2019.
There were a few major results from this. The first of which was that he gave up a bunch of hard contact, and even though they stayed in the yard because of his ground ball rate they also weren’t fielded super often. On top of that, he also issued a lot of walks. The thing about not throwing any fastballs is that your other pitches are often, by design, thrown out of the strike zone. Opponents obviously know that, and so you are left with either trying to get them to chase anyway or throwing secondaries in the zone. The former can work if your stuff is nasty enough while the latter.....well, getting away with that is a lot easier said than done.
Brewer often chose the first path here, which led to a sky-high walk rate. Among the 197 relievers with at least 40 innings in 2019, only 17 walked batters at a higher rate than Brewer’s 13.4 percent rate, and only two of those pitchers also had a lower strikeout rate. The issue for Brewer was two-fold. As I said, by design he threw a lot of pitches out of the zone. Per Baseball Prospectus, he was in the bottom-third of the league in zone rate. On top of that, of the 371 pitchers who threw at least 750 pitches (Brewer threw 1009) only ten had a lower zone rate and a lower chase rate. It goes without saying that if you are throwing pitches out of the strike zone and not getting swings on them, you’re going to get a lot of walks.
On top of the hard contact and the walks, Brewer was also terrible against righties. On the year righties hit .299/.404/.472 against Brewer with a wOBA that was on par with DJ LeMahieu in 2019. His strikeout rate fell to just over 16 percent when righties were at the plate while his walk rate was just under 16 percent. It’s not great when those numbers are so close! Again, this is largely due to his repertoire as the cutter just didn’t work and that was much more of a focus against righties. I will note that in June he threw his slider against righties more than he threw his cutter, the only month where that was the case. It was also his best month of the season. Why he abandoned that is not clear to me.
The Big Question
The closer we got to Opening Day this past spring, the more I was talking myself into Brewer as the guy to emerge from the middle relief arms as a legitimate weapon. I talked to myself into spin rate without really knowing why mostly due to my faith in Brian Bannister. I think it’s clear that things just didn’t work out as I’d hoped. I don’t really know how much of the blame is on Bannister and how much is on Brewer, because I do think a lot of his issues comes down to the pitch usage. Of course, it’s hard to come up with a better plan without having him just start to throw a four-seam at least once in awhile. Whatever the case and whoever you want to blame, this wasn’t the 2019 version of Brasier.
I certainly won’t be heading into next year with the same kind of expectations for Brewer as I did this year. He’ll be among that same group we talked about yesterday as righties with options who could start next year with a middle relief role. That he can get ground balls and is effective against lefties is nice, but unless he shows real changes against righties he’s simply not more than a low-leverage, up-and-down arm. He’s one of the few players I’ll actually be interested to see in spring training simply to see what his pitch mix looks like and if he either throws some fastballs or at least more sliders and fewer cutters.