After moving to the rotation full-time and posting a strong 12-start stretch to end his 2019 season, the Milwaukee Brewers entered the year expecting big things out of Adrian Houser. While Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta remained question marks heading into 2020, Houser and Brandon Woodruff would be counted on to anchor the rotation.
Houser throws two distinct fastballs: a sinker with excellent movement and a four-seamer. Hitters saw plenty of both fastballs from the 27-year-old once he transitioned to the rotation for good. He used his sinker 38.3% of the time and his four-seamer 28.2%. His third pitch was his sweeping curveball used 13.7% of the time. A slider and a changeup made up the rest of his arsenal.
The approach worked well for the big right-hander, who used his sinker down in the zone to generate weak contact and elevated his four-seamer to induce swings and misses. As a result, Houser was above-average in both the quality of contact and strikeout departments; this carried him to a 3.28 ERA, 3.42 FIP, and 3.73 SIERA over his final 12 starts of the year. Statcast loved Houser, which only created more optimism about him entering 2020.
As effective as the four-seamer is, the sinker is the talented right-hander’s best pitch. In fact, it is one of the better sinkers in the game.
Out of every pitcher who appeared in an MLB game last season, Adrian Houser had the ninth most valuable two-seam fastball, according to FanGraphs. This should be talked about more. pic.twitter.com/QExuH1OWKi— Jack Stern (@baseball7310) July 20, 2020
Houser and the Brewers know this, and the response has been Adrian going all-in on his sinker this season. In six starts, he has upped his usage of the pitch to 46.4%. More notably, the presence of his other fastball has decreased by about 10 percentage points to 18.1%.
Houser’s sinker is not often swung and missed at; it had a whiff rate of 17.1% in 2019. Compare that to his four-seamer, which produced a whiff rate of 29.7%. By relying more on the sinker, he has pivoted to being a contact-minded pitcher. In his final 12 starts last season, 26.7% of plate appearances against Houser ended in a strikeout; this year, that figure is down to 17.5%.
Houser has also introduced another change: making his slider his primary off-speed pitch. This is not especially surprising. A slider pairs better with a sinker than a curveball does because both pitches have horizontal movement. To this point in his career, the curveball looks like a better pitch than the slider. It held opponents to a much lower wOBA (.212 vs .479) and has significantly better movement. According to Statcast, the movement on Houser’s slider is close to league-average, but his curveball has elite drop. It would pair exceptionally well with his four-seamer—if he used his four-seamer enough.
In his first two turns, the new approach seemed to work. Houser allowed just one run on six hits over 12 innings, including a gem against the White Sox in his second outing. Things have quickly gone downhill from there, however. Houser has not gotten past the fifth inning and has allowed at least three runs in each of his last three starts.
As one would expect, featuring the sinker more often has enabled the righty to further decrease his hard-hit rate from 35.3% to 31%. Negative side effects have also sprouted from his new sinker-slider strategy. Houser is allowing more hits (7.33 H/9 vs 9.55 H/9). His BABIP is virtually the same, but more balls in play create more opportunities for those batted balls to find gaps. His WHIP and home run rate have both increased as well.
As was mentioned earlier, Houser’s ERA and ERA estimators as a full-time starter were solid last year. This season, he is carrying a 4.36 ERA, 5.25 FIP, and 4.05 SIERA. 2019 Houser looked like a blossoming arm to comfortably slot third in a rotation (or possibly second if need be). Pitch-to-contact Houser looks like a back-end starter along the lines of a Zach Davies or Brett Anderson.
The downsides to Adrian Houser’s new approach were on full display in his latest start against the Cincinnati Reds. Houser dealt with traffic all night long. He coughed up nine hits in just four innings, including back-to-back home runs in the third inning. Over half of his 82 pitches were sinkers, and he threw just nine four-seam fastballs and eight curveballs.
To be fair, there has to be a reason behind this shift. Perhaps the Brewers believe pitching to contact will improve Houser’s efficiency and allow him to work deeper into games (he worked more than five innings just twice last year). This version of Houser has by no means been a disaster; he has still turned in a couple of solid starts, and his ERA remains a touch better than the league average.
Nonetheless, it is fair to question if this is the best direction. It is not uncommon for a pitcher to be encouraged to use his best pitch more often, but in Houser’s case, doing so comes at the expense of his ability to generate strikeouts. It may be best to return to the plan of attack that worked for him last season.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant