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 Austin Brice.
2020 in one sentence
Austin Brice had some good flashes that could be enough to buy him another shot on this staff, but inconsistency took over too often and his final numbers were anything but impressive.
Coming into the season, Brice was arguably the best cheap pickup among the many that Chaim Bloom made leading up to his first season in charge of baseball operations for the Red Sox. And, as mentioned above, he showed some of those flashes but the final numbers were rough. We’ll focus on the flashes here, though, and most of them revolved around his ability to get whiffs and get strikeouts. Over his previous four seasons in the majors (most of which were partial seasons, for whatever that’s worth), Brice had never been a big strikeout guy. For the most part, he hovered around a solid but unspectacular 20 percent rate, with a couple years at 23 percent. For a reliever, that’s not terrible, but it’s middling.
This past summer, over just a 19 2⁄3 inning sample, he struck out almost 29 percent of the batters he faced, far and away the best rate of his career. Unsurprisingly, that came with a career-best swinging strike rate, with the 28-year-old (he’ll be 29 next June) getting whiffs on over 34 percent of swings, a ten percentage point jump from his career rate. Given the command issues that we will get to in the next section, he needed a jump in strikeouts to salvage a regular role at the major-league level.
The biggest key to Brice’s strikeouts and just his success in general when it came was his fastball. This was actually a bit of a surprise to me as the righty fit in with a recent trend among Red Sox relievers like Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman and Colten Brewer in that he leans heavily on his curveball. Brice threw the curveball more than any other pitch in 2020, in fact. It was the fastball, though, that got the best results. He had tremendous command with the pitch, consistently getting it up in the zone and missing above the zone more often than missing down and leaving it over the plate.
He also got a startling 50 percent whiff rate on the pitch according to Baseball Savant while allowing a .337 wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) and a .242 expected wOBA, which is based on quality of contact and plate discipline numbers. Don’t be surprised if Brice leans a bit more heavily on this four-seam next year.
For the most part, Brice was at his best when he wasn’t overextended and asked to do too much, which in his case means having to face hitters from both sides. The dearth of depth in the back of the bullpen forced Boston to use Brice in late innings regardless of hitters due up, but he was great when he only had to face righties. He held same-handed hitters to a terrific .291 wOBA, striking out over 30 percent of them while keeping his walk rate at a bad but manageable 13 percent. Perhaps most importantly, when righties did put the ball in play almost 52 percent of those balls were hit on the ground. It’s harder to be a specialist in today’s game given the new three-batter rule for relievers, but good managers can find a way to get their players in the best position to succeed. For Brice, that likely means getting him in when righties are due up as often as possible.
Despite the positives discussed above, Brice simply did not have a good season. He only pitched 19 2⁄3 innings, having missed most of September with a lat strain. When he did pitch, the results were bad. The righty ended the year with a 5.95 ERA and a 4.92 FIP that does suggest some bad luck, but not enough to salvage the season. Clearly the sample size is small, but when that’s the best feedback you can give on a season, it likely wasn’t a very good one.
The biggest issue for Brice was his control. I mentioned his high strikeout rate above, which was great, but the gave a lot of that progress back by also walking more batters than ever. Although he’s never exactly boasted pinpoint control in the majors, he’s generally kept his walk rate at a manageable level, mostly hovering around league-average between eight and nine percent. In 2020, the rate jumped up to almost 15 percent.
Now, sample size does apply here, just as it does for almost everything in this shortened season. But we can’t just wave away these issues entirely due to Brice only pitching in a handful of games, relatively speaking. When he was pitching, he just wasn’t hitting the zone, with a zone rate of 45 percent according to Baseball Savant. That’s well below league-average and the lowest of his career. He combined that with a league-average chase rate. If you’re throwing out of the zone so often, though, you need to be better than average. I suspect over a normal sample the walk rate wouldn’t be so egregious, but even then we’re likely looking at something in the 10-12 percent range, which is still too much.
The worst thing you want to combine with a lot of walks is a lot of hard contact. Putting runners on for free then giving up hard contact is a pretty simple recipe for a lot of runs. By Baseball Savant’s measurements, he was in the bottom 20 percent in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and expected wOBA.
The Big Question
Can Austin Brice take a big leap, a la Brandon Workman a year ago?
Narrator: He did not.
Looking ahead to 2021
Brice is arbitration-eligible this winter and likely won’t command all that large of a salary. That should be a point in his favor. That said, the Red Sox have a lot of roster spots they need to open. I suspect Brice will be on the right side of that line and will make it through to next season given just how much help they need in the bullpen, but it’s not a slam dunk. Assuming he does make it to next season with the organization, he’ll be in a middle relief role and will presumably have a short leash on the 40-man.