Brandon Williamson turns 25 next month. It’s too early in his professional journey to call the 2023 season a crossroads.
Nonetheless, there are few issues facing the Reds this spring more important and unsettled than the direction of Williamson’s baseball career.
The tall left-hander has talent. Williamson’s 2021 season is clear evidence. In the Seattle Mariners’ organization, he followed up a short rookie stint and a COVID-blocked 2020 with a gigantic stride forward. It was Williamson’s dazzling 2021 performance that caught the eye of the Reds front office.
You see, Williamson struck out 37% of the batters he’d faced. That was the fifth-highest rate among minor league pitchers with at least 90 innings. Over his final seven starts, after he’d made the jump to Double-A, that number hit 42%. After a superb 2021, Williamson rocketed up prospect lists, from a distant thought to the Top-100. Baseball America ranked him #83 and FanGraphs had Williamson at #61.
Reds fans may have been disappointed at the sudden departure of Winker and Suarez and what that signaled. But the notion the Reds had landed an impact pitcher that could be mentioned in sentences with Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo was a big-league silver lining.
Then, amid all that hope and promise, Brandon Williamson’s 2022 season crash-landed with a resounding thud.
That brings us to the present. Williamson confronts the steep challenge of regaining momentum. At the same time he enjoys the ample opportunity afforded by the Reds roster.
Brandon Williamson was born and raised in Minnesota. Out of high school, Williamson pitched for North Iowa Area Community College for two seasons. From there, the tall starter signed with Texas Christian University where he joined Nick Lodolo. In 2019, Williamson started 16 games for the Horned Frogs. He struck out 89 and walked 36 in 77.1 innings. In the 2019 draft, one round after the Reds chose Lodolo, the Mariners selected Williamson.
Mariners System (2019-2021)
After the draft, Seattle started Williamson with the Low-A Everett AquaSox, skipping rookie ball. He appeared in 10 games for Everett, pitching just 15 innings. Williamson flashed brilliance in that brief stint, striking out 25 (41%) and walking just five (8.2%).
The COVID pandemic washed out Williamson’s 2020 competitive season. When minor league baseball returned in 2021, the Mariners assigned him back to Everett, which had become their High-A affiliate. Williamson started six games before being promoted to the Double-A Arkansas Travelers.
Williamson continued to post outstanding numbers. With Arkansas, he struck out 33% of the batters he faced and walked just 8.1%. Even as he shot up prospects lists, folks who paid close attention to the Mariners thought Williamson was underrated and possibly the best pitcher in their excellent minor league system.
The following spring, that success made Williamson the headliner of the trade return to the Reds.
Reds System (2022)
When the 6’6″ Williamson arrived to play for the Reds, his four-pitch portfolio was said to have a “rich swing-and-miss” quality. His fastball had good vertical drop, averaged 93 mph and could reach 97 mph. Williamson’s mid-80s slider and mid-70s curve had shown good improvement. His fourth pitch was a changeup that projected to be at least average.
The Reds assigned Williamson to the Chattanooga Lookouts where he started 14 games. That’s where the trouble began. Williamson’s Double-A strikeout rate dropped from 33% to 25% and his walk-rate soared from 8% to 13%.
Despite that rocky start, on June 28 the Reds promoted Williamson to Louisville, where he started another 13 games. The change of scenery and move to Triple-A didn’t improve Williamson’s trajectory. His strikeout rate continued to fall while his free-pass rate jumped again. The combination (19.2% K, 14.5% BB) produced a K%-BB% of 4.7%, down from 25% the year before. For more context, the average major league K%-BB% for relievers in 2022 was 14.5%.
Williamson had begun throwing and missing high in the zone. That tendency was further reflected by the drop in his ground-ball rate from 57% in 2019 to just 33% in 2022. Williamson’s troubles were not due to bad luck. If anything, his fortune with home runs (5% HR/FB) was far better than average. Williamson’s BABIP in 2022 was a near-normal .302. By all accounts, he was healthy throughout 2022.
Brandon Williamson’s ERA remained respectable at 4.07. But his xFIP, which measures the stuff pitchers have more control over, was around 6.00. Compare that to Williamson’s xFIP of 3.84 at AA in 2021.
To be clear, Williamson’s problem was not just command, the aspect of his pitching scouts had concerns about even when he was with Seattle’s organization. In 2022, Williamson also lost both his control and dominance.
The Reds added him to their 40-man roster in November to shield him from the Rule 5 draft.
Spring Training: Hope Amid Hype
We know from research and countless local examples that spring training statistics don’t predict regular season production. Sample sizes are way too small to be reliable. Uneven competition prevents extrapolation to major league games. Performances may not be representative of games that count. Pitchers might be working on certain pitches. Batters may be more concerned with making contact (or making teams) than waiting for strikes.
But as fans, flush with the unbridled optimism attached to new seasons, we ignore that reality. Media reports often contribute to our misplaced faith. A favorable comment, a couple sharp plate appearances or a few dropped pounds can generate a new narrative.
In that light, take early reports from Goodyear on Brandon Williamson for what they’re worth. After all, he’s appeared in only two games for a total of three innings. Many of the 13 batters he’s faced are minor leaguers. Four of those guys got hits, including a home run.
Nonetheless, here are the Brandon Williamson hype bits: He’s throwing his fastball with more velocity. It’s consistent. 91-93 in his first game. Sitting 94 in his second start against the White Sox. He looks stronger. He has a new cutter. He’s turning heads. He’s more mature. He says he’s going to throw more pitches for strikes instead of always looking for swings and misses. He has a new workout program.
(On that last item, Williamson says his between-starts routine last year was “pretty light” and the “same thing every day.” He evaluated it as “not very good.” Now he has a more structured shoulder program. On the one hand, good. On the other, it’s frustrating the Reds weren’t more involved in the development of an important minor league pitcher.)
But back to those spring shoots. Four strikeouts. No walks. I repeat, no walks in three innings.
Look long and hard, you’ll struggle to find examples of healthy minor league pitchers who took the enormous step backward Brandon Williamson did.
If you go by Williamson’s 2022 season stats, it’s difficult to find cause for optimism. His K% and BB% were brutal. People who rank prospects for a living have dropped Wiliamson far off the top-player lists. Experts who project performance for a living peg his 2023 ERA above 5.00.
Yet, there are reasons to reject abject pessimism. You can’t throw out Williamson’s brilliant success in 2021. Those fresh spring training bits may add up to something real. The stronger shoulder. A new approach. Williamson has been reunited in Goodyear with Alon Leichman, the new Reds Assistant Pitching Coach. Leichman was Williamson’s pitching coach with the Travelers in 2021.
The Reds’ bare-boned roster offers vast opportunity for Williamson. Competition for the two open spots in the team’s starting rotation has been shrinking due to injury (Justin Dunn) and under-performance (Connor Overton). Williamson’s main rivals are Luis Cessa and Luke Weaver. Cessa has 29 major league starts compared to 172 relief appearances over seven seasons. Weaver was a reliever last year and hasn’t started more than 13 games in a season since 2018.
Will Brandon Williamson make the Reds Opening Day roster?
While that’s a provocative question, it’s poor framing. Instead: Will Williamson regain a steady fastball velocity? Will he rediscover his control? Will he develop command of the strike zone? If Brandon Williamson accomplishes those goals, the young lefty will be good enough for the Reds rotation. He’ll have become the pitcher the Reds thought they’d acquired a year ago.
But don’t expect firm, clear-eyed answers to those questions this month. No matter how good (or bad) Williamson is the next few weeks, we’ll need to see more than what can be learned at spring training. And that’s OK. There’s no rush. It’s a big year for Brandon Williamson. The Reds need to get it right, not fast.
Photo Credit: NIACC Trojans