Miami Marlins

Austin Brice rides ambiguous breaking ball to breakthrough season in Marlins bullpen

Miami Marlins pitcher Austin Brice (37) pitches during the eighth inning of an Major League Baseball game against the San Francisco Giants at Marlins Park in Miami,
Miami Marlins pitcher Austin Brice (37) pitches during the eighth inning of an Major League Baseball game against the San Francisco Giants at Marlins Park in Miami,

Austin Brice has long stopped trying to put a label on his breaking ball. Sometimes Statcast picks it up as a slider. Other times it registers as a curveball. To Brice, it’s just “breaking ball” and it’s the pitch which has helped him put together a career year for the Miami Marlins.

With more than half a season in the books, Brice is the only member of the Marlins’ bullpen with more than 10 appearances and an ERA better than 4.00. The relief pitcher is already just two innings shy of matching a career high and his ERA is nearly three runs better than any other season he has spent in MLB. Waived by two different teams during the offseason, Brice has been a revelation for Miami’s unproven bullpen.

“We’ve used him a lot of different ways,” manager Don Mattingly said Tuesday after Brice threw three shutout innings in a 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals. “We’ve used him like tonight where we needed length, we’ve been able to use him to get out of an inning — we’ve actually really been able to use him a lot of different ways and for the most part he’s been pretty efficient all year.”

With his three scoreless innings against the Nationals in the series-opener in Washington, Brice lowered his ERA all the way down 2.04. Since the start of June, the right-handed pitcher has thrown 14 innings and allowed just one earned run — a home run — on four hits and four walks with 12 strikeouts. The Marlins (32-51) have used him in a variety of roles and he has found success in any one.

The biggest change for Brice hasn’t been anything intentional. In each of the first four seasons he spent in the Majors, the righty threw his sinker more than 40 percent of the time, making it by far his most used pitch. This season, the breaking ball has jumped to the top of the list as the sinker has dipped all the way down to 22.5 percent, according to Statcast. Brice’s combined curveball and slider usage — Statcast sometimes registers his breaking ball as either — sits at 45.3 percent, while his four-seam fastball checks in at 28.0.

“I really haven’t paid any of that much mind. It’s actually news to me,” Brice said. “I’ve just been trying to utilize my pitches, especially my slider. It’s a good secondary pitch for me, especially because I throw sinkers, so I just try to leverage whatever I have as much as possible.”

In the loss to the Nationals (43-41) on Tuesday, Brice threw his breaking ball 15 times and his fastball 16. His sinker, which had been his go-to pitch for so long, only got used eight times. The breaking ball was his best strike pitch, getting five called strikes and one swinging strike, which was one of his three strikeouts.

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The pitch is effectively primarily because of Brice’s delivery. The pitcher throws from a unique three-quarters arm slot, which has always made his pitches hard to read. It’s why he typically no longer refers to his breaking ball as a slider and why his fastballs occasionally register as a left-handed slider on Miami’s internal tracking system.

All throughout Brice’s career, the breaking ball has been the biggest beneficiary of his funky delivery. This season, the whiff percentage on his curveball is at 28.6 percent, but it was even better with less usage in past seasons. With the Cincinnati Reds in 2018, Brice threw his curveball to a 42.5 whiff percentage.

“I just think it’s always going to be something funky because just the way I throw. I’ve thrown some fastballs and stuff that have been picked up as left-handed sliders,” Brice said. “I think it’s just always going to be something that’s specific to me. That’s why I just call it a breaking ball. I don’t really classify it as a certain type of breaking ball.”

Even though throwing the breaking ball more isn’t a conscious effort, Brice said his recent success is a product of putting all his weapons to use more effectively than he has at any point in his career. Brice’s four-pitch arsenal is unique for a reliever and now 27-year-old feels he knows how to use it.

“Some days it’s good. Some days fastball’s good and some days it’s bad,” Brice said. “It’s just really the ability to take those days and those days that are in between, and just try to turn them into something positive and just turn them into a good outing.”