There are early signs that the Red Sox have this year’s version of Ryan Brasier. The question now confronting the team is whether they still have last year’s.
Five weeks into the season, Marcus Walden (1.65 ERA, .140 opponent average, .450 opponent OPS) and Brandon Workman (1.84 ERA, .047 opponent average, .301 opponent OPS) have been revelations. Alongside late-innings funambulist Matt Barnes (2.08 ERA, .149 opponent average, .514 OPS), who ranks third among big league relievers with a whopping 18.0 strikeouts per nine innings, they have given the Red Sox a deeper-than-expected ensemble of often dominant performances.
But what of Brasier himself? The walkoff three-run homer he allowed to Nicky Delmonico in the Red Sox’ 6-4 loss to the White Sox Thursday — set in motion in part by a Rafael Devers error in the ninth — offered a reminder that this season hasn’t quite been the same as his magic carpet ride of a year ago.
Already, he’s given up one more homer (3) in 14 innings this year than he did in 33⅔ innings in 2018. He’s blown a pair of saves — the same number of leads he sacrificed in all of 2018.
It’s important not to exaggerate those differences. Brasier generally has remained effective, as evidenced by his 2.57 ERA, and he’s striking out batters at essentially the same rate (23.2 percent this year, 23.4 percent in 2018). He’s cut his already-low walk rate from 5.7 to 3.6 percent.
For the 31-year-old Brasier, the issue is less how often opponents are making contact and more related to what’s happening when they are connecting.
A year ago, opponents hit the same number of grounders and fly balls against him, and had a hard time pulling the ball with authority against him, with a greater amount of contact going to the opposite field (35.2 percent) than the pull side (28.4 percent). In other words, he did a spectacular job of commanding his three-pitch mix in the strike zone to get weak contact.
To this point of 2019, that’s changed. He’s allowing 1.7 fly balls per ground ball and opponents are pulling the ball against him (44.7 percent) while rarely shooting pitches to the opposite field (13.2 percent).
Though opponents are hitting the ball just about as hard against him as they did last year (88.0 miles per hour average exit velocity, barely up from 87.7), they’re more frequently hitting it in the air with a trajectory that results in damage rather than weak outs.
Earlier this year, manager Alex Cora identified what he viewed as the most important indicator of a pitcher’s effectiveness: the ability to get bad contact in the strike zone. Brasier did an outstanding job of that last year, with opponents hitting .219 with a .301 slugging mark against him when he worked in the zone, largely because of his ability to locate pitches to the edges.
This year, however, opponents are hitting .263 with a .447 slugging mark when he works in the strike zone. That slugging mark represents the third-worst by any of the Red Sox’ primary eight relievers, ahead of only Tyler Thornburg (.657) and Heath Hembree (.650).
The quality of his stuff hasn’t necessarily diminished. He’s still getting an impressive rate of swings and misses (14.7 percent) on pitches in the strike zone, suggesting that his fastball/slider/splitter combination can miss bats.
The problem is that he hasn’t commanded that arsenal as well as he did in 2018. As @redsoxstats points out, Brasier’s struggles in the strike zone are not a total shock given that a much higher percentage of his pitches have been center-cut — where the most damage occurs.
To date, Brasier hasn’t pitched with the same combination of power and precision that characterized him in 2018. But, of course, it’s also extremely early in the season, and a single bad pitch (such as the hanging slider to Delmonico) can distort the overall view of his work.
Nonetheless, it’s a development worth watching.
Workman and Walden — again, small-sample disclaimers are in order — have been dominant when working in the zone and effective in expanding it. For now, there seems little need to rush to reconfigure a bullpen organized around Barnes and Brasier as the two highest-leverage relievers.
But if Brasier continues to miss his spots in the strike zone with a Red Sox team that has little margin for error while trying to escape its early-season hole, then there may come a point where they have to reconsider their bullpen hierarchy, a reminder of the year-to-year volatility of late-innings pitchers.