Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Ryan Brasier.
The Question: Can Ryan Brasier get more swings out of the zone?
Earlier today we talked about the late innings in the Red Sox bullpen, where there are options with upside but none that are particularly attractive in the traditional closer sense. I also mentioned in that post, though, that they have some potentially underrated depth in the middle innings, with a plethora of sixth inning-types. Your mileage may vary on them individually, but most probably have at least one guy from that group that they like. For me, the best option beyond the current top three of Matt Barnes, Adam Ottavino and Darwinzon Hernandez is Ryan Brasier.
Brasier has had a really unorthodox career path, originally being drafted by the Angels in 2007 and making his brief MLB debut in 2013. That would be the last time he’d make the majors in that organization, though, and in fact the last time he’d pitch for that organization at all. After 2013, he bounced around a bit in affiliated ball and elsewhere before coming in as a relative unknown minor-league signing in 2018 with the Red Sox. He made some impressions in camp, but there still weren’t many expectations. Then, he came up in the summer and became one of the key members of the bullpen en route to their championship. That earned him an easy spot on the 2019 roster, but he struggled that season to the point where he was demoted for some of that summer, before coming back in 2020 and landing somewhere in between, though peripherally closer to 2018.
So now we’re looking at a 33-year-old who has been in the organization for three years, looking elite in one, then bad in another, then fairly good in the third. Looking ahead to 2021, as I alluded to above he is probably fourth on the depth chart right now and could be knocked down to fifth with an addition of Hirokazu Sawamura. Either way, he’ll have a role, but not a major one. That said, injuries and underperformance will give him an opportunity to take a bigger role if he takes advantage, and for him that means limiting his walks again.
Perhaps even more striking than just the overall fluctuations in performance for Brasier is how it has happened. In 2018, despite coming in with a big fastball and pretty nasty slider, he really didn’t miss bats. Instead, he relied on elite control and weak contact. Then, in 2019 he started to miss more bats, but he also allowed many more free passes. In 2020, his walk rate actually increased even more, getting up to 10 percent, though his 27 percent strikeout rate helped even that out a bit. Still, even if we acknowledge he’ll never get back down to the 5.6 percent walk rate of 2018, if he can move back in that direction while keeping much if not all of his strikeout gains, he could surprise people in the coming year.
Generally speaking, when we talk about control the first thing we think of is hitting the strike zone. It’s a logical step. Throw strikes and don’t issue walks. But that wasn’t really Brasier’s problem last summer. In 2019 it was to some extent, as his zone rate according to Baseball Savant fell from 50 percent to 47 percent as compared to 2018. Last year, though, his zone rate actually jumped compared to 2018, finishing at 51 percent. Now, there are sample size issues here because 2020 was a shortened season, but generally speaking he was hitting the zone at a good rate but still issuing walks.
This isn’t a major surprise, though, because walks have never been just about throwing strikes. Even the best strike throwers are still throwing balls over 40 percent of the time. Throwing strikes helps, but you also need some help from your opponents in the form of swinging at some of the balls out of the zone you’re throwing. And that has been where Brasier has been trending in the wrong direction. The righty has seen the swing rate on pitches out of the zone decrease with each passing year, falling to 31 percent last summer. In 2018, for context, it was 38 percent. It should be mentioned that the 31 percent mark was still better than average, but it’s not moving in the right direction.
There’s a few things that stand out to me about Brasier here in this context. One part of it is that he has also been moving in the wrong direction in terms of first pitch strikes, with his 61 percent rate falling by nine percentage points compared to 2018 and by four percentage points compared to 2019. This logic here is pretty simple. If you’re starting off behind more often, you’re giving the hitter more of a chance to be more selective. On the flip side, when you’re getting ahead 0-1, the hitter is now on their heels a bit more and is going to be more likely to get more aggressive. So getting back to an elite first strike rate is a good first step to getting more of these chases.
The other part of this is throwing strikes with his slider. Now, it should be mentioned that by and large Brasier’s slider is a very good pitch. This past summer, he got a 46.5 percent swinging strike rate on the pitch, which is outstanding, and generally allowed weak contact when the ball was put into play. It’s also not a pitch he threw for a strike very often.
That’s by design, of course. That dark red portion out of the zone in the bottom right is exactly where he wants to be throwing that pitch. But when you’re a two-pitch pitcher, when batters see that spin coming out they know they can probably lay off, and there’s a 50 percent chance they’re going to see that spin. We’ve seen in recent years how important it can be for two-pitch relievers like Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman to get their breaking ball over the plate. This is a lot easier said than done because if you leave one hanging it’s going to go a long way, but if you can do it it goes a long way toward keeping the opponent honest.
As things stand now, Brasier was already a solid middle reliever last season and if he can repeat that he is still a useful arm for any bullpen. The Red Sox are going to need some guys to step up this year, and while Brasier isn’t really of the age you’d expect that to happen, we’re also not looking for a jump in stuff. He already has that part figured out. Now he just needs to get some more chases in order to limit those free passes a bit. If he can do that, he can enter the fray for a late-inning role, and given the slim margin of error this Boston team has they need all the help they can get in locking down late leads.