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Projecting the Top End of the Starting Rotation

Today we look at Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza, and Kyle Lohse

Scott Cunningham

Longtime readers of Brew Crew Ball will know that I am traditionally the head of the pre-season Community Projections series. I don't think we're going to do that this year. It's a good amount of work for a middle of the road reward. I thought it might be more fun this year to just aggregate the relevant facts and give myself an opportunity to ramble a bit about how I feel about the squad and assess where we are going into the 2014 season. I approach this going in without a solid grasp on what I would say if people asked me, "How are the Brewers going to do this year?" So I will assemble some of the relevant facts in this space and in the next couple of weeks work the way through the roster while hoping we can foster a bit of discussion in the comments by playing a bit of over/under on each player's ZIPS projection. To clarify: for pitchers, "under" means "worse".

Yovani Gallardo's age 27 season was his worst as a major leaguer, but before we slot the guy down in the middle of the rotation let us first remember that it was his age 27 season. I feel like I have written about 5 posts over the years about strange short term changes in Gallardo's effectiveness, in particular his strikeout and walk rates where we would see month-plus trends where his strikeouts were either way up or way down. Despite that, he still ended his four full seasons prior to 2013 by striking out between 23% and 27% of the total batters he faced (that's between 9 and 10 strikeouts per 9 innings). That fell all the way down to 18% last season. His swinging strike percentage, often a good proxy for how "good" a pitcher's stuff is, was also a full point worse than his previous career low.

So if we can agree the results were bad it's naturally time to turn to why, which both gives us some closure and could give us some sort of idea about what we should expect next year. A good place to start would be his velocity chart, which you can see for yourself right here. As has been noted elsewhere, there was a significant decline on his overall velocity average of about 1 mph, and probably more discouragingly, that decline was spread out over the entire season and it looked like even his highs per game were not generally near his highs from the past two years. I wrote more in depth about this back in October, but the important thing to remember when projecting is that we shouldn't expect a player to duplicate his career high every year, nor should we expect a bad year to be the new norm. If Yovani has been anything, it's been durable, and I think there's a strong case that we should expect better from him this year than last.

Contract situation: 2014: $11.25M, 2015: $13M club option ($0.6M buyout)

ZiPS: 185 innings, 21% K 8% BB, 3.80 FIP, 3.9 ERA

Jordan's over/under: Under by just a little. Like any good projection, this is almost exactly the middle ground of the past three years. I'm not sure I trust his strikeout rate bouncing back quite that nicely, and though he's been so durable it's tough to expect 180+ innings every single year. But even missing high on that line by a bit isn't bad.

Matt Garza is a guy I have not written about at all yet but you will be pleased to note that I strongly approved of the deal. Anytime you can add an above-average starter for $12 million and no draft pick, I am on board. I think the only logical reason to disapprove was if you are rooting to tank the team hard in order to rebuild the farm system. I might write about this at length more later, but I have always thought of that as being a foolish reason to not sign a valuable piece with the way the baseball trade market works-- if you suck, just dump everyone at the trade deadline!

Contract situation: 2014-17 $12.5M, 2018 club option involving sorcery and voodoo

Steamer/Oliver composite projection because he wasn't with the Brewers when they ran ZiPS:

173 innings, 22% K 7% BB, 3.6 FIP, 3.6 ERA

Jordan's over/under: Over by a little this time. He's only posted a FIP under 4 twice (once under 3 his first year with the Cubs, !) so though he's capable of it, I'm not expecting it. However, 210 innings of 3.8 or 3.9 is about equal to the line above, and 210 of 3.6 would make this a marvelous deal-- and I am confident enough in the possibility that I would bet on it.

Kyle Lohse had a heck of a season last year. After the signing I was actually on the more optimistic side of things than most, basically saying that it wasn't really worth it to forfeit the draft pick to get him, but that he wasn't the awful pitcher people were saying he was as long as he kept the walk rate down. That's about exactly what happened, and his 2013 peripherals with the Brewers were almost weirdly the same as his 2012 in St. Louis. Though I don't expect a repeat performance (especially as his peripherals again didn't match his ERA), he inspired enough confidence to solidly slot him in as a 3rd starter for a possibly competitive team and not feel too awful about it.

Contract situation: 2014: $11M, 2015: $11M

ZiPS: 165 innings, 16% K 5% BB, 4.2 FIP, 3.9 ERA

Jordan's over/under: Over because of that innings total. Built in to any projection is the chance that an injury could wipe out a good portion of the year, but Lohse has been around 200 innings the past 3 years and I don't see his performance falling off all too drastically. 185 and 3.7-3.8 is about what I have in mind.

We will leave it at that for today and dive into the bottom of the rotation and the back end of the bullpen during the next week. What jumps out at me most is the similarity between the projections for these three pitchers despite their different styles. These are all roughly 3-WAR projections and that is, by definition, above-average. And the fun part is that the upside potential is all at the bottom of the rotation.

As always, tell me why I am wrong on the over-under picks in the comments. I'm looking forward to some discussion now that we're not doing formal projections this year.

Brewers ZiPS posted on Fangraphs. Contract Information from Cot's.