There were many players in the 2019 MLB season that went unnoticed or with little recognition for what they did on the baseball diamond. Though among those, one player significantly stands out above the rest, and seemingly got no notice for his contributions and the phenomenal season he had. That player was Brandon Workman.
Workman pitched an incredible season in a rough 2019 for the Red Sox bullpen. Acquired by way of the 2010 June Amateur Draft, Workman has pitched his way through the Sox organization over the years, and has appeared in the MLB in 5 seasons, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, and 2019. In the first 4 seasons he had in baseball's highest level, he pitched to the tune of a 4.38 ERA and 4.25 FIP, with a SO/9 rate at only 8.2 and a SO/W ratio at 2.45. He was a considerably below standard reliever with a knack for the occasional strikeout and a lot of walks(3.3 per 9 innings). His Barrel % in 2017 and 2018 since the stat was introduced (8.0 and 7.0 respectively) were also below the par.
Headed into the 2019 season, the Red Sox we’re still celebrating the previous seasons World Series championship, and therefore didn’t move the righty Workman, as he was deemed sufficient enough to return for yet another season in Boston. But this one didn’t turn out how most would expect it to. Workman was about to embark on one of the truly remarkable reliever seasons in Red Sox history and even baseball history, for that matter.
Alright, I’ve kept you waiting long enough now, haven’t I? Let's take a glance into his 2019 season. Workman pitched a fine 71.2 innings, which ranked second on the team among bullpen pitchers, behind only Marcus Walden. His longevity and durability were key, but it’s what he did in those innings pitched that matter, right?
Well, Workman was no stranger to success in 2019, posting an incredible 1.88 ERA and 2.46 FIP. One of eight relievers to have a sub 2 ERA this season (min. 50 IP). Not only that, but he was 6th in fWAR (2.1) among relievers and 15th in K/9, with a 13.06 mark. He struck out 104 batters in under 72 innings, which is nothing short of remarkable. His cFIP was at a nice 81 mark, too. The righty also finished 6th in WPA for a Boston team that missed the playoffs after a 108 win season. Altogether his WARP (Baseball Prospectus’ calculation of WAR) was 1.9, a fantastic number for a relief pitcher.
Since his ERA to FIP differential was 0.58, we can probably infer he got lucky some of the time, but that isn’t the truth. Baseball Savants Barrel %, which measures how many "barrels" a pitcher or hitter had over a given time, show that after having 8.0 and 7.0 barrels in 2017 and 18’, Workman posted a 0.7 mark in 2019. This means that even when he didn’t miss bats, players very rarely hit the ball over 98 MPH with a LA (launch angle) between 8 and 50 degrees. Furthermore, he kept the ball on the ground with soft contact, or allowed high pop ups. This is a key part of a pitcher's success at the major league level, with the rising percentage of homers and balls hit into the gap. Here are some of Workman’s stats on a league scale:
In 2017 and 18’, Workman had an average exit velocity of 89.0 and 88.5, respectively. But in 2019? Only 87.5, a whole MPH lower than the season previous, which is a noticeable difference. More impressive, though, was his LA. 12.7 in 2017 and 10.5 in 2018, but only 8.7 in 2019. That’s a drop of 4 degrees in two seasons, and 1.8 in one season. As those went down, so did his xBA. That went from a .230 mark in 2017, .218 in 2018, to a .173 in 2019. As did his xSLG, down from .422 to .398, finally at .233. His wOBA and xwOBA saw significant drops too, from a .327 to .208 in just two seasons. As for his xwOBA, it went from .309 to .255. xwOBACON rated him at .373 in 2017, but at .313 in 2019. All of those stats he ranked in the top 15 at least.
So when someone made contact off Workman, he clearly kept it on the ground and in the air, eliminating line drives and hard hit balls. Which can be proven also by his hard hit rate, which saw a dismally high 42.5 % in 2017, but dropped to a 30.4% this year. Another very interesting note about Workman’s 2019 breakout was his strikeout numbers. In both the 2017 and 2018 seasons, he had a K% in the 22% range. But this season, that number soared incredibly to 36.4%. Wow. That’s quite a high rise in whiffs.
And though it’s fair to say he did have a large number of walks, he was terrific at eliminating runs and hard contact, which is preferred for good success in the bump. Hitting the ball hard and far is usually the key to runs for an offense, so as a pitcher, it’s your job to not allow the team to execute that. Simple. The stat xwOBACON does eliminate all walks and hit by pitches, and rather focuses on balls hit into play, and tries to predict the on base average on just those plays. So using that for a pitcher who tends to walk a lot of batters but keeps them from scoring isn’t the most accurate, but accompanied by all the other analytics I’ve shown helps to explain.
Brandon Workman had a 2019 campaign that was surely one for the ages, but it went almost unconditionally unnoticed. The goal and primary reason for this blog was to point out why he should be more talked about, and to shine a spotlight on him, as well. I really hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Have a nice rest of your day.