On the afternoon of Nov. 25, 2013, the Orioles acquired right-hander Brad Brach from the San Diego Padres. Orioles fans everywhere will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
OK, maybe not.
Brach's acquisition didn't exactly take baseball by storm. Most O's fans, if they even paid notice at all, considered Brach just another interchangeable relief arm to add to the stockpile of warm bodies in the bullpen. He was fringe roster filler, competing for a spot as the last man in the pen against the likes of Evan Meek, Josh Stinson and Edgmer Escalona -- pitchers who ended up with brief cups of coffee with the Orioles or never made it at all. Brach might've gone the way of countless mediocre middle relievers of years past, popping up from the minors every so often to trudge through some low-leverage innings, then returning from whence he came, unnoticed and quickly forgotten.
In the two years that have followed, though, Brach has assured he won't be forgotten. In fact, he's transformed himself into one of the Orioles' most indispensable contributors.
Brach, 30, is in the midst of a breakout season for the Orioles in 2016, emerging as one of the most dominant relievers in the game. As of the All-Star break, he held the lowest ERA (0.93) and fourth-lowest WHIP (0.81) of any pitcher in baseball who had thrown at least 40 innings. He has posted career-best numbers in nearly every pitching category, from ERA and WHIP to strikeouts per nine innings (10.6), walks per nine (2.6) and hits per nine (4.7). Opposing hitters have batted .152 with a .471 OPS against Brach this season. Simply put, he's been nearly unhittable.
The baseball world has taken notice. On July 5, Brach was selected to the American League All-Star team for the first time in his career. That night, he celebrated by striking out all three batters he faced against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Another day, another dominant outing by Brach.
"He's been a big part of our team for the last few years," lefty Zach Britton said. "His role, going on one inning, two innings, he does a really good job of keeping us in the game from behind. He's gotten a lot of wins for us from that standpoint. He's big. He takes a lot of pressure off a lot of guys that throw later in the game."
The 2016 version of Brach is dramatically different from the one who cut his teeth with the Padres from 2011-13. In San Diego, Brach flashed swing-and-miss stuff -- racking up 117 strikeouts in 104.2 innings during parts of three seasons -- but couldn't find home plate with a GPS, averaging 5.1 walks per nine innings. Although he finagled a 3.19 ERA in 2013 for the Padres, his underlying statistics underwhelmed San Diego management. His unimpressive 1.77 WHIP and propensity for allowing hits -- more than one per inning -- convinced the Padres to designate him for assignment.
Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette took a chance on Brach. And while Duquette has a checkered trade history in Baltimore, his pilfering of Brach for minor league righty Devin Jones -- who never cracked the bigs and retired in 2015 -- will go down as one of the biggest steals of his Orioles tenure.
Shortly after joining the Orioles, Brach found new life with help from O's pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti. The Birds' coaches shifted Brach's position on the pitching rubber, giving him a more straight-on angle to the hitter and making his crossfire delivery a bit less extreme.
"I just made an adjustment on the rubber," Brach said. "I went from being all the way on the first base side to more centered up, and kind of just clipped my back two cleats on the side of the rubber so I was square to home plate."
Additionally, Brach varied his pitching repertoire, honing a well-developed changeup that he now throws nearly 25 percent of the time. The change has given Brach a put-away pitch to complement his fastball and slider. As a right-handed pitcher, it's made him particularly effective against left-handed hitters, helping him avoid the extreme splits that sometimes plague relievers. In 2016, Brach has held lefties to a .231 average and .627 OPS in 85 plate appearances, and he was even more effective against them in 2015 (.184/.534 in 169 PAs).
"For a righty against a lefty, the changeup is the great equalizer," Brach said. "For me, it's just being able to throw my changeup in, really, any count, and I think it keeps the hitters [from] being able to just jump on the fastball. … I'm just being more aggressive in the zone. I'm using all three pitches in all counts and just having the mentality that I can get the job done."
Britton -- Brach's bullpen mate since 2014 -- sees him as a trusted late-inning weapon against hitters from both sides of the plate.
"I think he's just getting more comfortable doing what he's doing," Britton said. "To me, the big thing is he's just attacking hitters right now, and he's got a really good changeup that he can command really well. And when you have three good pitches coming out of the bullpen, it's tough for hitters to make adjustments off you, and he's using that to his advantage."
Unlike most big league pitchers, Brach has never started a game in the majors or minors. The Padres immediately planted him in the minor league bullpen after drafting him in the 42nd round of the 2008 amateur draft, even though he had been a successful starter at Monmouth University.
"I started all throughout college," Brach said. "And when I was a freshman, I was terrible in relief. That's why I moved to a starter, because I couldn't get anybody out. So it's just kind of funny how when I got to the minor leagues, I became a reliever and was successful at it."
That relief role has shifted throughout Brach's tenure with the Orioles. During his first year with the club in 2014, he began as a long reliever and mop-up man, seven times entering the game in the fifth inning or earlier. He proved so capable at mowing down hitters, though, that manager Buck Showalter started relying on Brach to hold late-inning leads. In August and September, 19 of Brach's 24 appearances came in the seventh inning or later, 14 of them in Orioles victories.
Since then, Brach has been a steady presence in the back of the Birds' bullpen, working as a reliable seventh-inning specialist before capably replacing injured righty Darren O'Day in the setup role in 2016.
There's only one relief job Brach hasn't yet served with the Orioles: closing. Fellow All-Star Britton seems to have the ninth inning locked down for the foreseeable future. But Brach -- who has 119 minor league saves -- could be a future closer in the making, thanks to his dominant stuff and ability to thrive under pressure.
"Closing is awesome," Brach said. "Even in minor league games, the crowd gets into it, and the guys are ready for the game to be over, and they're out there making diving plays and everything. When the game's on the line, I think that's the most fun and, for me, my favorite."
That job will have to wait. For now, he can gladly settle for a different title: Brad Brach, American League All-Star.
Issue 223: July 2016