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Brewers’ pitching development system always ran deeper than Derek Johnson

While rebuilding Reds staff is struggling, Milwaukee’s pitching is even better than it was when Johnson left.

Atlanta Braves v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

At the end of October 2018, Derek Johnson decided to leave the Milwaukee Brewers to join the Cincinnati Reds. It was a surprising development that came less than a month after the Brewers came one game short of their first World Series appearance since 1982.

Johnson’s departure created some angst within the fanbase. He received much of the credit for coaxing solid performances out of a pitching staff that pundits claimed featured a weak starting rotation. Veterans like Junior Guerra, Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley and Jeremy Jeffress all had some of the best seasons of their careers under Johnson’s tutelage. Some feared that when Johnson left, Milwaukee’s ability to fix underperforming arms would be gone.

At first, it seemed as though those fears were validated. In 2019, the Brewers finished with a 99 ERA- and 100 FIP-. Those are roughly average marks, but it was a noticeable step back from the 2018 staff. Some lamented that new pitching coach Chris Hook was unable to fill the shoes of his predecessor.

The narrative has changed dramatically in the years since. Since 2020, the Brewers have been in the conversation for the best pitching staff in baseball. Their 84 ERA- and 86 FIP- rank second among all teams to only the Dodgers.

Meanwhile, things have not been quite as rosy in Cincinnati. The Reds have been a middle-of-the-pack staff, ranking 16th with a 102 ERA- and 12th with a 98 FIP-.

Johnson has still made an impact. He helped Sonny Gray steer his career back on track after a disappointing stint with the Yankees. Luis Castillo improved from a 104 ERA- in 2018 to an 80 ERA- in three seasons under Johnson. The Reds posted a strong 91 ERA- and 92 FIP- in his first year on the job in 2019.

However, they recently stripped their roster down to bare bones in an effort to slash their payroll and retool. The Reds are off to a 3-22 start, the worst record in the big leagues. The pitching staff has also been the worst in the sport, ranking dead last with a horrendous 164 ERA- and 128 FIP-.

Those struggles were on display in the Brewers’ recent sweep of the Reds, as they coughed up 34 runs in the three-game series.

While Johnson is doing his best with an underwhelming group, the Brewers are rolling out what is perhaps the best rotation in baseball, one that did not reach that status until after Johnson left.

Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Adrian Houser debuted during the Johnson era. However, they all worked with Hook as they progressed up the minor league ladder and emerged as highly-effective starting pitchers with Hook as the big-league pitching coach.

Aaron Ashby was drafted during the 2018 season, so most of his development has occurred under a post-Johnson staff. Eric Lauer joined the Brewers in November 2019, and after a tough 2020 season, they helped him reshape his arsenal and add fastball velocity. Now he appears to be breaking out.

In addition to developing dominant young starting pitching, the Brewers have continued to acquire pitchers off the scrap heap and fix them up. Hunter Strickland, now a member of the Reds, posted a 1.73 ERA in 36.1 innings out of the Milwaukee bullpen after struggling immensely in a short stint with the Los Angeles Angels. Brad Boxberger added velocity and active spin to his fastball and resurrected his career as a durable seventh-inning man. Thanks to a new cutter, Trevor Gott has emerged as a fireman after not appearing in a big-league game since 2020.

At this point, the results speak for themselves. While Johnson played a significant role in helping the Brewers assemble solid staffs, their pitching development system always ran far deeper than one coach.

Consider that the Brewers hired Johnson the offseason before Craig Counsell’s first full season as manager and as freshly-hired David Stearns was restructuring the front office. Building an outstanding pitching development pipeline was the plan from the very start.

Part of that plan included hiring Johnson, but it also featured involvement from coaches at all levels of the organization and input from analytically-minded thinkers in the new front office. The Brewers embraced advanced data and technology as part of the process, making a significant financial commitment to build their cutting-edge pitching lab in Phoenix.

While the Brewers would have loved to keep Johnson, the system was already established and fully functional even before he left. As breakouts from Anderson, Chacin and Miley led the big-league rotation, Hook and other coaches worked with Woodruff, Burnes, Peralta and Houser in the minor leagues. They also got to work with Johnson during their intermittent MLB stints throughout the 2018 season. Meanwhile, the scouting department set its sights on talents like Ashby and Ethan Small.

When Johnson departed, Hook’s role in the development process and experience with the trio of young starters made him an easy choice to take over. Between Hook and returning members of the pitching staff, plenty of messengers could pass on any unique insight that Johnson provided during his three-year stint in Milwaukee.

The Brewers were always equipped to withstand losing Derek Johnson. Similarly, if Hook were to leave for a position with another team, they should be able to maintain a high level of production out of their staff. Milwaukee’s approach to identifying and developing talent on the mound is deeply ingrained in all levels of the organization. They’re going to continue producing solid pitching for the foreseeable future.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.