Many have insisted that the Milwaukee Brewers needed a true “ace” to be serious contenders. However, the Brewers proved that notion wrong with a highly successful 2018 season. The rotation lacked a flashy front-line starter, but that didn’t stop Brewer starters from posting a collective 3.92 ERA. Two of the team’s most dependable starters, Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley, were both brought in on relatively cheap contracts. Chacin signed for two years and $15.5 million, while Miley was a minor-league signing. Chacin made 35 regular-season starts with a solid 3.50 ERA, while Miley crafted a 2.57 ERA in 16 starts.
Once again, the national media seems to believe that the Brewers are in need of a true “ace”. Based on what we’ve seen with David Stearns at the helm, it’s more likely that the Brewers bring in someone on a buy-low deal. Drew Pomeranz would certainly fit the bill.
The 30-year-old southpaw is a free agent for the first time in his career. Unfortunately for him, he’s fresh off the worst campaign of his career. Pomeranz pitched just 74 innings for the Boston Red Sox, limping to a 6.08 ERA. All indicators are that he was pretty bad; the unsightly ERA is backed up by a 7.90 DRA and 5.43 FIP. Pomeranz saw his strikeout rate drop to 19.2%, his lowest mark since a 21-inning stint with the Colorado Rockies in 2013; his 5.35 BB/9 was also his highest since that same season.
Pomeranz’s velocity also trended in the wrong direction, possibly due to some arm ailments. Pomeranz spent two stints on the disabled list for a forearm strain and biceps tendinitis. His fastball averaged just 89 miles per hour, the first time in his career that it averaged under 90 miles per hour. His fastball was largely ineffective, allowing a .349 wOBA. Based on his pitch selection, he seemingly tried to combat the declining velocity by throwing more sinkers. Pomeranz rarely threw any sinkers in 2017, throwing them just 2.9% of the time. In 2018, he threw the sinker 12.5% of the time while cutting his fastball usage down from 53% to 39.8%. It didn’t work particularly well. Opponents slugged .610 against the sinker with a whopping .453 wOBA. Pomeranz struggled to control his sinker, and the pitch ended up with a bloated 27.8% walk rate. According to the linear pitch weights from FanGraphs, it was “worth” -1.1 runs.
While the unsuccessful implementation of a sinker played a part in Pomeranz’s nightmare of a season, the main culprit is his curveball. Pomeranz posted an exceptional 132 ERA+ across the 2016 and 2017 seasons; that success was largely thanks to his curve. Opponents could only manage a .247 wOBA against it in 2016 and a .277 wOBA in 2017. In 2018, they destroyed it to the tune of a .415 wOBA. The curveball had just a 13.9% strikeout rate this past season compared to 32.8% in 2016. Its value fell from 8.8 runs in 2017 to -12.7 runs in 2018. What was once Pomeranz’s best pitch became his worst pitch.
It’s not hard to see why the curveball was no longer effective. Here’s where Pomeranz threw it during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Here’s where he threw it last season.
Hanging lots of curveballs right over the plate sounds like a bad idea, and it’s obviously unlikely that Pomeranz was doing this intentionally. This can be chalked up to the poor control that Pomeranz displayed in 2018. His struggles were caused by poor location and an unsuccessful sinker. How could the Brewers fix that? First of all, they would have to improve his control. Secondly, they should tell him to throw more cutters.
Does this sound familiar? It should, because this is exactly what the Brewers did to Wade Miley.
In 2017, Miley struggled with his command. He led the league with 93 walks, and his 5.32 BB/9 was easily the worst of his career. His four-seam and sinker combination was getting hit hard, as the pitches allowed xwOBAs of .382 and .375, respectively. After joining the Brewers, Miley’s control improved dramatically. His walk rate dropped to 3.01 BB/9, which is in line with his career 3.12 rate. He drastically reduced his four-seam and sinker usage, instead making the cutter his primary pitch. These adjustments led to Miley posting the lowest ERA of his career and playing a huge role in the Brewers’ division championship and playoff run.
Pomeranz has struggled with his control, and his fastball and sinker are extremely hittable pitches. He has experimented with a cutter but hasn’t used it very frequently. In 2018, Pomeranz threw his cutter just 6.8% of the time, but it was fairly effective in that small sample, allowing a mere .210 wOBA. Utilizing the pitch more frequently could lead to better results for the southpaw.
The same adjustments that made Wade Miley successful could help Drew Pomeranz return to being an above-average starting pitcher. If the Brewers are looking for another Miley-esque reclamation project, Pomeranz might be the perfect candidate.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.