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What to expect from Ethan Small

Small carved up hitters in the minor leagues, but his development is far from complete

Milwaukee Brewers Photo Day Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

When the Brewers announced that Freddy Peralta would miss a significant chunk of the season due to a shoulder injury, Craig Counsell stated that the team would stick with a five-man rotation in his absence, with Aaron Ashby becoming a full-time starting pitcher.

However, the current schedule necessitated the temporary addition of another starter. The Brewers are in the midst of playing 18 games in 17 days, including today’s doubleheader against the Cubs.

Needing another stretched-out arm to ease the load on the rest of the pitching staff, the Brewers are promoting Ethan Small to start game one of the twin bill.

Now that Aaron Ashby has graduated from prospect lists, Small is widely regarded as the top arm in Milwaukee’s farm system. The 2019 first-rounder has dismantled the competition at every stop through the minor leagues, posting a cumulative 1.78 ERA in 33 starts. He has allowed just 5.8 hits per nine innings for his minor-league career while striking out 32% of opposing hitters.

It’s been more of the same for the southpaw this season, where he has posted a 1.88 ERA in eight starts for the AAA Nashville Sounds.

That success has been fueled by his excellent fastball and changeup pairing. Small only sits in the low-90s, meaning he is not a hard thrower by today’s standards, but his heater has excelled at generating whiffs.

There are several reasons why Small’s fastball grades out as a solid pitch despite lacking in velocity. Its high spin rate gives it the illusion that it is rising as it approaches home plate, making it effective up in the zone. Small has effectively lived above the letters with it in the minor leagues.

The left-hander also makes hitters uncomfortable with an unorthodox delivery as he fires the ball from his lanky 6-foot-4 frame. He adds to this deceptiveness by varying his windup to mess with their timing.

Most importantly, Small’s fastball plays up because he pairs it with a fantastic changeup. The offspeed offering is arguably his best pitch, and it features excellent drop with substantial arm-side fade as it approaches the plate.

Small has been strictly a starter as a professional, and he’ll be the Brewers’ initial out-getter in Chicago today, but at this point in time, he is far from a slam dunk to succeed in that role as a big-leaguer.

Scouts have described Small’s breaking ball as below average, both in terms of movement and results. He throws both a slider and a curveball, and he made some progress in refining the former last season. However, unless something has changed dramatically this year, neither is an average pitch yet. He may run into trouble facing an opposing order multiple times in a game without a useful third offering.

The left-hander has also struggled to harness his control, posting a troublesome 12.1% walk rate as a professional. Small has yet to correct the issue, walking 13% of opposing hitters this year in AAA. Less-experienced opposition has not been able to capitalize on the free passes and missed locations, but MLB hitters will.

The hype surrounding Small as he makes his major-league debut is merited, but no one should expect him to seamlessly jump into the Brewers rotation and enjoy instant success. His control issues and lack of a clear third pitch are legitimate concerns, and they will lead to some initial struggles. It’s good to be excited about his potential, but fans should be aware that his development is far from complete.

Small fits best working in a relief role during his first exposure to big-league hitters, much as Ashby did at the end of last season. Shorter outings would enable him to focus on his two best pitches, help his fastball play up even more and eliminate the risk of strenuous starts brought on by too many walks.

The Brewers have used many of their top pitching prospects in a relief role to begin their careers, so Small will likely end up pitching primarily out of the bullpen for them. However, the Brewers need another starter for the time being, and Small was deemed the best man for the job. In a few hours, he’ll get an opportunity to show what he can do.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs. Scouting information courtesy of FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline.