Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Ryan Brasier.
2020 in one sentence
Ryan Brasier got off to a rough start in 2020, but he settled down after a couple of weeks and for most of the year was a steady presence in a bullpen desperately looking for just that.
Looking at Ryan Brasier’s 3.96 ERA out of the bullpen in 2020, it could come as a bit of a surprise that there were, in my estimation anyway, more positives and negatives for the righty this past summer. But that’s where I land, and the biggest thing that stands out here was his ability to get strikeouts. Back in 2018 when he shockingly emerged as a key member of a championship team, the process by which he got there was a little puzzling. He came equipped with a big fastball and impressive slider, but was effectively a command/control guy despite the stuff. Then, in 2019, he started getting strikeouts, but the results didn’t come with it. This past year, he combined both worlds.
In 2020, Brasier finished with a career-high strikeout rate of 27 percent, two percentage points higher than his rate in 2019 and seven points higher than his strong 2018. Really, there was no big secret sauce to getting here, but rather that he was more effective with his pitches. His whiff rate on both the fastball and the slider were higher than ever, and he was getting less contact against him on pitches both in and out of the zone. He was simply sharper than he had been before, and it showed up in the numbers.
I do want to expand a bit on the sentence section above and the fact that his overall ERA doesn’t look pretty. We know that in a normal year, a rough stretch for a reliever can alter season-long numbers to a point beyond recovery. That is even more true in a shortened year. And so when Brasier allowed three runs in his first appearance of the season and seven over his first seven appearances, that basically ensured he wasn’t going to finish with an eye-popping ERA. And while we can’t simply erase a pitcher’s worst outings to get a clear picture of their performance, it’s worth pointing out Brasier looked like his 2018 self (in terms of results, at least) for the rest of the year. Over his final 18 appearances of the year, which included another three-run performance in his final appearance, the righty pitched to a 1.89 ERA over 19 innings with 24 strikeouts and eight walks. The sample is clearly small, but that represented a majority of this shortened year with the span starting in mid-August, and during that time he was an important pitcher on this staff.
While the biggest positive for Brasier was getting his fastball back, something I’ll discuss more in a minute, the other big jump back to 2018 was his ability to hit the strike zone. This wasn’t reflected in his walk rate (again, we’ll get to that in a minute), but it helped him set the tone in at bats and get those aforementioned strikeouts. After hitting the zone an even 50 percent of the time in 2018 (per Baseball Savant) to help get his walk rate to a minuscule 5.6 percent, his zone rate fell to 47 percent in 2019 while his walk rate ballooned to nearly nine percent. This past summer, he actually hit the zone even more than he did in 2018, finishing with a rate of 51.7 percent.
While Brasier was good for most of the year, we also can’t totally ignore that he was bad early on. This was an important time for the Red Sox, too. It goes without saying that we can’t pin the fate of this past season on the shoulders of Brasier, but if you think back to late July you’ll remember the expectation for many was that this team would hover around .500. In a season with an expanded postseason field, that would have been enough to contend. Those hopes were dashed quickly with poor performances early on, and Brasier was a part of that. The failures of this season were a true team effort, but the key stretch was those first two or three weeks of the season. Everyone who performed below their talent, a group that includes Brasier and his 10.50 ERA through seven appearances, takes some ownership of how the year went.
More specifically with his entire season, I mentioned that Brasier managed to walk more batters than ever this season despite hitting the zone more often than ever. It’s a strange dichotomy, and surely the small sample creating weird noise is part of it. But he also struggled to get batters to chase pitches that didn’t hit the zone. Again per Baseball Savant, his 31 percent chase rate was a career-low, and that number has decreased with each passing year. The culprit would seem to be his slider, which had less movement than ever before. In the end, Brasier walked 10 percent of his opponents, but it’s worth noting that with his increased strikeout rate to go with it, his strikeout rate minus walk rate was right in line with where it was in 2018.
The Big Question
This was the big question coming into the year for me, and what I saw as the thing that held him back in 2019 after his 2018 breakout. Brasier’s slider was good, but nothing worked if the fastball wasn’t the focal point of his arsenal. In the linked post, I wondered if throwing more sliders might be the answer, and also posited that the key to everything was getting more swings on those fastballs he threw above the zone. I was wrong on both counts. Brasier actually threw more fastballs than ever in 2020, and his swing rate on fastballs above the zone was higher to his glove side but lower to his arm side, so essentially a wash.
And despite that, his fastball was effective yet again. Baseball Savant indicates that Brasier got a career-high whiff rate on the pitch, and more importantly wasn’t getting hurt as much on balls in play. He allowed a .311 wOBA (an all-encompassing offensive metric on the same scale as OBP) compared to a .338 mark in 2019. Even more stark was the difference in expected wOBA, which takes into account quality of contact and plate discipline numbers. Brasier’s .391 mark there was a disaster in 2019 and suggested he could regress in the wrong direction moving forward. Instead, he got that xWOBA all the way down to .302 this past summer. Everything with Brasier works off the fastball, and him getting that back in check in 2020 was massive for his relative success.
Looking ahead to 2021
Brasier is eligible for arbitration this winter, and it seems basically guaranteed he’ll be back. If the Red Sox want to be competitive in 2021, they’ll certainly need to add more to their bullpen, because as things stand Brasier is probably the number two and that’s not a recipe for success. That said, he’s been good in two of the last three years, and if they can get to a point where he’s their number four or so, that would be an ideal role for him.