Welcome back to our 2022 Boston Red Sox in Review series. We’re changing things up a bit this year. For this series, we will only be including players on the active roster, per FanGraphs’ RosterResource page, who had at least 50 plate appearances or 20 innings pitched at the MLB level in 2022. That means no pending free agents or players on the 40-man but not on the MLB roster, with a couple exceptions. These will be rolling out over the next few months, so stay tuned. Today, we will take a look at Brayan Bello’s 2022 campaign.
2022 in One Sentence
Despite early struggles and far too many walks, Brayan Bello flashed incredible potential in his first taste of MLB action, likely earning him a full-time rotation spot in 2023.
Brayan Bello has logged a grand total of 57 1⁄3 innings at the MLB level and the expectations for his future are already pretty high. That’s what will happen when a heralded prospect shows quite a bit of promise in their debut campaign.
While Bello was not the type of prospect the baseball world at large considered a sure bet to become a legitimate ace entering last season, his strong showings over the last few years in the minors made him the most exciting pitcher in the Red Sox system. As the Red Sox dealt with all sorts of health issues with their rotation in 2022, it only made sense to give Bello a shot to show what he could do, and for the most part, he held his own. Sure, things started pretty slowly, with an 10.50 ERA in his first three starts pushing him into the bullpen briefly before a demotion and an injury cost him time in July and August; however, he eventually found his groove in the final month or so of the campaign. In fact, after returning from a left groin strain on Aug. 24, Bello was the Red Sox’s best pitcher, leading all hurlers on the squad in fWAR for the balance of the season.
Bello’s success in the stretch run cemented what was ultimately a strong audition for the 2023 starting rotation. But when you look at his entire body of work from 2022 at the MLB level, there is plenty to like even when factoring in his less auspicious start. To begin with, Bello clearly has excellent stuff. Of course, we all knew that. FanGraphs grades his fastball, slider and changeup as above average or better pitches, and while not all of them played up to the bill this past season, his changeup certainly did. With a run value of -7 and and opponent wOBA .228 against it, Bello wielded his change like the electric weapon it is, tallying a 31.3 percent strikeout rate with the offering. Helping his changeup look that much more devastating to opposing hitters, Bello threw absolute gas when he let his heaters fly, ranking in the 89th percentile in fastball velocity, according to Baseball Savant, with an average speed of 97 miles per hour.
Surprisingly, for someone so fresh to the big leagues, Bello did not fall prey to too many sluggers, ultimately doing a relatively effective job of avoiding long balls. He actually only gave up a single dinger all last season with Boston, although Baseball Savant estimates that he should have given up 3.4. Still, even with that knowledge in mind, his marks in expected slugging and expected ISO were both strong compared with the rest of the league. Those marks were buoyed by Bello’s solid work at eluding the barrel of the bat, although his overall batted ball metrics were mediocre.
Despite these positives, Bello’s ERA for the season still wound up in the high fours, but the underlying statistics tell a different story, with with expected ERA and expected FIP both landing at 3.80, and a FIP of 2.94. Something tells me his .404 batting average on balls in play won’t be sustained next season, allowing his run prevention numbers to look better across the board.
Bello is still just 23-years-old and as with most young pitchers, there are some things he’ll need to iron out to be a consistently effective starter or, for those with more optimistic projections, a legitimate ace.
The most glaring weakness in Bello’s game is one that haunted him in the high minors as well: his tendency to miss the plate and give up walks. Last year, the league average walk rate in MLB was 8.2 percent. Bello surpassed that mark in 2021 when he was promoted to Double-A then again in 2022 during stints in Double-A and Triple-A, when it ballooned from being a few beats above that MLB average to being a disastrous 10 percent. When Bello came up to the majors, he brought that erratic performance with him, walking 10.1 percent of the batters he faced in 2022.
In the minors, Bello was able to alleviate all the walks allowed by striking out anyone and everyone. He had a better than 30 percent combined strikeout rate in the minors across 2021 and 2022 before getting the call to Boston, but once he stepped on the mound at Fenway Park, that number dwindled to just 20.5 percent, far below league average of 22.4 percent. Even as he started to get in a rhythm after coming back from injury at the end of August, he still only struck out 22.1 percent of batters.
There is reason to believe those strikeouts will start rising, however, especially if Bello can improve his fastball and slider to get them to live up their potential. Bello actually throws a sinker and a four-seamer, relying more on the sink, which he threw more than any other pitch last season. Both offerings touch the upper 90s, but they were lacking in terms of spin rate and while his sinker had decent movement, his fastball shape was relatively flat. In the minors, Bello could overpower batters with his velocity, but now he’ll need to make his fastballs do more than just breathe fire.
Best Game or Moment
Over his final six starts of the season. Bello allowed one earned run or fewer while pitching at least five innings four times, including a couple of six-inning jobs against the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees. While the Yankees one was great because he went into the belly of the beast and allowed just one earned run (two total) over six frames, the Red Sox lost the game 2-0. But even if the Sox had won that contest, Bello’s outing against Texas was still his best of the season. He shut out the Rangers over those six innings and struck out five batters while scattering three hits and, most encouragingly, allowing just one walk. If you want to watch a budding ace starting to find himself, check out that game.
The Big Question
Can Brayan Bello consistently command his pitches?
We’re pretty much in the same spot as we were before this season with this question, which I expect will be the main knock on him going into 2023. Bello still has great stuff, but his first run against MLB batters did not illustrate a sudden improvement in the consistency of his command.
2023 and Beyond
Things could certainly change depending on how much the Red Sox invest on free agents for the rotation this offseason, but Bello will likely be a lock for a rotation spot next season. His strong surge to end 2022 and his potential make him too important to try to force into a bullpen role or demote back to the minors. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has Chaim Bloom in his corner either.
While we have some certainty about Bello’s role next season, we also have certainty about what he needs to work on to really take advantage of the opportunity. Being a touted prospect will only get him so far, so Bello will need to improve his fastball and cut down on the walks to build off of 2022 and set himself up to be a core rotation member in 2023 and further down the road.