Relief pitchers are unpredictable.
Every appearance, and indeed, even a full season of work, is a small sample size. Moreover, the role of the reliever in modern-day baseball is constantly changing. It can’t be easy to maintain consistent performance when your role is never the same, year to year – or even day to day.
This is precisely why top-flight closers get paid so well. Dependability in the face of so much chaos is a valuable quality.
However, only one team is going to get Josh Hader this winter. Only one team has a Devin Williams. Only one team has an Emmanuel Clase.
Yet every team needs at least eight relievers at any time. Nearly 700 pitchers threw at least one inning in relief last season. Excluding position players pitching, that’s more than 20 per team.
Thus, we have a bit of a problem. Teams need relievers – tons of them. But truly reliable relievers are few and far between. That means every team must make some gambles when constructing a bullpen.
And that brings us to Ryan Brasier.
Brasier, 36, made his MLB debut in 2013, pitching nine innings for the L.A. Angels. It would take five years before he made his way back to the majors with the Red Sox in 2018. He spent the years in between in the minors, and, briefly, Hiroshima, Japan.
From age 30 to 32, Brasier established himself as a solid relief option in Boston, with increased velocity, a swing-and-miss slider, and overall above-average strikeout stuff. He wasn’t a star, by any means, but every team could use a hard-throwing righty with a 3.70 ERA in the bullpen.
Unfortunately, injury ruined the rest of Brasier’s tenure with the Red Sox. He missed most of the 2021 season with a calf injury, a cracked skull, and a terrible concussion. And although he returned to make a career-high 68 appearances in 2022, it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t still reeling from his head injury. His underlying numbers were solid – a 3.61 FIP and a 3.97 xERA – but he struggled to keep runs off the board, finishing with a 5.78 ERA. His 2023 season started out with more of the same – he gave up 18 runs (17 earned) in 21 innings of work.
However, Brasier completely turned things around after landing with the Dodgers in June. The Red Sox lost faith in the righty, releasing him at the end of May. But it’s always a good sign for a struggling pitcher when the Dodgers are interested in his services.
Indeed, Los Angeles helped Brasier add a cutter to his repertoire, and over the next four months, he looked like a brand-new player. In 39 games, he allowed just six runs (three earned), holding opponents to a .136 batting average and giving up only one home run.
His cutter, a pitch he had never thrown before, was his most valuable offering. He only threw the pitch 13.6% of the time in 2023, but he used it to rack up +6 run value, per Baseball Savant.
Brasier used his cutter more often as the year went on, turning it into his primary weapon against opposite-handed hitters. The results speak for themselves; he held lefties to a .150 wOBA with the Dodgers. Before he added the cutter, lefties had a .446 wOBA against Brasier in 2023.
Overall, Brasier finished the 2023 season with a 3.02 ERA, 3.14 FIP, and 3.50 xERA in 59.2 IP. He ranked among the top 50 relief pitchers in baseball with 1.1 FanGraphs WAR. Among his fellow free agent relievers, only seven were more valuable (per FanGraphs) in 2023.
So, is Brasier the underrated gem of the free agent relief market? He certainly doesn’t have the high profile of Hader, Jordan Hicks, or even Robert Stephenson – nor will he command nearly as much money – but if he can repeat his performance with the Dodgers, he’d be a valuable back-end addition to nearly any bullpen around the game.
But, not so fast. If he can repeat his performance with the Dodgers is a
big huge cosmic if.
Brasier is already 36 years old. He’ll turn 37 next August. That’s not often an age at which pitchers get better. Moreover, he doesn’t exactly have a reputation for consistency throughout his long professional career.
His performance last season was truly excellent, and the underlying numbers back it up. His Savant sliders are red. The pitch modeling data (Stuff+ and PitchingBot) is impressive. He grades out well in every version of WAR. Most importantly, his new cutter is the real deal, and he picked up some fastball velocity with the Dodgers, too.
All that being said, fewer than 40 innings of work is not enough to prove he’s truly a new pitcher. It’s a promising start, but Brasier still has work to do.
What’s more, it remains to be seen if he can do that work without the Dodgers’ staff behind him. L.A. brought out the best in Brasier; can any other team do the same?
Ryan Brasier is one of the most fascinating question marks of the offseason. Perhaps he’ll make his new team very, very happy next year, providing high-end production at a mid-tier price tag. Then again, it’s just as likely his success in 2023 turns out to have been a mirage.
So, will he prove to be an underrated gem or a small sample fluke? His new team will have to take a gamble and find out.