The Orioles bullpen has no shortage of underdog stories. Zach Britton washed out of the big league rotation before transforming into the sinkerballer extraordinaire he is today. Darren O’Day went undrafted out of college and bounced around several clubs until Baltimore snatched him up. And Mychal Givens started his minor league career as a shortstop, converting into a pitcher just three years ago. Brad Brach’s journey is worth reflecting on, too: In eight years’ time, he’s gone from 42nd-round draft pick to ace reliever and All-Star. In a season full of surprises for the Orioles, we shouldn’t overlook the 30-year-old righty.
And Brach has excelled this year because of one key factor: His fastball has become dominant. Brach’s heater has been worth 13.2 runs above average in 2016, according to FanGraphs. That puts him 14th in the major leagues, out of all pitchers - and he has fewer innings than nine of the 13 hurlers ahead of him. A deadly deception/weak contact combination has made the fastball so effective. Per Brooks Baseball, Brach has thrown the pitch for a swinging strike 14.3 percent of the time this season, which ranks him 18th among the 374 pitchers with at least 200 fastballs. When hitters have managed to put it in play, they have a .179 batting average (14th-lowest in that sample) and a .313 slugging percentage (35th-lowest). Relying on a steady diet of four-seamers, Brach has feasted on opposing hitters.
So why does Brach have such a great fastball? Its velocity certainly hasn’t hurt - he’s thrown it harder this year than ever before, averaging 95.8 mph of heat per serving. (We can thank bullpen coach Dom Chiti for that: In spring training a couple of years back, he revamped Brach’s delivery to give him more power.) But that level of velocity, while formidable, doesn’t stand out like it used to. In that 374-man sample, 68 pitchers, including fellow Oriole Kevin Gausman, have thrown a harder fastball than Brach. Its movement, both horizontal and vertical, isn’t anything special, either. Yet something about the fastball has prevented hitters from figuring it out.
What makes the fastball so difficult to deal with is how it works in tandem with Brach’s other pitches. His changeup has one of the largest drops in the majors and his slider also has more dip than average. Each of these pitches contrasts with the fastball’s vertical movement to dupe opposing hitters. Against lefties, Brach gets them started with high heat outside, then finishes them off with a changeup low and away. Against righties, he has a similar approach with fastballs - he doesn’t throw many of those pitches inside, although he goes a little lower in the zone with them - and instead of the changeup, he uses his slider as his in-the-dirt out pitch. Brach’s off-speed and breaking pitches, as they’re supposed to, play off his fastball and amplify it.
None of this would be possible without fastball command, which Brach has always prided himself on. Even when he broke into professional baseball and had trouble with the seams on the new baseballs, he “could command (his) fastball really well,” giving hope for the future. That hope remains alive, and relevant, today. Once a pitcher hits 30, their velocity has nowhere to go but down. When Brach’s 95 mph heat turns into 93 or 92 mph, he might start to struggle - or he would, if he didn’t have this sterling command to fall back on. So long as he sticks to this approach, hitters won’t see the fastball coming and he’ll remain a bullpen stud.
Over the last week of the season, the Orioles will go all-in for the playoffs. If they make it, they’ll almost certainly do so as a wild card team. In a one-game playoff against Toronto, Detroit, Houston or Seattle, the club will need every shutout inning it can get, making Brach’s success all the more important. It’s comforting to know that, whether he faces a lefty such as Robinson Cano or a righty such as Miguel Cabrera, Brach has a devastating fastball that, when paired with a slower offering, makes him unstoppable
Ryan Romano blogs about the Orioles for Camden Depot. Follow the blog on Twitter: @CamdenDepot. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.