The Milwaukee Brewers had three starting pitchers suffer injuries in the week leading up to the trade deadline. Beyond those health issues, several of their pitching options — both in the rotation and bullpen — have been rendered essentially useless by unforeseen levels of attrition. But even with all that, and an inconsistent offense to boot, the club was well-positioned within the playoff race. David Stearns scoured the market for additions that could help boost his sagging team, and determined that the best course of action based on the needs of his roster and the conditions of the market, was to bring in a handful of arms and augment his pitching depth for the stretch one.
In one of three deals executed by Slingin’ Stearns before 3:00 pm on July 31st, he traded fan-favorite first baseman Jesus Aguilar to the Tampa Bay Rays. In exchange for the 2018 All-Star — who had fallen on hard times in Milwaukee this season and lost his grip on regular playing opportunities — the Brewers received right-handed pitcher Jake Faria. After an immediate assignment to the minor leagues, Faria was recalled this earlier week and has to this point appeared in two games for the Cream City Nine. Like his brief MLB career thus far, the results have been mixed.
Faria was a 10th-round pick of the Rays backs in 2011, a projectable prep arm who signed for a $150,000 bonus while eschewing a scholarship to Cal-State Fullerton. He came up slowly through the system, taking until becoming his third professional season to become a full-time starting pitcher and not reaching full-season ball until his fourth year in 2014. By the end of 2015, he had become a rather well-regarded prospect. After posting a 1.92 ERA in 149.2 innings between Class A-Advanced and Double-A, he was ranked as the eighth-best prospect in Tampa’s system by Baseball America.
Faria began the year back in Double-A in 2016 but eventually received his first taste of the highest level of the minors, and after authoring a 3.72 ERA in 67.2 innings at Triple-A, he was once again ranked as Tampa Bay’s eighth-best prospect by BA. He started the 2017 in the International League but injuries to Tampa’s big league rotation created a need, and Faria was called up the majors to join the starting five.
Faria’s rookie season with the Rays went about as well as he or anyone could have hoped. He appeared in 16 games, making 14 starts, and logged 86.2 innings with a 3.43 ERA. He generated a terrific 12.0% swinging-strike rate while punching out 8.72 batters per nine innings, issuing a solid 3.22 BB/9 while limiting opponents to a 31.2% rate of hard contact. Faria’s 80 ERA- wasn’t quite matched by his 97 FIP- or 92 DRA-, but the metrics all agreed that he was an above-average performer for Tampa Bay. He was valued between 1.2-1.5 WAR in roughly a half-season worth of work by all three major public calculations.
For as good as Faria’s rookie season was, his follow-up in 2018 was equally disappointing. He was given a rotation spot to start the year but was stricken with command issues before eventually succumbing to an oblique strain that cost him a good portion of the season. He made 10 starts through the end of May but managed only a 5.48 ERA in 47.2 innings. His walk rate lept up to 4.15 BB/9 in that sample but even more concerning was the evaporation of his ability to miss bats, including a mere 6.99 K/9 and 8.6% swinging-strike rate. He went on the IL after his start on May 22nd. He returned to the mound in July but he spent most of the rest of the year in the minor leagues, totaling only 17.1 more innings across seven appearances (two starts) at the MLB level before the end of the season. In a total of 65.0 innings, Faria authored an ugly 5.40 ERA with equally depressing marks of 124 FIP- and 150 DRA-.
After the 2018 season ended, Faria admitted that his struggles may have been due largely to a lackadaisical approach after his impressive rookie year. This quote is from a story at DRays Bay:
“I think last offseason, I didn’t go into it with the best mental state. Kind of already thinking that I had a job and that I’ll be fine. That kind of stuck in the back of my mind all year...I was huge. Last year, I just didn’t feel good at any point. I wasn’t in pain, but I didn’t feel good physically. This year it was all about getting to a point where I just feel good physically.”
With doubt building both locally and nationally about his future, a re-invigorated Faria dedicated himself to his conditioning during the 2018-19 offseason. He entered camp 15 pounds lighter than he had been the previous spring, but he had slipped far enough down the Rays’ depth chart that his season began as a starting pitcher for the club’s Triple-A affiliate. But his 2018 issues carried over to the start of 2019, and after scuffling through the first month of the season, the Rays had him transition to the bullpen.
Faria took the role change like a duck takes to water. In 16 Triple-A appearances after the move (including one as an opener), Faria worked 36.2 innings with a sterling 1.91 ERA. He struck out 10.55 batters per nine, 43 hitters in all, while issuing only 2.70 BB/9. The opposition could manage only a .191 batting average against him, though he was taken deep five times. As a shuttle reliever for the big league club, he logged seven appearances and 10.0 innings with 11 strikeouts and only three earned runs allowed, but also seven walks.
It has been a small MLB sample so far, but Faria’s stuff has ticked up notably from previous seasons since his move to the bullpen. As a starter, his arsenal consisted of a low-90s four-seam fastball (92.1 MPH average in 2017-18), along with a splitter, slider, and curveball. It is worth mentioning that his primary off-speed pitch has been sometimes classified as a splitter and sometimes as a changeup by the various pitch-tracking services during his MLB career, but he does throw it with a split-finger grip.
As a reliever this season, Faria has bumped his average velocity up to 94.2 MPH with his four-seamer. He has shelved his curveball and dialed back his slider usage (down to 12.4%) to rely predominantly on his heater (60.9%) and splitter (26.3%). He has seen large increases in his ability to draw swings on pitches outside the zone (32.1%) and his swinging-strike rate has rebounded to 13.2%. Throwing strikes consistently remains a bugaboo, as only 38.6% of Faria’s offering this season have been in the zone.
Faria, who stands at 6’4” and is listed at 225 pounds, delivers the ball from a high three-quarters arm slot. His delivery isn’t smooth, per se, but a bit of hesitation in his motion adds some deception and he has drawn praise from scouts for his downhill plane and repeating his mechanics well. His split-finger pitch is his best offering and considered ‘plus’ by scouts, pairing well his above-average fastball. He throws the pitch with almost indistinguishable arm speed from his heater but still creates a 10+ MPH velocity separation, and he’s willing to use his splitter in any count. His slider is considered ‘fringy’ and his curve is best used as a ‘show-me’ pitch. Because of how his cache of pitches comes together, Faria has dealt with a reverse-platoon split in the big leagues, with righties hitting him for a .330 wOBA against a .298 wOBA versus lefties.
Faria has the build, arsenal, and repeatable delivery to be in the rotation long-term, and as a prospect he was scouted as having #4 starter-type upside. But his inconsistent command as well as his current lack of a high-quality third offering, may end mean that his destiny ultimately lies in the bullpen. There isn’t much time for him to get stretched back out before the end of this season, so he will continue to pitch out of the bullpen down the stretch for the Brewers in 2019. But given the state of Milwaukee’s rotational depth (and barring any other moves that may get made in the upcoming offseason), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Faria report to camp in Spring 2020 in the mix for a spot in the starting five.
The righy hurler is still young, having turned 26 less than two weeks ago, and as we’ve seen this year with Brandon Woodruff (and previously with pre-injury Jimmy Nelson), sometimes it takes a little bit of time and bouncing between roles before everything finally “clicks” for a talented young arm. After spending the first nine seasons of his pro career within the Tampa Bay organization, perhaps a fresh set of eyes and opinions from Milwaukee’s coaches and analytics staff will help Jake Faria find the adjustments he needs to take his game to its highest level. He’ll report to Spring Training next year as an out of options player, but if he can carve out a role with the team as either a starter or reliever, he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2023 season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus