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One Big Question: Can Brandon Workman’s fastball continue to play up?

It was a big part of his 2019 success.

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

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 Brandon Workman.

The Question: Will Brandon Workman’s fastball continue to play up?

If the Red Sox are to be good in the 2020 season — assuming there is some sort of 2020 season — there is going to be a tremendous amount of pressure on the bullpen. We now know that Chris Sale will not be pitching this year no matter when they might start up, which means the rotation will probably be pretty close to a net-zero. The offense should be able to push some runs across the plate, but they’ll need the bullpen to at least shorten games. If that is going to happen, pretty much everyone is going to have to pitch to their maximum potential, and that of course starts with the man in the ninth inning. Brandon Workman came out of nowhere last season to emerge as the top arm in this unit, and the work of his fastball was a major part of that.

It’s pretty jarring to think about how far Workman has risen on the depth chart in one year, especially considering he is on the wrong side of 30. At this point heading into last season, he wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster. He did make the roster, but he was not close to the top of the depth chart. He worked his way up as the year went up, though. He was suddenly striking batters out at a higher rate than ever, and runs just weren’t scoring. Workman of course ended the year as the team’s closer, pitching to a 1.88 ERA with a 2.49 FIP and a 2.86 DRA.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Now, there is always concern that a player will fall back down to Earth after such a stark breakout, and that is particularly true for a reliever and it’s particularly particularly true for a player over 30 who breaks out like this. It’s doubly concerning for Workman, because while he was striking out way more batters than ever before he was also walking a ton of them. His walk rate of nearly 16 percent was creeping towards double the league-average rate and was the second highest rate among the 341 pitchers with at least 50 innings. So, it’s totally reasonable to be worried about a fall back to Earth for a 31-year-old breakout reliever who walked batters at one of the worst rates in baseball.

The counter to that is the fact that Workman had a legitimate ability to limit hard contact. There were certainly some unsustainable positives that boosted his numbers — opponents had a .209 batting average on balls in play and allowed only one homer in a year where batters were smashing home runs at record rates. The Baseball Gods won’t smile down on any pitcher with those kind of numbers two years in a row.

On the other hand, Workman allowed legitimately weak contact. He was in the top one percent of the league, per Baseball Savant, in barrel rate and expected batting average, expected on-base percentage and expected slugging percentage. He was in the top four percent of baseball in expected wOBA and expected wOBA on contact and the top ten percent in hard-hit rate. That’s absurd.

It really all comes down to his repertoire, too, which is one of the most fascinating approaches by a pitcher on the team. Workman has always had a nice curveball, but he put the usage of that pitch into override in 2019, throwing it almost half the time and getting big-time results on it. Utilizing a pitch with this much movement — his curve drops ten percent more than the average MLB curve, per Baseball Savant — is what leads to the high walk rate, but everything else it led to made it worth it. He also threw his cutter about 20 percent of time and got good results from that, too.

The real money pitch for him, though, was the fastball. This is why I am so fascinated by Workman, because his fastball on its face really isn’t that impressive. It averages just under 93 mph and there isn’t any sort of special movement on it. It is, in a vacuum, a middling pitch for a modern day reliever. I mentioned from time to time that I am a little wary of individual pitch numbers because no pitch exists in a vacuum, and Workman’s fastball is the best example of this. Because batters were suddenly sitting on that big, looping curveball, his fastball played way up. Opponents whiffed almost 38 percent of the time against the head, averaged 88 mph in exit velocity and produced a .199 expected wOBA and a .190 actual wOBA. By FanGraphs pitch value metric, Workman’s fastball on a rate basis was the 24th most valuable in the game among pitchers with 50 innings, putting him right around guys like Walker Buehler, Liam Hendriks and Josh Hader.

The key to pitching and keeping batters off-balance is partially mixing up speeds, which I mentioned above as one of the reasons the 93 mph fastball worked in a day and age when the best relievers are sitting 98-100 mph. It’s also about changing eye levels, though, and that’s where Workman really excelled. It’s one thing to be able to mix the speeds, but you also have to command the fastball if you really want to get results. After peppering batters with curveballs down in the zone, Workman was fantastic at zipping a heater right above the strike zone, and batters just couldn’t catch up. Below you will see the heat map of where Workman threw his fastballs, and he was impressively consistent in getting it where he wanted it to end up.

via Baseball Savant

Baseball is a game of adjustments, and it will be interesting to see how batters adjust to Workman. The easy answer would be to just not swing and let him throw curveballs out of the zone, but he got very good as the year went on at throwing the breaking ball for a strike. So, batters have to sit on that pitch in any count, which means that fastball is going to play up in any count. It’s weird to talk about a pitcher who just walked nearly 16 percent of his opponents and say continuing his command is key, but that’s the case here. Workman’s never going to wow anyone with his fastball in a vacuum, but if he can continue to lean on his curveball effectively and keep getting that fastball where he wants it up in the zone, he may not be that one-year wonder it’s easy to paint him as.