It’s time to turn to my favorite statistical analysis tool for baseball: StatCast. Just look at these numbers:
Barrel Rate: 0.8% (Top 1% of league)
Expected Batting Average: .174 (Top 2% of league)
Expected Slugging Percentage: .237 (Top 1% of league)
Actual wOBA: .209 (Top 1% of league)
Expected wOBA: .256 (Top 5% of league)
Expected wOBA on contact: .311 (Top 5% of league)
Hard Hit Percentage: 28.9% (Top 6% of league)
Strikeout Rate: 35.5% (Top 4% of league)
(Note that all numbers are as of 9/16/2019)
The only bad number that StatCast spits out? His walk rate, 15.5%, which ranks in the bottom 1% of the league. Workman is simply not allowing much hard contact and he’s striking guys out, both things you really want a pitcher to do.
According to FanGraphs, the fielding-independent pitching metrics suggest that even with that high walk rate and miniscule HR allowed rate, his FIP is 2.52 and his expected FIP - which uses an average HR/9 rate - is 3.44. Obviously, those are all acceptable numbers for a closer. Overall, FanGraphs rates Workman as earning 1.9 WAR. Not bad for a guy that the ZiPs projection system saw as a barely above replacement-level middle reliever.
But Wait, It Gets Better for Brandon Workman!
By Baseball-Reference’s WAR, which instead uses Runs Allowed per 9 innings, and not the FIP metric, Workman has been worth 2.8 WAR to the Red Sox in 2019. When you realize that Workman has been worth 2.9 WAR in his entire career including 2019, you realize what an incredible breakout this has been.
So, what’s changed about Workman? Here’s a guy who had a decent rookie season back for the eventual 2013 World Champion Red Sox as a relief pitcher. Then, he had a brutal 2014 season as a starter, after which he missed all of 2015 and 2016 (except for a few brutal rehab appearances in the minors in ‘16) with arm injuries. But, Workman bounced back nicely in 2017, pitching excellently for Pawtucket and pitching pretty well between AAA and MLB in both 2017 and 2018.
In 2013 and 2014, Workman had a sinking fastball and a change-up in addition to his four-seam fastball, cutter, and curveball. After arm troubles, when he returned to full health in 2017, those sinker and change-up were taken out of his repertoire. But he has the same three pitches in 2019 that he did in 2017 and 2018. So, what’s the difference?
One obvious thing that’s different is the average fastball velocity. Workman’s four-seam fastball has averaged 92.8 MPH this year. That’s up a lot from 2018 when it was 91.2, and even higher than 2017 when it was 92.2. The added velocity is definitely a big part of it, but what’s more incredible is the spin rate.
The spin rate on Workman’s fastball is 2121 rpm, up from 2003 and 1982 the previous two years. Those increases in velocity and spin rate have led to a whiff rate of 35.9 percent, a huge jump from 18.3% in 2018 and 17.0% in 2017. That nearly doubled whiff rate has made Workman’s fastball practically unhittable, with a measly .129 batting average and .145 slugging percentage against. StatCast agrees with those numbers with .135 and .174 expected marks.
Brandon Workman Loves to Throw You a Curveball, A Lot
Interestingly, Workman only throws the four-seamer 33.1% of the time, down from 38.9% in 2018 and 51.2% in 2017. What’s replaced many of those fastballs, and a few of his cutters, is his curveball. It’s pretty much the same pitch as 2018’s curveball, although with more spin than 2017. Despite a lower whiff rate of 28.9%, batters have only hit .133 against it. While StatCast sees that as unsustainable, it still expects a batting average of merely .193. You can’t go wrong with that curve.
The most interesting part of this StatCast pitch arsenal data has to do with his cutter. Despite only throwing it 19.8% of the time, it clearly has been the culprit of many of Workman’s issued walks in 2019. His cutter has a whopping 20.4% walk rate. And if that sounds high, it should, as his cutter has never had higher than a 10% walk rate since StatCast began tracking pitches in that way. But, there are a couple of upsides to the cutter. It has a whopping whiff rate of 43.6%, and despite only having a K% of 26.5, has been an effective third pitch overall. Batters have only hit .083 against it, although StatCast expects a .178 batting average. Still, that’s pretty good - even with all the walks it’s ended up creating.
What this data tells us is that Workman has thrown the curve more than ever in 2019, and it’s helped both his fastball and cutter play up. While it’s clear that we may not be able to expect him to replicate this success going forward, it is clear that Workman has found a really nice pitch mix that works for him.
How Will Brandon Workman Do in 2020?
Workman was eligible for arbitration in 2019, and settled for a $1.15 million contract. That’s turned out to be a massive bargain for the Red Sox. Going into his final year of arbitration, Workman should easily expect a substantial pay raise. Through 9/16/19, Workman has a 9-1 win loss record with 14 saves and 15 holds. He does have 6 blown saves, though, but not all of those were as a closer. You may not think wins hold as much water as they once did, especially for a reliever, but that does look awfully nice on his baseball card.
Of course, if Workman’s agent does his homework, there’s a lot to like about Workman going forward. All of this pitch data is very easily accessible. Being credited for 9 wins and 14 saves means something, too - in fact, Workman’s WPA+ (Win Probability Added) on the season through 9/16 is 8.98. Of course, there are two components to WPA (WPA+ and WPA-) and his overall WPA is 2.18, which is still quite good. That mark isn’t far behind one of the best relievers in baseball - Josh Hader - at 2.36, and just ahead of Liam Hendricks, the solid A’s reliever, at 2.16. So, Workman has been a very valuable reliever.
The advanced stats keep working in Workman’s favor in terms of StatCast expected stats, too. His expected wOBA of .256 ranks right in between the Houston Astros’ top relievers in Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna. Also, he’s not far behind his own teammate, Darwinzon Hernandez, at .253. That’s good company. His actual wOBA, though? Get this, it’s the lowest of any pitcher with 100 Plate Appearances. Workman’s performance has literally made Workman the most dominant reliever in baseball in 2019.
Talk about an arbitration case in Workman’s favor! Even if he stumbles a bit in the last couple weeks of the season, Workman has still been incredible. Should he be the Boston Red Sox closer going into 2020? There’s absolutely no reason he shouldn’t be.
Of course, there is Darwinzon Hernandez, who Jhoulys Chacin memorably compared to his former teammate Josh Hader. As the StatCast data shows, Chacin is right. If you believe the StatCast metrics - and there’s little reason not to - the Red Sox have one of the best 8th and 9th inning combos in the game going into 2020. Not a bad setup.
Because of this, it’s possible that the Red Sox explore a contract extension with Workman this offseason. It’s also equally possible that the Red Sox lean on his good, not great past performance and go into 2020 with Workman on a one-year deal to prove he’s for real. But as we’ve broken down here in great length, Workman is definitely a changed pitcher. If he can work on reducing the walks on his cutter, he could, in fact, be the best closer in ALL of baseball. That’s pretty incredible stuff.
Is Brandon Workman the Boston Red Sox Closer of the Future? Perhaps. Brandon Workman IS the Boston Red Sox Closer of RIGHT NOW, though, for sure. That future title may go to Darwinzon Hernandez, but you never know. Workman is only 31 years old, very young for a relief pitcher. As long as he’s not overused or overworked, Workman likely has a very nice late-inning career ahead of him.