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 end the series by talking about Brandon Workman.
The Question: Can Brandon Workman find another level of deception?
As we’ve talked about many, many times over the last few months — some might argue we’ve done so to an annoying extent! — the Red Sox bullpen has some questions. We’ve talked about it so much I’m pretty sure I’ve typed out that exact sentence a handful of times. There’s not a whole lot of question of exactly who will be present on Opening Day, as five of the seven spots are basically spoken for barring injury. There’s some mystery over the last two spots, but that’s a discussion for a different day.
Today we’re going to focus on one of the trio in the middle of the bullpen, the out-of-options crew. By now you know I am talking about Brandon Workman, Tyler Thornburg and Heath Hembree. All three of these guys have a realistic chance of taking some sort of step forward, but they also have a realistic chance at bottoming out. Each has shown flashes of both sides of that coin over the last few years. You could probably argue that Workman has been the most consistent of this group, and I’m fairly certain he’s the most favorably viewed by the fanbase, but he’s still not really at the level at which you’d like one of the potentially important bullpen arms to be.
Obviously, Workman has been around for quite some time now. We all remember when he burst onto the scene in 2013 and was something of a key figure in that team’s World Series run. Expectations were high for him, but after an up-and-down 2014 he went down with an injury the following year that eventually resulted in Tommy John surgery. The righty has been a full-time reliever since that point, and he’s spent the last two seasons jumping between Pawtucket and Boston. That, of course, can’t happen in 2019 as he is out of minor-league options.
Since returning to the majors, Workman has been an interesting pitcher whose reputation really relies on how one judges a starting pitcher. By pure results, he’s been really good and it’s hard to argue against him being the number three in this bullpen. In two partial seasons, he’s pitched to ERAs of 3.18 and 3.27. That’s good! And consistent! He’s also been consistent by FIP, though on the other end of the spectrum. His FIPs the last two years have been 4.47 and 4.45. By DRA, though, it’s been a tale of two entirely different years. In 2017, he was well above-average with a 3.68 DRA but in 2018 he was well below-average with a 6.21 DRA.
The big different between the two years was in the control department. Two years ago he walked 2.5 batters per nine innings and 6.8 percent of his opponents compared to 3.5 per nine and 9.6 percent in 2018. Looking more broadly, the biggest issue for Workman through his entire career has been a lack of deception. He’s missed some bats at times, but he’s given up a ton of home runs (he’s never allowed fewer than 1.1 homers per nine innings) and has had issues with control in every year but 2017.
Looking specifically at last season, you can see a clear lack of deception from his plate discipline numbers. By Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, Workman induced swings on just 25.6 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. To put that into context, 432 pitchers threw at least 600 pitches in 2018 and only 38 got swings at a lower rate on those pitches out of the zone. That puts Workman in the bottom ten percent of the league. To be fair to him, he had good success on those swings as his swinging strike rate there was in the top three percent of the league. If he wants to reach another level in the bullpen, though, and become a third late-inning arm this team desperately needs, he’s going to need to benefit more from that swinging strike rate. And if he’s going to do that, he needs to get batters to swing at more bad pitches, which again comes down to deception.
It’s really not a mystery how this would help a pitcher, and just some improvement in this area could be a massive boost for Workman. Getting more swings out of the zone would lead to more strikes (even if he takes a step back from 2018 in terms of contact rate on pitches out of the zone, which is likely), which would obviously in turn lead to more strikeouts and fewer walks. Workman has struck out fewer than a batter per inning in each of the last two years, and it’s hard to be an effective reliever in today’s game like that. Perhaps most importantly, more swings on pitches out of the zone could be a big help in the home run department. Contact on those pitches are obviously worse, and even without contact it would help lead to Workman getting ahead in counts. More advantageous counts will then lead to more defensive hitters. If he can allow even a couple fewer homers per year, it would make a huge difference.
The issue here is that Workman made the adjustments last year that would ostensibly help lead to the changes we are talking about here. Specifically, he started throwing a lot fewer fastballs in 2018 and leaned more heavily on his curveball. Prior to last season, he had thrown his fastball at least half the time in every season, but that rate dropped below 40 percent in 2018. Conversely, his curveball rate was less than 25 percent in every season but in 2018 it jumped up to 37 percent. The problem was two-fold. For one thing, hitters not chasing his curveball enough, particularly on pitches below the zone. The other problem was with his third pitch, the cutter, which found itself with similar issues.
As far as what needs to happen in 2019, Workman really has two paths he can take. The first is to just pound the strike zone more and hope that the improvement in walks will outweigh any increase in hard contact. The other is to work more on honing his secondaries and mixing his pitches more to get more swings out of the zone. In my estimation, his pure stuff isn’t good enough to make the first strategy works. To me, if Workman is going to take a step forward in his age-30 season, it’s going to be because he’s fooling more batters and moving closer to league-average in terms of swings out of the strike zone. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it happening, but the Red Sox need someone to make a key adjustment in the bullpen, and Workman’s as good a bet as anyone.