With Trent Grisham continuing to perform at a high level (when healthy) with the San Diego Padres, the November 2019 swap that sent Grisham and Zach Davies to the West Coast in exchange for Luis Urias and Eric Lauer continues to be a topic of conversation. Urias has been doing his part to ease the sting of watching Grisham blossom in San Diego. A new approach has helped the infielder hit for more power and post a 104 wRC+. The same cannot be said of Lauer, who has posted a ghastly 7.15 ERA in 39 innings for the Crew across parts of two seasons. That number is inflated by a horrific showing last year, when he coughed up 16 earned runs in just 11 innings of work. However, Lauer has had poor results yet again this year: an unsightly 4.82 ERA and 5.47 FIP.
Lauer’s struggles have been even more frustrating to watch because of his inconsistency. In his Brewers debut, he was dynamite out of the bullpen against the Chicago Cubs, punching out six in 2 2⁄3 innings. He then failed to get through the fourth inning in each of his two starts, allowing a combined 13 runs. This year, he has had two strong starts against two National League juggernauts in the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, but he got roughed up by the Philadelphia Phillies and slaughtered by the bottom-feeding Detroit Tigers.
The southpaw’s overall results with Milwaukee have been ugly, yet the Brewers remain committed to giving him starts. Craig Counsell has opted to deploy a six-man rotation in recent weeks to give his young starters extra rest and open up more opportunities for Lauer. He gets the ball tonight as the Brewers kick off a series against the Cincinnati Reds. Why do they think he deserves these continued chances?
The first and most obvious answer is that Lauer just turned 26 at the start of the month, and he remains under club control through the 2024 season. The Brewers acquired him with the expectation that he could supply valuable innings for several seasons. They’re not going to give up on him after a 40-inning sample size.
There is more to it than that, however. The high ERA might not indicate it, but Lauer’s raw stuff has been dramatically better. A shoulder injury shut him down back in March of 2020, and it was later revealed that he sustained a torn left capsule. Now fully healthy, he has added a few ticks to his fastball. The lefty is averaging a career-best 92.7 miles per hour on his heater, up from last season’s 91.5 mark. After hitting 94 or higher on the gun just six times last summer, Lauer has already done it 46 times this year. The increase in velocity has enabled him to blow more fastballs past hitters. The whiff rate against it has jumped from 21.6% to 37%.
In addition to the uptick in velocity, Lauer has also made some alterations to his arsenal. In 2020, he turned to his cutter and his slider as his most often-used secondary pitches. The problem was that the two offerings looked extremely similar and blended together. Here is an at-bat against Eddie Rosario in which Lauer threw a slider followed by a cutter. The two pitches are nearly identical.
On top of the near-indistinguishable movement patterns, there was an average speed differential of just under four miles per hour between Lauer’s cutter and his slider. This season, Lauer has dramatically increased the average velocity of the cutter from 86.9 miles per hour to 90.2. Meanwhile, the velocity on his slider has dropped from 83.1 to 79.8. He has widened the gap between the two pitches to roughly 10 miles per hour.
Speaking of Lauer’s new slider, the evidence suggests that it may not a slider, but rather a refined curveball. In the past, he threw both pitches. This season, Statcast has classified just three of his pitches as curves. Pitches labeled as sliders out of Lauer’s hand have suddenly gained 11 inches of vertical movement on average. Whether it is a slider or a curveball, Lauer focused on improving it and has seemingly dumped his other breaking ball. It is now a distinctly different pitch from his cutter. Here he is backdooring the breaker and the cutter back-to-back to freeze Victor Caratini.
Finally, Lauer has been working on his changeup for a couple of seasons, and he is featuring it substantially more than in years past. 12.3% of his pitches have been changeups; his previous career-high in a full season was 3.6%.
While the uptick in velocity and adjustments to the arsenal may have yet to help Lauer consistently prevent runs, they have enabled him improve his strikeout rate from 19.7% to an above-average 27%.
There is also some evidence that Lauer has gotten a bit unlucky. Estimators like FIP and xERA believe that he has truly performed like a 5.00 ERA pitcher, but he has a solid 3.51 SIERA and 3.99 DRA. While he is currently coughing up 2.57 home runs per nine innings, Lauer is suffering from an absurd 33.3% home run to fly ball ratio. That figure is guaranteed to decrease as he accumulates more innings. For that reason, his xFIP is just 3.26.
Unlucky or not, the 26-year-old has not done himself any favors with his lack of command. He is not walking many hitters, but both his fastball and cutter are catching the heart of the plate far too often. Any pitcher who doesn’t throw triple digits and regularly throws pitches in these locations is going to get hurt.
The Brewers continue to give Lauer chances because he has added velocity and possesses a better arsenal than he did in 2020. Even if the results have been inconsistent so far, he is an improved pitcher. Lauer is still relatively young, has three years of control left after this season, and has made adjustments. Additionally, the Brewers may soon need a replacement for fellow southpaw Brett Anderson, a legitimately dreadful pitcher who is experiencing the inevitable regression that he managed to stave off for a couple of seasons.
For all of these reasons, Eric Lauer deserves a longer look than the four starts he has gotten this year. We are experiencing the amazing results of the patience the organization had with Corbin Burnes (who is seven months older than Lauer) and Freddy Peralta. Lauer may not have the same level of upside as those two, but he still has potential. The Brewers are wise in giving him these opportunities to prove himself.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus.