Josh Lindblom was among many Brewers to have a disappointing 2020 season. In his return from a fantastic two-year stint with the Doosan Bears of the KBO League, Lindblom limped to a 5.16 ERA in 45 innings. He started ten games and made two appearances out of the bullpen during a brief demotion from the starting rotation. No one was expecting the well-traveled hurler to replicate his performance from his time with the Bears, when he worked 363 innings with a 2.68 ERA and won the 2019 Most Valuable Player Award. However, he was expected to be a productive middle-of-the-rotation starter. Fortunately, there are reasons to believe that Lindblom can capably fill that role for the remaining two years of his contract.
While Lindblom lacks velocity—his fastball averaged just 90.1 miles per hour, per Statcast—he makes up for it with spin and variety. He often caught too much of the plate with his fastball, and opponents torched it when they made contact (92.7 mile per hour exit velocity). However, the right-hander’s fastball spin rate ranked in the 94th percentile of all MLB pitchers, and he registered an above-average 26.6% whiff rate with it, indicating that it can be a productive offering if he locates it well. His cutter and splitter are useful for avoiding barrels and inducing weak contact. The crafty veteran’s best pitch may be his sweeping slider, which registered a 43.5% whiff rate and held opponents to a .233 wOBA. A biting curveball and a changeup round out his six-pitch arsenal.
Josh Lindblom, Disgusting 79mph Breaking Ball. pic.twitter.com/9HVEARqdtL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 7, 2020
Josh Lindblom, Filthy 72mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/I8428C3Mzw— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 29, 2020
Lindblom’s diverse collection of pitch types enabled him to perform better than average at both controlling quality of contact and missing bats, demonstrating that he has the tools to be an MLB-caliber starting pitcher.
There was some poor luck involved in Lindblom’s return to North American baseball, as demonstrated by his 3.88 FIP, 4.01 xERA, 4.09 SIERA, and an abnormally low 66.5% strand rate. The main culprit, however, was inconsistency. Throughout the 2020 season, the soft-tossing righty’s performance varied dramatically from inning-to-inning, and, in the most extreme cases, from one plate appearance to the next.
Lindblom threw four balls when he struck out the side in the 5th. He came out and threw six straight balls in the 6th.— Jack Stern (@baseball7310) August 16, 2020
After a quick third, Lindblom issues a four-pitch walk, looks great again on a four-pitch strikeout, then hangs a curveball. He's just been really inconsistent.— Jack Stern (@baseball7310) August 22, 2020
For example, in his August 16th start against the division-rival Chicago Cubs, Lindblom coughed up three runs in a rough first inning that featured back-to-back walks and two hits. He then kept the Cubs off the board in each of the next four innings, retiring 11 of 13 hitters. After striking out the side in order in the fifth inning, Lindblom returned for the sixth and threw six straight balls (a hit by pitch and a walk), bringing his day to an abrupt end.
On September 1 against the Detroit Tigers, Lindblom looked sharp and faced the minimum six hitters through the first two innings. In the third inning, he proceeded to allow two runs on home run, a double, a single, a hit by pitch, and a walk. He allowed two more runs in the fourth.
In Korea, one of Lindblom’s calling cards was his excellent control. His walk rate was 4.6% in his two seasons with the Bears. In his return stateside, it nearly doubled to 8.4%. He particularly struggled with consistently locating his fastball and changeup, which resulted in opponent wOBAs of .388 and .499 against those pitches, respectively. It also created a dramatic platoon split: righties slashed just .195/.262/.208, but lefties raked to the tune of a .284/.364/.579 line.
While Josh Lindblom struggled in his first season with the Brewers, he showcased an arsenal that features great spin, movement, and pitches of various speeds and shapes. The key for the veteran starter is consistent command and control, areas in which he performed well overseas. MLB competition is much tougher than KBO competition, so Lindblom’s MVP-caliber performance is unlikely to repeat itself, but he has the tools to be a dependable starter moving forward. Even if he sputters in the rotation once again, he can easily be shifted to a middle relief role out of the bullpen and still provide value for his $3.04 million salary.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball-Reference