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One Big Question: Can Ryan Brasier get his fastball back?

A break from trade talk to talk about a middle reliever.

Boston Red Sox v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Ryan Brasier.

The Question: What the heck happened to Ryan Brasier’s fastball?

We’re going to give everyone a little bit of a sanity break and stop talking about the Mookie Betts trade, at least for a little while. Instead we’re going to talk about everyone’s favorite subject: The Red Sox bullpen. That unit is still the same question mark as it was yesterday and as it was when the season ended and as it was at the trade deadline last July and as it was when last season opened and as it was when the 2018 parade ended. Everyone knows about the issues, and even though the group is probably a little underrated at this point, it still needs some contributions from the second and third tiers of arms if they are going to be a truly successful group. Among those arms is Ryan Brasier.

Brasier’s last couple of seasons have been an absolutely whiplash, going from an unknown minor-league signing to a surprising call-up to a key piece of the postseason run to the de facto eight inning arm to open the 2019 season to a demotion to Triple-A later in the year. After what he showed in 2018, there were big expectations for him to be the second-best arm in the bullpen next to Matt Barnes and hopefully make things easier as they tried to survive the losses of Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel. That did not happen. Brasier pitched to a 4.85 ERA, a 4.45 FIP and a 5.38 DRA over 62 appearances, and like I mentioned above was demoted to Pawtucket at one point during the year. Now, one year after being that de facto eighth inning arm, he’s not even guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Red Sox bullpen right now looks to have five real locks in Barnes, Brandon Workman, Josh Taylor, Darwinzon Hernandez and Marcus Walden. There is certainly variance among them, but there is reason enough to at least believe in a very real possibility of them being difference-makers in 2020. Still, that is probably not enough for this bullpen to really be an asset in the coming season, and they need others to step up if they are to reach that point. Much of the attention among the next couple tiers, rightfully so, has lied with some of the younger and more unproven arms, but Brasier finding a nice middle ground between 2018 and 2019 certainly wouldn’t hurt. If he is going to do that, it will all come down to his fastball.

We should start by saying that, while Brasier got worse in almost every aspect last season, he did strike out batters at a higher rate. Granted, the two strikeout per nine inning jump is very misleading since it was mostly because he simply faced more batters, but his overall rate did jump from 23 percent to 25 percent. It’s not a huge jump, but it’s not noting either. He still got whiffs on over 30 percent of swings, a good rate that actually stayed in line with his 2018. And, specifically with his fastball, he induced whiffs at a rate of 27 percent compared to 24 percent the year before. So, in that department things were good.

Unfortunately, that was cancelled out and then some by everything else. We’ll start with the walk rate, where he went from walking just under six percent of his opponents in 2018 to just under nine percent last year. Looking at the overall warning signs — we’ll get to the fastball specifics in a minute — he did hit the zone a little bit less (47 percent compared to 50 percent, per Baseball Savant) but the fall from 39 percent to 33 percent in chase rate was more significant.

Perhaps even more concerning were the changes in the batted ball profile. We all knew the .198 batting average on balls in play from 2018 wasn’t going to stick, and his jump to .281 certainly wasn’t unreasonable. However, he started allowing fly balls at a much higher rate (his ground ball rate fell from 43 percent to 33 percent) in just about the worst year to do that. Combining that with a barrel rate that nearly tripled and batters pulling his pitches much more frequently, he allowed nine homers in his 55 23 innings after allowing only two in more than half of that.

So, how does the fastball play into this? Well, for one thing, five of those homers came off the fastball. That’s actually not a huge percentage (just over half, which seems about right for any pitcher), but then you consider that he didn’t allow any homers on the pitch in 2018. On top of that, the average exit velocity against the offering jumped from 86 mph to 92 mph, and the expected wOBA jumped from .209 to .398, an absolutely unfathomable increase.

Then, there’s the control issue. Here, we go back to the zone plots we feature so often from Baseball Savant, and compare which pitches batters were swinging at in 2018 compared to 2019. Keep in mind, as we’ve mentioned before, pitches up in the zone are overwhelmingly often fastballs.

2018; via Baseball Savant
2019; via Baseball Savant

Batters were much more inclined to lay off that high pitch in 2019 compared to 2018. Combining that with the fact that Brasier threw more fastballs to start at bats in 2019 than he did in 2018 (per Brooks Baseball) as well as when batters were ahead, and it’s not hard to conclude that the fastball and specifically the inability to get chases up in the zone were the driving force of his increased walk rate last year. And when they weren’t driving the walk rate up, they were creating situations where Brasier had to throw strikes, and batters starting feasting on those opportunities as well.

The improvement of this is what is going to be the difference between Brasier being successful in 2020 versus having a repeat of last year, and likely with a shorter leash. As far as how he could go about improving it, I don’t have a great answer. I think the most reasonably step would probably be to throw his slider more and mix it into more fastball counts, but there’s always a chance the success of his slider hinged on him not using it as often and an increased rate would only serve to make those numbers fall. The only thing I am sure of, though, is that Brasier and his coaches need a plan to start getting more swings on those high fastballs.