Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Ryan Brasier.
The Question: How can Ryan Brasier balance out the regression coming on batted balls?
At this point in the winter, we all know how the Red Sox have approached their bullpen. It has, after all, been the entire focus of the offseason since mid-December after they re-signed Nathan Eovaldi. It’s important to remember the offseason isn’t over, and in particular as long as Craig Kimbrel is out there the Red Sox can still sneak in and bring him back. That would certainly buck the current trend with the bullpen. Of course, they’ve publicly taken every opportunity to downplay that possibility, instead planning to ride the guys they already have on the roster as well as hoping a few of the many lottery tickets — some signed to minor-league deals, others coming up through the system — pan out. Assuming they don’t go against their public comments, one of the reasons they will go with this conservative strategy is because they buy into what they saw from Ryan Brasier in 2018. Looking ahead to the coming year, Brasier along with Matt Barnes will be the two key late-inning arms on the depth chart.
After what the right-handed breakout reliever showed last season and through the playoffs, it’s kind of hard to blame Boston for trusting him. Over 33 2⁄3 innings in the regular season, Brasier pitched to a phenomenal 1.60 ERA with 29 strikeouts, just seven walks and only two home runs allowed. In the postseason, he had a rough first outing but then settled in and became a key arm in big situations. By the end of October he had allowed just one run in 8 2⁄3 innings with seven strikeouts and five walks. By any measure, he was fantastic and came out of nowhere. That last part has the potential to work against him moving forward, however, as the league had next to nothing on the righty when he came up to the bigs last year. He and his big fastball caught everyone off-guard. Now, advanced scouts and clubs have an entire winter to come up with better game plans. That is likely to lead to some regression, and that likely won’t even be the biggest source. Brasier had wildly unsustainable numbers on balls in play last summer. They are going to come back towards the mean, and the key will be figuring out how to fight it off.
First, it’s important to look at just how fluky Brasier’s numbers on balls in play were. The righty allowed just a .198 batting average on balls in play, and while he certainly had a hand in limiting damaging contact nobody can sustain that rate. Of the 468 pitchers who tossed at least 30 innings last season, only two allowed lower BABIPs on the year. For Brasier, most of this came down to utter domination of righties, and again unsustainable BABIPs against them. Same-handed hitters struggled against the Red Sox setup man, hitting just .102/.131/.182. None of the 545 other pitchers who threw at least 10 innings against righties allowed a lower wOBA. Of course, it also came with some luck, as righties posted a BABIP of just .122 against Brasier. Lefties, for what it’s worth, finished with a .267 BABIP.
It’s not just the batting average on balls in play that worked in Brasier’s favor, either. The righty also kept the ball in the park a lot better than you’d expect for a pitcher in this era who leans slightly towards fly balls over grounders. Different sites have different criteria for batted ball data — Baseball Prospectus has Brasier’s ground ball rate in 2018 at 43 percent while Fangraphs has it at 40 percent — but the expectation would still be for the righty to allow more homers. According to Fangraphs’ data, only 5.7 percent of Brasier’s fly balls left the park, seven percentage points below the league-average. I’m not someone who believes every pitcher will eventually regress to the league-average in HR/FB% and believe Brasier’s skill played a role here, but I’d still expect that number to rise up closer to ten percent in a larger sample.
So, we expect there to be some regression in BABIP and likely some in home runs as well. The question is how much it will affect him and how much he can counter any of those effects. For one thing, it’s important to remember he was still good even when you look at more advanced metrics that aim to filter out the noise provided by small sample size luck. Brasier finished the year with a 2.83 FIP that was 32 percent better than league-average and a 3.57 DRA that was 20 percent better than league-average. That’s not quite as elite as his ERA, of course, but it’s still pretty damned good.
The biggest thing, going back to the idea that the league is likely to make some adjustments against Brasier, is that he needs to keep his low walk rate. We saw it increase in the postseason, but he walked fewer than two batters per nine innings in the regular season. The key was getting batters to chase pitches out of the zone — among 488 pitchers that threw at least 450 pitches in 2018, only five got batters to chase pitches out of the zone at a higher rate. The league will certainly try to adjust against this, but if Brasier’s slider is as sharp as it was all of last year that’ll be easier said than done. As long as the righty is keeping runners off for free, the extra singles and extra couple of homers he allows won’t hurt nearly as much.
The other part of fighting off the BABIP regression monster comes down to strikeouts and home runs. If you just watched Brasier pitch and knew nothing of his numbers, you’d likely be surprised by his relative lack of strikeouts. Despite a fastball that sits in the high-90s and the aforementioned slider, he struck out fewer than eight batters per nine innings in the regular season. A slight tweak in his pitch usage might be able to result in more strikeouts and help get more ground balls to reduce the effect of any HR/FB regression. Specifically, it would mean throwing fewer four-seamers and relying more on the sinker, slider and changeup. His four-seamer wasn’t easy to square up and resulted in a ton of foul balls, to be fair, but it also didn’t come with many whiffs (11.5 percent) or ground balls (37 percent). An increase in usage with his sinker would help with the ground ball issue, and the slider would give him more whiffs. The changeup performed well in both areas in 2018, though he threw the pitch only 28 times so the sample isn’t exactly huge. Brasier’s pitch mix obviously worked well last year and doesn’t need a major overhaul, but something closer to a 40/30/25/5 split (fastball/slider/sinker/changeup) compared to last year’s 50/32/13/4 might be the tweak needed to help offset a change in luck.
It’s always easy to call for regression from players like Brasier who so monumentally outperformed preseason expectations, and in this case I don’t think you can deny it’s coming in BABIP and likely home runs as well. That shouldn’t discount the fact that he looked completely legitimate even with the luck in his favor, though. The league is going to adjust, and the batted balls will find more holes in 2019, but Brasier has the tools to make the proper tweaks and continue to be a good late-inning arm in the coming season. It’s just not likely to come with another sub-2.00 ERA.