The Milwaukee Brewers had one of the best rotations in Major League Baseball last season. Brewers starting pitching ranked second among all teams in fWAR (20.3), ERA (3.13), and SIERA (3.81), first in FIP (3.29), and third in strikeout rate (26.2%). Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser, and Eric Lauer all had the best seasons of their careers. The first three were all selected to the National League All-Star team, and Burnes took home the NL Cy Young Award.
All five of those hurlers are returning for the 2022 season. The only subtraction is veteran Brett Anderson, who overcame questionable peripherals and multiple trips to the injured list to make 24 starts as a sixth starter with a respectable 101 ERA+. If the Brewers use a six-man rotation again, those starts could go to southpaw Aaron Ashby.
Let’s take a moment to look at each pitcher in more detail.
Burnes is fresh off one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in franchise history, coming in second all-time in fWAR (7.5) and ERA (2.43) and setting the franchise record for lowest FIP (1.63). In fact, Burnes’ 2021 FIP is the second-lowest of the modern era behind only Pedro Martinez’s 1999 season.
The right-hander’s transformation to get to where he is today has been incredible. In 2019, Burnes relied primarily on a four-seam fastball and slider. His slider had the makings of an elite pitch, but his four-seamer got crushed. It sometimes had cut but was often straight, and Burnes struggled to command it.
Burnes has since developed a mid-to-upper-90s cutter and a sinker. He has also reintroduced his curveball and changeup, refining the former into an elite pitch and the latter into a solid one. The rest of his arsenal has become so overpowering that he rarely needs to use his slider, but he still has it in his back pocket.
The reigning Cy Young winner is for real. While it will be tough to replicate his dominance from last season, he will once again be among the top pitchers in baseball.
Ditto for Woodruff, who you could argue was already a top-15 starting pitcher before last season. In 2021, the Mississippi native made a career-high 30 starts and posted a 2.56 ERA, 2.96 FIP, and 3.31 SIERA. He features both a four- and two-seam fastball. The four-seamer is his signature pitch, averaging nearly 97 mph and inducing whiffs on more than 30% of swings against it. The two-seamer is his go-to offering for ground balls and weak contact.
Woodruff also throws a curveball, slider, and changeup, giving him a well-rounded arsenal. Statcast run values graded all three as plus pitches last season. He doesn’t always have all of his secondaries working simultaneously, but Woodruff is typically able to find a feel for at least one of them by the second or third inning of his starts. With a lethal fastball and at least one strong secondary pitch at his disposal, Woodruff is perhaps the team’s most consistent starter.
After an inconsistent first three seasons in the big leagues, everything clicked for Peralta in 2021. Like Burnes and Woodruff, he posted a sub-3.00 ERA, finishing with a 2.81 ERA. A 3.12 FIP and 3.40 SIERA backed that up.
Perhaps the most significant difference-maker for Peralta was developing a true slider and a changeup. Adding these pitches freed him from being so reliant on his deceptive fastball, which he previously threw more than 70% of the time.
More velocity also did favors for Peralta’s effectiveness. He added several ticks to his fastball when working out of the bullpen in 2019 and 2020 and sustained it when he returned to the rotation full-time last season. After previously hovering around 90 mph as a starter, he now sits in the mid-90s and tops out at 98 mph.
In a move that now looks like a steal, the Brewers extended Peralta before the 2021 season. The deal is guaranteed through 2024 and includes two club options, meaning that the 25-year-old could be in Milwaukee through 2026.
While the big three outlined above are well-positioned to continue their dominance, Houser is perhaps the top regression candidate on the staff. The groundball specialist has one of the best sinkers in the game, but being so dependent on balls in play for outs makes him somewhat volatile.
Houser struggled to a 5.30 ERA in 2020 but rebounded with a career-best 3.22 last year. However, the underlying metrics don’t suggest that he actually improved much. While his home run rate improved dramatically, his hard hit rate and average exit velocity increased, and his barrel rate only decreased by half a percentage point. He also battled his control at times, walking 11% of batters faced. Furthermore, Houser’s SIERA and DRA were worse in 2021 than in 2020.
The only real difference is what happened after hitters put the ball in play. Houser’s BABIP plummeted from .325 to .259. Much of that came down to having better defenders in Kolten Wong and Willy Adames up the middle instead of Keston Hiura and Orlando Arcia. However, 2021 was everything going right for Houser after everything went wrong in 2020. ZiPS expects him to find some middle ground this year, projecting him for a 4.37 ERA.
Like Houser, Lauer is probably due for some regression. His 4.04 FIP and 4.24 SIERA were higher than his 3.19 ERA. However, Lauer managed a solid 24% strikeout rate, and his fastball features some deceptiveness, inducing whiffs at an elite 27% rate. He also made adjustments such as shortening his arm path, changing his positioning on the rubber, and creating better separation between the shapes of his curveball and slider. The southpaw has a good chance of posting an ERA in the mid-to-upper 3.00s this year.
Ashby broke into the big leagues for the first time last season. As they have done with many of their pitching prospects in recent seasons, the Brewers used him primarily out of the bullpen in his first exposure to major-league hitting. The southpaw posted a 4.55 ERA that was inflated by poor performances in his first and final outings. His 3.58 FIP and 3.18 SIERA are far more encouraging.
The 23-year-old leaned heavily on his slider, which flashed qualities of an elite pitch. His changeup was also highly effective. Ashby can also generate significant movement on his sinker, which sits in the mid-90s but can reach as high as 99 mph. Having more confidence in that sinker will be key for him this year. He would also benefit from improved control, as he finished with a below-average 9% walk rate.
Craig Counsell has been stretching Ashby out this spring, but he is most likely to pitch both as a starter and out of the bullpen depending on the team’s needs at the time. The health of the other five starters and how often Milwaukee chooses to deploy a six-man rotation will determine how many starts the former prospect makes.
Brent Suter only made one start for the Brewers last season, but he can still stretch out if necessary. Alec Bettinger started one big-league game plus three appearances out of the bullpen; he could get the call from Triple-A Nashville a few times this year. David Stearns indicated that the club likes recently-signed José Ureña’s potential out of the bullpen, but he could make an occasional start if need be. The same applies to Luis Perdomo. Josh Lindblom remains under contract for one more year, but the Brewers are unlikely to re-select him to the 40-man roster.
Prospect Ethan Small, another left-hander, is likely to debut in Milwaukee this summer. Craig Counsell predicted a couple of weeks ago that Small will make starts for the Brewers in 2022. He has a deceptive fastball and a plus changeup that ought to position him for success out of the bullpen. If Small can refine his breaking ball, he could be a future fixture in the rotation.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus.