The Milwaukee Brewers made their first significant move of the offseason just before the long holiday weekend, landing infielder Luis Urias and left-handed pitcher Eric Lauer in a swap with the San Diego Padres. Urias was obviously the headliner of the deal and looks like he could be a potential fixture in the infield for the long-term future. But given the current state of the organization’s starting rotation depth, Lauer could play just as prominent a role for the Brew Crew in 2020.
Lauer is a native of Ohio who was selected in the 17th round by the Blue Jays as a prep pitcher in 2013, but he reportedly turned down a bonus offer in excess of $1 mil in order to attend college. He earned his degree from Kent State University in three years and was recognized as the NCAA’s National Pitcher of the Year in 2016 after finishing his final collegiate season with a 0.69 ERA in 104.0 innings, the lowest earned run average in college baseball since 1979. That led to the Padres picking him at #25 overall in that summer’s draft, and he inked for a $2 mil signing bonus.
The southpaw rocketed through the minor leagues, appearing in 37 games (36 starts) and tossing 178.0 innings with a 2.93 earned run average and 195 strikeouts versus 55 free passes. He reached Triple-A by the start of 2018, and after only four starts at that level, he was called up to make his MLB debut on April 24th less than two years after he began his professional career.
Since arriving at the big league level, Lauer has been a serviceable back-end starting pitcher. He has averaged right around five innings per outing, piling up 261.2 frames across 53 appearances (52 starts). As a rookie, he authored a 4.34 earned run average in 23 starts and 112.0 innings. That earned him the nod as San Diego’s Opening Day starter in 2019, and he wound up logging 149.2 innings in 30 games (29 starts) with a 4.45 ERA. When taking into account his home field of Petco Park, both years checked in at slightly worse than the league’s midpoint in terms of adjusted earned run average — an ERA- of 111 in 2018 and 104 in 2019, for a cumulative ERA- of 107 (7% worse than the league average).
Lauer’s peripherals do not paint a much rosier picture. He earned average-to-above average grades for his control as a prospect, but has perhaps walked more batters than expected in the big leagues — 3.3 BB/9. His strikeout rate has been pretty pedestrian at 8.2 K/9, or about 20.6% of the hitters that he’s faced. Lauer has been rather hittable thus far when he is around the zone — 9.8 H/9 — leading to an inflated 1.460 WHIP. And even within a pitcher’s paradise, the lefty has had some issues with the long ball, coughing them up at a rate of 1.2 HR/9. Lauer’s 4.35 FIP aligns closely with his career 4.40 ERA, and both FIP- (103) and DRA- (107) agree with Eric’s real run prevention numbers as a slightly below-average performer on the whole against MLB hitters.
Lauer stands at 6’3” on the mound and tips the scales at 205 lbs. He delivers the ball from a pretty standard high three-quarters arm slot, though the crossfire in his delivery helps create “significant deception” according to MLB Pipeline and his athleticism allows him to repeat his mechanics well. His fastball has topped out around 96 MPH but he more typically sits between 90-94 and averaged 92.1 MPH with his heater in 2019. As a rookie, Lauer’s primary off-speed pitch was a low-80s slider that earned 55 grades from most outlets while he was coming up. Last year, however, he largely swapped his slider out for a harder cutter that averaged 88 MPH. Lauer has used his mid-70s curveball as his third offering, though the pitch has generally earned fringe marks from scouts. Evaluators have typically liked Lauer’s changeup better than his curve in terms of overall grading, but Eric himself has discussed the fact that he struggles to find the right release point with the pitch, leading to just a 3.7% usage rate.
Lauer likes to pitch inside to right-handers and has actually generated a reverse platoon-split during his career, holding righties to a .318 wOBA while lefties have torched him to the tune of a .377 wOBA even though he doesn’t meaningfully change his pitch mix no matter which handed hitter he is facing. On the rare occasion that he does throw a changeup, it is almost always to a right-handed batter. Lauer’s fastball is his most oft-used pitch no matter what the count, including with two strikes. He generally pitches “down” in the strike zone, but he isn’t afraid to elevate his heater when he wants to put a batter away. Lauer hasn’t been exactly adept at suppressing hard contact (25th percentile) or limiting exit velocity (19th percentile), and his below-average spin rates mean that he is far from a Statcast darling.
One thing Lauer does thrive at is controlling the run game. The left-hander led all of baseball with 10 pickoffs as a rookie in 2018 and allowed only five stolen bases (in seven attempts). He only picked off a pair of batters in 2019, but then again, only three runners attempted to steal against him all season long.
Lauer has five years of club control remaining before he reaches free agency, although his service time (1.160 years) makes him a sure bet to achieve Super Two arbitration status after 2020. Baseball America has called the 24 year old (25 next June) “a classic pitchability lefty” who profiles as a #5 starter. Per Baseball Prospectus, Eric “might not have tantalizing upside, but that high floor can be just as, if not more, important.” Some scouts have suggested that a move to the bullpen — where he could see his pedestrian stuff tick up — may ultimately be in Lauer’s best interest. But per the man himself:
“It doesn’t really matter how good your individual pitches are. You can pitch at a really high level with very average stuff if you throw pitches that complement each other well, and you sequence them well. Tunneling is crazy important. Hitters swing based on how the ball comes out of your hand. If they can’t see anything telling, on any pitch, you’ve already won.”
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, and Brooks Baseball