Over the course of the entire season, insofar as there has been any one storyline hanging over the year it has seemingly been the bullpen. Now, that is not the same as saying it has been the reason for the disappointing year — that has been the rotation if you have to nail it down to one area of the roster — but it has been the narrative with this team starting basically as soon as last offseason started. The bullpen has been up-and-down this year, but it’s hard to ignore the down moments largely because, well, a bullpen’s down moments almost exclusively cost the team wins in wildly noticeable ways.
With that being said, they haven’t been quite as bad as some might guess. Throwing the eighth most innings of any bullpen in all of baseball, they have pitched to a 4.28 ERA and a 4.07 FIP. This numbers don’t seem all that impressive, but consider the environment of the league right now. Offense is way up, and bullpens are generally disappointing all around baseball. Ask fans of, well, just about any team in the league and you’ll hear complaints about said squad’s relief unit. As a result, those ERA and FIP numbers rank 11th and fifth in all of baseball, respectively. This bullpen isn’t elite, of course, or even really playoff-worthy. They also aren’t the disaster we feel they are, though.
As we were coming into the year, the biggest flaw with the bullpen appeared to be late-inning depth. They had some guys we thought could be solid middle relievers, but other than Matt Barnes it didn’t appear they had any real high-leverage arms. Even Barnes, for his great advanced numbers, hadn’t really put it together on a consistent basis. With the well-documented lack of activity over the winter, they needed someone internally to step up and become that late-inning arm. He wasn’t really the favorite coming in, but Brandon Workman has been exactly that guy.
The veteran righty had never really been this guy in his career, even back in 2013 when he took the roster by storm en route to the championship. Workman has ended up being the guy in this bullpen, appearing in the most games, throwing the second most innings and locking down the closer role once Alex Cora decided he wanted to go with a more traditional bullpen setup. Over 56 innings, he has been dominant to the tune of a 1.93 ERA, a 2.45 FIP and a 3.02 DRA.
Admittedly, it took me a long time this year to buy into Workman, having finally come around just over the last couple of weeks. My problems were two-fold. For one thing, his control has been an issue all year as he’s walked over five batters per nine innings. We’ve seen relievers succeed with control issues before — Craig Kimbrel says hello — but Workman doesn’t have the eye-popping stuff some of those guys have. That is the second issue, and it’s a me-issue. It doesn’t look like Workman has big stuff. Whatever he does have, though, it’s working. He’s striking out over 12 batters per nine, the 15th highest rank in baseball among the 240 pitchers with at least 50 innings. The stuff may not look like that of a traditional late-inning arm, but it’s working just as well.
Those strikeouts aren’t the defining feature of Workman’s season, though. They have been nice and have helped him move past the control issues, but the main contributing factor here has been his ability to suppress damage on contact. He has allowed just one home run this season, and absurd accomplishment in today’s game. Opponents have managed just a .200 batting average on balls in play, and they’ve averaged fewer than one baserunner per inning. Certainly, there is plenty of luck involved here, but Workman finds himself in elite group with this season.
The question is, where did this come from? Again, luck is involved, but it’s not so simple as just chalking it up to that. Part of it is that he’s getting more ground balls than ever. One would think that’d lead to more hits given Boston’s infield defense compared to their outfield gloves, but it also leads to fewer home runs. On top of that, with more and more shifts it’s harder and harder to get hits on the ground.
What’s most interesting to me, however, is repertoire Workman is using on the mound. He’s always been largely a fastball/curveball guy with the ratio leaning more towards the fastball. This year, he’s leaning much more heavily on his curveball. According to Statcast, he is throwing the big, slow breaking ball just under 50 percent of the time. He is getting good results on the pitch, too, with an expected wOBA of .267 and a 27 percent whiff rate.
More importantly, it’s making his fastball play way, way up. Remember above when I said Workman doesn’t have the stuff we associate with late-inning arms? Most of that has to do with his fastball. In an age when relievers are consistently throwing triple digits, Workman averages 92-93 mph on his fastball. Despite that, it’s been a dominant pitch in 2019 with a .197 expected wOBA and a whiff rate over 37 percent. The reason is pretty simple. Batters can’t help but sit on that big, looping curveball and when you’re looking for that 92-93 mph looks like 97-98 mph.
I don’t know if this kind of performance from Workman is going to stick around for the long-term. At the end of the day, he still doesn’t have the track record, he’s 31 years old and still doesn’t have the dominant stuff. Opponents could just be one adjustment away from making more consistent hard contact, not to mention even a slight turn for the worse in the luck department. For now, though, Workman’s pitch usage is making his fastball one of the most improbably effective weapons in baseball and he’s locking down Boston’s late-inning situation in a way that didn’t seem possible even a few months ago.