When it comes to building a pitching staff, David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers have not been afraid to buck convention. The calls from fans and analysts to acquire a legitimate “ace” starting pitcher have been long and loud, dating back to the summer of 2017 when the team unexpectedly found itself in the middle of a pennant race. Instead of bolstering the staff with front-line starters, however, this front office has instead received better-than-expected contributions from unheralded veterans during the run-up to their two most recent playoff appearances.
In 2018, the starting staff was anchored by Jhoulys Chacin and pushed over the top by late-summer contributions from Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez. In 2019, the mid-April return of Gonzalez helped steady the rotation after two-thirds of the attempted youth movement faltered, and then deadline acquisition Jordan Lyles turned into a surprising ace for the final two months of the season.
This winter, though, Slingin’ Stearns was willing to do something that he has never done before — give a guaranteed contract longer than two years to a pitcher. The right-hander inked by Milwaukee has proven himself as a high-impact hurler, a distinctly-decorated superstar who has won awards as the league’s top pitcher for two seasons in a row. That league, however, plays its games more than 6,000 miles away in South Korea.
I am, of course, referring to Josh Lindblom, who has been a preeminent firer of fastballs in the KBO for the last several years.
Lindblom’s career began here in the United States more than a decade ago when he signed as a second-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008. He made it to the big leagues three years later in 2011, but spent parts of the next four seasons as the type of anonymous, up-and-down, last-man-in-the-bullpen shuttle reliever that fans in Milwaukee have become accustomed to seeing Craig Counsell deploy often during his tenure as manager. Lindblom bounced around the league with the Dodgers, Phillies, Rangers, and Athletics until the end of 2014. He was selected off waivers by the Pirates that December, but was granted his release less than two weeks later. The following day, he signed in Korea with the Lotte Giants for the most lucrative payday to that point in his career, an $850K base salary along with a $50K signing bonus.
Lindblom led the KBO with 210.0 innings pitched and was seventh among starters with a 3.56 ERA during his first year with the Giants in 2015, earning a second contract for the following year. But his command regressed as both his walk (2.2 BB/9 to 3.9 BB/9) and hit rates (8.4 H/9 to 10.0 H/9) skyrocketed. Lindblom’s ERA ballooned to 5.28, although that was still pretty close to the league average of 5.20, and he did manage to chew up 177.1 innings in 30 starts.
Lindblom took the opportunity to return to the US prior to the 2017 season, in large part to be closer to his infant daughter Monroe, who was born with Hypoplastic Right Heart Syndrome in October 2016. He signed a minor league deal with the Pirates, which allowed him to play for their Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians. Lindblom and his wife are natives of Lafayette (about an hour northwest of Indianapolis) and their daughter was born at Riley Hospital for Children, where she needed to stay in intensive care for several months while undergoing multiple heart surgeries.
Understandably, his results on the mound were mixed. He made 17 appearances in the minors and posted a 4.06 ERA in 37.2 innings, and even made it back to The Show, but struggled to the tune of a 7.84 ERA in 10.1 frames. He missed time with an oblique injury, and once he was healthy, he was granted his release on July 13th. With Monroe’s health in a more stable place, Lindblom returned to Korea to finish out the second half of the season with Lotte, and he authored a 3.72 ERA in 12 starts as the KBO campaign concluded.
After a somewhat messy separation from the Giants that led to Lindblom taking some shots at the front office on Twitter, the right-hander became an international free agent and signed with the Doosan Bears in Seoul. It was there that he truly to his work on the mound to another level. He won the league’s ERA title in 2018 with a 2.88 mark across 168.2 innings and posted the best full-season strikeout (8.4 K/9) and walk (2.0 BB/9) rates to that point in his KBO career. Lindblom’s 7.6 H/9 was second-lowest among starters and his 1.067 WHIP was the best of all pitchers — starters or relievers. As the best pitcher on the league’s best team, he was awarded as with the KBO’s equivalent to the Cy Young award.
But as good as Josh was in 2018, he was even better in 2019. The league’s offensive environment changed a bit as a more “deadened” baseball was put into play for the first time, but Lindblom’s campaign was nonetheless impressive among his peers. He totaled 194.2 frames to lead the circuit and tallied a mere 2.50 ERA, second-best among starting pitchers. He led all starters with a 0.997 WHIP, due in large part to an incredibly stingy 1.3 BB/9 rate, once again tops among the league’s initial out-getters. His strikeout rate ticked up, too — to 8.7 K/9 — and his 6.52 K/BB ratio was tops among all KBO hurlers. As the league’s lone 20-game winner, he took home both the top pitcher and Most Valuable Player awards.
One thing that we must keep in mind when considering Lindblom’s impressive statistics, however, is that the top players in Korea generally have a talent level equivalent to that of Eric Thames — who was referred to as “God” during his time in the KBO. There is no doubt that Thames is a quality MLB hitter, but the types of batters that Lindblom was typically facing overseas is something more akin to Triple-A baseball in the United States. So it’d likely be a folly to expect the 32 year old (33 next June) to immediately contend for All-Star games and Cy Young awards now that he’s back in MLB. And that is reflected by the relatively modest outlay that it took for Milwaukee to secure his services — a total of $9.125 mil over the span of three seasons (although incentives could raise to total value to upwards of $18 mil).
Lindblom used his time overseas to revamp and refine the array of offerings that he initially made it to the majors with. His fastball velocity is pretty pedestrian — it averaged around 91 MPH in 2019 — but the pitch should play up due to an outstanding spin rate of 2610 RPM. His 81-83 MPH splitter, too, excels in terms of spin rate. When it comes to a split-finger, less spin is better, and his 1200 RPM average would have rated quite favorably among MLB pitchers in 2019. Lindblom’s second most-oft used munition has been called something of a slider/cutter hybrid, implying that perhaps he’s able to change the shape and velocity of the pitch depending on the situation. The pitch averaged 85.5 MPH this past season. His fastball/cutter-slider/splitter mix should help him handle batters from both sides of the plate effectively, and he was actually a bit better against southpaw swingers (.537 OPS) than he was against same-handed batters (.600 OPS) in 2019. Lindblom will also mix in a curveball and changeup on occasion (less than 8%), but he’s essentially ditched the sinker that was once a prominent part of his arsenal.
In addition to ranking among the KBO’s best at missing bats and avoiding free passes, Lindblom also thrived at limiting opponent exit velocity and hard contact rates. But because of the differences in the quality of his opponents as well as the baseball itself, there are looming questions as to just how well Lindblom’s abilities will translate back to Major League Baseball. A scouting report from DRays Bay gave Lindblom an OFP of 45 as a starting pitcher, which would place him at the back-end of a big league rotation. According to Fangraphs, Lindblom’s need “to work heavily with the offspeed stuff so his fastball doesn’t get crushed” means that he is likely best suited for a long relief role in the bullpen, where he’d be especially effective against a lineup filled with left-handed hitters “because of the split, and his ability to tie up lefties with that slider/cutter.”
Fangraphs did note that Lindblom’s proven durability could make him useful at the back of a starting rotation, and Stearns has already committed to beginning 2020 with his latest import in an initial out-getter role. The Brewers won’t need Lindblom to replicate his KBO production in order to justify his $2.75 mil annual salary, but they are surely hoping that he can at least come close to replacing the generally steady innings eaten up by the now-departed Chase Anderson over the previous four seasons. Because of his unorthodox career path, the projection systems have a difficult time forecasting Lindblom’s future. Steamer pegs him for an ugly 5.50 ERA in 2020, while ZiPS foresees a more palatable 4.73 earned run average, which translates to a 96 ERA+.
If Lindblom can something be resembling a league-average starter for the Brewers over the next three years during his ages 33-35 seasons, this contract should be a major victory for David Stearns and company. If not, a $2.75 mil multi-inning reliever is only slightly more than what Matt Albers earned for the past two years, and that shouldn’t be something that holds the team back in any significant way. And of course, the ace-level numbers overseas can give fans something to dream on for the next few months until Lindblom actually takes the mound for the Cream City Nine — another underpaid, impact starter to slide in atop the rotation alongside Brandon Woodruff.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference