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 Colten Brewer.
The Question: Is Colten Brewer the next Brian Bannister passion project?
We’ve talked just about every day about the Red Sox bullpen strategy of throwing enough live arms at a wall and seeing which ones can stick around. As I’ve said before, there is certainly still a chance they swoop in and grab Craig Kimbrel and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if that did end up happening, but for now we can only judge them by their actions. This winter, it’s been a whole lot of inaction. That being said, it’s not really accurate to say they haven’t added anyone on a major-league deal, even if it feels like it’s the case. Towards the very beginning of the offseason in mid-to-late November, the Red Sox did acquire a reliever who required a 40-man spot when they traded minor-league infielder Esteban Quiroz to the Padres in exchange for Colten Brewer, a little-known right-handed reliever.
When that trade first went down, I think most of the reaction leaned towards the negative. There was no outspoken outrage, of course — the names involved made it hard to elicit strong reactions on either end of the spectrum — but Quiroz had an interesting background that we knew and Brewer was a guy the majority of us had really never even heard of. As time has gone on since that deal and the righty from the Padres has somehow turned into Boston’s big reliever acquisition of the winter, perception has changed. People have dug into some of Brewer’s skills and they see a pattern. There’s a real chance he could be the next Brian Bannister Guy, and that has people rightfully excited.
Bannister has become something of a hidden star among a certain sect of Red Sox fans, like fans of a band who get really into the bassist. In a way it’s a bit of a hipster fandom, but the music doesn’t work without the bassist, and he’s really freaking good at what he does. Bannister has been in the organization for a few years now, taking over as the assistant pitching coach in 2016 and adding a front office gig to that later that year. The former big leaguer is something of a savant perfect for today’s game, showing an incredible feel for the analytical side of the game and more importantly being able to deliver the facts and figures in an easily-digestible way to the players. That’s an important and underrated skill, like plucking a bass — I don’t really know that much about music so this analogy isn’t going to get much further — and it’s helped some recent breakouts on the staff like Ryan Brasier, Doug Fister and Brad Ziegler, among others. Obviously there are a lot of guys in the Red Sox organization that make things run smoothly, but Bannister is one of the keys to the equation and one of the most respected in the front office.
So, what does this all have to do with Brewer? Well, the Red Sox clearly see something they like about him or else they wouldn’t have traded for him. Quiroz wasn’t exactly a blue-chipper they sent away, but it also wasn’t nothing. Boston has some serious questions at second base, and Quiroz could have been one of their first lines of depth to come up from the minors. Trading him showed confidence in what they had on the infield, but it also showed they really wanted Brewer back from the Padres. In fact, Dave Dombrowski acknowledged at the Winter Meetings that the Red Sox had tried to acquire Brewer back in July as well, but couldn’t make a deal work. They see something in him that can be unlocked.
Looking at his numbers from last year, it’s not hard to see that there are some building blocks without even digging deep into the toolbox. Brewer didn’t spend a whole lot of time at the highest level, though the righty did make his major-league debut and tossed 9 2⁄3 innings for the Padres. He did allow six earned runs (5.59 ERA), but also struck out ten batters with a 50 percent ground ball rate, a 3.22 FIP and a 2.71 DRA. Of course, this is also a tiny sample, so all of it should be taken with a grain of salt.
That being said, his sample in Triple-A was not quite so small, and he had a very successful year for El Paso. There, he made 37 appearances and tossed 48 innings, finishing his stint with a 3.75 ERA, a 2.93 FIP and a 2.55 DRA. Remember, this was in the Pacific Coast League — a notoriously hitter-friendly league — so that ERA isn’t quite as unimpressive as it may seem at first. Along with the solid overall numbers, Brewer struck out a whopping 33 percent of the batters he faced while walking just eight percent. On top of all that, according to Baseball Prospectus he also put up a 57 percent ground ball rate. This was a 25-year-old at Triple-A, so even in a hitter’s league it’s not like he was a phenom. Still, it’s not hard to see where the Red Sox got excited.
Digging even deeper, you really start to see where Boston and Bannister see the potential for a legitimate major-league contributor as soon as this season. It’s tough to really dig too much into individual pitch numbers for someone like Brewer given his limited experience in the majors, but we do have some information from his short stint with the Padres. Brewer throws mostly cutters (69 percent) while mixing in a curveball (23 percent) and a slider (eight percent). The cutter is a hard one, averaging 93 mph in the majors last year. Per Baseball Savant, among the 690 pitchers who threw at least 100 pitches in 2018, only 13 averaged a higher velocity on their cutter. (Nathan Eovaldi was 12th on that list, for what it’s worth.) His curveball comes in at 83 mph, and that 10 mph difference helps creates the necessary separation to make his unconventional two-pitch mix work.
It’s not just the velocity that makes this work, either. As alluded to above, Bannister is a guy who will take all of the metrics into account, and that includes spin rate. Spin rate is a newer number brought about by the advent of Statcast, and while it’s not a miracle number that guarantees success it can certainly hold the key to improvement if in the right hands. The Astros are the obvious example of a team that has used spin rate to improve their pitching staff. Brewer excels in this area with his two main pitches. Among the same 690 pitchers references above, the righty’s cutter ranks 21st in spin rate while his curveball comes in at 41. Again, the sample size is very small, but the Red Sox are more likely to have corresponding data from his minor-league stints as well.
Does all of this mean the Red Sox hit a home run here and Brewer is destined to be the next big thing in Boston’s bullpen? Of course not. The rest of the league has access to the same numbers we talked about (and much more) and they clearly weren’t in on him as the Red Sox ultimately didn’t have to give up a ton to get him. That said, it is clear the Red Sox front office likes him a lot, and there are numbers that suggest he has the tools to be a very productive reliever at the highest level. You never know with any inexperienced pitcher, and that goes doubly for a reliever. If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s Brian Bannister, and if he does his thing again with Brewer we may have a different outlook at this offseason.