The Marlins finally parted with catcher J.T. Realmuto last offseason, making him the latest household name to exit Miami via trade. Other than that, the rebuilding club unsurprisingly engaged in a quiet winter. The Marlins handed out just two guaranteed contracts, signing veteran Band-Aids Neil Walker and Sergio Romo for a combined $4.5MM, and made the rest of their acquisitions via low-key trades, minor league signings and waiver claims. Three months into the season, one of those waiver pickups has been a steal for Miami.
The Marlins claimed reliever Austin Brice from the fellow non-contending Orioles on Feb. 4. The transaction reunited the right-handed Brice and the organization he started his career with when it chose him in the ninth round of the 2010 draft. Brice stuck with the Marlins for several years and made his major league debut with them in 2016, but they traded him and righty starter Luis Castillo to the Reds in the ensuing offseason as part of a deal for RHP Dan Straily. Considering the emergence of Castillo as a front-line starter in Cincinnati, not to mention that Straily lasted a meager two years in Miami, the trade obviously hasn’t worked out for the Marlins. However, thanks to their reunion with Brice, it looks a tad less unfortunate (albeit still highly regrettable).
Brice, who turned 27 last month, didn’t have the makings of a particularly interesting pickup for the Marlins when they brought him back. He was coming off a two-year stretch with the Reds in which he pitched to a 5.40 ERA with 7.5 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 70 innings. Unimpressed, the Reds decided early in the offseason to cut the cord on Brice. He then had brief winter stints with the Angels and Orioles after each of those teams claimed him off waivers, finally finding a home with the Marlins about two months before the season began.
Just past the halfway point of the 2019 campaign, Brice has come to the fore as one of the most productive waiver additions of the offseason. Through 37 1/3 innings, which ties him for first among Marlins relievers, Brice has logged a sterling 1.93 ERA. Some of his other numbers – including 8.68 K/9 against 3.38 BB/9 and a 3.84 FIP – don’t inspire nearly as much confidence. However, Brice ranks much closer to the top of the majors than the bottom in weighted on-base average/expected wOBA against (.253/.276). He has also been a bear to deal with for both righties and lefties, having limited the former to a .237 wOBA and the latter to a .274 mark.
Brice’s success has come with a change in repertoire. When the Marlins brought Brice back in the winter, president of baseball operations Michael Hill called him a “severe sinkerball pitcher.” Compared to 2018, though, Brice’s sinker usage has, well, sunk. He utilized the pitch 48.5 percent of the time in his Cincinnati swan song, but it’s down to 22.4 in his return to Miami. Brice is now relying primarily on his curveball, which is up to 44.2 percent usage after sitting at 28.1 a year ago and ranks in the league’s 96th percentile in spin rate. He has also leaned heavily on his four-seamer, having thrown it almost 9 percent more than he did last season (28.5 to 19.8).
The switch in pitch mix has yielded encouraging results for Brice, whose curve (.219 wOBA/.253 xwOBA) and four-seamer (.173/.133) have stymied opposing hitters. Turning to those pitches more has helped Brice rank well above average in hard-hit rate against (65th percentile), exit velocity (68th), xwOBA (84th), expected batting average (84th) and expected slugging percentage (93rd).
Nine years after they drafted him, the Marlins may have stumbled on a useful multiyear piece in Brice, who’s not slated to reach arbitration until after 2020 or free agency until the end of the 2023 campaign. It’s a welcome bit of good news for a team which owns the NL’s worst record, 33-55, and hasn’t had many causes for celebration this season.