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 Colten Brewer.
2020 in one sentence
Colten Brewer was thrust into a much different role than expected due to the absolute dearth of pitching depth on the roster, and he struggled to adapt to said role before having his season end early due to injury.
As I mentioned above, Brewer was stretched beyond what would normally be asked of him because the Red Sox were basically one step away from asking me to start baseball games for them. When he was allowed to pitch as a normal reliever, which is what his role was expected to be and for what he is best suited, he performed well. As a reliever in 2020, he pitched to a solid 3.27 ERA with strikeout and walk rates right better than he showed off in 2019, a season in which he was quietly solid. Compared to his outings as a starter, Brewer’s ERA was almost three full runs better in relief while the wOBA he allowed was nearly 100 points better.
Beyond that, Brewer did make some strides in an area that has been a problem for him so much in the past: Walks. In his admittedly short major-league career to this point, he has had trouble limiting the number of batters he lets on base for free. This is an entirely surprising trend, to be fair, since he is a pitcher that leans heavily on his curveball and pairs it with a cutter. Those are two pitches that move a lot by definition, and at their best they are kept at the edges of the zone. It’s easy to fall behind in counts with that repertoire. He did a bit better in that respect in 2020, walking 11.5 percent of his opponents. Granted, this is still fairly significantly worse than league-average, but it’s also a two percentage point improvement from 2019.
We were already digging pretty deep to call an 11.5 percent walk rate a positive, but we’ll keep going with something even deeper in that Brewer was much, much better with runners on base compared to when the bases were empty. In the former situation, he allowed a wOBA of .309 compared to a .466 mark in the latter. Somewhat interestingly, this is a trend that held in 2019 as well. It sort of makes sense as Brewer gets a fair number of ground balls, so he can get out of trouble more easily than some other pitchers. I had also thought this may call for him to pitch out of the stretch exclusively going forward, though after video review it appears he began doing that this summer, so back to the drawing board on that take.
*gestures at pretty much everything*
Okay, well, if I have to get more specific, the number one thing that ailed Brewer in 2020 was simply the fact that he got hit incredibly hard on a regular basis. According to Baseball Savant’s tracking, he was in the bottom two percent among all pitchers in baseball in hard-hit rate, allowing balls in play of at least 95 mph over 14 percent of the time. That’s not what you want, and it’s how you get to a .329 batting average on balls in play that almost feels lower than it should have been along with six homers being allowed over just 25 2⁄3 innings. In 2019, he allowed the same number of homers in 54 2⁄3 innings.
A good portion of this hard contact was a result of Brewer just displaying poor command, leaving far too many pitches over the middle of the plate. His cutter in particular was a major culprit in this respect.
Beyond the command piece of it, though, I would also point to the sharpness of his offerings. I mentioned above his repertoire which consists mostly of a curveball and a cutter. That remained true in 2020, and he had to add a slider into the mix more often due to his having to start. The extra pitch didn’t help matters as it’s clearly not an effective pitch (there’s a reason he hardly throws it in a normal relief role), but the two main pitches weren’t the same either. According to Baseball Savant, both the vertical and horizontal movement on his curveball dropped by over an inch (or, put another way, by roughly 25 percent on both sides). Similarly, the horizontal movement on his cutter dropped by more than an inch on average as well.
Brewer needs to have these pitches sharp and effective at all times as he tries to make it without a traditional fastball. He’s never been one to get a ton of whiffs on these pitches, but the goal with offerings like the curveball and cutter which both come with movement is to miss barrels. That clearly did not happen last summer.
The Big Question
This ties in nicely with what I was talking about above. Before the season, I posited that Brewer needs to be able to get an effective fastball in place to be able to get his walk rate under control. I still think that’s true, especially given how poor his slider was as a third pitch as well as the fact that the two main pitches frankly stunk as well. The issue is I am less confident than I was that he can make it happen. He’s never thrown a fastball more than once in a blue moon, but when he did in 2019 it was over 95 mph on average. This summer he threw eight and they came in at an average of less than 94 mph.
Now, it should be mentioned in a sample that small there could be some misclassified cutters that just didn’t move and were counted as fastballs. That would certainly bring down the average velocity. If we take that at face value, though, there’s no point in adding a low-to-mid 90s heater into the mix. That said, if I were on the coaching staff I would still at least play around with the idea of adding that fastball in — not as a primary offering, but something thrown 15-20 percent of the time or so — and trying it out a bit in camp.
Looking ahead to 2021
Brewer’s performance this year along with the crunch coming at the bottom of the 40-man roster may end with him being on the chopping block, but if I were in charge I’d try to make it work keeping him around. I suspect the Red Sox will, too. Brewer has an option remaining and is not yet arbitration eligible, which helps his cause. Beyond that, he has shown interesting flashes before and I’d like to give him another shot in a role more suited for his skillset. That said, assuming he is brought back for 2021, I would guess the leash will not be all that long.