In this edition of “Fishy or For Real”, we will shift our focus to one of the Marlins’ most formidable weapons out of the bullpen: right-hander Austin Brice.
Brice’s professional career began with the Florida Marlins upon being selected in the ninth round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Throughout the next six years, Brice would work his way through the organization’s minor league affiliates, eventually making his major league debut in 2016. In 15 games that season, Brice was underwhelming to say the least; in only 14 innings pitched, he allowed 11 earned runs (7.07 ERA).
The following season, shortly prior to the beginning of spring training, Austin Brice was traded to the Cincinnati Reds as part of a three-for-one package deal that reeled in RHP Dan Straily for Brice, RHP Luis Castillo, and CF Zeek White.
Brice would spend his 2017 and 2018 campaigns as part of the Reds bullpen. He experienced minimal success across both seasons, posting a 4.96 ERA in 2017 and a 5.79 ERA in 2018.
Upon being reacquired by the Marlins, however, Austin Brice has found a higher gear. Entering the second half of the 2019 season, Brice leads their relief staff with a 1.93 ERA and has yet to suffer his first loss.
Brice issued his last walk on June 19 and has a scoreless innings streak dating back to June 17. Since then, the Marlins have gradually trusted him to handle increasingly important game situations.
In an organization teeming with pitching talent across all of its levels, Brice has done nothing short of impress in 2019 and has solidified himself as a dependable arm out of the pen. However, given the concern of his spotty track record, should we expect Brice to be able to continue his success throughout the rest of this season and beyond?
2019 Stats: 28 G, 1-0 W-L, 1.93 ERA, 37.1 IP, 1.10 WHIP
Prolonged Struggles, Limited Success
While we would normally dissect a player’s tools and attributes in determining whether they are a “Fishy” or “For Real” player, the greatest case that could be made against Austin Brice’s sustainability is that, up to this point in his career, he has not been sustainable at all. If anything, his eye-opening success in 2019 is an outlier in what has been a worse-than-average MLB career.
Excluding this season, Brice was at his best in 2017. He allowed 18 runs—all of which were earned—and six home runs in 32.2 innings, resulting in a mediocre ERA of 4.96. Also important to note, his strikeout rate of 19% was below the MLB average and his opponents’ expected batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage were all higher than those of the average pitcher.
At this point, despite his improvement here in 2019, Brice’s career ERA still floats at a particularly high mark of 4.52. Anybody here remember Armando Almanza? Well, the longtime reliever had a 4.79 ERA during his relatively unremarkable Marlins career (just to put Brice’s overall performance in perspective).
Considering the small sample size nature of relief work, this lack of success in the past should still warrant some concern.
Starting Pitcher’s Arsenal
Modern day relievers have grown notorious for finding success on the mound through specialization, mastering the execution of a small number of pitch types. As the strikeout prevails as the most efficient out-inducer, the popular formula has become combining a high-speed fastball—typically hovering in the upper 90s or low 100s—with a single breaking ball or offspeed pitch.
However, Brice isn’t gifted with Aroldis Chapman-like velocity. In 2019, his fastball ranks near the middle of the pack among all MLB pitchers, with its velocity in the 54th percentile and its spin rate in the 40th percentile.
Missing his location with it would have serious consequences, so he needs to compensate for that. Brice’s current repertoire boasts six pitches to keep opponents guessing: a four-seam fastball, a curveball, a sinker, a cutter, a changeup, and a slider. Expanding the usage of secondary pitches has been critical to his newfound success.
(While all of these different pitch types have been utilized at some point, for the sake of this argument, we will exclude his slider and his cutter from further discussion as they only represent 0.4% of all pitches.)
Throughout this season, Brice is throwing 4.6% of his pitches as a changeup, 22.4% as a sinker, 28.5% as a four-seam fastball, and 44.2% as a curveball. The curve has been the most dominant by a large margin.
Currently, Brice’s average curveball spin rate of 2897 rotations per minute (RPM) is the 14th-best mark in the majors. This stat not only ranks him in the top four percent in all of baseball, but also places him in tremendous company among starting pitchers; Gerrit Cole ranks 13th at 2907 RPM and Walker Buehler ranks 15th at 2888 RPM.
Why does this matter? Essentially, a curveball’s unique spin off of the pitcher’s hand causes the ball to create a disturbance in the air that surrounds it, forcing air to move more rapidly on one side of the ball than its counterpart. In doing so, this unbalance creates uneven pressure on the ball which allows it to curve in a downward motion.
Because of its exceptionally high spin rate, Austin Brice’s curveball is not only his most mobile pitch, but arguably the most difficult one to hit.
In 2019, opponents have whiffed on Brice’s curveball 30.1% of the time, the pitch is used as a put-away roughly 24% of the time, and the batting average against it is only .157. Considering that he throws the curve far more often than any of his other pitches, all of these numbers are incredibly encouraging.
It is not that Austin Brice’s pitches have gotten better per se, but the selection of those pitches has drastically changed from 2018 to 2019. These adjustments seemingly can account for some of his breakout campaign.
In both 2017 and 2018, Brice threw sinkers more frequently than any of his other pitches, maintaining its usage rate at well over 40% across both seasons. His curveball, meanwhile, constituted only 13.3% of all pitches in 2017 and 28.1% in 2018. Brice was underutilizing his greatest weapon.
This season, the curveball usage rate has skyrocketed at the expense of his sinker.
The grand takeaway from his yearly pitch usage is that Brice has adapted his pitch selection in a manner that would most benefit him. With a curveball of such potential in his arsenal, he doesn’t shy away from it in any count or situation.
Austin Brice is an interesting case. If we look at his career in its entirety, he has had an undoubtedly “Fishy” track record, especially when taking into account how dominant he has been in 2019. However, if we evaluate Brice’s performance on the mound from the beginning of this season, he has emerged to be a legitimately “For Real” pitcher with a high ceiling and room for further growth.
Up to this point, these articles have exclusively dealt with rookies or sophomore players who have been performing remarkably well, but have not had enough professional playing time for another impression to be made of them as a major leaguer. In this respect, Brice is a perplexing player.
As of right now, it is difficult to definitively determine if Brice is a star on the rise or if his breakout is just an outlier. It’s plausible that his success is not a fluke and his struggles are behind him; in this case, he would be very similar to former Marlin Brad Hand, who struggled significantly at the start of his career but has since become one of the strongest bullpen arms in the American League with three consecutive All-Star appearances. Or…perhaps this is another Adam Conley situation, whose flashes of promise have been overshadowed by a handful of mediocre ones.
Right now, Austin Brice is locked in on the mound and will hopefully continue to be for seasons to come.