Relatively speaking, the pitching staff was the strength of the Milwaukee Milkmen during their inaugural campaign in 2019. By the end of the season, the club finished with a collective 4.43 earned run average (99 ERA-) and a 4.48 FIP (100 FIP-), both of which ranked right in the middle of the American Association. But with the offense struggling and a record closer to the bottom of the league than the top, the Milkmen decided to turn their attention to the future and sold off two key hurlers — Tanner Kiest and TJ House — in midseason trades that netted a host of players who figure to be important contributors for 2020.
The loss of House is especially notable. Despite spending the final weeks of the season in Kansas City after being dealt, the former big league left-hander still finished third on the Milkmen with 17 starts and 111.2 innings pitched, posting a 97 ERA- and nearly eight runs prevented along the way. But Milwaukee took a big step towards filling that hole in their starting rotation recently, inking free agent right-hander Taylor Ahearn out of the Frontier League.
NEW PLAYER ANNOUNCEMENT— Milwaukee Milkmen (@MKEMilkmen) November 1, 2019
Our last player announcement of the week, please welcome RH pitcher Taylor Ahearn from @rcrascals (Frontier League)! Taylor previously played for Boston Red Sox affiliates & had 72 strikeouts in 12 games last season!
Welcome to the Milkmen! pic.twitter.com/5bcLuL816t
Ahearn, a product of California State University-San Marcos, began his professional career after getting drafted in the 32nd round by the Boston Red Sox following his senior year in college. In two seasons in the affiliated minor leagues, Ahearn proceeded as far as Class A-Advanced and totaled 89.2 innings across 34 appearances (six starts) with a 4.52 ERA. But as a college grad pitching in the low minors, Ahearn was generally quite a bit older than his competition. The Red Sox decided to part ways with him in January of 2019.
Ahearn caught on with the River City Rascals of the Frontier League last summer and he quickly became the second-best starter in their rotation. Averaging more than six innings per outing, the right-hander accumulated 74.0 innings across 12 appearances (11 starts) and finished with a 3.04 earned run average, which was 18% better than the Frontier League midpoint (82 ERA-). The Rascals finished with the fourth-best pitching staff by ERA on the 10-team circuit, and along with the FL’s top offense, they cruised to the playoffs and wound up winning the Frontier League championship.
(As an aside, the fact that the River City Rascals folded following the conclusion of their title-winning 2019 season is a reminder of how tenuous the world of professional independent league baseball can be. The Frontier League recently merged with the former Can-Am League to form a combined circuit beginning next spring).
Ahearn has been adept at keeping the baseball in and around the strike zone as a professional, averaging 2.7 BB/9 in affiliated ball before slashing his walk rate to 2.1 BB/9 with the Rascals last season. Importantly, though, he was able to boost his ability to generate whiffs during his transition to the independent leagues. Ahearn averaged 7.2 K/9 during his time in the Red Sox org, but he punched out 72 batters with River City for an 8.8 K/9 and 23.6% strikeout rate, both marks coming in better than the FL averages (8.6 K/9, 22.3% K rate). Even when opposing batters did manage to put it in play against Ahearn, they rarely did any damage. He held hitters to a .200 batting average against; his 6.9 H/9 tied for second-lowest among qualified starters in the FL, and his 0.6 HR/9 rate was tied for 13th-lowest within that same group.
Ahearn isn’t a flamethrower by any means, but he can still run his fastball up there in the low-90s and generally sits between 89-92 according to a scouting report from the website Sox Prospects. He also utilizes a slider (83-85 MPH with 10-to-4 break) and a curveball (77-79 MPH with vertical movement) as his primary off-speed weapons. His fourth pitch is a changeup that he doesn’t use quite as often as his other three, a firm offering that sits between 81-84 MPH with late, downward action. Ahearn comes at batters from a three-quarters slot with a high leg-kick but low-effort delivery and he is able to throw all four of his offerings for strikes with consistency.
If Ahearn can sustain his ability to miss bats as he adapts to the American Association, it would be a major boon for the Milkmen. The pitching staff finished below the AA’s middle in strikeouts (7.3 K/9 versus 7.7 K/9 league average) and had only one regular rotation member finish with a punchout rate north of 7.0 K/9. It is worth keeping in mind, of course, that the American Association is considered a step up from the Frontier League in terms of competition level, and that the AA was far more offensively-friendly than the FL in 2019:
AA vs. FL
Most of Milwaukee’s offseason has rightfully been focused on shoring up an inept offense, but newly acquired Taylor Ahearn projects to join returning stalwart Angel Ventura — who finished third among all AA starting pitchers last year with a 62 ERA- and 23.5 runs prevented — atop the Milkmen rotation for the 2020 season. Ahearn has the profile to become an impact starter within the American Association after a highly successful Frontier League debut, and given his youth (he turns only 25 this month) and service time status as an LS-1 player, he could very well fashion himself into an integral member of the pitching staff for the independent Franklin Nine for years to come.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference
American Association advanced statistics were calculated and can be found here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xd9DVNcYP4nEQPsl03qnVOxj1iyT2pFpks22Yj2Oe7c/edit?usp=sharing