When Brandon Woodruff went on paternity leave and Corey Knebel was sent to the Alternate Training Site in Appleton, one of the corresponding moves was calling Justin Topa up to Milwaukee. He made his major league debut on September 1st against the Tigers and showed some interesting stuff even though he gave up a 2-run homer during his two-inning outing.
Topa’s story is one of persistence over adversity, culminating in his first MLB appearance with Milwaukee with the hopes of more to come. He was originally drafted in 2013 by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round. He had already had his first Tommy John surgery by that point in 2011 while at LIU-Brooklyn.
Topa pitched okay through a variety of stops across different levels of minor league ball. However, with his elbow barking again, Topa had a second Tommy John in 2015. After a great deal of rehab, Topa returned to the field in 2016.
With Topa getting to age 26 and having two Tommy John surgeries, the Pirates were no longer willing to invest any more time or effort in his development. They released him on the final day of Spring Training in 2017.
Fortunately Topa did not give up. He continued to play independent ball, and he was even picked up by the Texas Rangers in 2018. Obviously that relationship failed to develop beyond the honeymoon period. So he went back to independent ball.
Even though he kept pitching, it might be Twitter for which he owes his latest opportunity. Filmed pitching to college hitters in the winter of 2019, his video went viral on Twitter. Rob Friedman, otherwise known as the Pitching Ninja, even picked it up and spread it across the Twitter-verse.
Scouting departments across baseball took notice, and the Brewers were one of them. The result was his signing prior to the 2019 season. In 2019, Topa pitched to a 2.63 ERA in 24 innings at AA Biloxi. He obviously showed enough to be invited on to the 60-man pool. From there he has impressed. Craig Counsell said a variety of things about Topa, which are encapsulated below:
He’s pitched in (spring) camp for us. He’s been really good up in Appleton. He’s just been going the right direction for a long time now....Big velocity is something that we like. He throws strikes. Some of the off-speed stuff has improved. It’s a guy that right now, he was on it in Appleton, so we’re taking a shot with him...I think Topa’s exciting because he’s got a great story, he really does. Coming from independent ball and really remaking himself and getting to this point. That’s a great story...and credit to a guy like Justin who, in a difficult season, he’s the guy for us that’s really made a big impression. And that’s why he’s here.
Topa is tall and long. He stands 6’4” and is listed at 200 lbs. He comes from a three quarters arm slot, and he can bring it. He gets good drive off his front leg and almost short arms his pitches from that three quarters slot. Short arming action is the rage these days with the success of Lucas Giolito. A lot of other pitchers have tried it with varying amounts of success. It is possible that this is just Topa’s natural throwing motion, and that might prove important as he evolves.
Topa’s fastball reaches 98 mph. It has heavy sinking action that should result in a lot of ground balls. He has a wicked slider that he demonstrated against Willi Castro in his MLB debut. The slider sits around 84-85 mph.
Justin Topa, 85mph Back Foot Slider...Literally. pic.twitter.com/9FxmUYX492— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 2, 2020
As Craig Counsell mentioned, Topa’s off speed stuff has come along, although the only off speed he showed in his debut was the slider. There is certainly some real potential here if everything can come together. He should strike out guys at a decent clip, but not as much as you would think. If he is able to induce a lot of ground ball contact, Topa has a chance to be successful.
As I mentioned, Topa pitched to a 2.63 ERA at Biloxi in 2019. As hard as he throws, he has not gotten huge strike out numbers. He generally sits around 8-9 strike outs per nine in most of his minor league action. His ground ball percentages are pretty good across his minor league career. More often than not, he is approaching a 50% ground ball rate.
Topa has the makings of being a real diamond in the rough. If everything works out, he could take a spot in the Brewers’ bullpen. With that opportunity, I would think he could get hitters out with his heavy fastball and wicked slider exclusively. Look for him to induce a lot of ground ball contact. If he keeps the ball in the ball park and gets decent BABIP numbers, he should be a solid arm for Craig Counsell to use.