The Orioles bullpen finished the 2015 season with a collective ERA of 3.21, good for fifth-best in all of baseball. Much fanfare has been made of Zach Britton's sinker and how brilliant the performance of submariner Darren O'Day has been. The man who has taken the backseat is right-hander Brad Brach, one of the hidden gems of relief pitching in the MLB.
Brach came to the Orioles prior to the 2014 season in exchange for sending minor league pitcher Devin Jones to the San Diego Padres. (The Orioles re-signed Jones in the offseason before he retired from baseball in April at the age of 24.) The hard-throwing Brach adapted quickly to the American League and actually turned in his best season in the bigs to that point with an ERA of 3.18 in 62.1 innings to go along with a FIP of 3.90 and an ERA+ of 125.
Going into 2015, Brach again looked to be in the mix for a major middle relief role along with veterans Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz, while O'Day and Britton handled the late-inning work. And guess what? He did just that.
The early part of the season was a bit wobbly for the former 42nd-round pick out of Monmouth University. He pitched to a 4.76 ERA in April over 11.1 innings, but bounced back with fervor. Over the final five months of the season, he had just a 2.38 ERA over 68 innings, bringing his season ERA down to 2.72.
Brach-ules (ya know, like Hercules? Eh, I tried) was effective against both righties and lefties. Right-handers slashed .224/.318/.410 with six home runs while left-handers struggled to a line of .184/.275/.259 with one homer. Overall, hitters managed just a .203 batting average against Brach, third on the team behind Mychal Givens and Darren O'Day among pitchers who spent significant time on the team.
This increased success was met with a big jump in strikeouts. In 2014, Brach issued strike three to 7.8 batters per nine innings pitched. This past season, he cranked it up to 10.10 in the same time. The reason for that may be the increased fastball velocity and the use of his splitter.
According to Fangraphs, Brach's fastball averaged 94.1 mph. That is more than a half a mile per hour faster than in 2014 (93.5), which was his previous career high. Meanwhile, he turned to his splitter 25.9 percent of the time, almost doubling his previous career high of 13.7 percent.
All of this while being one of manager Buck Showalter's first options out of the bullpen. His 79.1 innings was the most from an Orioles reliever, as were his 89 strikeouts (and yes his 38 walks). The 62 games he appeared in were third behind Britton and O'Day.
Brach is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason. MLBTradeRumors.com has him projected to basically double his salary, but he will still be a bargain at about $1.1 million. So, it is pretty much guaranteed that he will be back in the orange and black next season.
Conversely, bullpen mate and set-up man O'Day will be a free agent this winter and, given how outstanding the submariner has been, can expect a number of suitors. Yes, the Orioles do have cash to spend, but with the young and impressive Givens emerging with a similar arm slot to O'Day (albeit a very different artillery of pitches), it is possible that the Birds could look to reinvest what is sure to be an increase from the $4.25 million O'Day earned last year elsewhere. If that happens, Brach would be the likely eighth inning guy with Given taking Brach's spot in the sixth or seventh inning.
At the end of the day, Brach is a relief pitcher. He has been pretty impressive in Baltimore, but as is the case with most bullpen arms, he could be rubbish come next summer. For now, he is trending upward, can expect a nice big new paycheck and a possible promotion to go with it.