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Trade or keep: Adrian Houser’s value to the Milwaukee Brewers

Was 2021 a sign of greater things or the peak that leads to a sell-high deal?

MLB: SEP 10 Brewers at Indians
Despite a big 2021, there could be questions about Adrian Houser’s value going forward for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With a rotation led by 2021 NL Cy Young Corbin Burnes, stud “veteran” (just 29) Brandon Woodruff, and the electric rise of Freddy Peralta, it’s easy to forget the value Adrian Houser brings to the Milwaukee Brewers roster. Even newcomer Aaron Ashby seemed to get more buzz in 2021 as a vital piece of the present and future.

The Brewers overall depth of talent on the mound pushes Houser to the shadows a bit, creating an interesting dynamic where it’s tough to tell if he brings more to the club as a back-end starter or a commodity to deal for production elsewhere on the diamond. Considering Milwaukee’s elite rotation, still-strong bullpen (especially Josh Hader and Devin Williams), and fantastic defense, it looks like a World Series club - save for an offense that lacks consistency.

With all of that in mind, does Houser offer greater value to the Brewers if they keep him in Milwaukee or fill a need by trading him elsewhere? It’s a fair question for David Stearns as President of Baseball Operations - but you get an opinion, too, at the end.

Let’s start with the argument for keeping the 29-year-old right-hander. Taking just a quick look at last season, Houser’s numbers look excellent. It was his first full season as a committed starting pitcher (26 starts, 2 relief appearances), throwing a career-high 142.1 innings. In many ways, when you consider his workload, 2021 was his best season - which could be a sign of things to come.

Houser owned career-bests in ERA (3.22), ERA+ (132), HR/9 (0.8) and H/9 (7.5). His 1.5 fWAR was the second-highest of his career (surprisingly 1.6 fWAR in 2019); however, that did only put him 6th among all Brewers pitchers. Regardless, if you’re getting those rate stats from your fourth or fifth spot in the rotation, you’re way ahead of most - if not all - MLB clubs.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers
Houser tossed the Brewers’ first complete game since 2017 - and first shutout since 2014 - throwing 100 pitches in a 4-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Another compelling factor to consider are his numbers in the second half of seasons. Over the course of his career, Houser owns a 2.93 ERA and 1.13 WHIP while allowing a .209 average and .611 OPS against opposing hitters (129 IP). Some may not see this as a valuable piece of information, but when you’re looking for strong hurlers down the stretch, it’s comforting to know a guy has proven his work during the dog days of summer. His ERA (2.43) and WHIP (1.14) were better, though he relied more on in-play outs than usual.

A huge part of Houser’s success comes from his elite sinker. He doesn’t strike out as many guys as you’d like (you’ll see that in a moment), but the balls put in play are mostly on the ground. Among pitchers with at least 140 IP in 2021, Houser owned the 2nd-highest ground ball percentage (GB%) at 59.0%. Considering the Brewers’ terrific infield defense, ground balls are usually outs. But to understand how impressive his sinker has been, we look to Baseball Savant and the Statcast metric of “run value.” Houser’s sinker ranked as the 3rd-best pitch with a -21 run value. One of the pitches his sinker equaled was Burnes deadly cutter. That’s saying a lot.

Overall, a solid case as to why Houser could still mean so much to the Brewers status quo. Also consider he is under team control through 2025 (same as Woodruff) and is expected to earn about $2.3 million through arbitration in 2022. That is tremendous value when look at production versus cost.

So why on Earth could the Brewers believe the better move is to trade Houser to another piece or two? Some of that would come from a deeper look at some of his impressive stats. One could argue some numbers are misleading, while at the same time believing it is possible you’ve seen the best you’re going to get out of Houser.

Though his 3.22 ERA last season is fantastic, his 4.33 FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) leaves much to be desired. It’s not terribly surprising; as noted above, he relies on his defense for outs. The concern is that at some point, those outs find holes or Houser simply runs into more bad luck than what he has experienced. With a career 4.25 FIP, it’s still decent for the back of a rotation; however, it’s not nearly as robust as the ERA. A related number to look at would be his opponents’ batting average of balls in play (BAbip). The .264 BAbip last season sits 45 points below his career norm (.289). In fact, the previous three seasons there were .302, .304 and .325 - meaning the BAbip dropped 61 points from a year ago. Sounds quite lucky in 2021.

If those seem like minor concerns, a couple of other 2021 figures could raise additional flags: 4.0 BB/9 and 6.6 K/9. Again, we know he allows the ball to be put in play, but at some point, the walks and strikeouts are far more telling. Houser’s 4.0 BB/9 was his highest mark since 2018 when he tossed only 13.2 frames at the MLB level. Free passes at that level are dangerous for a starter and was the 5th-worst last season (starters with 120+ IP). On the flipside, his 6.6 K/9 marked his worst outcome since 2018 and put him among the worst 10-15 starters with 120+ IP in 2021. The combo of high walks and low whiffs is often a recipe for disaster.

Houser’s other big issue has been his struggles against left-handed hitters. Lefties have put up a slash line of .283/.376/.446/.821 across 649 plate appearances in his career. His K/BB ratio also takes a big hit versus southpaws with a 3.06 K/BB against righties and a 1.49 K/BB against lefties. In fairness, he was much better in 2021 (.273/.370/.392/.762); however, the super low BAbip raises doubts as to whether or not the improvement was real or a one-year fluke.

Division Series - Atlanta Braves v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One
Houser earned the win in Game 1 of the NLDS last season, but took the loss in Game 3 (both as a reliever).
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Outside of the stats, my own perception sees Houser as a bit weaker mentally when compared to his peers. Too many times a bad call, unfortunate miscue, or quick rally seems to knock Houser off track. His body language and other reactions are obvious, and but many also remember when the these small things led to big trouble and a hook from Craig Counsell. Clearly the team has a much better handle on what may or may not affect Houser - and countless players have dealt with worse mentally - but it’s something that comes to mind from time to time. If he has matured in this area, it adds another layer.

After seeing “both sides” of the argument, does it sway you one way or the other? Of course, other teams could have the same concerns as the Brewers, causing his stock to drop. Others may see them as minor or worth the risk if he continues posting his usual production numbers. The other factor, as always, is the value of a trade would all depend on what the Brewers get in return.

Pitching depth is invaluable, which makes it tough to part with proven arms. Yes, the Brewers appear stacked and able to develop arms to elite levels lately, making other guys slightly more expendable. And an injury or two is always right around the corner. One final layer to throw into this argument lies in Houser’s experience, not only in the rotation, but also as a reliever.

If he were to struggle as a starter or the Brewers feel they have better options, Houser could become a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen. In 54.1 career innings as a reliever, Houser owns a 1.82 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.1 K/9 and 0.5 HR/9. Meanwhile, hitters have have a .297 OBP and .314 slugging percentage against Houser the relief pitcher. With the ability to pick spots for Houser, like bringing him in against tough righties and avoiding most lefties, you can see why his strikeout rate increases and his HR/9 falls out of the pen. Would he be happy in relief? Tough to say.

Now is your chance to vote. For the sake of the argument, let’s say the Brewers would be getting an impact bat in return for a trade - a player that makes the offense better. Which option would YOU choose?

Poll

Which option would you choose to get the most value out of Adrian Houser?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Trade him
    (234 votes)
  • 45%
    Keep him as a starter
    (250 votes)
  • 11%
    Keep him as a reliever (a few spot starts)
    (61 votes)
545 votes total Vote Now

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant