The MLB regular season is still quite young, obviously, but there is really no two ways about it. Milwaukee’s vaunted trio of young starting pitchers have not performed well through three turns of the starting rotation.
Brandon Woodruff has the strongest peripherals of the group, putting together a 20:4 K/BB ratio and 2.55 FIP across 15.0 innings. But he’s also allowing a 55% hard contact rate and has been seemingly undone by ‘one bad inning’ in each of his three starts, adding up to an ERA of 6.00 so far.
Freddy Peralta has the strongest individual performance of the group, going 8 complete innings at Cincinnati on April 3rd while allowing two hits and zero runs while tallying 11 punchouts. His other two outings have been junk, though, with a 3-inning, four-run performance on the second day of the season and a 3.1 inning, seven-run debacle in his most recent start against the Angels. Peralta is also carrying a strong K/BB ratio at 19:4, but he’s served up hard contact at a 42.5% rate and yielded three homers through 14.1 innings. Put it all together and it makes a 6.91 ERA.
Corbin Burnes, the most highly-touted of the Brewers’ triad, has been downright abysmal. He has generated a ton of whiffs and turned heads with his eye-popping spin rates, but he’s issuing a lot of walks and ‘inconsistent’ might be too generous a descriptor when it comes to his fastball command. As Jaymes’ explored yesterday, eight of the *nine* dingers that Burnes have allowed through 14.1 innings have come off the fastball. He’s allowed three long balls in each of his three appearances, becoming the first hurler to match that dubious feat in three consecutive starts since 2004. He’s at 5.65 HR/9 now through his 14.1 inning sample, along with a putrid 10.05 ERA.
When the season began, there was plenty of reason for optimism regarding this triumvirate of hurlers. Each of the three have been ranked among the league’s top-100 prospects at some point over the last two years by one scouting service or another, and they all showed flashes of brilliance at points during the 2018 regular season and the team’s playoff run. But as is the case with any young, unproven pitcher, we probably should have been counting on some length of adjustment period during their first trials as regular members of the starting rotation.
The struggles that each of the three are enduring may feel a bit surprising based on how successful they all were during the postseason last fall, but these types of experiences are hardly unprecedented. In fact, they should be something with which we all are intimately familiar after following the Milwaukee Brewers for so many years. Jimmy Nelson battled some wild inconsistencies for three years before breaking through in 2017. Wily Peralta was never able to truly put things together as a starting pitcher after five-plus years in the Cream City. Tyler Thornburg’s arm problems forced him into a relief role, and Mike Fiers bounced back-and-forth from the rotation to the ‘pen. The further back into franchise history one wants to delve, the more examples one can uncover. More often than not, pitching prospects simply don’t end up working out like we hope they do. There is a reason that the phrase TINSTAAPP — There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect — was coined by the writers at Baseball Prospectus so many years ago.
The front office, led by wunderkind GM Slingin’ David Stearns, is undoubtedly aware of how this works. They are professionals, after all. You can call it confidence in what they have, or obstinance in the face of never-ending national calls to upgrade the starting staff, but this was a conscious choice made by Milwaukee’s brain trust. The Brewers were always going to give Burnes, Woodruff, and Peralta ample space to try and make the necessary adjustments at the big league level. Otherwise the brain trust would have tried harder to insulate themselves from this exact type of situation.
After Wade Miley posted the second-lowest ERA by a starting pitcher (min 80 IP) in the Miller Park era last year, he was allowed to walk as a free agent. He hooked on with Houston for the paltry sum of $4.5 mil and currently owns a 3.45 ERA through 15.2 innings. Jordan Lyles pitched well out of the bullpen after coming to Milwaukee via waiver claim last August and looked like solid breakout candidate entering the 2019 season. His $3.5 mil option was declined and he found work with Pittsburgh, a one-year deal worth $2.05 mil. He has allowed one run so far in 11 innings over his first two starts. Gio Gonzalez, who was brilliant in five starts last September, was forced to wait until near the end of Spring Training to sign a minor league deal with the Yankees, and appears primed to join their big league rotation soon.
The Brewers elected not to retain any of those players, or really do much else to raise the floor of their rotation depth during the offseason. They inked Josh Tomlin but released him before Opening Day (he landed in Atlanta and has allowed a run in 3.2 innings out of the bullpen). That leaves things perilously thin behind the five starters that Milwaukee is trotting out right now. Zach Davies has been the best pitcher so far and Jhoulys Chacin has been about his normal self (though has had some home run issues of his own). Chase Anderson is probably considered the “sixth starter” after his gopher ball gremlins led to a banishment from the rotation last September. Junior Guerra started 60 games in three years before this one, but Our Hero was transitioned to full-time reliever for 2019 and is now an integral part of a battered bullpen. After that, more unproven commodities — guys like Adrian Houser, Burch Smith, and Aaron Wilkerson or prospects Bowdien Derby, Zack Brown, Trey Supak, Marcos Diplan. It sounds like Jimmy Nelson’s return won’t be coming until at least mid-May or early June, and he’s a total unknown coming off what amounts to a total shoulder reconstruction. Lefty Brent Suter won’t be back from Tommy John surgery until at least August, if he even pitches this season at all.
That leaves the org with little choice but to stay the course and keep running the trio of Woodruff, Burnes, and Peralta out there when it is their turn every fifth day. Honestly, because of the moves — or non-moves — orchestrated by the front office, Craig Counsell can’t really make a change in the rotation right now even if he wanted to. For the time being, the only option for Counsell and Stearns is to continue preaching patience while allowing their young starters the space they need to either fail, or to adjust and succeed. How things end up for our Menomonee Valley Nine this season hedges largely on whatever improvements that Woodruff, Burnes, and Peralta will be able to make going forward.
That is quite the roll of the dice for a team coming off a 96-win season, one that is firmly within a contention window defined by the four remaining years on the contracts of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Only time will tell whether Stearns made a wise gamble, or if this season ends up as just one more in the franchise’s history where there wasn’t enough pitching.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs