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Ryan Brasier is somewhat quietly returning to form

On a pitching staff full of negatives, a positive is emerging.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In order to win a World Series in this league, you need a lot of good fortune to head in your direction. That is particularly true if you are to be one of the best teams in modern baseball history, like the 2018 Red Sox were. Among the many things that went their way in that magical season was Ryan Brasier, who came out of nowhere to emerge as a key pitcher on the staff. He went from a guy in spring training nobody had heard of to becoming a key set-up man down the stretch to being one of the most trusted relievers in the playoff bullpen. If you recall correctly, that Red Sox team didn’t exactly trust their bullpen that October, using a lot of starters in that role on their off-days and really only leaning on three true relievers. Brasier was one of them, and did extremely well in those big spots.

With Craig Kimbrel heading out the door after that season, Brasier appeared to be set for a big role in 2019, with only Matt Barnes clearly standing in front of him on the depth chart. It was time to show he was no fluke. Except, well, he didn’t show that. The righty struggled mightily in his sophomore season, pitching poorly enough that he was even demoted for some time in the middle of the year. It was not ideal! It also didn’t feel like a major surprise, because while everything he did in 2018 counted and it didn’t look particularly fluky by its own merits; we see flash-in-the-pan relievers all the time. Brasier, who turned 31 in 2018, being one sounded about right.

All of that made this coming season a pretty big one for his career, though one in which a lot of Red Sox fans had at least half given up, at least on the idea of him being an impact, late-inning arm. Brasier was certainly going to get his shot, particularly after COVID shut down multiple pitchers on the staff, because the competition among pitchers was not exactly fierce. Whether he’d make the most of that shot was a different story. As it turns out, he didn’t look much better early on in the season, furthering the idea that 2018 was a well-timed flash in the pan. Over his first seven appearances, Brasier tossed only six innings and pitched to a 10.50 ERA with six strikeouts and three walks. It was ugly.

Washington Nationals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

At that point, between the half-inevitable feeling of regression after 2018, that coming to be in 2019, and now the brutal start in 2020, it seemed most were basically all the way out on Brasier. He’d continue to get innings because who else is going to pitch on this team, but the idea of him being a part of 2021 and beyond seemed far-fetched, to put it mildly. A funny thing has happened since those first six outings, though. Brasier has been very, very good! Over the righty’s last 13 outings, he has pitched 14 innings, pitching to a 0.64 ERA (that’s just one run allowed over that stretch) with 19 strikeouts and seven walks.

Now, the clear rebuttal to any talk of resurgence here is that the sample is tiny and we’re utilizing arbitrary end points. That is all true! And especially with the small sample, that is going to be an issue with any stretch of time for a reliever in a 60-game season. However, there is a real change that was made with Brasier his arsenal in that he all but ditched his sinker following an outing on August 14 in which he allowed three runs to the Yankees. That also was the end of that initial six-outing stretch, with his next outing starting the subsequent 13-outing stretch referenced above.

Brasier mostly ditching his sinker — I say mostly because Baseball Savant does have him throwing a couple over the next 13 outings, but that’s compared to at least a few being thrown almost every outing before — is significant. It was never a huge part of his arsenal, to be fair, but he did throw it over 10 percent of the time in 2018, and it was by far his worst pitch. The usage rate did decrease last year when he struggled, to be fair, but it was still getting crushed when he did use it. It’s clearly not a useful offering for him, and getting rid of it basically completely has clearly done wonders for the righty of late.

With all of this being said, it should be mentioned that while Brasier looks as good as he has since he was telling Gary Sánchez to get back in the box (with a couple extra words tossed in there) in October in 2018, he’s not doing it in the same way. That season, despite coming in with big velocity, Brasier was a command/control guy with a low strikeout rate and low walk rate. This year, the walks have been a bit of an issue, and even during this great stretch he’s walking over 13 percent of his opponents. (League-average is four percentage points lower than that). However, he’s also striking out batters at a much higher rate at 30 percent compared to his 23 percent rate in 2018.

The difference is that he is getting a ton of swings and misses in the zone, which in my opinion is the best measure of pure stuff we have. Look at the top of this leaderboard for support of this point. On that same leaderboard, which includes all 213 pitchers with at least 20 innings this season, Brasier ranks 22nd in contact rate on pitches in the zone.

So, the stuff is up for Brasier, and it’s making for a very effective late-inning arm, which is not a thing we’ve been able to say about the righty since October of 2018. What’s even better, and rare for this team even for their good pitchers, is he’s done it without a whole lot of stress. Not only has Brasier been effective over these last 13 outings, but he’s allowed runs in only one of them (and it was only one run in that outing), and he’s allowed multiple runners to reach base in only four of them.

As I mentioned above, there are small sample and endpoint concerns with all of this, and it’s always still possible for Brasier to have another downward turn in his performance. He did just recently turn 33, too, which doesn’t really help his cause moving forward. That being said, the Red Sox don’t have a whole lot of bright spots from this pitching staff to propel forward into 2021 with, and while Brasier didn’t look like a future piece a few weeks ago, he’s turned that narrative around. Whether he serves as trade bait to help another portion of the organization or as a key reliever to come back in next year’s ‘pen, he’s quietly become a valuable reliever for this organization, continuing what’s been a rollercoaster of a few years.