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Brewers Tender or Non-Tender Decisions: Brent Suter

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The soft-throwing lefty worked his way back from Tommy John surgery to impress in the bullpen in September

Wild Card Round - Milwaukee Brewers v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

2019 Salary: $568,300
2020 Projection: $900,000
Difference: +$331,700

Brent Suter can’t throw a baseball 90 miles per hour. In today’s game, that’s becoming extremely rare, but it hasn’t been a detriment to this point in Suter’s career. In fact, that ultimate change of pace -- combined with his breakneck pace on the mound -- has proven to be incredibly effective despite his lack of traditional “stuff.”

After spending most of the year working his way back from Tommy John surgery, Suter even did that quickly, returning to the majors in September and immediately becoming one of the Brewers’ most impactful relief pitchers. He allowed just one earned run in 18.1 innings in September, a solo home run in his first appearance on September 2nd, en route to being named the National League’s Reliever of the Month.

As the Brewers wonder if another important multi-inning piece to their 2019 bullpen, Drew Pomeranz, returns next year, it seems like a virtual lock that Suter will. There may have been some concerns about what Tommy John surgery would mean for a pitcher like Suter, who was already possibly a fringe major league pitcher before the career-altering injury.

The early returns were promising, not just in terms of his September performance, but in what he was throwing. In an admittedly small sample, Suter’s fastball velocity actually showed a few extra ticks this September, averaging 87.5 mph -- almost a full mile per hour quicker than the 86.7 mph he was throwing pre-injury in 2018.

That may have been just enough to induce more whiffs, as his swinging strike percentage also jumped from 9.8% in 2018 to 13.7%. That’s a far cry from Josh Hader’s 22.7% swinging strike rate, but still an encouraging sign going forward if Suter ends up carrying a bigger role heading into 2020.

Suter also got batters to chase out of the zone more frequently, drawing an O-Swing% of 37.4% this September that’s more than 5 percent higher than his career average, while allowing less contact on pitches inside the strike zone (74.8%, compared to 79.9% for his career).

Suter is a Super Two player this winter, eligible for arbitration for the first time, but as the projection indicates, the Brewers likely will still be able to retain him for cheap for at least another year due to the injury -- there aren’t many Super Two players who are likely going to pull a salary of less than $1 million. That, in theory, should allow the Brewers to cover a good amount of innings in their bullpen without having to spend too much.

And that will likely be where Suter is most valuable in 2020, despite his relative success in the rotation in the past. The Brewers will presumably have multiple rotation spots to fill this winter, but the honest truth is they need to fill those spots with pitchers with higher ceilings than Suter, even if Suter’s floor may be higher (or at least more well-known). This September also served as an example of how Suter’s talents may be better served in short 2 inning bursts, rather than hoping to get through 5 innings before seeing the top of the order a third time.

A bullpen role could prove to be even more valuable in 2020 if any kind of relief pitching restrictions are instituted. Suter would arguably be better suited for a relief spot than someone like Alex Claudio if relievers will be required to face at least three batters or obtain multiple outs before being replaced.

Suter’s performance in a full year in that role probably won’t be as nearly-perfect as it was in September, and there may be some bumps in the road as he runs into fatigue later in the 2020 season, but it should be an easy decision to bring him back in 2020, both in terms of performance and a lack of organizational depth when it comes to left-handed relief.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs