The Red Sox cleared up one major source of uncertainty on Tuesday by naming Ron Roenicke as their interim manager, and then on Wednesday, the new skipper lifted another cloud of uncertainty. Roenicke told reporters that he expects to name Brandon Workman as the team’s closer. His predecessor, Alex Cora, did not settle on a closer in the first half of 2019, with six different relievers recording saves and four relievers notching multiple saves. He stuck with Workman in the second half, and from the All-Star break forward, he recorded 13 of his 16 saves with a 2.01 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 49 strikeouts and no home runs allowed over 31.1 innings.
In making his announcement, Roenicke explained his decision by saying, “I think with what he did last year, he deserves that shot to be the closer.” This may be the biggest understatement of the offseason. In 2019, Workman was not just the Red Sox’s most effective reliever. By one measure — wOBA allowed — he was arguably the most effective pitcher in the majors. Workman led all pitchers with at least 50 innings with a .208 wOBA, and the margin wasn’t slim. The next closest was Tyler Glasnow at .222, and Kirby Yates was the only other pitcher with a wOBA below .230.
Workman did almost everything at a top-notch level. Of the 341 pitchers with 50-plus innings, he ranked 12th in strikeout rate at 36.4 percent. Of the 436 pitchers who allowed at least 100 batted balls, Workman had the fewest barrels allowed at one. No other pitcher allowed fewer than three. He had a 51.1 percent ground ball rate, but when he allowed batted balls to get hit in the air, he was far better than average at limiting hard contact. His 91.1 mph average exit velocity on flyballs and line drives (EV FB/LD) ranked just outside the top 10 percent of pitchers with at least 100 batted balls. Workman was not as proficient at preventing hard contact on grounders, but by inducing pulled balls on 66.2 percent of his grounders (20th-highest rate out of 380 pitchers with at least 50 grounders), he gave himself a chance to be above-average at preventing hits on balls in play. Whether or not he deserved to have a .209 BABIP is another story, and one I’ll address further below.
Workman had been good at inducing pulled grounders prior to 2019, but the rest of his skill indicators hit new levels. He increased the average velocity on his four-seam fastball from 91.6 mph in 2018 to 93.2 mph last season, and that was likely behind the surge in his SwStr% on that pitch from 6.8 to 12.5 percent. Workman did not experience more than a minimal increase in velocity on his curveball and cutter, so there was an increased velocity differential between his fastball and his other pitches. His 36.4 percent strikeout rate was more than 10 percentage points higher than his previous career high, so even with the impressive changes that supported it, he could be a candidate to regress in this regard. Workman also established his lowest EV FB/LD, at least since Statcast started publishing that metric.
Even though Workman finished with only 16 saves, he wound up as the sixth-most valuable reliever in standard 5×5 Roto leagues. It may be hard to draft Workman among or near the elite tier of closers given how recently he started performing at this level. He is also not without flaws. Workman has never been adept at throwing first-pitch strikes, and in 2019, he threw pitches outside the strike zone at a much higher rate overall than he had previously. His Zone% was a paltry 37.5 percent, as compared to his previous low of 43.5 percent. That left him with a 15.7 percent walk rate that trailed only Jace Fry’s 17.1 percent mark as the highest among relievers with at least 50 innings.
Aside from saves, it seems almost certain the Workman will regress in 2020. Even if he approaches last season’s strikeout rate, he will likely allow more hits on balls in play and see his WHIP rise into the 1.15-to-1.20 range or higher. Of last year’s top 12 relievers, only Aroldis Chapman had a WHIP as high as 1.10. A performance like the one Chapman turned in last year (3-2, 2.21 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 37 saves, 85 strikeouts) is probably close to Workman’s 2020 ceiling, and of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
If the gains he made in 2019 erode, his floor will be considerably lower, possibly even to the point that he could lose his status as the Red Sox’s primary closer. Matt Barnes was in the high-leverage mix throughout 2019, and he put up a similar strikeout rate to Workman’s (but also a similar walk rate). His EV FB/LD (91.7 mph) was nearly as low as Workman’s was, so should Roenicke see a need to make a change at closer, Barnes would not necessarily represent much of a downgrade from Workman at his best. Josh Taylor is coming off a strong rookie season that featured high whiff (15.1 percent SwStr%) and chase (35.1 percent O-Swing%) rates and low average exit velocities on flies and liners (92.0 mph) and grounders (81.4 mph).
Because Workman is less proven than nearly all of the top 10 closers in NFBC ADP, he should not be drafted ahead of any of them, his considerable ceiling notwithstanding. (The one exception is Liam Hendriks, and he is also preferable to Workman due to his lower walk rate.) Once the back end of that top 10 — Edwin Diaz, Kenley Jansen and Ken Giles — comes off the board, Workman should be fair game. Next in ADP is Craig Kimbrel, who is another high-strikeout, high-walk pitcher who is a much greater threat to give up home runs or spend time on the injured list. Will Smith, at No. 13, may not even get to close, and Héctor Neris, Raisel Iglesias and Alex Colomé, Nos. 12, 14 and 15, have consistently fallen short of having elite peripherals across the board. While Workman’s role may be somewhat fluid, and there are closer-quality alternatives in the Red Sox’s bullpen, virtually any reliever outside the top 10 could face similar threats.
As of this writing, Workman’s 171 NFBC ADP ranks 17th among relievers, and that makes him a bargain at his current price. Perhaps now that he has some security in his role, his ADP will rise, and fantasy owners will have look elsewhere for a good value at closer. If not, we all have the opportunity to draft a potential stud closer at the price of a No. 2 RP.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.