BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Why Matt Brash could wind up being Mariners’ top reliever in 2023

Feb 4, 2023, 9:11 AM

Mariners Matt Brash...

Mariners pitcher Matt Brash reacts in the 10th inning of ALDS Game 3 vs. Houston on Oct. 15, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

This time last year, Matt Brash was being talked about as a potential No. 5 starter for the Mariners as a rookie.

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That wound up being the case as the rookie broke camp in the big league rotation, but due to some major inconsistencies in the strike zone, Brash was demoted in May. In five MLB starts, Brash had a 7.65 ERA in 20 innings and walked 17 batters. Yeah, not great.

But Brash went to Tacoma and transitioned to a reliever role and found himself back in the majors in early-July. And in that new role, Brash blossomed.

Why do I bring all this up? Well, I think that this time next year, we’ll be talking about Brash much like we now talk about Andrés Muñoz. What I mean by that is I think Brash will be one of the Mariners’ two best relievers in 2023, if not their very best 2023 reliever who is the team’s go-to guy in key spots late in games. (Just for a little pat on the back, I picked Muñoz as my breakout candidate ahead of the 2022 season and we all know how that worked out for the Mariners and their firebreather.)

So what leads me to think that highly of Brash heading into 2023, especially as Munoz returns and the Mariners still have Paul Sewald and other notable relievers like Diego Castillo?

First, let’s look at the basic stat line for Brash when he moved to the bullpen.

In 34 appearances as a reliever, Brash pitched 30 2/3 innings and posted a 2.35 ERA, 1.97 FIP and struck out 43 batters (12.6 K/9) to 16 walks (4.7 BB/9).

Aside from the electric stuff that Brash showcased – an upper-90s fastball with two distinct and nasty breaking balls – Brash put together some really good underlying numbers in a short-inning role.

Opponents did next to nothing off Brash the reliever, slashing just .202/.310/.239 (.548 OPS) in those 34 regular season appearances. That’s some elite production from the youngster.

What’s more, he allowed only four extra-base hits in relief work. And all four of those were doubles. Yup, Brash wasn’t just punching dudes out, but he was keeping the ball in the ballpark in an elite way, and that’s certainly something you want to see out of a potential high-leverage guy.

On the brightest stages, Brash also came through, pitching a 1-2-3 inning with two punchouts in the Mariners’ playoff-clinching win over Oakland in late-September before pitching 3 1/3 perfect innings of relief in the playoffs with four strikeouts, including escaping an inherited jam of two runners in scoring position with just one out in the ninth inning of Game 3 in the ALDS. Brash struck out the two batters he faced in the ninth and then pitched a 1-2-3 10th inning as well.

Brash also put together some great Statcast numbers, ranking in the 88th percentile in barrel rate, 87th in whiff rate, 80th in K rate, 95th in curveball spin and 92nd in average fastball velocity at 96.9 mph.

What Brash needs to work on, obviously, is staying in the zone. He was in the first percentile in MLB in walk rate, but as noted in the above statistics, the control did improve greatly upon moving to the bullpen.

What’s especially interesting when looking at Brash’s splits is he actually performed best in high-leverage situations last season, according to Baseball Reference. (For more information on leverage, visit this link.)

Brash had an opponent OPS of just .559 in 21 games with high-leverage scenarios. That’s much better than the .870 OPS in medium-leverage spots and is even better than a .650 OPS in low-leverage situations. Even as a starter when things weren’t going great for him, Brash seemed to have a pretty slow heartbeat. That carried over in his time as a reliever, which is very good to see from such a young hurler.

Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto is certainly all aboard the Matt Brash Train, as he gushed over the 24 year old’s ability during a Wednesday visit with Wyman and Bob.

“Brash, his stuff might be pitch-for-pitch about as good as anybody in the league,” Dipoto said. “He doesn’t really have the change of pace (offering). It’s power, power, more power.”

Brash has “crazy carry” on the four-seam fastball, “insane run” with his two-seamer and his curveball and slider grade “70 or 80” on the 20-80 scouting scale, Dipoto said.

What’s more, Brash apparently has a new trick up his sleeve for 2023.

“He’s right now working on a cutter this offseason … He introduced it a little bit last September, and it’s likely to become a bigger part of his arsenal this year, which hopefully is a pitch that he can just steal a strike with,” Dipoto said. ” … He just has dynamic stuff.”

Dipoto noted that control is the name of the game for Brash, and he saw major improvement upon moving to the bullpen.

“Once we moved him to the bullpen role and shortened up the the outings and he could just go out there and be athletic and attack, the strikes got a lot better, the command got better and his bat-missing stuff always stood up,” he said. “He’s an impact arm regardless of where he pitches. It might one day be as a starter, we know he can be an impact guy in the bullpen. And he’s got courage. He’s not afraid to go out there and pitch against the best hitters in the league. He wants to show them what he can do, which is pretty fun.”

It will indeed be very fun to see what Brash can do in 2023, and I’d wager that he’s about to turn into a true go-to guy in key situations for the Mariners. And I think he’ll wind up being pretty darn good at that this season and very well may anchor one of baseball’s best bullpens.

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