With the bullpen situation reaching a crisis stage in Philadelphia, the team swung a deal to bring in some reinforcements. Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree are coming to the Phillies’ aid in this time at the expense of having to see Nick Pivetta in pinstripes again. Not a bad tradeoff. Getting Hembree isn’t really anything to get too excited about. He’s been a dependable arm for a few years and is having a down year; he’s probably the “change of scenery” guy that sometimes benefits from leaving the type of environment he was in. It’s Workman that is the main attraction. He’ll be the one counted on to give the backend of the bullpen some stability.
So what exactly is the team getting in Workman? He’s a free agent after this season so acquiring him is a strict rental, he didn’t cost the team a whole lot (though let’s not even begin to talk about the need to include money to stay under the luxury tax), and let’s face it: at this point anything is an improvement.
The first thing to note is that you have to look a little deeper at his 2019 season. Last year, Workman sprung kind of out of nowhere to become one of the more dominant relievers in the American League. His line - 71 2⁄3 IP, 16 saves, 1.88 ERA, 2.1 fWAR - are very eye appealing to the casual fan. It’s not like the numbers are without merit since his 2.46 FIP suggests that he really was quite good last year.
You can glance at his peripheral numbers as well and see that he was very effective at preventing runs late in games. He struck out 36.4% of the hitters he saw, by far and away the best rate of his career. He didn’t let anyone hit home runs as his 0.13 HR/9 rate attests to, something that is quite key to a reliever achieving success. His walk rate was super high (15.7%), but with as much as he was striking out hitters, he worked around it. He’s just not allowing anyone to get hits off of him.
Brandon Workman has the lowest opponents' batting average in MLB (.141) since the start of last season among pitchers with at least 75 innings.— Corey Seidman (@CSeidmanNBCS) August 21, 2020
Those numbers, while stellar, are the ones that many will look at when reflecting on what he will be bringing to the Phillies’ beleaguered bullpen. Since he’s only thrown a handful of innings thus far in 2020 thanks to the lack of success by the Red Sox as a whole, there isn’t a lot of data to work with that is recent. His strikeout rate is down (not great), his walk rate is almost exactly the same (really not great), but that’s about all we can go off of from this year.
Statcast data can shed a little more light on the question as to what he’s been doing differently to become such an effective reliever. It all starts with pitch usage.
The most obvious change is that he has almost abandoned his four seam fastball in favor of his curveball, a wise decision considering he was someone who subscribed to the “high spin fastballs up, high spin curveballs down” theory to pitching (though he does it without a high spin fastball). It’s not a curveball that was regarded as one of the better ones in the game, but it’s hard to argue with his using his arsenal in the way he did when it produced an expected batting average (xBA) of .176 in 2019. Other than that, he’s someone who’s Statcast data isn’t really eye popping.
Sure the expected stats jump out, but the fastball velocity isn’t great. It’s not a high spin fastball as we noted earlier. The curveball is good, but not elite. It’s all a bit that adds up to a “wait and see” approach to replicating the success he had last year.
Of course, trying to nitpick what Workman brings to the Phillies’ bullpen is a minor detail. He’s a clear upgrade over pretty much whatever is available out there right now outside of Hector Neris and even that is debatable. With Jose Alvarez going down for a while, Workman pretty much becomes the team’s best reliever. Let’s hope he can give the team another 2019-like season.