As they did in 2011, the Brewers acquired a reliever via trade on the night of the All-Star Game. This time, however, it is not an All-Star high-leverage arm like Francisco Rodriguez. Kyle Lobstein is the latest addition to the organization’s relief corps after being acquired from the Washington Nationals. He was promptly assigned to Triple-A Nashville.
Lobstein is the definition of a minor-league journeyman. The 31-year-old has spent 12 seasons in the minors, including stints with eight different organizations. He has 130 innings of MLB experience, pitching to an underwhelming 5.22 ERA and 4.49 FIP in parts of four seasons. The former Tiger and Pirate made three appearances out of the bullpen for the Nationals this year before they designated him for assignment. He surrendered three runs while recording four outs in his first big-league opportunity since 2016.
At first glance, this looks like an inconsequential transaction for the Brewers. Maybe that will end up being the case. However, the club’s internal analysts and executives likely view the southpaw as more than a random warm body to soak up some low-leverage innings here and there. They designated Ryan Weber for assignment to make room for Lobstein on the 40-man roster, so they must believe that he can provide more value than a garbage-time arm like Weber does.
Lobstein has worked as a starting pitcher for the majority of his professional career. He also has experience as a multi-inning reliever. This season, he has transitioned into a more traditional short relief role with Washington’s Triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings. The change has coincided with some trends that undoubtedly caught the attention of Milwaukee’s front office.
There is very little to draw from Lobstein’s three big-league appearances this year, but it is evident that his average fastball velocity has increased dramatically. He is now averaging roughly 92 MPH on his heater after previously sitting in the mid-to-upper-80s.
In fact, Lobstein has seen his velocity jump across the board. Each of his secondary pitches—changeup, slider, and curveball—are now firmer than ever before.
Lobstein is striking out opponents at a dramatically higher rate than in the past. The newfound extra gear on his pitches may be a catalyst. The lefty has a career 20.3% strikeout rate over his minor-league career, but he punched out 30% of opposing hitters with the Red Wings. On top of that, he induced ground balls at an excellent 69.4% rate. The abilities to miss bats and avoid barrels on contact are valuable traits, and the Brewers are likely hoping that they can translate to the big-league level.
The veteran has also made some clear mechanical adjustments. As a full-time reliever, he has ditched his traditional windup and is now pitching exclusively out of the stretch.
More notably, Lobstein has lowered his arm slot and adopted a shorter arm path. He previously had a longer motion, and his delivery was somewhere between over-the-top and high three-quarters. Now, he is whipping the ball from a low three-quarters slot. The different camera angles do no favors for comparing the video, but the changes are still obvious.
Just for good measure, we can consult the data, which confirms that Lobstein has lowered his release point.
The change brings to mind a similar story from 2014. Former left-handed starter Zach Duke was coming off a couple of rough seasons. Duke transitioned to a full-time reliever and began toying with a lower arm slot. The initial results were nothing special, but the Brewers were intrigued by Duke’s adjustments and signed him to a minor-league deal.
Duke made the Opening Day roster, and at age 31 (the same age as Lobstein), he had a phenomenal season out of the bullpen. In 59 innings of work, the former starter posted a 2.45 ERA, 2.14 FIP, and 1.95 SIERA. His strikeout rate skyrocketed from just under 12% as a starter to an elite 31.1%. The southpaw was often used as a specialist, but he did not have a noticeable platoon split, holding right-handers to .586 OPS. He would go on to pitch for five more seasons.
Duke and Lobstein are not identical. Duke lowered his arm slot even more than Lobstein has, and he even utilized several different release points to keep hitters off-balance. However, the stories are similar, from the role change to the thought process behind the mechanical overhauls.
At worst, Kyle Lobstein is an innings eater to deploy exclusively in low-leverage situations. However, there is a good chance that the Brewers view him as more than that. They see him as a no-risk reclamation project who can potentially record some important outs down the stretch. For now, he will continue to work on his new approach in Nashville, but expect him to get the call to Milwaukee soon.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Brooks Baseball.