As All-Stars go, you don’t get much more unlikely than Orioles reliever Brad Brach.
For the most part, pitchers don’t get named to the team unless they are very good starting pitchers or very good closers. Not only is Brach not a closer, but when the season began, he was not even really a primary set-up man, slotting in for mostly seventh inning duty with Darren O’Day being the eighth inning guy.
It’s not like Brach is playing on a team where he was the token selection. The Orioles, with four other All-Stars, including Manny Machado in the starting lineup, were not exactly hurting for players being named to the squad for the Midsummer Classic.
For the last month, since O’Day landed on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, Brach has been the guy ahead of Zach Britton. He has pitched so well that he simply could not be ignored when Royals manager Ned Yost was picking pitchers for the AL team.
Even in today’s game, with more importance than ever placed on the team’s two or three best guys at the back end of the bullpen, what Brach has done so far is absurd. A sub-1.00 ERA is just ridiculous, yet Brach, after 1.2 scoreless innings on Wednesday, has lowered that number to 0.95. This is crazy.
Brach’s WHIP is possibly even more gaudy than his ERA. He’s now thrown 47.1 innings on the season over 38 games, giving him value as an occasional multi-inning reliever in a way that very few of his peers can match. Over those innings, Brach has only allowed 24 hits and 14 walks. That adds up to a WHIP of 0.803.
Oh yeah, and he’s struck out 56 batters. No wonder he’s got such a low ERA. When you have an arsenal with that kind of command and strikeout potential, there just aren’t many opportunities to get on base. It’s impressive, so much so that he forced his way onto the All-Star team despite not being a closer.
So unlikely that not everyone likes it
Not that everyone in the baseball media world is a fan of the decision to have Brach on the team. ESPN’s Keith Law - as if it could have been anyone else - picked Brach as one of his five All-Star selections who do NOT belong on the All-Star team, writing:
What the hell is Brad Brach doing on an All-Star roster? He was replacement-level until last year and barely better than that in 2015, and he has a fluke performance of 1.01 ERA in 44 innings this year ... Brach is emblematic of the worst tendencies of the All-Star decision-making process with both the emphasis on current-year performance and the overrating of middle relievers. ... This spot should have gone to (White Sox starter Jose) Quintana, to pick just one of a few dozen more deserving players.
There’s a lot going on there. It’s not hard to accept that some starting pitchers might have been more deserving All-Stars. Quintana would have been a fine All-Star. I don’t know why he’s not on the team. One curiosity of the AL roster compared to the NL one is that it is so reliever-heavy. There are nine starting pitchers on the NL roster, with only five on the AL roster.
Are there really a “few dozen more” players who should be on there than Brach, though? This is a bit tougher to accept, especially with Law painting Brach’s performance as “a fluke” and labeling his 2015 as “barely better than” replacement level.
Brach’s first half could be a fluke, of course. Orioles fans don’t know. Neither does Law, who, on Twitter, cited Pat Neshek’s 2014 as his precedent - 0.70 ERA before the All-Star game, 3.74 ERA afterwards. And depending on which WAR you consult, Brach was worth either 0.9 or 2.0 last year, not exactly “barely better” than replacement. This year already, Brach’s worth either 1.1 or 2.5 WAR to date.
By the way, Neshek ended that 2014 season with a 1.87 ERA. That is an elite level for a reliever, even if he was much better in the first half.
At the start of his column, Law states his overriding philosophy about All-Star selections: “It's a marketing event for baseball -- not a popularity contest and not a way to reward first-half flukes.”
He’s not kidding about his belief in the All-Star Game as a marketing event. Despite what he says above about Brach regarding current-year performance and overrating middle relievers, later in the column, Law takes issue with the inclusion of Marlins closer A.J. Ramos and suggests an alternative.
The alternative he offers Cardinals reliever Seung-hwan Oh - a Korean player in his MLB rookie season, who is also not a closer, and in fact is about as much of a middle reliever as is Brach. Oh’s having a great season too, if not as great as Brach’s to date.
The most unlikely All-Star
Brach on the All-Star roster is probably not bringing many viewers to the table, that’s true. Maybe the cheering section from back in Freehold, NJ will be tuning in and that’s about it.
Yet all of those people out there who want to knock against Brach making the team because he’s not one of the game’s marketable names miss what makes him such a great and unlikely All-Star.
Brach’s career trajectory was not exactly traditional. He was drafted in the 42nd round of the 2008 draft. There isn’t even a 42nd round in the draft any more. That’s how far down there Brach was. He was a 22-year-old reliever when he was drafted. He never even went through the illusion of trying to be a starting pitcher in the professional ranks.
Yet Brach kept on pitching, old for every level he ever appeared in, starting with Rookie league up until, finally, when he had earned his way to Triple-A Tucson in the Padres organization, he was at last younger than the average player at the level.
Even so, Brach was 25 years old by then, and he didn’t exactly stick in the big leagues for good right away. Two years down the road, he was just another guy who could be optioned to the minors, and after a 2013 campaign in which Brach posted a respectable enough 3.19 ERA that masked an unsightly 1.774 WHIP.
That’s bad. No wonder they were willing to trade him to the Orioles for a Double-A pitcher, Devin Jones, who pitched in all of nine games in the Padres system. Jones had a 7.23 ERA in those games. As much as people bash Dan Duquette trades, he pulled off a good one here.
Brach deserves credit too. He worked every step of the way to get to the big leagues and it’s obvious that he’s kept working hard since coming to Baltimore. Brach has been better every year he’s been here, and last year he was even improving as the season went along.
Is it a fluke? Who cares? That’s missing the point. Of course Brach’s probably not going to have a sub-1.00 ERA at season’s end. No one is that good. Not even 13-time All-Star Mariano Rivera ever pulled that one off. Even if this is the three month ride of his life and Brach is never this good again - though I hope he is - his All-Star selection is still a win for all of the grinders out there.
The All-Star Game, and the game of baseball in general, is the richer for having guys like Brach be recognized in its exhibition full of stars. To be sure, Brach is not one of the young guns - he’s 30 - and he’s not one of the superstars.
Yet if you look down in the minor leagues, there are not many players who can honestly look in the mirror and tell themselves, “I’m going to be the next Mike Trout.” If they work hard, though, and if things go just right, there are more than a few hard workers who could be the next Brad Brach.
Brach making the All-Star team, as much of an unlikely All-Star as he may be, is something that should be celebrated rather than panned. He might not even pitch, and in fact, O’s fans might rather he get a few days rest, but that former 42nd round pick gets to be an All-Star and that’s as cool as it gets.