It was Milwaukee’s most “significant” trade in terms of the prospect given up, but the deal brokered between David Stearns and Farhan Zaidi of the San Francisco Giants didn’t bring back the return that most fans in the dairy state expected. In exchange for infielder Mauricio Dubon, the Brewers received a pair of pitchers to add depth to their pitching staff for the final two months of the season. One, prospect Ray Black, was optioned to the minors and will begin his tenure with the organization pitching for the Triple-A squad. The other, left-hander Drew Pomeranz, recently made his team debut out of the bullpen against the Cubs and could find himself playing a prominent role for the team down the stretch.
Pomeranz, now 30, was selected as the fifth overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft and began his career within the Cleveland Indians’ organization. He didn’t last very long with the franchise, though, getting dealt to Colorado the following summer as a part of the Ubaldo Jimenez blockbuster. He made his big league debut later that year with the Rockies, and since then he’s pitched parts of nine big league seasons with six different franchises.
Pomeranz was a consensus top-50 prospect when he got his first extended shot at big league action in 2012, but injuries have dogged him throughout his career and though his overall numbers are solid, he hasn’t exactly lived up to the originally lofty expectations of him. The left-hander has made 218 MLB appearances (139 starts) and totaled 788.2 innings of 4.09 ERA baseball. That comes out to a better-than-average ERA- of 94, but both FIP- (103) and DRA- (110) view his body of work as below-average.
Drew’s best stretch of pitching came during the 2016-17 seasons, beginning with a half-season and All-Star berth in San Diego before a midseason trade to Boston. Those were the only two seasons during which he has logged more than 100 MLB innings, throwing 170.2 innings with a 3.32 ERA with the Padres and Red Sox in 2016 followed by 173.2 innings and another 3.32 earned run average for the Sox in 2017.
Pomeranz backed up in a big way during the 2018 season, though, losing two ticks off his fastball while battling his way through 26 appearances (11 starts) and 74.0 innings with an ugly 6.08 ERA. He spent time on the injured list with forearm and bicep maladies. He was allowed to walk via free agency and though he was seen as a potential bounceback candidate — included getting profiled as a free agent target by BCB — he had to wait until late January to sign for a $1.5 mil guarantee with the San Francisco Giants.
San Fran gave Pomeranz 17 starts before pulling the plug on him in the rotation, and his overall numbers as a starter look ugly — a 6.10 ERA in 72.1 innings with 17 home runs allowed. But some positive trends did begin to emerge. His average fastball velocity did bounce back to 92.2 MPH, his best speed since 2015. He was generating a 9.2% swinging-strike rate, back to his previous average after a career-worst dip in 2018. Beginning on June 1st, he compiled a 3.78 ERA with 41 strikeouts and 14 walks over his final six starts (33.1 innings) as a Giant.
San Francisco elected to move Pomeranz to the bullpen on after his start on July 16th, and in five outings and 6.1 innings since transitioning to relief, the southpaw has been flat-out dominant. Pomeranz has faced 19 batters, allowing one hit and one walk while recording 10 strikeouts. His perfect ERA in this small sample is accompanied by a 0.53 FIP.
Pomeranz features four pitches in his arenal when he works as a starter, but he has whittled things down to his best two offerings so far during his time in relief. With the cutter and changeup on the shelf, the left-hander has relied heavily on his four-seam fastball (73.7%) while also mixing in his curveball about one out of every four pitches (26.3%). He has found another two miles-per-hour in his back pocket working in shorter stints, so far averaging 94.2 MPH on his heater. His gaudy 52.6% strikeout rate is accompanied by an equally impressive 15.2% swinging-strike rate.
Pomeranz has faced five left-handers since switching to relief, retiring all of them while throwing 100% four-seam fastballs to those batters. Against right-handers, Pomeranz has taken to an approach of “pitching backwards.” He is throwing his curveball as the first pitch 57% of the time, varying his location and dotting it around the strike zone versus generally trying to bury it as a starter. Once he gets ahead, he’s been turning to his four-seam fastball (78% usage when ahead) to finish batters off. Though he hasn’t notably adjusted his typical fastball location, the added velo has helped him boost his whiff rate on the pitch — which was already his best in terms of swings-and-misses — by four points up to 16.44%. (His curve has gotten a bump from 10% up to 15.38%, too.)
Pomeranz threw a perfect inning with a pair of strikeouts against the Cubs in his debut for the Cream City Nine, and Craig Counsell told reporters upon his arrival that the left-hander would likely continue to pitch in relief. He has been much stronger again same-handed hitters overall this season (.299 wOBA vs. LHB) than when batters have held the platoon advantage (.388 wOBA vs. RHB), but the split has generally been much closer throughout his career (.280 vs. .332) and he has dominated both lefties and righties so far in relief. So don’t expect to see him solely as a situational LOOGY. Because of his background as a starter Pomeranz seems likely to see more than a few multi-inning chances during the next two months with Milwaukee. He already seems to have bought into Counsell’s and the organization’s pitching philosophy, discussing the importance of getting whatever outs he is tasked with as the team chases a postseason berth. It isn’t impossible that the depth issues that the Brewers currently face with their initial out-getters could push Pomeranz into the rotation at some point, either.
Apparently unable to acquire a known commodity for the back-end of his bullpen, Slingin’ Stearns was forced to get creative and make a bet on the small, albeit supreme sample that Drew Pomeranz has put together since switching to relief. If the lefty can continue his ascendant performance, he would give Milwaukee the high-impact arm that is sorely needed along with Josh Hader and recently, Freddy Peralta, as another high-leverage option in the late innings. In order to justify the cost of one of their top prospects, the Brewers and their fanbase will be looking for a high return-on-investment from the rental pitcher, including his help with another deep postseason run.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and Brooks Baseball