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One Big Question: Can Austin Brice keep his strikeout gains from 2020?

And would it even be a good thing?

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/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 Austin Brice.

The Question: Can, and should, Austin Brice keep his strikeout gains from 2020?

We’re cheating a bit with this one as there’s really two questions to be answered here, but I think they are of equal importance and I don’t believe you can accurately answer one without the other. Brice is something of a forgotten man in this bullpen after a mostly lackluster 2020. But if you rewind to last offseason, a winter that was marked by countless fringe acquisitions, Brice was the one who seemed to have the most optimism around him. Obviously this is all relatively speaking, but there was some reason to think he’d be the diamond in the rough discovered by Bloom in his first offseason with the club. I myself was included among those thinking that could be the case.

Alas, it didn’t exactly turn out that way. Brice ended up fitting right in with the rest of the Red Sox pitching staff, which was not something you really wanted to be the case when talking about the 2020 Red Sox. By the end of the year, Brice hadn’t really separated himself in the bullpen and finished with an ugly 5.95 ERA over 21 appearances and 19 13 innings pitched.

There is one positive that sticks out like a sore thumb in looking at these numbers, though, and that would be his strikeout rate. Now, the 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings is certainly a big number, but that may be a little overstated. This is a good example of why it’s better to use just straight strikeout rate rather than per nine innings, because Brice was bad enough at everything else — i.e. walks and hard contact — that he faced more batters, giving him more opportunities for strikeouts in a single inning. So he wasn’t borderline elite with his strikeouts like the K/9 might suggest, but even just looking at the rate of near 29 percent, he was still missing a lot more bats than usual. His previous career high was in 2019, and that season’s rate was about six percentage points lower.

And that brings us to the two-part question. One, can he keep up the strikeout rate? In today’s game, it’s awfully hard to be a good reliever without a strong strikeout rate. But then, on the other hand, he was still pretty bad in 2020 for reasons we’ll get into. Was the heightened stuff part of the reason?

We’ll start with the simpler question of whether or not he can. And this one comes pretty much entirely down on his fastball, which was frankly dominant from a whiff rate perspective last summer. Brice missed bats on exactly half of swings against his fastball, which was the highest rate of any pitcher in baseball. He did also see a slight uptick in whiff rate with his curveball for what it’s worth, but the fastball jumping from 33 percent to 50 percent is clearly the focus here.

And when we’re talking about the fastball for Brice in 2020, it really comes down to location and movement. To the latter point, he’s always had a bit of cut on the four-seam fastball, but according to Baseball Savant he added a significant amount of horizontal movement on the pitch. And then in terms of location, he was simply much better than he had been in 2019 at peppering the upper portion of the zone.

2020 via Baseball Savant
2019; via Baseball Savant

So, yes, Brice theoretically can keep his strikeout rate up as long as he continues to throw a fastball with a bunch of cut that he is able to keep at the edges of the zone. But the second is just as important, because as I said despite all of this he still did not have a very good season. Along with the strikeout rate, Brice started to walk significantly more batters, with his walk rate jumping from nine percent in 2019 to a whopping 15 percent in 2020. There are some sample size issues here — and those apply to the strikeout rate too, to be fair — but the jump is still jarring. And he also got hit extremely hard, with his 44 percent hard-hit rate being in the bottom 13 percent of the league.

And part of this can certainly come down to the same changes that led to his spike in strikeout rates. Working up in the zone with the fastball is great, particularly when you lean as heavily on the curveball as Brice does. His curveball has actually been his most used pitch in each of the last two seasons. However, working up with the fastball has its risks, too, most notably relating to hard contact. I mentioned the league-leading whiff rate, but he was also in the bottom fifth of the league in hard contact against the fastball and allowed an average exit velocity of 96 mph.

I have my issues with some this data when you drill this far in, but it makes sense here. When you work up in the zone, you are asking for trouble if you miss your spot. Most of the time you miss your spot with a high fastball, it’s going to be out over the middle of the plate. Brice’s fastball sits around 93-94 mph. That can get demolished every single time, and it caught up to him in 2020. Of course, this again comes with some sample size issues, largely because as you see above he missed over the plate a lot in 2019 as well, and to less of a detriment overall.

So, that brings us back to the original questions. Can he keep the strikeout gains? Maybe not to the full extent as he did in 2020 — I’m not personally expecting Brice to have the hardest fastball to make contact against in baseball for a second consecutive season — but I think he can be an above-average strikeout pitcher. We saw the downsides in 2020, though. At the end of the day I think you have to try to run in back with this strategy again in the coming season and hope a lot of the issues last season were due to small sample sizes. But if he starts to get crushed between whiffs again early in 2021, it could be worth looking for a new approach, even if it means fewer missed bats.