What’s the deal with John Brebbia?

One of the few bright spots in the 2017 Cardinals bullpen was the 27-year-old rookie John Brebbia. Brebbia made his debut on May 28 in Colorado and became one of Mike Matheny’s go-to relievers. He was pretty successful and one of the few relievers Cardinals fans didn’t dread to see coming out of the ‘pen. It was hard to tell what to make of him, though. It seems John Mozeliak is satisfied with the team as it stands, meaning that the bullpen will mostly likely be filled with players currently in a Cardinals uniform (including new additions Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone). Should Brebbia be one of those guys? Is he just another mediocre arm, the latest in the recent tradition of average middle relievers (Seth Maness, Matt Bowman)? Or is he a quality reliever, reliable and cherished? Is there any real skill underneath the Beard?

Brebbia finished the season with a 2.44 ERA and a ERA+ of 176 in 50 games, which was worth only 0.1 WAR. Opponents batting average on balls in play against him was a low .216, while his FIP was 4.13. Brebbia had a WHIP of .93 and Home Run per nine inning rate of 1.39. In 51.2 innings, Brebbia struck out 51 batters, while walking 11. He ended up leaving 90.9% of runners on base.

It seems that Brebbia’s 2017 performance is not sustainable. Steamer projections for 2018 have Brebbia regressing significantly. His ERA is predicted to jump to 4.26, his WHIP to 1.28, with his FIP dropping a little to 4.26. His 2017 flyball rate of 56.1% along with his .216 BABIP suggest extremely good fly ball luck, which may not continue in 2018 (though pitching in Busch Stadium helps). Steamer also predicts a BABIP of .289 for Brebbia which indicates much of his success in 2017 was batted ball luck. (Mercer projections are a bit more generous, projecting a 3.71 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.176). History is not on Brebbia’s side either. Prior to the 2017 season, he struggled in the minor leagues:

It is true that it takes time for pitchers to develop and since Brebbia was a relatively young, 27 in the 2017 season, his success may indicate that he has finally pulled it all together. Based on his high batted ball averages and high FIP however, this doesn’t seem likely. Additionally, 86.6% of balls hit off Brebbia were hit at medium-to-hard contact rates. It’s not as if he is overpowering hitters. He is getting hard ground outs and fly outs, that fall right into the gloves of Tommy Pham and Kolten Wong. The evidence suggests that Brebbia isn’t going to blossom into a superstar reliever.

It is hard to know what to expect from relief pitchers like Brebbia. There are some plus sides: he has decent fastball velocity, average 94.5 MPH. His two best pitches, fastballs and sliders, were worth 1.9 and 5.3 runs above average in 2017, respectively. He has an average contact rate of 74.9%. Average is actually the perfect word to describe Brebbia--he is an average, middle-inning relief pitcher. He should be used to get outs in low leverage situations and not much else. In the hands of a more competent bullpen manager than Mike Matheny, Brebbia might be a decent addition to a team’s bullpen. With Matheny at the helm though, Brebbia is a prime candidate for overuse and disappointment in the 2018 season.

All Stats from Fangraphs. Projections from Steamer and Mercer.