The 2017 season was one to forget for Junior Guerra. Instead of building on his historic #2016BrewersAce rookie campaign, Guerra injured himself while attempting to drop down a bunt in the third inning of his Opening Day start for the Brewers. He immediately hit the disabled list with a calf strain and missed the next seven weeks of action. He returned to active duty at the end of May but was never able to get on track during the rest of a lost season. He battled his mechanics, lost control of the strike zone, and suffered staggering fluctuations in his velocity. At one point during the summer he was struggling to touch 90 MPH.
Junior wound up losing his spot in the rotation and found himself demoted to the minor leagues for about a month before returning as a September call-up when rosters expanded. He worked mostly in mop-up duty out of Craig Counsell’s bullpen through the end of the season. Guerra’s final numbers looked like this: 70.1 innings pitched, a 5.12 ERA, and an ugly 149 DRA-. He fanned more than 21% of the hitters that he faced but issued 5.5 BB/9 and coughed up an astounding 18 home runs (2.3 HR/9) across his 21 appearances.
After the end of the regular season Guerra and his family returned home to their native Venezuela. Junior didn’t play winter ball during the 2016-17 offseason at the behest of the Brewers, but after logging only 105.1 innings between the majors and minors last season, he was given the go-ahead to suit up for his squad Tiburones de La Guaira. Prior to 2016-17, Guerra had pitched eight winters in a row for La Guaira and had developed a reputation as one of the top pitchers on the circuit, so the fans in Venezuela were glad to see the ace take the mound once again.
La Guaira wound up finishing last in the Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional (LVBP) with a 24-39 record, but Junior was hardly to blame for his team’s poor overall showing. Guerra himself made nine appearances (eight starts) and tossed 48.1 innings during the regular season with a nifty 2.98 ERA. He allowed only 40 hits - including just one home run - and posted a 30:17 K/BB ratio en route to a 1.18 WHIP. He fell a couple innings short of qualifying, but his ERA would have ranked 5th-best in the league and his WHIP would’ve been 4th.
La Guaira obviously didn’t make the postseason, but there is a draft prior to the start of the LVBP playoffs that allows the teams that are still alive to pick reinforcements from teams that have been eliminated. The regular season league champion Cardenales de Lara finished with a 38-25 record and with the #1 overall pick in the reinforcement draft, they selected Junior Guerra to front their playoff rotation.
For his part, Guerra certainly lived up to the hype that comes with being chosen first overall in the reinforcement draft. He was a horse for Lara during the postseason, starting five games and logging 28.2 innings - the most of any hurler in the playoffs. His 12:12 K/BB ratio wasn’t exactly great, but he allowed only 25 hits (and zero dingers) with a 1.29 WHIP on his way to a 2.20 ERA. Only one other players pitched as many as 20.0 innings with an ERA lower than Junior’s in the LVBP postseason. Lara wound up making it to the championship series against Caribes de Anzoátegui, but they were ultimately eliminated as Caribes claimed the league title four games to two.
Between the LVBP regular season and playoffs, Guerra wound up piling an additional 77.0 innings to his ledger after his truncated regular season back stateside. Here are how his combined numbers look in comparison to the regular season 2017-18 LVBP averages:
It’s a much different game down in Venezuela than the one we are used to seeing played by MLB teams. The amount of runs scored last season was similar (4.86 in LVBP, 4.65 MLB), but the two leagues arrived there in very different ways. MLB saw a lot more home runs (1.3 HR/9) and strikeouts (8.3 K/9) than in the LVBP, but fewer hits overall (8.8 H/9). Down in Venezuela, the game is more focused on putting the ball in play (9.81 H/9, 5.96 K/9) and manufacturing runs than it is on slugging the ball over the fence (0.56 HR/9). That should help provide some context for Guerra’s overall numbers.
While it’s true that Junior didn’t strike out as many batters as one would like to see (42 in total), his overall 4.91 K/9 wasn’t too far off the pace from the rest of the league. Excluding the playoffs, his strikeout rate of 5.59 K/9 would’ve put him basically in line with the LVBP average. Guerra’s most significant issues during his disastrous 2017 in Milwaukee were the walks and home runs, and he was able to get both of those bugaboos under control while back home in Venezuela. He issued base on balls at a rate below the league average and in his 77.0 innings of action between the regular season and playoffs, he allowed only one ball over the fence. Guerra thrived at generating weak contact and keeping the ball on the ground, which helped as he allowed two hits per nine less than the league average as well as a better-than-average WHIP. A rough calculation of Junior’s ERA+ in LVBP (without adjusting for park factors) comes out to 159, or 59% better than the league average.
Beyond the gaudy stats, perhaps most encouraging is the fact that Guerra found his velocity once again while pitching back home. According to Octavio Hernandez, who covers the LVBP and has previously written for Baseball Prospectus, Guerra was consistently hitting 92-94 MPH with his fastball during the late innings of his final playoff start for Lara.
At this point it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Brewers will add at least one impact starter to their rotation mix before the start of the regular season, if not two. But if for some reason that doesn’t happen, manager Craig Counsell says that the Opening Day rotation as things stand right now would include Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Jhoulys Chacin. He added that some combination of Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter, Aaron Wilkerson, Yovani Gallardo, and our man Junior Guerra would fill out the rest of the staff until Jimmy Nelson returns sometime this summer.
Guerra is out of minor league options so he would need to be exposed to waivers if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster. That could help his cause this spring as it has become evident throughout his tenure that David Stearns likes to keep as much viable depth in-house as possible. Beyond the logistics part of it, though, Guerra’s LVBP performance should inspire some hope for a potential bounce back in 2018. His velocity is where it needs to be, he seems to have gotten his control back in order, and he was one of the league’s top performers during Winter Ball. When dreaming on the 33 year old’s possible upside we should remember that he’s only a year removed from authoring a 2.81 ERA/88 DRA- across 121.2 MLB innings. But Guerra rejoining the rotation and performing as even a league-average starter would be a huge boon to Milwaukee’s playoff hopes in 2018.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com