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 Austin Brice.
The Question: Can Austin Brice take a big leap, a la Brandon Workman a year ago?
We’re at a weird point on our alphabetical run through the Red Sox roster, as today we land on our third straight right-handed middle reliever. In covering Ryan Brasier and Colten Brewer, we had mentioned that there is quite a log jam to fill up those final three bullpen spots. Those two were two of the holdover candidates, and today we look at a new face who will be fighting for an Opening Day gig. Austin Brice was one of the handful of bottom-of-the-roster players picked up by Chaim Bloom this year, and there’s an argument to be mad he’s the best of those pick ups. With Bloom going with a quantity over quality approach with the bottom of the bullpen, he needs some steps forward. The good news here is there is at least some reason to believe Brice can have a similar type of leap as Brandon Workman made a year ago.
First, it would be helpful to determine what exactly that kind of Workman-like leap actually means. If you’ll recall, there was a little bit of excitement around Workman at this time last year, but a lot of his excitement was still drawing from that 2013 run when he first came up to the majors. He hadn’t shown a ton after working his way back from injury, and he was a bit piece rather than an important one at the start of the year. That changed, however, and thanks to a curveball-heavy approach that accentuated his fastball and made him dominant.
Now, we should be clear that any implication of a Workman-like breakout does not mean putting up identical numbers. I am not expecting Brice, or anyone else really, to put up a sub-2.00 ERA. For as real as much of Workman’s breakout was — and it was real! — he was aided by some absurd batted ball luck. Even someone allowing as much soft contact as him shouldn’t expect a .209 batting average on balls in play nor should they expect to only allow one homer over a full season in a year when the league replaced baseballs with bouncy balls. It’s less the actual numbers I’m talking about here and more just the path to production and simply being an important arm in the bullpen.
Looking at Brice as a pitcher, I think there’s a good case to be made that he can be exactly that. In fact, I think we were seeing it for much of last season, it was just hard for anyone to notice because it was happening in Miami. Still, with a revamped arsenal we’ll talk about soon, Brice was dominant in the first half. Over 37 1⁄3 innings he had pitched to a 1.93 ERA while allowing a wOBA of just .251, though his .3.86 FIP suggested he may have been pitching above his punching weight. Still, that in and of itself is a little Workman-like.
Things did go downhill after that, but there is at least a reason. Brice went down with a forearm injury in July, came back for a bit in August and then was shut down for the year. He only tossed 7 1⁄3 innings in the second half. We can’t just wash away the injury — forearm injuries can be nothing, but they can also lead to much more serious issues for pitchers — but at this point we should assume health until we here otherwise. And when Brice was healthy last year, the results were very good.
Now we get to the part where it’s really Workman-like in the change Brice made last year. Prior to 2019, the righty had generally been a sinkerball pitcher, looking for groundballs and putting up middling numbers. He made a major alteration in 2019, throwing his sinker far less (only 20 percent of the time) and leaning mostly on his curveball, which he threw 45 percent of the time. He also started throwing a four-seamer much more often.
It was that emphasis on the curveball that ended up working so well for Workman, and it did the trick for Brice as well. He was fantastic with both the breaking ball and the four-seamer, with each offering resulting in expected wOBAs and actual wOBA’s below .300. He also got whiffs on nearly a third of swings from each pitch. The sinker is what really held him back, though, as he hardly missed any bats off that pitch and the contact against it was generally well-hit.
The key for Brice is going to be to keep building off of this. He was good last year, but as we saw with his FIP the peripherals could have been better. His 23 percent strikeout rate was fine, but if he really wants to be an impact reliever in today’s game, particularly with his slightly below-average control he’s going to need to up that rate. It seems pretty clear to be that the easiest path for this would be to just get rid of the sinker altogether and go with a curveball and four-seam approach. Adding a new third pitch could be a possibility as well, perhaps even learning the cutter from Workman himself. Of course, Brice throws from a much lower angle, so I don’t know how much that would carry over.
Either way, we saw what kind of results Brice can put up when he was healthy last year after shifting to a curveball-centric approach and moving away from the sinker. He should push even further down that path and work to get more strikeouts. If he does that, there’s a chance he becomes the breakout in the bullpen in 2020, even if he can’t get quite the amount of batted ball luck that Workman got in his own breakout a year ago.