Alright, O's fans: close your eyes and imagine it's April 1st. I've just asked you to predict who the top three Orioles would be in WAR after two months of the season. Who would you have guessed?
Manny Machado, surely. Chris Davis and Adam Jones would get plenty of votes. Maybe you'd have predicted Kevin Gausman would break out this year, or that Chris Tillman would bounce back to lead the staff. Zach Britton would have been a decent guess, and guys like Darren O'Day, Mark Trumbo, or Jonathan Schoop could have been reasonable picks if you wanted to go a little off the board.
How many guesses would it have taken before you arrived at Brad Brach? Ten? Fifteen? More? Yet, that's exactly where we stand through 58 games. According to Baseball-Reference, Brach is third on the Orioles (ahead of even Mark Trumbo) with 1.8 WAR - that also ranks him #1 out of all relievers in baseball. Fangraphs isn't quite as high on him, but he's still in a tie for fourth on the team with Chris Davis at 1.0 WAR.
Brad Brach has come up huge for the Orioles this year, pitching to a 0.84 ERA in 32.1 innings. In his 26 appearances, he's given up no runs in 23 of them and a single run in three. All three of those imperfect appearances were outings of longer than one inning, and the O's won each of those games anyway.
While no one could've expected the level of dominance that we've seen from Brach, it shouldn't be surprising that he's having a career year. Brach has consistently improved since he arrived in Baltimore. The O's acquired Brach from the Padres prior to the 2014 season for minor league Devin Jones.
Brach started the season in triple-A Norfolk, but was soon called up to fill out the back end of the bullpen in a long relief / mop-up role. After doing a decent job with that, Brach caught fire, posting a 1.33 ERA in July and August and becoming one of Buck's most trusted relievers down the stretch.
The departure of Andrew Miller and the ineffectiveness of Tommy Hunter led to Brach becoming the “seventh inning guy” in the 2015 season. He responded with career-best numbers in nearly every category. His K/9 shot up from 7.8 to 10.1, likely related to Brach's discovery of his best weapon: the splitter.
Brach threw 68% fastballs, 18% sliders and 14% splitters in 2014. The following year, that changed to 62% fastballs, 12% sliders, and 26% splitters. The adjustment worked: opponents hit .183/.227/.232 off of Brach's splitter in 2015, a big reason for his career-best 2.72 ERA in a career-high 79.1 innings.
This year, Brach has taken another step forward. His walks have gone down dramatically - after a slight bump from 3.6 to 4.3 BB/9 in 2015, he's all the way down to 2.5 BB/9 this season.
Meanwhile, he's shown last year's uptick in strikeouts wasn't a fluke - his K rate is virtually unchanged at 10.3 per nine. His average fastball velocity is the highest it's ever been at 94.3 MPH. He's getting more swings, and more swinging strikes, on all of his pitches. He's just better.
By the way, that Devin Jones character the O's traded for Brach back in 2013? He had a 7.23 ERA in double-A for the Padres in 2014, then signed as a minor league free agent with...the Orioles. After a poor 2015 season in Frederick, he appears to be out of baseball entirely. For as much criticism as Dan Duquette deservedly gets for some of his trades, this was one of his best.
Few players have been as critical to the Orioles' success this year as Brad Brach. Take your pick of any stat - ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/9, BB/9, HR/9, velocity, swinging strikes, whatever - he's having the best season of his career in all of them.
Brad Brach deserves a trip to the All-Star Game, and even if he doesn't make it there, he deserves plenty of recognition from the fans. He's an important part of why the Orioles are where they are today.