Matt Brash was clinging to a roster spot with his teeth. Certainly his 2021 had been successful. So much so that he’d moved onto Top 100 lists heading into 2022 and ended up breaking camp with the Seattle Mariners as their fifth starter. That’s an incredible feat, but he was just two years removed from being a Player To Be Named Later, hardly a lock to have an extensive MLB career. No, his status as a PTBNL was more fitting for his history as a fourth-round pick out of Niagara University. And while his debut in Chicago had gone well, his next few turns through the rotation had not, and on May 5 he found himself getting the rare double demotion: both to Triple-A, and a move to the bullpen. He’d finally climbed back to the Major-League roster, but things still weren’t clicking, and it’s not like George Kirby’s excellence was giving Brash a glide path back to the rotation. Like a cryptocurrency, the fall could be just as fast as his rise.
If it were me in that situation, I think I would have found it hard to put my future in someone else’s hands. I think I would have wanted to be in charge of my own fate. But a fortress can all too easily become a prison.
Cal Raleigh saying “DONT SHAKE” is the energy I am here for pic.twitter.com/yY8YT9Tir8— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) July 30, 2022
We’ve written about this clip a lot, where Cal tells Matt Brash to stop shaking off the pitch he’s called. But we’ve usually talked about its significance in Cal Raleigh’s growth narrative. I think it’s worth considering the impact on Brash too though, because this seemed to really get through to him. And it turns out Cal was right—I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Taylor Swift was wrong.
It must be said that the rest of this outing wasn’t amazing; Brash badly missed his location on the pitch directly after this conversation. But it was the pitch Cal had called for. And though he did give up a walk and a hit, Brash struck out two and was the only one of the six pitchers to face Houston that night who didn’t give up a run. (OK, one was Luis Torrens, but still.)
Since then, when Cal calls a pitch, that’s almost always the pitch that Brash is going to throw. Consequently, everything has changed. In the games before this conversation, Brash had pitched to a 21% strikeout rate and 17.6% walk rate. That K%-BB% put him in the fourth percentile. The remaining 62.4% of batters he gave up contact against crushed a .416 wOBA.
But the games after this conversation? His strikeout rate jumped to 35.7%, and his walk rate fell to 11.2%. His K%-BB% over that stretch ranked in the 90th percentile. You can learn something just from seeing the five guys right behind him: Devin Williams, Max Scherzer, Félix Bautista, Brandon Woodruff, and Clayton Kershaw. Meanwhile, his results on contact dropped more than a hundred points to .313, moving him from the 8th percentile to the 82nd.
Let’s be clear: Matt Brash gets the credit for this. After all, he made real changes during his time in Tacoma. He changed his delivery so his fastball would come in flatter. (He’s a Bombero—this is what they do.) He also somehow increased its velocity from 95.9 all the way to 97.8. And his sweepy slider became literally the sweepiest in MLB. Just yesterday, Driveline’s Director of Pitching Chris Langin said, “I think you could pretty realistically say his slider is maybe the best pitch in terms of pitch movement and velocity in major league history.” So I’m mostly being facetious about owing his success to Cal.
But only mostly. In his first five games as a reliever—after the changes but before the conversation—he only struck out 25% of his opponents and walked 16.7%. Like I said, despite his incredible tools, he was far from a lock on the roster. Maybe it’s just Dumbo’s feather, but he didn’t take off until he gained confidence in the pitch being called. Coming up through the minors, you have to rely on yourself, with a rotating cast of catchers. At least usually. So once you get to the show, it can be hard to trust your partner. But if Baby learned how to do it, Brash could too. (I know, I know. But c’mon—it’s Valentine’s Day.)
“Help me help you.” It’s hard. But once Brash ceded a little control, he put up 0.9 fWAR over just 30.2 innings with a 2.35 ERA and 1.97 FIP, compared to 7.65/5.86 as a starter and 3.38/3.11 in his first shot in relief. By the time the Mariners reached the playoffs, Brash was simply untouchable. He retired all ten batters he faced, and he doused the biggest fire the Mariners faced in Game 3 of the ALDS with the biggest strikeout I’ve ever seen in my life.
Guess who was catching that day.