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 we’ll be 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 Brandon Workman.
2019 in One Sentence
Brandon Workman’s emergence as a legitimate late-inning weapon in 2019 was a very rare bright spot on a pitching staff that was desperate to find some.
Workman was, in a word, incredible in 2019. The righty is older than it seems (to me at least) — he turned 31 this past August — but he had a legitimate breakout in 2019. By the end of the season, the righty had pitched in 73 games for a total of 71 2⁄3 innings and finished with a 1.88 ERA. There will be a lot of focus, particularly from national writers, about how unsustainable that ERA was, and we’ll get to that a little bit later. It should, however, be noted that even his peripherals were outstanding with a 2.46 FIP and a 2.86 DRA. Those were, after adjusting for park effects, 45 percent and 41 percent better than league-average, respectively.
There’s a lot of reasons he was so much more successful this past year than he had been in the past, but to me it all came down to that fastball/curveball combination on which he leaned so heavily. This is something that has fascinated me basically all year and it’s something I wrote about back in August. To sum it up, Workman’s fastball was dominant in 2019. He got whiffs on nearly 40 percent of swings while inducing an expected wOBA of .197 and an actual wOBA of .190. All of this happened despite his average velocity clocking in at just 93 mph, not a very impressive number in today’s game. It did move some, but not to any significant degree.
Instead, it was just a matter of pairing it with his curveball. Workman’s breaking ball was his most-used pitch in 2019, being used 47 percent of the time. Of the 610 pitchers who threw at least 250 pitches on the season, only four used their curveball more often. It was a good pitch — 30 percent whiff rate, .213 wOBA and .266 expected wOBA — but again, nothing special. In pair, though, it was a huge combination. Workman’s curveball comes in slow and loopy at 80 mph on average. As he uses it so often, batters always have to have that offering in the back of their mind. So, when you’re waiting for the big, loopy breaking ball at the bottom of the zone and a 93 mph heater at the top of the zone comes in, it looks like it’s coming in at upper-90s velocity. That he commanded the pitch nearly to perfection, too, certainly didn’t hurt matters. I will admit to getting excited by weird things in my life, but this whole thing just does it for me. I don’t know what to say.
Breaking off from the repertoire a bit is the biggest ripple effect from the fastball/curveball stuff: The quality of contact. We all know that 2019 was absurd, for lack of a better word, around the league. Baseballs were now golf balls and everything was crushed. Workman was able to avoid that. He ended up allowing just one home run on the season and opponents hit only .209 on balls in play. There’s no question that a not-insignificant portion of this came down to luck and there’s regression to the mean coming. A 2.6 homer-to-fly ball ratio (per FanGraphs) and a .209 BABIP just aren’t sustainable over the long-term for any pitcher.
*Extremely Stephen A. Smith voice* However, Workman also improved his contact profile significantly. The easiest way to prevent home runs is to just not give up balls in the air, and according to Baseball Savant he had a ground ball rate of 52.6 percent. His previous career-high was 45.6 percent. He also allowed contact that was either hard or barreled just 6.6 percent of the time, with 89 percent of that being hard (the lesser of the two). For additional context, he allowed the lowest rate of barrels in baseball among the 436 pitchers who allowed at least 100 batted balls and the rate at which he allowed balls hit at least 95 mph was in the bottom 11 percent in the league.
Another result of that fastball/curveball punch: Strikeouts! Workman was a big-time strikeout pitcher when he first made an impact in the majors back in 2013, but since then he’s been more of a middling strikeout arm. In 2019, he made a big jump forward in this area with a 36.4 percent rate (12th in baseball among 341 pitchers with at least 50 innings), a more than ten percentage point jump over his previous career-high. Perhaps the jump was a little exaggerated, but he saw a significant jump in swinging strike rate, too, so most of that should be sustainable.
The final point I’ll make about Workman — and I’m now kind of realizing I could just talk about his season forever — is just how consistent he was. I don’t just mean from day to day or week to week or month to month, though that certainly was the case. He had one month with an ERA above 3.00 (and it was still only 3.38 in July), but he didn’t allow a wOBA above .239 in any month. On top of that, he was great against both righties and lefties (wOBAs of .201 and .216, respectively), and he wasn’t affected by differing leverages (wOBAs of .141, .228 and .252 in low, medium and high leverage, respectively). Perhaps the most important quality in a late-inning arm is just being steady in any and all situations, and Workman was just that.
While I had a whole lot to say in the previous section, I don’t really have too much to say here. As far as I can tell, there’s really only one thing to highlight as a negative and that was the control. As you can see from his overall numbers this didn’t really affect him too much, but he did walk 15.7 percent of his opponents in 2019. This was the second-highest rate in baseball among that group of pitchers mentioned above with at least 50 innings. When you’re not allowing any hard contact the walks don’t come back to bite you, but if he allowed even a couple more home runs, combined with the free passes his ERA likely takes a significant jump.
It’s not entirely surprising, but the biggest reason for this was simply that he threw out of the strike zone more than ever. Workman has always largely worked out of the zone, but he took that to a new extreme with a zone rate (per Baseball Prospectus) of just over 43 percent. Among the 267 pitchers with at least 1000 pitches, only 28 hit the zone at a lower rate. This make sense for a guy who throws his curveball so much, as that pitch is generally aimed below the zone. His fastball is often aimed just above the zone as well. There are adjustments to be made, but looking at what happened you have to acknowledge he walked a bit of a tightrope with the walks.
The Big Question
I would say he certainly did! The thing is, it wasn’t at all in the way I was talking about in the linked post from before the season. I talked in that article about Workman throwing out of the zone and hoping he would get a lot more swings on those pitches. He did throw out of the zone and he did get more swings on those pitches, but not at a massive increase. Instead, the new deception was just leaning much more heavily on his curveball, which let the fastball play way up.
Workman is a really, really interesting looking ahead to the 2020 season. Like I said above, with his batted ball numbers he’s an easy regression candidate. It is, however, disingenuous to say the expectation should be that he’ll take a major step back. I think there’s another adjustment to be made in order to improve the control, as that is the easiest way to counteract the likely adjustment of teams swinging less. Not mentioned above that his cutter, thrown under 20 percent, was also quite good in 2019. It’s possible that throwing that cutter more could be a way to get more pitches in the strike zone while still throwing a pitch with movement. Either way, I would be surprised if Workman is traded this winter (though there’s an argument for selling high), and there’s a pretty good chance he heads into camp as the team’s closer.