10 February 2015

What Do the Orioles Have in Brad Brach?

Relievers are important. They're not as important or as valuable as quality starting pitchers, but it's beneficial to have an effective bullpen. A skilled bullpen shortens games, which is particularly important for teams that don't have starters who last into the later innings. Teams lucky and/or talented enough to get to the postseason -- and that also feature a few excellent relievers -- get to reap the rewards of a sparse playoff schedule, enabling those relievers to pitch more often than normal. Orioles fans were more than familiar with the late-game feeling of impending doom during the American League Championship Series against the Royals when Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland seemingly pitched every inning.

So it's nice to have a collection of good relievers. That's far from groundbreaking. But even though it's easier to find a decent reliever than starter, assembling a good bullpen (let alone a cheap one) isn't a simple task.

The O's are bringing back every important reliever from the beginning of last season. And yes, of course that does not include midseason acquisition Andrew Miller, who was one of the best relievers in baseball last season and signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the Yankees. But Zach Britton is back. So is Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Ryan Webb, and T.J. McFarland. The Orioles will look to Wesley Wright to hopefully fill at least one of Miller's shoes, while Rule 5 selections Jason Garcia and Logan Verrett could be in the mix for some relief work.

But there's a name missing from that list above, and since you presumably read the title of the post, you know it's Brad Brach. Brach turns 29 in April, and he's under team control through 2018. The O's acquired him after the 2013 season for the low price of minor league pitcher Devin Jones. The Padres had just designated Brach for assignment, and the O's were happy to bring him to Baltimore.

Despite not being called up from Norfolk until May, being optioned on May 6 and again on June 9, and not really carving out a regular role until mid-June, Brach threw the third-most innings in relief for the O's last season behind Britton and O'Day. Brach quickly gained the trust of Buck Showalter, leapfrogging at least Webb. Brach made both the ALDS and ALCS rosters. Webb didn't make either.

As Ryan Pollack of Camden Chat pointed out in September, Brach was trusted in more higher-leverage situations as the season went along. And Brach wasn't unbelievable like Miller, but he was good and kept getting results.

In his 62.1 innings last season, Brach had a few things working for him, First, he was fortunate on balls in play (.250) and, to a lesser extent, home runs (8.1% HR/FB vs. career 10.6%). Brach is a flyball pitcher -- career GB% of only 35.7 -- so a lower BABIP than normal makes sense (grounders or more likely to be hits than fly balls). And, obviously, he allows more fly balls, so keeping the percentage of home runs per fly ball down makes a real difference.

Brach did a much better job of getting opposing batters to expand the strike zone as well. In 2014, he had an O-Swing% of 34.2; his previous high in any season was 31.8%, and that came in 2011 when he threw just seven innings. Other than that, it was 28.1% in 2012.

Also, Brach had a change in fastball velocity. He saw a nearly 2 mph increase on his four-seamer.

Brach had never averaged above 93 mph on his four-seamer before 2014, and he averaged close to 95 mph last season.

He also introduced a new pitch to go along with his four-seamer, slider, and splitter: a sinker (at least according to Brooks Baseball). Before this season, Brach had thrown his four-seamer the most, about two-thirds of the time, followed by his slider and splitter. But he threw his sinker 15% of the time last season, which took a chunk out of his four-seam offerings.

But the sinker was not a panacea for Brach. It was actually his least effective pitch. Opposing batters posted a .231 ISO against his sinker. Left-handed batters, in particular, hit his sinker very, very hard (.417 ISO; obligatory small sample size warning). Brach's best pitch was actually his slider: He threw it 194 times and allowed five singles and one walk. The splitter and slider are probably his two best pitches. The splitter is his whiff pitch (followed by his slider), and they both produce more ground balls than his fastballs. Brach opts for more splitters than sliders against lefties, and against right-handed batters, he throws more sliders.

Career wise, Brach has fared better against right-handed batters:

vs. RH: .295 wOBA
vs. LH: .317 wOBA

That disparity was even more pronounced in 2014:

vs. RH: .250 wOBA
vs. LH: .334 wOBA

As you'd expect, Brach strikes out more right-handed batters and walks them less often. Lefties, meanwhile, hit the ball harder. Overall, perhaps he should consider throwing more sliders. Opposing batters haven't hit that pitch hard since 2012.

Brach has only thrown 167 major league innings, and so far he's outpitched his FIP/xFIP. His RA9 numbers are more forgiving, so it's not surprising that he has a career fWAR of -0.6 but a bWAR of 0.5. The uptick in velocity for Brach is encouraging, and the addition of the sinker is at least interesting, even if it doesn't appear yet to be an effective pitch. It's possible that he's been working with Britton and the pitching coaches to improve his sinker and it could be something he throws more often (I couldn't find a single story discussing Brach and his sinker). Perhaps a change-up would be more beneficial, as his four-seamer/sinker and splitter/slider are thrown at similar speeds. But relievers only need one or two effective pitches (definitely one if you can throw Britton's sinker), so it's not a requirement.

It's promising that Brach was tasked with higher-leverage innings last season and rose to the challenge. His peripherals don't reflect an elite or even very good reliever, but he can still be useful, especially if he's limiting his walks and keeping the ball in the ballpark. He'll also perform better if he doesn't have to face many left-handed hitters.

We've already discussed how 2015 is a big year for the Orioles. They have a bunch of impending free agents after the season, including three right-handed relievers: O'Day, Hunter, and Webb. All three may not depart, but it's possible. And if they do, Brach could stand to take on a bigger role, especially if he excels in 2015.

Photo via Keith Allison


Philip said...

Great article.
I'm a Brach fan, and I was happy to see him rise from the San Diego ashes to be successful in Baltimore.
When I finally got to see him pitch, I as amazed at how jerky his motion is; very angular. I'm surprised it's easily repeatable.
Do you have any thoughts on whether his delivery can be/should be altered?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

He has been inconsistent over the past few seasons maintaining the same release point. Whether that's by design or from pitching coach tweaks, I don't know.