The Red Sox have started the season in brutal fashion, as we all know, and the negatives have far outweighed the positives. That said, the bullpen has stood out as a positive among all the early-season negativity, which is extra exciting given how low the expectations were heading into the season. We talked about the group as a whole last week, and while the overall numbers are a bit worse as of this writing that is largely due to a seven-run implosion from Brian Johnson, who was pitching with inflammation in his elbow. The key relievers who figure to play into any high-leverage roles have been phenomenal and perhaps more importantly in this small of a sample, they’ve been fun to watch. Most of the relievers have met or exceeded expectations, but to me the biggest standout from this group has been Brandon Workman.
Heading into this season, both into spring training and coming out of camp into the regular season, I was probably among the low guys on the right-handed reliever. There was some upside, though I didn’t feel it was as much as others saw and the downside was clearer. To me, he was in a trio with Tyler Thornburg and Heath Hembree as guys who needed to step up to earn the trust of the coaching staff. It’s too early to make definitive statements about long-term situations (are you as sick of hearing that as I am of saying it?) but Workman has clearly worked his way above those two for the time being. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier are still the clear top two, and it would take a lot to dethrone that pair, but the roster was lacking a number three behind them. Workman, at least for now, has worked his way as the obvious choice as the bullpen’s number three.
Now, again, we’re talking about a small sample here, but Workman has been dominant in his five appearances and five innings of work. He’s faced 16 batters in that time, just one above the minimum, striking out seven (44 percent) while walking just one (6 percent). He also hasn’t allowed a hit. The plate discipline numbers have unsurprisingly been dominant too. Per Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, Workman has induced whiffs on 36 percent of swings (his rate was 27 percent in 2018) and on 81 percent of pitches in the zone (88 percent in 2018) while getting swings on a whopping 39 percent of pitches out of the zone (26 percent in 2018).
Whether or not those numbers are sustainable, the eye test has supported the strong numbers. Pretty much everything has been good for Workman to start 2019, but watching him throw it’s clear that all of this is starting with his curveball. We’ve seen in the past that when the breaking ball is at its best it is by far his best offering. It can be a hell of an out pitch, and he’s showing more confidence than ever. Per Brooks Baseball, of the 69 pitches Workman has thrown thus far this year, a whopping 39 have been curveballs. That’s a 56.5 percent usage rate, up from 37.1 percent last year, which was a career-high at the time. He’s utilizing the offering in any and every situation. It’s being used in at least half of all situations against both righties and lefties. It’s being used on over half of his first pitches, over half of the time in which the batter has the advantage in the count as well as with two strikes. The only situations in which it’s not being used at least half of the time is when Workman is ahead of righties in a count and when counts are even against lefties. You don’t often see pitchers work so much off their breaking ball, but that’s exactly what’s been happening here.
It’s not hard to see why, either, as the pitch has looked great. There is a consistent, sharp break to the pitch and when it’s being buried under the strike zone it’s becoming nearly unhittable. It looks like it’s heading right for the belt-level of a hitter before the bottom falls out and it hits the first, but too late for the batter to adjust. So far, just under a quarter of the curveballs he’s thrown have ended up as strikes. It’s also been responsible for five of his seven strikeouts to start the year. We don’t have video from Baseball Savant just yet from the Diamondbacks series, but you can see three of those strikeout offerings here, here, here and here. As you’ll see, all of the curveballs ended up in the zone but batters just couldn’t find a way to lay off.
Workman has been good enough that you can’t really put it all on one pitch in his arsenal. This isn’t some Mariano Rivera stuff, and Workman’s non-curveball pitches have been interesting as well. His fastball is just barely up above his 2018 velocity at 91.8 mph, and that could theoretically rise a bit as the year goes on. His velocity is never going to be his calling card, but he still needs the pitch to keep hitters honest. Meanwhile, his cutter has come in as a mid-to-high-80s mph pitch, and it’s been great. In terms of results, it’s been about the equal of his curveball, albeit in a much smaller sample. Early in the year, he’s featured his four-seamer much more prominently against lefties and the cutter more prominently against righties. One wonders if he’ll start to use his cutter more against lefties, too.
At some point Workman is likely to hit a rut. If not he’s one of the best relievers in the league, and I don’t think anyone is that high on him. He’ll hang a couple of curveballs and give up some hard contact. It happens to everyone. How he comes out of that will be telling. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s not hard to see him bouncing back and turning it a strong season. While it’s only been five outings, I’ve already upped my expectations. It’s been all about the curveball in the early going, and Workman’s been riding the pitch to a prominent spot in this bullpen. There’s a solid chance he continues to ride this wave as spring turns to summer, too.