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Bullish on Brewers pitching: Eric Lauer

Can increased fastball velocity and a new grip change up spell consistent success for the young left hander?

MLB: Spring Training-Milwaukee Brewers at San Francisco Giants Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee should have signed Jake Arrieta! The Brewers should have signed Yu Darvish! The Milwaukee Brewers have supposedly been in on a lot of big name starting pitchers over the past couple of years. The biggest free agent arms they have brought in, however, are Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, and Josh Lindblom. None of those names inspires incredible confidence, yet it can be argued that Miley and Gonzalez were much better value for the money spent than Arrieta and Darvish have been.

Why are the Brewers not investing in starting pitching is a concerned put forth by many in Brewer Nation as well as among those in mainstream baseball media? David Stearns and his front office have often said they are much more bullish on their young pitching than the rest of the industry. That optimism might just be about to take off in a big way and for years to come. The pipeline of young pitchers at the major league level in line to make a positive step coming into 2020 and beyond includes Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, and Adrian Houser. Brandon Woodruff has a chance to pitch at an ace level if he can take one more step. Josh Lindblom is poised to translate his success from Korean baseball to MLB. Not to mention there is a cast of high potential pitchers at the minor league level including Ethan Small, Drew Rasmussen, and Trey Supak. And then there is the pitcher the Brewers traded for, Eric Lauer.

As most of you are aware, the Brewers acquired Lauer in a trade with the San Diego Padres that sent Trent Grisham and Zach Davies to San Diego and brought Lauer with Luis Urias to Milwaukee. Most have seen Urias as the primary asset coming back to the Brewers in that trade, but Eric Lauer just might become a fixture in the Brewers rotation for years to come, and a good one at that.

Lauer is off to a fantastic beginning in Spring Training this season. In two appearances this Spring, Lauer has pitched in 4.1 innings giving up one earned run while posting a 7:1 K:BB rate. As we are all too well aware, translating Spring Training results to regular season success is folly at best. Nonetheless, his early success is suggestive of a potential positive step forward based on some decent results already at the major league level.

The new Brewers’ pitcher has already posted two major league seasons. Last year he pitched in just under 150 innings and posted 2.3 fWAR. While his ERA (4.45) and FIP (4.23) in 2019 demonstrate a back-of-the-rotation arm, he is still quite young. He will turn 25 in July of the 2020 season.

Just after the trade between the Brewers and Padres, Kyle Glaser of Baseball America wrote the following scouting report of Lauer:

Lauer reached the majors less than two years after the Padres made him a first-round pick out of Kent State in 2016. The Ohio native has a deceptive fastball he’ll dial up and down anywhere from 87-95 mph, although he gets in trouble when he throttles down too much and is often hittable. Lauer can land his looping curveball for a strike and place his slider and cutter on the back foot of righties, while his changeup is a below-average pitch evaluators think will improve with more use. Lauer relies on mixing his pitches and hitting his spots to be successful and has little margin for error with no pitch better than average. Some evaluators think there is room for improvement if he can keep his foot on the pedal with his fastball and tweak his pitch usage.

If Lauer performs to the level of Zach Davies and Chase Anderson did over the next five years of control the Brewers have over him then this trade is likely to work out from a Brewers’ standpoint. As Glaser suggested, many evaluators see room for improvement, and the Brewers’ evaluators had to be in that camp.

Early returns suggest there might be something there. Lauer is lighting up the radar gun a bit more in Spring Training this season than he may have in the past. His average fastball velocity in 2019 was 92.1 mph. So far in Spring Training this year, he is pumping the fastball up there a bit harder.

He also changed his grip on the changeup. In a piece by Adam McCalvy, Lauer talked about his experience with Milwaukee’s pitching lab. What he articulated as his worst pitch immediately transformed with the suggested tweak to the grip. Again the early returns are quite good. Take a look at the video in the article linked above to see how the change up baffled Reds’ hitters.

While Lauer’s 2019 season could only be called decent at best, his pitch quality in 2019 was pretty good, especially in terms of location. With added velocity and a more impactful change up, could this command pitcher be more than a back-of-the-rotation/swing man arm for the Brewers?

Eric Lauer’s Ceiling

With two years at the major league level already in the books, Lauer has enjoyed some mild success. That mild success COULD become more substantial if his added velocity and more impactful changeup couple positively with his strong command. While his strikeout numbers are less than 9 per 9 over his young career, it would not be a surprise to see those numbers approach 10 per 9 if the fastball and changeup are real. If that is the case, his cutter should play up.

Just for context, Lauer used his 92 mph four-seam fastball and cutter more than 75% of the time in 2019. A fastball average coming up even 1-2 mph on the radar gun could have a substantial impact on Lauer’s success. Adding the changeup allows for another pitch in the arsenal to be thrown much more often. Look for Lauer’s pitch usage to much more diverse than it was in 2019.

As a result, the young left-hander is in line reach a ceiling of a mid-rotation starter (maybe something a little more) that strikes out 10 per nine while walking well below 3 per 9. His exit velocity and hard hit percentage numbers in 2019 were in the lower quarter of all of baseball in 2019. As a result, his walk numbers were a bit higher than they should be. If he is to reach his potential, he will have to do much better in those categories. That is especially the case as he moves from the pitcher friendly PETCO Park to a hitter friendly park in Milwaukee.

Creating a more diverse pitch usage in conjunction with a better quality changeup and harder fastball should translate into a very good major league pitcher. If he can be consistent over his career in Milwaukee, Brewers’ fans will look back fondly on his contribution to the Brewers’ rotation.

Eric Lauer’s Floor

Obviously any player’s floor can be very low, but Lauer’s floor is probably pretty high. He has two seasons of being a decent major league pitcher, especially if he does not pitch in Coors Field. Baseball Reference has Lauer projected to pitch to a 4.41 ERA over 145 innings and a 1.39 WHIP. Those numbers are not exciting, but they are in line with a number five starter or swingman.

That means he is another depth arm that Craig Counsell can utilize to greatest impact. Lauer also has three minor league options left, so he could end up racking up frequent flyer miles between Milwaukee and San Antonio over the next three seasons.

Lauer has a bit of positive mystery coming into 2020. He also has some relative certainty as well. He has the potential to take a step or two coming into 2020. Added fastball velocity, better changeup quality, and a more diverse pitch mix could add up to a really good left-handed starter for the 2020 season and beyond. At his likely worst, he still a solid depth arm.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Reference