Earlier this week, the Milwaukee Brewers officially designated Junior Guerra as their starting pitcher on Opening Day. Guerra came into camp as one of just two starters (along with Zach Davies) that were guaranteed a spot in Milwaukee’s rotation to begin the season, and the Opening Day assignment serves as a further vote of confidence in the right-hander after an unprecedented breakout rookie season at age 31 last year. Junior claimed the title of #2016BrewersAce on the strength of his 9-3 record across 20 starts after debuting with Milwaukee on May 3rd, working to a 2.81 ERA in 121.2 innings pitched with 7.4 K/9, 3.18 BB/9, and a 45.3% ground ball rate. Not a bad outcome for a player who was claimed off waivers by the Brewers in October 2015, the first transaction executed by GM David Stearns after taking over the job.
Given the Brewers’ status as a rebuilding team and Guerra’s relatively advanced age, there were some trade rumblings at last summer’s deadline as well as early on in the winter, but no serious rumors were ever reported. With a dearth of quality starting pitching currently available on the trade market, however, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reports that Junior is the second-best arm that could be had in a deal this season, after only left-handed ace Jose Quintana of the White Sox. Additionally, Jim Bowden of ESPN stated during an appearance on Sirius XM that several general managers told him that they tried to acquire Guerra from the Brewers, but obviously to no avail.
Considering the reported widespread interest in Junior this offseason, Slingin’ Stearns and the Brewers’ front office must be quite bullish on Guerra’s outlook for the 2017 season. The team has obviously shown that they are unafraid to pull the trigger on just about any deal during their rebuild if the price is right, which means that the price on Guerra must be quite high. ERA estimators like FIP (3.71) and DRA (3.87) saw Guerra as more of a strong mid-rotation performer than a true ‘ace’ last season, but even a terrific #3 starter making roughly the league minimum for the next two years should command quite a return. In BCB’s Trade Assets series from this past offseason, I surmised that the Brewers wouldn’t be out of line in demanding two top-100 level prospects along with a third piece in any potential Guerra deal.
The offers for Guerra were apparently not commensurate with how the franchise values him, so the Brewers are making a calculated bet on Guerra’s continued success. This may not be as big of a wager as one would think regarding a 32 year old who spent seven years pitching in foreign and independent leagues after the Mets released him as a minor leaguer back in 2008, however. Guerra has already demonstrated the ability to adapt and adjust to major league hitters in a significant way.
During Guerra’s first 13 starts last season, his arsenal consisted of a four-seam fastball, slider, and his signature splitter. He was a solid strikeout pitcher during that time frame, generating K’s against 22% of the batters who faced him while posting a 3.06 ERA and 3.84 FIP in 82.1 innings. He did allow a 36% hard contact rate in those first few months, however, indicating that his .242 BABIP could probably be attributed to a fair amount of good fortune. As batters began to swing less at his put-away splitter, Junior needed to develop a new way to get hitters out consistently.
On July 19th, the day Guerra’s 14th start start in the big leagues, he introduced a sinker to his arsenal. He significantly reduced his four-seam usage against right handed hitters in favor of his new sinker, which features a good bit of arm-side break in addition to its sinking action. Guerra also reduced the overall usage of his two offspeed pitches while incorporating his new offering. During the first half of the season, Guerra used his four-seam fastball in all quadrants of the zone; once he incorporated his sinker, he utilized that pitch regularly to the arm-side (in to right handers) of the zone while focusing his four-seamer more on the glove side (away from righties).
Guerra’s strikeout rate fell to 17.1% during the second half of the season and his walk rate increased from 7.9% to 10.4%, but Guerra’s run prevention numbers were even better in the 39.1 innings he pitched after the All-Star break: a 2.29 ERA accompanied by a 3.43 FIP. After adding the sinker, his ground ball rate increased by nearly five percentage points up to 48.3%, and his new cache of pitches allowed him to generate a significantly lower amount of hard contact (29%) from his first half total as well as an increase in soft contact (19.3% to 21.2%). What Guerra was missing in strikeouts he made up in groundouts and infield pop ups, which are considered as valuable as a regular old strikeout. Junior induced fly balls on the infield a whopping 15.8% of the time during the second half of the season, well above the league average of 9.7%. A BABIP of .265 from July 19th and on was still relatively low compared to the league average, but was a bit more believable than the low BABIP he produced in the first half given the significant alteration in Guerra’s batted ball profile.
Neither ZiPS (projected 4.24 ERA) nor PECOTA (4.08 ERA) are especially high on Guerra heading into this season. I would suspect, however, that Milwaukee’s own internal projections view Junior much more favorably than those two outlets if they rebuffed all offers for their ace this past winter. While he may not be able to match the sub-3.00 ERA that he put up last season, Guerra’s shifting profile at the MLB should lend itself to continued success in 2017. An an earned run average in the range of 3.40-3.60 seems like a reasonable estimate for the upcoming season even if you’re more bearish on Guerra than I am, and if the Brewers get off to the slow start that many expect, then Junior should be a hot commodity for them come trade deadline time in July.
Or who knows? Maybe Junior Guerra serves as the anchor for Milwaukee’s pitching staff (#2017BrewersAce) this season as they make a largely unforeseen run to the playoffs.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Brooks Baseball
Should the Brewers have traded Junior Guerra during this past offseason, given the reported interest?
This poll is closed
Yes, he’ll regress badly in 2017.
No, they were wise to bet on his continued success.