Meet Brad Brach, baseball's most underrated reliever

The way Orioles righty Brad Brach is going, he won't be able to hide the truth -- about his talent, or even about his height -- for much longer. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

BALTIMORE -- When it comes to Brad Brach, there’s no shortage of sexy, eye-popping numbers that stick out. The tidy 0.84 ERA. The minuscule .107 batting average against right-handed hitters. The five wins, an almost unimaginable total for a reliever barely two months into the season. But perhaps his most impressive and telling stat of all is ... wait for it ...

... games.

Not complete games. Not games closed. Just good ol’ fashioned games.

As of Thursday, Brach, the Orioles’ do-everything reliever, had made 26 appearances this year. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s not. In fact, it’s not even enough to crack the top 50 in the majors. But on a Buck Showalter team, 26 appearances in early June is grounds for managerial malpractice. And the skipper would be the first to tell you.

In 16 full seasons as a big-league bench boss, Showalter has had a reliever appear in 70 games just five times. In a mix-and-match era in which managers often handle bullpen arms like a child handles Play-Doh, Showalter takes unusual pride in making sure that, come October, his relievers are nowhere near the top of the “G” column. But lately, his prudence is being tested with Brach.

“It's tough keeping him underneath that appearance threshold that I try to keep everybody under,” Showalter said. “He's one of those guys you want to use every night because he actually could throw every night.”

After pitching twice during a just-finished three-game sweep of the defending champion Royals -- in Monday's win, he struck out the side in the eighth inning, then on Wednesday he recorded the final five outs for his second save of the season -- Brach was on pace to appear in 73 games, which would be the second-most ever on a Showalter team. The frequency with which Brach is being deployed is a testament to how effective he has been.

Since coming to Baltimore, the 30-year-old righty -- who was drafted in the 42nd round by the San Diego Padres in 2008, then released in 2013 after three so-so seasons -- has a 17-4 record out of the bullpen. Wins may not be the glamour stat they used to be in the pre-analytics era, especially for starting pitchers, but for a middle reliever like Brach, the W is pretty darned telling. Specifically, it means that when he enters the game with the score knotted up, which Brach often does, he tends to keep the opposition right where they are.

“I love that Buck has confidence in a tie game that I can go in there and keep 'em for two innings and give our offense a chance,” Brach said.

Never was that confidence on display more than last week against Boston. With the score tied 8-8 in the sixth inning of an old-school slobberknocker, Brach entered the game with a runner on second, one out, and the middle of the murderous Red Sox lineup looming. After allowing a single to red-hot Xander Bogaerts, Showalter left Brach out there to face David Ortiz, who even at the age of 40 (or especially at the age of 40) is one of the most dangerous lefty hitters in the game, and who’d already hit his 16th homer earlier in the evening. Brach promptly rewarded his manager’s faith by getting Ortiz to ground into an inning-ending double play.

The O’s proceeded to score twice in the bottom of the sixth to take the lead, then Brach went back out for the top of the seventh and mowed down Boston 1-2-3 en route to running his record to a perfect 5-0. In other words, it was the typical chain of events that seems to occur over and over whenever Brach enters the game. Lest you get the wrong impression, he’s more than just Showalter's tie guy.

“He’s probably the most valuable member of our bullpen because he does so many things,” said reliever Darren O'Day, who along with closer Zach Britton is one of two former All-Stars in the Birds’ pen. The way Brach has been pitching, there could very well be a third All-Star O’s reliever come July. “He can throw two innings. He can come in with runners on base. He can do whatever you need him to do.”

Lately, Brach is being asked to do even more. With eighth-inning staple O’Day on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, Brach has been temporarily promoted to setup man. Of course, he’s still responsible for all his other duties, which run the gamut from long relief to middle relief to situational righty to occasional closer. With a split-fingered fastball that functions as a changeup and is effective against lefties, and with the Orioles down a southpaw after trading Brian Matusz, the right-handed Brach even moonlights as a situational lefty.

“I don’t know where we’d be without him,” said Showalter, whose club sits atop the AL East with a 35-23 record thanks in no small part to Brach and his pen pals, whose 2.65 ERA is the best in the majors. “I can’t imagine anybody pitching better than him out of the bullpen.”

Three years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Brach earning such high praise. A week after the Padres designated him for assignment following the 2013 campaign, he was traded to the Orioles, a change of scenery that changed his career.

“I really believe that everybody should get a chance to play for two organizations,” Brach said. “You get another set of eyes, another set of coaches to see your stuff.”

In Brach’s case, the difference-maker was Baltimore bullpen coach Dom Chiti. One day in 2014, during his first spring training with the Orioles, Brach walked into the team weight room in Sarasota, Florida, to find Chiti waiting for him.

“Your line sucks,” the coach told his new pitcher, referring to the way Brach used to set up in the stretch position, on the far left side of the rubber with his right foot angled, pointing toward shortstop, and his toe just barely on the slab. As a result, Brach was lunging toward third base, then throwing back over his body.

“I was literally throwing against myself,” said Brach, standing in front of his locker before a recent game. He gives an exaggerated demonstration of the now-obsolete motion, and it looks something like a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook.

In order to unhook the hook, Chiti suggested that Brach square up to the rubber. Ya know, like a normal pitcher. The results were immediate: Instead of throwing 91-93 mph, his fastball suddenly sat at 94-96.

“Hardest I’d ever thrown,” said Brach, who pitched in college at Monmouth University after going largely unrecruited out of Freehold Township High School in New Jersey, where his mid- to high-80s cheese impressed approximately nobody.

Even though his herky-jerky motion is still far from perfect -- he said he now steps six to eight inches across his body instead of 18 -- he has finally learned how to command the added heat. After walking 38 batters in 79⅓ innings last season, he has walked just nine in 32⅓ innings this year. Not to mention, the wonky windup gives opposing hitters fits.

“His delivery is deceptive,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “It's tough for lefties to pick it up off him, and it's tough for righties to stay in there on him.”

"I don't know where we'd be without him. I can't imagine anybody pitching better than him out of the bullpen."
Buck Showalter
As if that weren’t enough, he has two other plus pitches: a mid-80s splitter that he really started trusting last season and acts as a changeup, and a slightly faster slider that breaks sharp and late. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s three quality offerings, which is borderline illegal out of the bullpen.

“For a reliever to have three really good pitches,” O’Day said, “it makes the hitter's job really tough.”

How tough?

Overall, opponents are hitting just. 175 against Brach, the 10th lowest mark among AL relievers (minimum 20 innings). In case you’re wondering, the rest of that top 10 is comprised almost entirely of closers. Brand names like Craig Kimbrel and Wade Davis, plus Yankees closer-turned-setup man Andrew Miller. Then there’s Brach, who continues to toil in absolute anonymity.

In fact, he’s so under-the-radar that, six years into his big league career, he somehow still manages to get away with being officially listed at three and a half inches taller than he really is. True story. If you check Brach’s player profile at MLB.com or Baseball Reference or FanGraphs or any website on the planet, you’ll find that he’s universally listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. While the weight is more or less accurate, the height is a complete sham.

“I have no idea where that came from. I never once said I was 6-6. I don’t even think I get 6-3 when we do the measurements,” said Brach, who claims that the tallest he’s ever listed himself was when he put down 6-4 on one of those questionnaires that prospects fill out for scouts. “And that was stretching it. The only way I’m 6-6 is wearing cleats on a hill.”

Yet the myth endures. The tall tale of barely 6-2 Brad Brach. Because that’s the stuff you can get away with when you’re that underrated. That far off the grid. The way Brach’s going, he won’t be able to hide the truth much longer.

“If you look at what he's done over the last season and a half, it's pretty damn good,” O’Day said. “Brad could be a quality closer on any team.”

It’s something Brach has thought about, and he’s not afraid to admit it.

“Every reliever's goal is to be a closer,” said Brach, who has 119 minor league saves on his resume. “Once you become a reliever, you want to be the best reliever, and the best reliever usually pitches in the ninth inning. It's tough having two All-Stars ahead of you, but it’s awesome to have. Obviously, that idea crosses my mind. I'd love to be a closer some time.”

For now, he’ll just have to settle for being the most underrated reliever in baseball.