25 April 2017

Is Brad Brach's Elevated Fastball Taking Him To New Heights?

If you’re a regular follower of the Orioles and hear the name Devin Jones, you’re likely to think of the player who was shipped to the Padres to acquire Brad Brach. Many minor baseball trades are made throughout the year that pass by and are never really pondered again. Unfortunately for Jones, the Brach-Jones swap is not one of them, and it’s enough to make you feel a little sorry for him. It’s not his fault that Brach has seemingly transformed into a dominant, late-inning relief force.

And that's sure what Brach appears to be right now. He isn’t an overnight success; he didn’t make his Orioles’ debut in 2014 and immediately wreak havoc. Instead, he’s shown improvement each year. That’s often what fans think of when a prospect or young-ish player develops: slow and linear growth. It often doesn't work out that way, but for Brach, it basically has (at least since coming to Baltimore).

He made his debut with the Padres in 2011 and pitched seven innings. Here are his innings pitched and FanGraph's WAR totals for the seasons since:

2012: 66.2 IP, -0.5 WAR
2013: 31.0 IP, -0.1 WAR
2014: 62.1 IP, 0.2 WAR (first year with Orioles)
2015: 79.1 IP, 0.9 WAR
2016: 79.0 IP, 1.6 WAR
2017: 10.0 IP, 0.5 WAR (so far)

Since joining the Orioles, Brach has been perfecting his repertoire and finding out what works. In 2014, he had an ERA of 3.18. Then it was 2.72 the year after, 2.05 in 2016, and right now it’s zero. It won’t stay at zero (shocking, I know), but Brach is off to a tremendous start to keep his streak of increased production going. His fielding independent stats back that up as well: Brach’s FIP was 3.90 in 2014, falling to 3.47, then 2.92, and now the current 1.52. Again, it won’t stay that low, but steadily increasing in strikeouts per nine innings (currently at 11.70) while cutting down on walks per nine from about 3.5-4 to around 3 is a great sign. 

Through the 2015 season, much of Brach’s improvement was due to his nasty changeup/splitter (let's just call it a changeup, since that's what Brooks Baseball does). Brach essentially throws three pitches: a four-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. After throwing the changeup over a quarter of the time in 2015, though, he surprisingly decided to throw less of them. In its place, he now throws more four-seamers and sliders (and even fewer sinkers, which is now a rare offering for him).

Pitch usage data via Brooks Baseball
It’s unknown exactly why Brach stopped leaning as much on the changeup. There’s a strong case that Brach should have been throwing his splitter even more; Jeff Sullivan made that exact observation last May over at FanGraphs. Yet, Brach started doing the opposite!

Why did he do that? Well, the growth of swing-and-miss results on his four-seamer and slider is easy to see. The changeup is still arguably his best pitch when he needs a whiff, but his other two offerings are not that far behind and he's been comfortable throwing them more:

Whiffs per swing data via Brooks Baseball
Brach is currently generating whiffs on nearly 40% of swings with all three of his pitches. It's early in the season, of course, but that's still absurd. Looking closer, note the consistent increase with Brach's fastball. He's been getting more swings and misses with that pitch every season since he came to Baltimore.

So how's he doing it? Before this season, you could chalk a chunk of it up to a velocity increase. Brach's velocity jumped a few miles per hour after joining the Orioles, which he credits to a mechanical adjustment on the rubber that was suggested by former coaches Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti. Brach's average fastball velocity last season was nearly 96 mph; in 2013, he was throwing 93 mph. Even still, Brach's velocity is down this year compared to where it was last April, and yet the results are still there (and better).

At least two things have helped him to achieve this success with his fastball. First, he has been able to get more vertical movement on the pitch. And second, he's been throwing it higher in the zone:

Vertical pitch location data via Brooks Baseball
Just look at the heatmap for Brach's four-seamer in 2015, 2016, and 2017. They make it even easier to notice what's happening. Brach isn't messing around, and he's looking to throw his fastball on the inner third and up if he can.

Perhaps it's just an early trend, at least to this degree. Or maybe, like Darren O'Day, the Tampa Bay Rays, and many others, he's learning the power of the high fastball and its ability to combat the growing number of upper-cut swings.

Let's get to some GIFs. Here's Brach in the season's opening series throwing a high fastball by Josh Donaldson:

Here's one from April 7, when Brach fanned the side against the Yankees. The first was a called strike on a fastball, and then next two were swings and misses by Aaron Judge and Pete Kozma:

A few games later in Toronto, Brach climbed the ladder and struck out Troy Tulowitzi on an elevated four-seamer:

Brach's BABIP isn't going to stay at .063. He's not going to keep stranding 100% of baserunners. But this version of him is even scarier than the one throwing filthy changeups all over the place (and he still has that pitch in his back pocket if he needs it; he just isn't needing it as much).

Remember when the Mets reportedly wanted Brach in exchange for Curtis Granderson? It's easy to see why they wanted Brach, and it looks even better now that the Orioles didn't pull the trigger.


Unknown said...

I know Duquette is not comfortable with rebuilding aspects of the GM job, but one has to wonder whether Brach's continue emergence as an elite reliever might make it feasible to trade either Brach or Britton while remaining competitive. The bullpen has so many good pieces that they could be somewhat expendable. There have been a number of close games while Britton has been out and they haven't missed a beat. Obviously unless the team tanks away this early start by the trade deadline you aren't going to make a trade just to make a trade. But given that these guys have a year and a half left rather than just half a year, Britton in particular could be worth more in the next few months than Miller and Chapman were last year. There's been a lot of discussion of trading Britton on this blog over the past year or two. Brach emerging might make it more feasible. For a guy of Britton's quality I can't help wondering if the Nats might not be convinced to part with Robles. He's a little better than the centerpiece guys in last summer's closer deals, but with the extra year of control you could certainly push for it.

Chicago Curmudgeon said...

Britton is getting quite expensive. It may be that Brach is waiting in the wings for Britton to leave in free agency. It is hard to imagine the team keeping both Britton and Machado--not that keeping Machado is certain (or even likely). If Machado stays, the finances will not work. If Machado leaves, Britton does not fill that hole. I don't see scenarios where Britton stays long making him a reasonable trade prospect if the Orioles face long odds at the All-Star break.

Unknown said...

Brach and Britton are both free agents after 2018. Brach can't wait out Britton's exit in this organization.

Roger said...

All of this appears moot at Yankee Stadium.