Drew Pomeranz hasn’t been a reliever for long, but his three-month stretch in Milwaukee may end up making him a lot of money.
With old friend Will Smith starting off free agency by signing a multi-year deal with the Atlanta Braves, an already thin free agent reliever market (and even thinner left-handed reliever market) took a hit, and it may not be a good thing for the Brewers’ hopes of retaining their big trade deadline acquisition.
The interest in Drew Pomeranz was strong and figures to pick up with Will Smith off the board. One evaluator recently called Pomeranz the best reliever in free agency, citing strikeout rate (45 in 26.1 innings w/ Brewers) and increased velocity.— Robert Murray (@ByRobertMurray) November 14, 2019
Pomeranz was a big reason why the Brewers were able to sneak back into the playoffs for a second straight year, striking out an absurd 45% of the batters he faced after coming over from San Francisco, stranding 92.4% of his baserunners with a 2.39 ERA/2.68 FIP and being worth nearly a full win above replacement in just 26.1 innings pitched.
That’s the kind of dominance that a contending team with questions in the bullpen -- which is basically all of them, including this year’s World Series participants -- could be willing to pay handsomly to acquire, while still paying less than they would for someone with Capital-C Closer experience.
The question for the Brewers and anyone else who may be eyeing Pomeranz, especially with Smith off the market, is how real this apparent breakthrough was. Reliever performance is notoriously volatile, and paying big for relief help is at best a 50/50 proposition -- as the Brewers know well. One of the few knocks you could have on the David Stearns era is the iffy track record of his relief pitching signings, including names like Neftali Feliz, Boone Logan and Matt Albers.
But there are signs that Pomeranz’s breakout may be real. For one, as Fangraphs noted on Thursday, Pomeranz saw a significant boost in his velocity when he moved from the rotation to the bullpen. That was a change that happened before he even got to Milwaukee, and it became a big weapon. Sometimes the most simple changes in strategy like “stop throwing your garbage pitches and throw heaters” are the best ones, and that’s what Pomeranz did, averaging 94.3 mph on a fastball he threw 75.5% of the time with the Brewers. With the freedom of the bullpen, he was able to tap into more velocity and forget about trying to throw a third pitch, instead using his wicked curveball the other 24% of the time.
That’s a recipe that has worked just fine for Josh Hader over the past couple years.
We probably shouldn’t imply that a career journeyman/former top prospect with a roller coaster career will be as good as Hader going forward, but there are underlying factors that imply he could continue to be excellent for the next few years.
The Fangraphs post points out that Pomeranz has always had a deceptive delivery to go with very good movement, and his “rising” fastball and sharp curve combo is more than enough to make batters look silly, especially when they only get one chance to see him in a game when he’s coming out of the bullpen.
That doesn’t mean he’s without risk, though. Small samples are still small samples, which is where even the smartest of front offices run into problems trying to buy relief help and the best strategy is often collecting hard throwers and finding the 5 or 6 guys who can throw strikes that year.
Throwing strikes has been part of the problem for Pomeranz when things have gone poorly throughout his career, and it did pose a problem for the Brewers a couple times in 2019, but he was still largely effectively wild enough to get guys to keep chasing. His BB% out of the bullpen with the Brewers was 8%, well below his career average of 10% (put a different way with different metrics: he averaged 2.73 walks per 9 innings with the Brewers, but has averaged 3.86 for his career).
This is where the small sample makes things dicey for anyone looking to invest multiple years in him as a high-leverage reliever -- it’s certainly possible the problems with walks are mitigated with the move to the bullpen, not having to work multiple times through the order, and dealing with fatigue, but are you willing to bet $30 million on 26 innings? Considering Smith signed for 3 years and $39 million (with an option for a 4th year at $13 million), that $30 million might be what it takes to get Pomeranz, barring another free agent market freeze.
Stearns showed an interest in bringing Pomeranz back, but with few back-end relief options out there this winter, there’s a chance he could quickly get priced out of what he’s comfortable paying for his second- or third-best reliever (depending how optimistic you are about Corey Knebel in 2020). If the market doesn’t develop, though, there’s no question Pomeranz would fit in nicely at the back end of the Brewers’ bullpen again in 2020. In an ideal world, that would involve Hader sliding back into a similar role -- and the Brewers possibly alternating their use of Hader and Pomeranz, using one when the other is unavailable.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs