For the second time during a four-game series against the Dodgers, the Atlanta Braves announced shortly after the game that they had acquired a reliever from the AL East. In the second deal of international money for a potential rental – Jonny Venters does have another year of arbitration – the Braves acquire Brad Brach from the Baltimore Orioles for $250K of slot money. Of course, with the sanctions this year barring any signing over $300K, the Braves don’t really need the biggest international pool to sign their additions.
Brad Brach was originally drafted by the Padres in the 42nd round out of Monmouth University back in 2008. Talk about your long ways to the bigs. But just three years later, he made it to the majors and was an established major league arm by 2012. After two years with the Padres, they traded him for a pitcher named Devin Jones in a deal that, well, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Brach had been designated for assignment despite a 3.19 ERA and 31 K’s in 31 innings. Brach’s control wasn’t great, but you don’t often give away a reliever with good stuff. Jones, by the way, is no longer in affiliated baseball.
Brach became a horse for the Orioles in the second half of 2014 and never looked back. He was often utilized as the team’s closer with injuries and iffy play from Zach Britton. He’s reached 60+ innings in four consecutive seasons with the Orioles – often with superb strikeout rates.
So, why did he cost so little? Well, part of it is due to his contract situation and the price tag on rentals being so low. Major league general managers, who often tossed good prospects into deals for guys who would be gone in two years, have gone to the other extreme and many won’t even surrender guys who carry extreme risk as far as their future value go if all they will receive are rentals. The Braves appear to be one of those team. Despite a farm system many envy that is deep in starting pitching prospects, they don’t seem interested in utilizing it without getting a controllable asset in return.
But that’s not the entire story with Brach. He’s currently in the second straight season of declining strikeout rates (30%-26%-21%) and increasing walk rates (8%-9.5%-10%). Unsurprisingly, his FIP has gone from 2.92 in his career 2016 campaign to 3.58 last year and 4.01 this season. His ERA has bottomed out to 4.85 this season, though I don’t really want to hold that against him because he has a .371 BABIP. Since his groundball rate has been climbing, that actually would appear to work against him because he had one of the worst infield defenses in baseball.
Let’s just say having an infield with Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson up the middle along with Johan Camargo at third base will be a welcome sight over Manny Machado “playing shortstop” and Chris Davis looking lost at first.
But the strikeout and walk rates are worrisome. As is the continued poor play rather than recent improvement, which many cited in the lead-up to the trade of Britton. Brach hasn’t worked since the 24th but gave up an unearned run that day while facing five hitters in an inning of work. Two days before that, he faced five hitters and gave up three runs. He also had meltdowns against the Yankees on July 9th and against the Twins on July 5. He has had one “clean” inning in eight outings this month.
There’s the velocity concern as well. His fastball is down a couple of ticks on average. As far as pitch value, it has declined significantly in terms of effectiveness. His changeup, his secondary choice, is also not looking so hot. His slider, his third choice, has been solid, though.
Now, everything I wrote about the potential red flags concerning Brach should affect your thinking more for 2019 and beyond as far as potentially signing him goes. But in terms of this season, could Brach rebound for a big couple of months? It’s quite possible. Pitchers can make quick mechanical fixes under the right people and Brach will be reunited with former pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti – who both work for the Braves now. He credits both Wallace and Chiti in this Fangraphs article from 2017 for “turning the corner in 2014.”
Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti had me square up to the rubber, the cleats on the back side of my foot just clipping on the side, so that everything was going toward home plate. I mean, it was instantly 4 mph in one day. It was incredible how basically straightening myself out toward home plate brought my stuff back.
I had thrown harder in 2011, and in parts of 2012, but in 2013 I lost a lot of my velocity. It wasn’t that my arm didn’t have it, but rather the mechanical thing. Again, I had started throwing more and more across my body. By the end of 2013, it was literally on one side of the rubber, and then my foot was stepping outside of the rubber on the other side. We’re talking close to 18 inches that I was closing myself off.
It was a matter of recognizing it, then trying to figure out how to fix it. Dave and Dom were able to do that. I wish I had recognized it sooner. Had I known two years earlier, if somebody had said something to me, I probably would have fixed it and been fine. But sometimes you have to go through stuff to appreciate the good times. What happened helped me realize you have to be on your mechanics. You have to constantly be aware of what you’re doing out there, and not going through the motions.
So, perhaps, the magic he had with them will help him finish strong. Beyond just working with guys he trusts, Brach will have the luxury of not playing in the AL East anymore. That should give him a boost. And, as I previously mentioned, he went from one of the worst – if not the worst – teams in terms of defense to one of the best. And beyond all that, Brach is certainly a better fit for a contending team than Peter Moylan or Sam Freeman, both of which should be the top two – and only two – contenders to be DFA’d when Brach is added to the active roster.
Like the Venters trade, this isn’t a big one that changes everything for the Braves. Brach has been an elite arm in the majors in recent history, but right now, he’s just not that guy. If Wallace and Chiti do some magic, who knows? But even at his current level, he’s a better arm than half of the Braves bullpen. That makes him an improvement.
Certainly, the hope is that Venters and Brach do not account for the Braves’ only moves this deadline. But they have made the team better without sacrificing a prospect. Beat that with a stick.