If there is one thing that the Milwaukee Brewers have done well under the David Stearns regime, it is develop pitchers. Since the current brain trust’s first year at the helm in 2016, Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff have graduated into All-Stars. Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Brent Suter, and Adrian Houser have become MLB-caliber hurlers. Scrap-heap pickups like Junior Guerra and Jeremy Jeffress have advanced into multi-year roles with the Cream City Nine. The org has coaxed top-flight production out of forgotten veterans like Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez.
And now, one of the next under-the-radar arms who could be in line to make a big league impact in the near future may very well be right-handed pitcher Johan Belisario.
Belisario, who turns 26 years old in August, first started his professional career a decade ago when he signed as an international free agent with the Detroit Tigers out of Venezuela in 2009. His development was slow at first, as he repeated the now-defunct Venezuelan Summer League three times before finally taking a step-forward in his fourth go-round at the level in 2013. Working strictly as a reliever, Belisario posted a sparkling 1.15 ERA in 31 appearances and 39.0 innings, recording 16 saves.
Belisario continued to perform as one of the top relievers in the low minors during the two seasons that followed. His stateside debut came in 2014 with the Connecticut Tigers of the short-season New York-Penn League, when he appeared in 19 games and tallied 34.0 innings with a sterling 0.79 earned run average and 34 punchouts against eight walks. Then, during his first year of full-season ball with the West Michigan Whitecaps in 2015, Belisario worked to a 1.79 ERA in 41 games and 55.1 innings, saving a dozen games along the way. He struck out 54 against 23 walks and opponents hit only .224 against him, including just one lonesome long-ball.
The 2016 season began with an invite to big league camp for Belisario followed by an assignment to Class A-Advanced Lakeland. But soon the injury bug bit and halted righty’s steady advancement through the minor leagues. Belisario hurt his elbow and was placed on the injured list on May 18th. He underwent Tommy John surgery and didn’t return the for the rest of the season after being limited to 10 appearances and 17.0 innings with a 5.82 ERA. He began the 2017 season on back on the minor league IL and wasn’t sent on a rehab assignment until June 23rd. Belisario wound up making five appearances in the Gulf Coast League and 12 more back in the Florida State League with Lakeland, where he struggled with command while yielding eight walks and six earned runs with 17 strikeouts in 14.1 innings.
Belisario once again got off to a late start in 2018, making one scoreless, three-inning appearance on June 1st for the Flying Tigers before getting sent back down to the Whitecaps for the remainder of the year. Finally fully healthy, Belisario tore through the Midwest League as one would hope that an experienced 24 year old would be able to at that level; he authored a 1.48 ERA while working in 21 games and 48.2 innings, punching out 58 batters against a mere 10 free passes. He re-signed with Detroit on a minor league deal following the end of the 2018 campaign, but the Tigers apparently couldn’t find a spot for him the following spring; Belisario was released by Detroit on March 18th.
It didn’t take Johan long to find a new gig. Five days after getting cut loose by the only professional organization that he had even known, Belisario latched on with the Milwaukee Brewers and was deemed ready for his first-ever assignment to Double-A. Not only did Milwaukee’s brain trust challenge Belisario with an assignment to a level he had never pitched at previously, they asked him to work in a role which he hadn’t appeared in regularly since 2012 — as a starting pitcher.
So far during his first season with a new franchise, Belisario has been up to the task. He recently completed his 16th outing for the Biloxi Shuckers and earned his 7th win against zero losing decisions. Belisario has made nine starts in Double-A and worked a total of 59.0 innings with a nifty 2.59 earned run average, good enough to earn a spot in the Southern League All-Star game. He has punched out 53 batters while doling out only 13 free passes, and opposing hitters are batting a mere .222 against him. Only 10 starters on the circuit have worked as many as 40.0 innings while posting a lower ERA than Belisario, and just five starting pitchers meet that innings threshold while compiling a lower WHIP than Johan’s 1.034. The right-hander was even rewarded with a spot start for the Triple-A San Antonio Missions, although it didn’t exactly go well.
Here's a bit of video from tonight's @wmwhitecaps game of Johan Belisario out of the bullpen. He's a bit old to be pitching at Low A (24 y/o), but injuries had something to do with that. Decent raw stuff, esp the offspeed offerings. We'll see. Got a K here, anyway. pic.twitter.com/NdBVYDdWwm— HookSlide (@HookSlide23) August 24, 2018
#BrewersTwitter scout Toby Harmann has the most up-to-date report on Belisario, noting that the right-hander typically sits between 90-93 MPH with his relatively straight fastball, though he generally commands it well throughout the four quadrants of the strike zone. Johan’s change-of-pace is his best offering, one that is thrown with arm speed that is consistent with his fastball and features late fading action. He also throws a slow curveball in the 72-75 MPH range to give him a third velocity band, and he’ll mix in a vertically-breaking slider as his fourth pitch. His delivery is one full of effort, with a long arm action that stabs down towards the ankle before accelerating towards the glove. Harmann describes the action as very fast and violent, which should theoretically lead to poor command but in practice, actually has not. He likens it to the delivery utilized by former Brewer Mike Fiers.
Belisario’s command-first profile will require him to work on the fine edges of the strike zone with his less-than-intimidating stuff, but he is thought to be quite polished for having never previously worked above A-ball and his deceptive delivery should continue to aid his cause as he advances. Johan’s pitch mix and ability to pound the zone with strikes make him a candidate to stick as a starter, but his slight build — he is a mere 5’11” and 165 lbs — and violent delivery could mean that he ends up back in the bullpen before all is said and done. Should that wind up being the case, he couldn’t ask for a better organization than Milwaukee — with their creative pitching usage and multi-inning relief stints — to be a part of.
The Milwaukee Brewers are more willing than perhaps any organization in baseball to think outside the box when it comes to acquiring and evaluating pitchers, which has helped them uncover several gems since Slingin’ Stearns took the organization over at the end of the 2015 season. Late-blooming Johan Belisario appears primed to follow that track based upon his work in 2019. If he continues at this pace for the rest of the year, the Brewers will have a tough decision to make when the season ends and Belisario is once again eligible to hit the minor league free agent market. Might he be a candidate for a 40-man roster spot come November?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus