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One Big Question: Can Colten Brewer get back on track in a conventional role?

He was stretched beyond his limits in 2020.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

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 Colten Brewer.

The Question: Can Colten Brewer excel as a standard reliever?

I know what you’re thinking. “I’m tired of talking about the Andrew Benintendi trade. I need to talk about a fringe reliever instead.” I’m nothing if not a people pleaser, so here you go.

Colten Brewer found himself in a bizarre situation back in 2019 when he was literally the only new face on a roster that had just completed one of the best seasons this league had ever seen. Just by that alone, he was going to need to break out in a major way to find his way on the radar among fans. And with Brian Bannister still in the organization at that point and Brewer being an early spin rate darling, there was some optimism for that. Instead, he was mostly just fine and never broke into the limelight in what turned out to be mostly just a boring season overall.

Then, last year things only got worse, though it’s hard to put all, or even most, of that on Brewer himself. Boston’s starting pitching depth was beyond terrible, and they needed bodies to throw innings. Brewer was called upon for that role, making spot starts and multi-inning relief appearances before eventually having his season cut short with injury. The team said they were putting him in that position because they believed he could be successful there, and while that may be true I can’t believe that they would prefer him in that role. It was a matter of circumstance, and the circumstance was that they were about three injuries away from giving me an audition for a rotation depth role.

The result has been a tenure in Boston that has been uneven and largely unspectacular. In 2019, he finished the season with 54 23 innings, pitching to an 85 ERA- and a 104 FIP- (15 percent better than average by ERA, four percent worse by FIP. In 2020, the righty tossed 25 23 innings with marks of 121 and 137. So he wasn’t great in either year, but you could see the potential for something useful in 2019 while that was not the case last summer.

As we look ahead to 2021, the Red Sox still have pitching questions but their rotation depth is undoubtedly miles ahead of where it was last year. That doesn’t mean there won’t be issues, but it does mean Brewer should be able to get back to pitching in a conventional one- or two-inning relief role. And that should fit him much better.

If we look at the comparison between his 2019 and 2020 seasons, the thing that stands out aside from the shift in role is the quality of contact he allowed. In his first year in Boston, he wasn’t a huge strikeout pitcher but he was able to work around that with a good contact profile. Brewer got a bunch of ground balls — a 53 percent rate per Baseball Savant, eight percentage points better than league-average — as well as plenty of weak contact. Again according to Baseball Savant, he was in the top 10 percent of baseball in terms of hard-hit rate in 2019.

In 2020, pitching in a new role those numbers changed, as did his repertoire. Since he had to potentially go through lineups multiple times serving more as rotation depth, he started to emphasize his cutter much more, which is essentially his fastball-equivalent, while throwing fewer curveballs. It’s not the only reason why, but it contributed to his ground ball rate falling by a couple of points, and more importantly his hard-hit rate climbing to 40 percent, a 10-point increase from the previous season. This, above all else, led to his numbers cratering.

And this is also where you can look for a little bit of optimism as we anticipate Brewer will be able to return to a more conventional relief role. The righty should be able to go back to being a two-pitch pitcher who leans on the breaking ball. He added his slider in much more often this past year, and as I said used his cutter as his primary pitch. It’s the curveball that has traditionally been his best offering, though, and in 2019 he threw that more than his cutter. That led to solid results, and seems to be the arsenal with which he is more comfortable.

Brewer’s ceiling is never going to be huge, so even in a more conventional role I would certainly not expect him to emerge as a closer candidate or anything like that. Even when he’s been solid he has had control issues, walking 13 percent of opponents in 2019. We’ve seen good relievers succeed with high walk rates before, but that requires elite strikeout stuff to go with it. Brewer doesn’t have that. Maybe he can get up to a strikeout per inning or a bit more, but he’s never going to be Matt Barnes.

He doesn’t need to be, though. There is a role for Brewer if he can get back to what he was in 2019 with a little more refinement. There is value in a player who can get ground balls at a high rate while generally inducing weak contact. In an ideal world, Brewer is something like the sixth reliever in the bullpen and a guy who’s called upon with a runner on first with the starter laboring in the fifth or sixth inning. He’s someone who is a good bet to get a double play ball and end the inning without burning a late-inning arm. In 2020, he got a chance to be something more and he was wildly out of place. Hopefully in 2021 he’ll be used more properly and allowed to settle in as a mid-tier reliever.