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2023 In Review: Brayan Bello Proved Himself

At just 24, Brayan Bello was a consistent anchor in the Red Sox rotation and one of the best groundball artists in the game. The Red Sox hope that’s just the beginning.

Detroit Tigers v Boston Red Sox Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

2023 In One Sentence

In his first full season in the Red Sox rotation, Brayan Bello more than held his own, producing a slightly above average campaign (depending on your metric of choice) powered by a stellar changeup, an elite groundball rate, and an ace-like run in May and June.

The Positives

When the Red Sox finished off a 4-2 victory over the eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers on July 5 of this past season, it marked the high-water mark of Brayan Bello’s 2023 campaign. He spun seven solid innings to earn the victory, capping off a run of five straight games in which he pitched into the seventh inning while allowing two earned runs or fewer. With an ERA at 3.04, a FIP of 3.74 and his last bad start two months in the past, Bello was suddenly the ace of Boston’s pitching staff.

While the long and grueling season eventually took its toll and Bello’s production wavered some, he still managed to produce a relatively solid year overall, netting a 4.24 ERA and 4.54 FIP while pitching more innings than any Red Sox hurler. His ERA- of 93 equates to a campaign that was seven percent better than league average, although his FIP- went the opposite way (105, five percent worse than average), but despite those discrepancies, there was a lot to like about Bello’s 2023 season, such as his slashing of his double-digit walk rate from 2022 down to a solid 6.7 percent.

Fewer walks were certainly a major ingredient in Bello’s success, but the true standout skills he displayed in 2023 were his ability to induce groundballs and make his changeup and sinker dart and dance. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings, Bello ranked third in groundball rate (56.2 percent) in no small part because of the effectiveness of his sinker, which ranked 14th among pitchers with at least 150 innings last season in runs above average, according to Statcast by way of Fangraphs. But Bello’s sinker wasn’t his most effective weapon. That honor belonged to his changeup. Only San Francisco’s Logan Webb, Arizona’s Merrill Kelly and San Diego’s Blake Snell (who won the NL Cy Young Award) had more valuable changeups based on runs above average, and although Bello threw his sinker more than any other offering, his changeup was his second-most utilized pitch, carrying his more mundane secondary stuff in earning him a spot in the 95th percentile in MLB in offspeed run value, according to Baseball Savant.

The groundballs and changeups were the above-the-fold highlights for Bello, but there were some other promising developments that will need to prove out over larger samples. For example, Bello was really great in big spots, especially for such a young pitcher, posting a 2.83 FIP and 2.67 xFIP in high leverage situations, albeit across all of 9.1 such innings. It’s impossible to make any definitive statement about such a meager amount of data, but it bears monitoring going forward.

The Negatives

Given that Bello’s overall body of work hovered around average for the year based on park-adjusted metrics, there were obviously some negatives counteracting all the positives on his resume.

For starters, Bello was not much of a strikeout artist. Now, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in an era where strikeouts are more coveted than anything for a pitcher, his 19.8 percent mark was less than ideal, especially given Boston’s lackluster defensive work. The low strikeout rate, which was marred by a low whiff rate and mediocre chase rate, might not look as jarring if Bello had never shown a talent for striking batters out, but he punched out more than 30 percent of those he faced across three levels in the minors in 2021 and 2022, so it’s not entirely outside of his skill set. Granted, striking out batters in Single-A, Double-A and even Triple-A is not the same as doing so at the MLB level, especially right away, but the Red Sox would certainly like a few more Ks from Bello in the future.

Getting more swings and misses would be useful because as much as Bello got the ball on the ground a ton, when he didn’t, opposing batters tended to tee off. Despite a roughly league average barrel rate, Bello’ s hard hit rate ranked in the 13th percentile in MLB, according to Baseball Savant, and too often, those hard hit balls ended up over the fence, with Bello’s home run to flyball ratio sitting at a staggering 17.1 percent, the fifth-highest mark among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched in 2023.

In terms of pitch mix, Bello’s arsenal lost quite a bit of pop after his sinker and changeup, with his four-seam fastball, slider and rarely used cutter all grading out as below average offerings.

Best Game Or Moment

If you can master the New York Yankees as a Red Sox pitcher, it almost doesn’t matter what you do the rest of the season. Bello faced the Yankees three times in 2023 and befuddled them in each instance, but the crown jewel performance came on June 18 when he struck out eight batters over seven one-run innings to lead the Red Sox to a 4-1 victory.

The Big Question/2024 and Beyond

Can Bello take another step forward? He was an average starter with lots of upside and a dominant two-month stretch during his first full season in 2023. With Boston’s lack of success developing impact starting pitchers in recent history, that’s an unmitigated success. What Bello has to do now is take it to the next level. Strike out more batters. Limit home runs a bit more. Round out a more effective pitch mix. Successfully achieving and sustaining those developments will dictate whether Bello is someone who can anchor a rotation or someone who can just eat innings every fifth day. Of course, at just 24 years old (he’ll turn 25 during the 2024 season), Bello has plenty of time to evolve as a pitcher, so those improvements may manifest over more than just this offseason. For 2024, just improving in some areas of weakness and repeating what he did well in 2023 might be enough.

Looking more long term, Bello is still two years away from arbitration, so there is not a huge rush for the Red Sox to extend him. However, if the Red Sox believe in his potential like it seems they do given his quick ascent to the MLB level, an extension could be a possibility within the next year. Rumors to that end already started swirling over the summer, but with Craig Breslow only just taking over as chief baseball officer, the path to such a deal is a bit murkier, at least until we see how Breslow operates. Even without an extension, Bello did more than enough last season to earn himself a permanent spot in the Red Sox rotation for quite a while. If his performance last season is just the start, that’s very good news.