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Get to know Braves’ reliever Brad Brach

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The righty reliever is a rental, but there’s a lot about him that’s fascinating.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves acquired right-handed reliever Brad Brach on July 30, 2018 by sending the minimum amount of international bonus pool allocation ($250,000) to the Baltimore Orioles. On its face, this wasn’t a particularly interesting move — the playoff spot-seeking Braves traded an asset they could not fully utilize (due to being in the international free agent penalty period) for one they could (because their bullpen has been subpar). The 2018 version of Brach isn’t superficially interesting, either: when he was traded, he had amassed a 92 FIP- and 101 xFIP- with the Orioles, making him essentially “generic middle relief man” made flesh and given a name.

But, that’s all superficial. In doing some basic research about Brach, I found a few interesting things worth sharing. Take a look.

His name is almost-unique

In 2018, there have been over 1,250 players that have appeared in a major league game. Of these, there are three who have the same first three letters of their first and last names. When the season started, they played for three different teams: Freddie Freeman played for the Braves, Carlos Carrasco played for the Indians, and Brad Brach for the Orioles. Now, the Braves have made a move to consolidate their assets in this regard, acquiring Brach.

He was drafted in the 42nd round, and succeeded where no one else really did

Yes, Brad Brach was a late-round draft pick. A very late round, at that. When he was taken by the Padres in 2008, a whopping 1,274 players had been drafted before him. He’s not the only player to be taken this late and make the majors — even in his own draft — as there were 15 other players selected in the 42nd round or later that also got to don a major league uniform. But he was pretty much the best, if you exclude players (like George Springer) that were drafted later, did not design, and ended up being drafted in a higher round later.

The MLB draft was shortened to 40 rounds after the 2011 season, so more recent picks can’t even be taken as late as Brach was. But, in reviewing all draft picks taken in the 42nd round or later from 2008 on, Brach is pretty much the best pick (again, aside from George Springer, Tyler Anderson, Ken Giles, and Stephen Piscotty, all of whom were drafted in later rounds by did not sign). It’s pretty much a competition between him and Carl Edwards Jr. (48th round in 2011), but I think the edge goes to Brach here.

You could even say that Brach has had a better career than C.J. Cron, who was taken two rounds later than Brach in 2008, and then as the 17th overall pick three years later. Way to go, Brad Brach.

Brach was traded for a re-returner

Brach spent parts of three seasons with the Padres, the team that drafted him, making over 100 relief appearances in the process. He did not distinguish himself, and those mediocre Padres teams (each one won 71-76 games) appeared to have no qualms about using him in middle relief, or even as a setup man, despite not-too-great performance, and they also had no qualms about designating him for assignment after the 2013 season to make room on their roster. (As a Padre, Brach had 107 ERA-, a 114 FIP-, and a collective -0.13 WPA. He was about as generally unproductive as possible.)

While there are many avenues for teams to take when they designate a player for assignment, Brach was dealt the “trade” result, as he was shipped to the Orioles for minor league pitcher Devin Jones, who was more organizational depth than prospect himself. Brach’s career eventually took off in Baltimore (though his 2014 was more of the same), but here’s the weird thing: Devin Jones pitched in the Padres’ system in 2014, and then went right back to the Orioles the next year for three games before hanging up his spikes.

It’s not the most lopsided trade, in retrospect, but it was still pretty lopsided! The Orioles made Brach into a strong reliever; the Padres got a guy who left their system to go back to his original club.

Brach appeared in the infamous 2016 AL Wild Card Game (the Ubaldo Jimenez game), but Zach Britton did not

The Orioles had one of the league’s best bullpens in 2016, with Zach Britton having a mind-bending year (0.54 ERA, 1.94 FIP, 80% groundball rate), while Brach and Mychal Givens chipped in high-quality support. That season, of course, ended in heartbreak for Baltimore, as they inexplicably chose not to use Britton in lieu of Ubaldo Jimenez on their way to losing as Jimenez failed to record an out. Brach, though, pitched an inning and a third in that game, striking out two while allowing two hits and a walk. (Givens pitched two and a third with three strikeouts and no walks or hits allowed.)

Reasons to be pessimistic about Brach

2018 is shaping up to be Brach’s worst year since his ascension to good reliever-dom in 2015. His current ERA- is 108, higher than any single calendar year than his cup of coffee with the Padres in 2011. His FIP- (89) is the highest it’s been since 2014, as is his xFIP- (101). So far this season, his strikeout rate has suffered a precipitous decline, and is below 21 percent for the year after hovering between 25 percent and 30 percent across the previous three seasons. His walk rate has increased steadily since 2016, and currently sits at an uncomfortable 9.8 percent.

He’s throwing fewer fastballs and more sinkers (though the sinker is used exclusively against lefties), which is not a great strategy in 2018. Many of these struggles can be traced back to the potential effects aging, as he’s lost a tick (one mph) on his fastball, which had maintained steady velocity from 2015 through 2017.

Some combination of worse command (his first-pitch strike rate is down along with his zone rate) and more hittable pitches overall (lower velocity, higher z-contact) are the main reasons to be pessimistic about Brach.

A reason to be optimistic about Brach

It’s only been a few outings as a Brave, but here’s something odd: in his outings with the Orioles this year, Brach’s fastball has averaged 93.9 mph. In his two outings as a Brave, it’s averaged 95.5 mph, right in line with where it was in 2018. This doesn’t appear to be a Braves-related thing, as Brach actually started regaining velocity in July. However, it also doesn’t appear to be a “pitchers gain velocity as the season goes on” thing, as his monthly pattern of velocity in 2018 does not reflect the same pattern for his career. The point is, there may have been something physical or otherwise going on with Brach that was limiting his fastball zip and leading to worse results. If that’s been taken care of, that’s a reason for optimism. (For what it’s worth, though, his July was actually fairly poor despite the added velocity, so that may not be the only issue with him.)

Here’s another reason (and this one goes for teammate Kevin Gausman as well): Brach’s former teammates in Baltimore relied on the catching of Caleb Joseph and Chance Sisco. Both players had profoundly negative framing metrics this year. While Kurt Suzuki also rates quite poorly as a framer (worse this year than either Joseph or Sisco), Tyler Flowers continues to be an effective framer. For a pitcher whose command may be wavering a bit as he ages, or perhaps one forced to nibble more than previously, Brach may indeed benefit from having Tyler Flowers as a battery-mate. These metrics reflect Statcorner data; per Baseball Prospectus, Joseph and Sisco are 89th and 76th out of 101 catchers in framing runs, while Flowers is seventh (and Suzuki is 83rd).

Potential Brach nicknames, submitted for your oratory pleasure

  • Johann Sebastian Brach
  • Brach-y Balboa
  • Don’t Tase Me, Brach
  • Brach wore “B-Rad” on his Players’ Weekend jersey last year. Please don’t call him this.

There are no good anagrams for Brad Brach. Not enough vowels. No, “Barb Chard” does not count as a good anagram.