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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Ryan Brasier
The Question: Can Ryan Brasier keep his fastball up at the top of the zone?
We’ve talked plenty during this lockout about the fact that the Red Sox absolutely need to address their bullpen when transactions pick back up, because they are very shallow in the late innings. If we consider Garrett Whitlock more a part of the rotation depth picture than the bullpen, then it’s really just Matt Barnes carrying over from the late innings, and that’s not a comforting thought. That said, I will admit whenever I think about this group, I have a tendency to forget about Ryan Brasier. To be clear, I’m not really sold that he’s actually part of this group, but it’s hard to deny that he always manages to squeeze his way into the late-inning picture.
The Brasier story was one of the better storylines from that magical 2018 season. If you’ll recall, that roster had its own bullpen issues that were largely masked by the rest of the roster, but Brasier came out of nowhere in the second half to ultimately become one of four relievers who was trusted to touch the baseball in the playoffs that season. Unfortunately, he came back in 2019 with a disappointing season, one that even saw him get demoted to Triple-A for a stretch in the second half. The 2020 shortened season was an improvement from 2019, but still a step back from that 2018 run.
That brought us to last season, when heading into camp the assumption was that Brasier would be among the late-inning relievers pitching in front of Barnes in the ninth. Instead, it was just a nightmare of a late winter/spring for Brasier. Injuries and personal issues piled up, and he ended up missing almost the entire season. He was finally able to come back for the end of the regular season and the postseason, and it was a strange dichotomy against the two. We’re dealing with small sample sizes here, but he got great results with rough peripherals in the regular season before flipping that around in the playoffs. Still, he had pitched himself into some important situations in October.
All of that makes him a bit of a confusing piece of the puzzle this season. I have questions about both his true talent level at this point in his career as he enters his age-34 season, as well as how the team views him. Alex Cora, from the outside anyway, has always seemed to like the veteran righty. So whether or not he’s fully in the late-inning picture to start the season, I suspect he’ll be there at some point, and they’re going to need the version of Brasier that has all of his pitches working.
A traditional reliever for today’s era, Brasier comes equipped with a big fastball and a nasty, sweeping slider. The latter is a pitch we’re not going to focus on a ton for this, but it’s his best offering. This is his out pitch, one that has great, consistent movement and for which he always has a feel, pounding the lower glove-side corner. But as we know from other pitchers, like Barnes for example, a great breaking ball can only take you so far if you don’t have the fastball command going as consistently. With only two pitches, you don’t have much room to hide.
It’s pretty self-explanatory as to why it’s important to keep the fastball up for a pitcher like Brasier who throws that along with a breaking ball that is kept down in the zone. Pitching is all about keeping a hitter off-balance and that happens both in terms of speed and eye level. Brasier’s fastball has the speed component, sitting in the 94-96 range on a consistent basis. When he’s able to keep the pitch in the upper edge line of the zone, hitters are not having to cover the entire strike zone. But when he’s starting to see that command waiver and the heat settling more into the middle of the zone, that’s when you start to see damage.
It’s clear that Brasier is at his best when he’s commanding his fastball like this, and you really needn’t look any further than 2018 compared to some of the other seasons we’ve seen since then. Below you’ll see where he threw his fastball in his great 2018, his disappointing 2019, and then last season, with the darker red indicating he hit that zone more often.
You see that when he was at his best, in 2018, that fastball was staying consistently up in the upper third of the zone. That helped make his slider all the more devastating, and it also just made the fastball one of the more effective heaters on the roster. Even that pitch in isolation put up impressive numbers. On the other hand, in 2019 he was living in the middle of the zone, and even while his slider in isolation produced impressive statistics, the fastball was crushed and that just brought down his whole performance. Last season, meanwhile, was more bad than good which is reflected in the peripherals, but it was also a bit all over the place. Of course, the smaller sample size does play into the wackiness of that plot as well.
Brasier is a power pitcher entering his age-34 season, so expecting dominance is probably not the wisest decision one could make. That being said, this Red Sox bullpen is going to need some internal options to step up, and over the last few years Brasier has made a habit of inserting himself into that conversation. There’s every reason to be confident the slider will be there, but whether or not he can really ascend to that level is going to come down to whether or not he can consistently keep that fastball in the upper portion of the strike zone.
Thanks to FanGraphs and Baseball Savant for statistics in this post.