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In an era of increasing velocity, the Milwaukee Brewers have gone their own way in building a starting rotation

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Milwaukee has one of the softest-tossing rotations in baseball.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Tommy John surgery is becoming an increasingly common procedure in baseball these days and isn’t considered to be the potential career-ender that it once was. Still, replacing an elbow ligament typically requires at least a year, and often longer, of recovery and rehabilitation before a pitcher is ready to return to the mound. So it is particularly disappointing when some of the game’s young stars are stricken by a blown elbow, like this past week when it was announced that both Shohei Ohtani of the Angels and Michael Kopech of the White Sox have been recommended for UCL surgery. Ohtani may still be able to contribute to his team with the bat while recuperating his arm, but neither hurler is expected to be back on an MLB mound before 2020.

Pitchers have been finding themselves on the disabled list more and more often over the past few years; according to a recent Buster Olney column at ESPN, there have been 328 occurrences of a pitcher spending time on the disabled list in 2018, up from 291 last season and 240 in 2015. Olney suggests a link between injuries and the increasing velocity throughout the game, noting that the average MLB fastball has climbed from 89.4 MPH in 2003 to 92.8 MPH here fifteen years later. Not all pitcher injuries are arm-related, of course, but Olney also quotes a National League scout who believes that the heavier emphasis on going “all-out” with every pitch has also led to an increase in blister problems.

Following word of the Ohtani and Kopech news, Bill Shaikin of the LA Times tweeted this:

Which got me thinking, isn’t that what the Milwaukee Brewers have already done with their pitching rotation?

Since their competitive window opened last season, the loudest cries around Milwaukee have been for the team to acquire an “ace” starting pitcher, especially after the loss of Jimmy Nelson last September. Both the money and the prospect capital have been there for David Stearns to go out and get a top-of-the-rotation starter if he really wanted to, but to this point the young GM has chosen to invest more heavily in bats. His major pitching additions last winter were Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley, and the “splash” he made for his rotation this summer was picking up Gio Gonzalez in an August waiver deal. Stearns’ reluctance to spend big on arms like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, or Chris Archer has prompted constant reminders from the national media about the perceived pitching deficit in the Cream City. And yet, the team will enter play today with a 83-62 record and a 3.96 ERA from their starting rotation, tied for the 11th-best mark in baseball.

The Brewers’ starters are one of the most fastball-reliant groups in the league, ranking ninth in baseball with a 57.5% usage rate this season. In terms of velocity, though, Milwaukee’s initial out-getters are tied for 27th with an average of 90.8 MPH. Chacin, Miley, and Gonzalez, the team’s notable additions to the rotation, all throw their “heat” a good deal slower than the league-average starter. At the other end of the spectrum, the Rays have the hardest-throwing collection of starters this season, with their average heater coming in a whole four miles-per-hour harder at 94.8 MPH.

Milwaukee Brewers Starting Pitcher Velocity

Pitcher Fastball Velocity (MPH) Innings Pitched as SP
Pitcher Fastball Velocity (MPH) Innings Pitched as SP
Brandon Woodruff 94.3 15.7
Junior Guerra 93.2 135
Chase Anderson 92.4 150.3
Wade Miley 90.9 68.7
Freddy Peralta 90.7 73.7
Jhoulys Chacin 90 168
Zach Davies 89.7 53
Gio Gonzalez 89.5 5.7
Aaron Wilkerson 88.6 5
Brent Suter 86.6 94.7
Brewers AVG 90.8
League AVG 92.8

Without overwhelming velocity, Milwaukee’s starters come in at only #17 overall with a 20.6% strikeout rate. Whiffs continue to skyrocket around the league, but the Brewers’ rotation has instead been able to thrive by pitching to contact and relying on the defense to make plays behind them. A combination of excellent positioning and shifting plus a group of skilled defenders has helped push Milwaukee’s defensive unit towards the top of the league; they rank #2 overall with +88 Defensive Runs Saved, #7 with a +24.9 Ultimate Zone Rating, and #4 with a 71.7% Defensive Efficiency Rating. With some stellar glovework behind them, this no-name rotation of relative soft-tossers has consistently been able to keep the Menomonee Valley Nine in ballgames all season long.

Unfortunately, Shaikin’s hypothesis that a rotation without flamethrowers will be healthier hasn’t borne out for the Brewers. The softest-tosser of them all, lefty Brent Suter, underwent Tommy John surgery in early August. Zach Davies spent a good chunk of the season on the DL after a shoulder injury and subsequent back issues. Wade Miley missed most of the first half of the year with groin and oblique issues. Junior Guerra, the hardest thrower among the team’s regular starters, injured his forearm right before the All-Star break, saw his effectiveness go in the tank upon his return, and has since lost his rotation spot. Chase Anderson has spent a stint on the DL, too.

Baseball has progressively shifted towards harder throwing pitchers and more strikeouts over the last several years. The way Stearns and company have put together their starting rotation and built up their pitching depth for 2018 stands in stark contrast to that trend, however. Unfortunately, the idea that building a staff around soft-tossers will decrease pitcher injuries hasn’t played out for the Brewers this year. But even without premium velocity and swing-and-miss stuff, Milwaukee’s rotation has been rather successful this season while working around a number of DL stints. This is due in large part to being the staff being assembled around arms who have pitched more to contact and relied on the outstanding defense behind them to turn those balls in play into outs. Last night, it was Wade Miley tossing 5.0 innings and inducing 13 ground balls while allowing only two runs in a win over the Cubs, putting his ERA at 2.23 through 13 starts this year. Tonight, our beloved local nine hands the ball to rotational anchor Jhoulys Chacin and his 3.59 ERA as they look to get back into a tie for the NL Central lead with another victory over Chicago.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus