Monday was the first day of full-team workouts at Royals camp in Surprise, and there were tons of tidbits and content on Twitter that were tough to ignore for hardcore Royals fans such as myself. Here’s a clip compilation of some highlights from the first day of workouts:
While plenty more clips from Royals camp should only whet the appetites of Royals fans anxiously awaiting this upcoming 2021 season, the Royals did announce this transaction earlier in the day, which came as a bit of a surprise considering it seemed like the Royals were done with making deals with the advent of camp:
Brach is not guaranteed to make the roster, as he is on a Minor League deal, and will face stiff competition for a spot in the bullpen, especially with fellow free agents Ervin Santana and Wade Davis also looking to make the active roster by the conclusion of Spring Training. However, the 34-year-old journeyman reliever could be an interesting option in the Royals bullpen, especially if he can make some tweaks to his pitch arsenal in his new surroundings in Kansas City.
Let’s take a look at what Brach offers the Royals, and why they may have preferred him over some other free agent relief options still available.
Recently released this winter by the New York Mets, Brach has had a journey of a MLB career, as he debuted with the Padres in 2011, but found real success with the Baltimore Orioles between 2014-2017, a time when the Orioles were legitimate rivals with the Royals for a short period of time (who could forget their ALCS sweep of the favored Orioles)?
From 2015-2017, Brach posted ERA numbers of 2.72, 2.05, and 3.18, respectively, while accumulating 3.8 WAR over 226.1 IP over the three-season sample. Furthermore, Brach actually made the All-Star game with the Orioles in 2016, and he also stepped in at closer in 2017, saving 18 games while filling in for Zach Britton that season, as evidenced below:
However, since 2018, Brach has struggled with command and consistency. After posting a career best BB/K ratio of 3.68 in 2016, he saw that ratio regress to 2.14 in 2018 (split between the Orioles and the Braves), 1.94 in 2019 (split between the Cubs and Mets), and 1.00 in 2020 (spent primarily with the Mets). Striking batters out has never really been a problem for Brach, as he has a career strikeout percentage of 25.7 percent. However, his walk rate has been trending in the wrong direction, and it’s a primary reason why his BB/K ratios have plummeted so dramatically the past three seasons.
Since 2018, Brach’s walk rate has gone from 9.7 in 2018 to 12.8 percent in 2019 to an astronomical 25.4 percent last season. Granted, Brach only made 14 appearances and pitched only 12.1 IP last year, as he struggled with COVID issues throughout the summer. Nonetheless, his walk rate last year was still astonishingly bad, and even his 12.8 percent walk rate in 2019 ranked in the bottom seven percent of the league, according to Baseball Savant.
Safe to say, Brach has not quite been the same pitcher he was back in Baltimore over the past couple of years. And thus, one has to wonder if Brach will solve his command and control issues in Kansas City, should he make the Opening Day active roster.
One of the most interesting aspects of Brach is repertoire is how he has tweaked his pitch arsenal and mix dramatically since 2017. After throwing a four-seam fastball, slider, sinker, and split finger from 2011 to 2016, Brach added a changeup in 2017, which he threw nearly 22.2 percent of the time that season, according to Baseball Savant. His split finger dropped dramatically, as he only threw it 0.1 percent of the time with the addition of the changeup. By 2018, Brach not only eliminated his split, but he also added a cutter the following season in 2019, which he threw 7.9 percent of the time that year.
In 2019, Brach still threw the fastball primarily (47.6 percent of the time), but in addition to the cutter, he also threw a slider (19.4 percent), changeup (18.9 percent), and sinker (6.2 percent). Here is how the run values on his pitch arsenal appeared in a split stint between the Cubs and Mets two seasons ago in which he made 58 appearances and threw 54.1 innings:
As one can see, the only positive pitch for him in 2019 was his cutter, which he threw less than eight percent of the time. His changeup, sinker, and four-seamer were all very mediocre pitches in 2019, and while his slider had neutral run value, it didn’t seem to be as effective as his cutter, especially on a run value per 100 pitches basis (-4.2 for his cutter in comparison to 0.1 for his slider).
Additionally, what is interesting to see is how dramatic his pitch percentage changed from 2019 to 2020, as evidenced in the chart below:
Notice the dramatic drop in four-seamer and slider usage and the massive spikes in cutter and sinker rates from 2019 to 2020. Furthermore, here is how pitches broke down in 2020 on a run value basis, as evidenced in the table below:
The cutter increased almost four-fold, going from an under eight percent usage in 2019 to nearly 32 percent usage in 2020, and his sinker usage nearly tripled, going from a 6.2 percent usage in 2019 to a 19.2 usage in 2020. On the flip side, his four-seamer dropped 30 percent, and his slider dropped 11.8 percent from 2019 to 2020 as well. This change in repertoire produced mixed results on a run value end. His cutter regressed by five runs in 2020, but his four-seamer and sinker improved by four and three runs, respectively.
Thus, Royals fans have to wonder: can Brach succeed as a reliever by throwing his sinker and cutter nearly 51 percent of the time again in 2021?
Or was his 2020 pitch mix an abnormality?
Two pitches that will be worth paying attention to from Brach this Spring will be his cutter and his changeup, which both saw a tremendous jump in usage from 2019 to 2020. If those two pitches indeed become his primary pitches from now on, he may need to make some adjustments if he indeed hopes to bounce back after a rough 2020 campaign with the Mets.
Let’s first take a look at his changeup, which showed an 8.3 percent improvement in whiff rate from 2019 to 2020.
Here is a look at his pitch heatmap from 2020:
Notice how one of the main red dots is nearly hitting the right-handed batter. Well, that’s because he didn’t throw the changeup much against right-handed batters, instead utilizing the pitch more frequently against left-handed batters. In fact, he boosted his usage of his changeup against left-handed hitters from 25.9 percent in 2019 to 32.1 percent in 2020, which made it his most utilized pitch against left-handed batters in 2020.
Here’s how the progression of his pitch arsenal against left-handed hitters has developed over Brach’s career.
Notice how ever since he introduced it in 2017, it’s been one of his go-to pitches against left-handed hitters, eventually surpassing his fastball last season. And he has found some effectiveness with it, as evidenced by this at-bat against Didi Gregorious where he was was able to make him swing and miss with the changeup.
Unfortunately, while he did increase the whiffs, he struggled with his control on the pitch, as he only posted a 1.7 percent called strike rate on the pitch and a 20.3 CSW rate overall, according to Pitcher’s List data. Furthermore, lefties found a lot of success against his changeup, as they posted a .443 xwOBA on the pitch last season. It will be interesting to see if Brach can neutralize his change against lefties in 2021 like he did against right-handed hitters in 2020, as they only posted a .128 xwOBA against the pitch a year ago.
As for Brach’s cutter, he saw a decrease in velocity on the pitch, as it went from 91 MPH in 2019 to 87.1 MPH in 2020. Furthermore, in addition to throwing it with less velocity, Brach also struggled to command the pitch, which is a big reason why he may have struggled to generate as many whiffs in 2020 (21.9 percent) as in 2019 (30.2 percent). Let’s take a look at his cutter heatmap from 2019:
Notice how he’s mostly hitting that lower glove side corner of the strike zone with regularity, as evidenced by the contour above. Combine that command with 90 MPH velocity, and it’s not surprising that Brach generated swings and misses like this one below against Javier Baez in 2019:
The cutter above is a nasty pitch, as it clocks in at 90 MPH and has some good late break which fools an aggressive hitter such as Baez. Now, let’s take a look at his cutter heatmap in 2020, and pay close attention to where he’s mostly hitting the pitch last year:
Notice how he isn’t really hitting the pitch in the strike zone at all. It’s one thing if Brach was throwing it with some gas, and the combination of velocity and movement was forcing batter to chase on a consistent basis. But considering he lost velocity on the pitch, it is not surprising that batters laid off of the pitch more, as evidenced from this at-bat from Marlins hitter Jonathan Villar, who laid off this 88 MPH cutter for a ball:
If Brach decides to make the cutter his primary pitch again this Spring, he will need to see velocity bump on the pitch, as well as on his fastball in Cactus League play. If his velocity continues to stagnate around 2020 levels or even worse, decline, in Spring Training, it may be highly unlikely that Brach will make the Royals bullpen by Opening Day.
The decision to sign Brach to a Minor League deal over other former Royals such as Kelvin Herrera and Edinson Volquez was a bit puzzling initially, especially considering Brach’s struggles with the Mets and velocity issues from a year ago. However, it seems like Brach is evolving as a pitcher, and it will be interesting to see if that evolution develops a little bit more this Spring in camp under the tutelage of the Royals pitching coaches. While Brach doesn’t have the nostalgia or fanfare as Herrera or Volquez, he is a big pitcher (he stands at 6’6) and he has had some recent success in 2019 with the Mets and 2018 with the Braves. The same can’t really be said of Herrera or Volquez, who both have struggled immensely the past couple of seasons.
Now, will Brach make the Royals’ Opening Day roster? That is to be determined, and a lot hinges on a return of velocity, as well as some gains in his changeup and cutter, which were two important pitches in his repertoire in 2020. Brach will certainly have some chips stacked against he him: he’s a late invite to camp, and he doesn’t have the fanfare of Wade Davis or Ervin Santana, who have both looked good in camp thus far, as evidenced from some early Royals Twitter videos:
However, Brach is an intriguing, sidearm pitcher who could give the Royals an interesting weapon out of the bullpen, should he be fully healthy and able to find some life again on his pitches like in 2019. His sidearm/three-quarters delivery makes him unique in comparison to anyone else on the Royals bullpen, and much like Davis, he certainly has a strong history of pitching with competitive teams, as he pitched not just with the Orioles, but with the Braves as well in 2018.
The Brach move may go unnoticed by Royals fans this Spring, but it’s a good high-risk, high-reward signing that could end up benefiting the Royals bullpen in many ways, even if if may result in a younger relievers like Jake Newberry or Tyler Zuber not making the active roster this Spring.
That being said, if this Royals team wants to move up the division in 2021, they will need a solid bullpen to lead them, much like they did from 2013-2015.
It will be fascinating to watch if Brach will be part of the process to help make the Royals bullpen “solid” next year…
Or if he will be pitching for another organization in April.
(Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)