Ryan Brasier led the Boston Red Sox in pitching appearances last season with 68. He also sported the highest ERA (5.78) of any reliever who spent the entire season with the big-league club.
When the 2022 season ended, it seemed like Brasier's tenure with Boston would be over. The team had the option to not tender him a contract, and most speculated that would be the case. However, the Red Sox decided to settle with him on a 1-year, $2 million contract for the 2023 season (avoiding arbitration in the process).
The Red Sox hope Ryan Brasier can return to vintage form in 2023
Even after a contract was extended to (and accepted by) Ryan Brasier, there was some speculation that he could be moved in a trade. However, as the off-season played out and more additions and subtractions were made to the Red Sox 40-man roster, it became clear that the team still saw something in Brasier that was worth believing in.
Taking one look at his stats doesn't reveal what that "something" might be. His WHIP (1.30), opponent's batting average (.280), barrel rate (8.6%), and ERA (5.78). These numbers show that, last season, the now 35-year-old Brasier was a mere shell of his 2018 self.
Brasier was truly dominant as a member of the 2018 World Series championship team (0.77 WHIP, .233 opponent's batting average, 3.4% barrel rate, 1.60 ERA). He also posted a 1.04 ERA across 9 postseason appearances that season.
But 2018 was 5 years ago, and Boston sports fans don't just settle for the sentimental value of a player's contributions to the success of a single season. The fanbase will always be thankful for what he did to bring another championship to the city, but Red Sox fans know that every roster spot is valuable, so why does the team value him so highly still?
The silver lining is hard to find, but it is there. The team has a fully revamped bullpen going into 2023, one that is focused on limiting traffic on the bases (especially walks). Brasier fits that description. Despite his struggles last season, he managed to allow fewer free passes than nearly 90% of MLB pitchers.
A logical counter to this argument of "control" is that he was too busy getting shelled to walk players. To a degree, that's true; however, it's an over-generalization. When he got hit hard, it was very hard. But he also was a victim of serious bad luck in 2022.
His expected opponent's batting average last season (.249) is much lower than his actual (.280); his expected ERA (3.97) was almost 2 full runs lower than his actual (5.78). He still missed bats (24.3% strikeout rate, which is well above the league average of 22.1%). And his pitch selection is also something to consider revising entering this season.
Brasier featured 4 pitches in 2022 (4-seam fastball, slider, sinker, and changeup). He threw his slider 42.9% of the time, and it was his most effective pitch by a wide margin (.170 BA). The vertical and horizontal break on this pitch were both well above league average, so the effectiveness he had when featuring this pitch was not all that surprising.
Ryan Brasier's fastball velocity also ranks in the 84th percentile in MLB, so the formula seems pretty simple: change eye-level and timing of the hitter with a 2-pitch mix, stay ahead in counts, and induce chases with the slider to put hitters away. Brasier also ranked in the 91st percentile in chase rate in 2022. So why were the results so bad?
Well, much of the blame can be placed on Brasier's shoulder. Anyone who watched the Red Sox consistently last season saw two very different versions of him. Some nights he would come in and make quick work of opposing hitters, with his stuff looking great and his control being nearly impeccable. Other times were very different; he wouldn't be wild out of the zone, but he would serve up center-cut fastballs that were straight as an arrow and were often deposited into the bleachers.
Another part of the problem was his workload last season. He logged 62.1 innings pitched in 2022, a career high. In 2019, the same issue cropped up. He threw 55.2 innings that season, with a 4.85 ERA. Other the other hand, we appeared in only 34 games (33.2 IP) in his spectacular 2018 campaign. In his 2 other seasons with the Red Sox (2020, 2021), he was not used nearly as often.
The issue with simply limiting Brasier's workload is lack of practicality. He has always been used as a 1-inning reliever and throwing only 30-40 innings per year would mean he can only contribute 1-2 times per week (on average). That just not enough.
But perhaps there is a middle ground that can be reached. If he can, instead of making 60+ appearances (like he did in 2019 and 2022), appear in 45-50 games, that might be a sweet spot. With the bullpen being in a much stronger position this year than it was in 2022, Ryan Brasier will not be relied upon nearly as much. It will be up to the Red Sox coaching staff to manage Brasier's workload, solidify a pitch-mix that is most effective against certain matchups, and maximize his value.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for keeping Ryan Brasier is his pattern of success in particular situations. In particular, he has always thrived in low and medium-leverage appearances. Opponents have only hit .219 and .243 against him in low and medium-leverage spots, respectively, in his career. When thrust into high-leverage, Brasier's success has been far more elusive (.325 opponent's batting average).
With key off-season additions like Kenley Jansen (closer) and Chris Martin (set-up man), as well as the return of other bullpen arms like John Schreiber and (probably) Tanner Houck, some of the pressure will be taken off Brasier and that might ultimately pay big dividends for the Red Sox in 2023.