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February 15, 2013

Pitcher Profile

Milwaukee's Rotation Brew

by Harry Pavlidis

I like the old cliché, “You go as far as your starting pitching takes you.” It's best to have about seven to nine arms handy to get through the season, because pitchers often get hurt or fail to meet expectations.

Brewers fans may recall a recent season where they barely used six starters. Then, of course, there's last year, when they needed 11. Somewhere in between is normal. For the 2013 Brewers, the question is not if they will go deep into their rotation, but when. And as the summer nears, manager Ron Roenicke will be handing the ball to quite a few young arms.

Pitching Yeast 
When it's time to take wort and turn it into beer, you pitch the yeast and make sure the wort is at just the right temperature for your particular strain of yeast. Then, you watch and wait and see what you've got.

Lagering involves fermenting beer in cold temperatures—think caves in Germany or the Midwest League—for long periods of time. The yeast hangs out at the bottom of the fermenting vessel for a few months before the beer is mature enough to be served or to proceed to secondary aging.

Ale uses top fermenting yeast, which takes only a few weeks and works best at higher temperatures. This is akin to developing your pitchers in the majors, as opposed to lagering them nicely in the minors.

The Brewers have a series of question marks surrounding their 2013 starting rotation. If the stars align, then they might be able to buy time for their younger arms while getting by with a crew of veterans. Or, in beer terminology, they could lager through the season.

On the other hand, if injuries strike, general manager Doug Melvin and Roenicke could be serving up some ale-young pitchers and speeding along their development with promotions to Miller Park. If the roof is open, it's like a Trappist ale fermented with wild yeast. This is not easy; it takes the discipline of a monk and the quiet of a sanctuary.

Remember the Local Past
The 2008 Brewers grabbed the National League wild card behind a solid, full season from Ben Sheets and a partial season of outstanding performance from CC Sabathia. The rest of the rotation was a much less impressive group, led by Dave Bush. Gallardo, who missed most of the year after undergoing knee surgery, made just four regular-season starts, and then got the ball in Game One of the Division Series.

That 2008 Brewers squad offers proof that you don’t necessarily need a deep rotation to make the postseason (offense not included, void where prohibited). You might, however, need a midseason trade boon, in the vein of the Sabathia, Randy Johnson, or Rick Sutcliffe pickups that have previously propelled teams down the stretch.

The 2011 Brewers, by contrast, benefited from a deep corps of strong starters. Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum, and Zack Greinke combined for 127 starts. Greinke was the only member of the front four who failed to notch at least 33 trips to the mound, and he also ranked last among the quarter with a 3.83 ERA. Things worked out well at the back of the rotation:  Chris Narveson was a dependable fifth starter, and only Marco Estrada was called upon as a fill-in.

That type of pitching is a strong recipe for a division title, though—as the Brewers discovered—it does not guarantee success come October.

Returning to the fill-in, Estrada was used as a swingman, getting his action for a random assortment of reasons, from Narveson’s glove-repair accident to rain-induced double-headers to Greinke’s offseason basketball mishap. Sadly, Estrada's line of handmade voodoo dolls is no longer available in the Miller Park Team Store; they were retired after Narveson's shoulder gave out in 2012.

Mike Fiers was the Brewers’ 2012 breakout darling, but he emerged and submerged last year, and seems to be fringe a candidate for 2013.  He's in the mix, but far from a lock to nail down a spot this spring.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Gallardo and Estrada are the only locks in Milwaukee’s rotation, giving this year’s roster a 2008-like vibe, as opposed to a 2011-like confidence. A career swingman who just turned 30 is not your traditional number-two starter, but the 2013 version of Gallardo may be strong enough to match Sheets’ effort in 2008. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the 2011 glory days are long gone.

With two locks and two maybes established, let's break out a six-pack of guys who will round out the Brewers’ 10-man staff of rotation options this year. These names were culled from MLB Depth Charts and from Adam McCalvy's work for MLB.com.

Our six candidates are Nick Bucci, Hiram Burgos, Johnny Hellweg, Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers, and Tyler Thornburg. If we've forgotten someone, please comment, and we'll try to give them the same treatment we're about to give the others.

We saw some of these young arms in the majors in 2012, largely because the Brewers needed 11 starters to get through the regular season. Fortunately for us, that means abundant PITCHf/x data, and there's also a pool of data from the ballparks in Peoria and Surprise, Arizone, that was logged during Cactus League and Arizona Fall League play.

We have data on only five of the six young options, as Burgos has not yet appeared in any of the 32 PITCHf/x-equipped parks.

A Flight of Pitchers
Identifying a pitcher's pitches is a bit like describing beer. It can be hard to figure out what the distinct flavors are, and it only matters to some people—and even then, only some of the time. Others go up a level and talk about overall style. Both types of tasters can enjoy the dimensions that the aging (or conditioning) process contributes to a brew.

Once you a have a sense of a pitcher's repertoire, you are holding a frame through which to view their performance and a prism for their projection—two things we're all getting used to with the availability of minor-league stats and projection systems like PECOTA. Even a small slice of PITCHf/x data can be useful when placed in context.

In this case, our PITCHf/x pool contains just over 2,000 pitches for the five young arms combined, less than a full season for a regular starter. In three cases, we do have data spanning multiple years, which can help us identify trends. From the Brewers’ perspective, all five are right-handers, so there is no southpaw edge. This has the makings of a battle that will come down to roster spots and the pitchers’ remaining options.

We’ll begin with Bucci, an Ontario native who was placed on Milwaukee's 40-man roster in advance of the 2012 Rule 5 Draft. The Brewers didn't want to lose him even coming off a season during which he was limited by injuries. Bucci is on the World Baseball Classic roster, so he'll be swapping out the barley logo for a maple leaf this spring. He's targeted for Double-A, so the opportunity to pitch for his homeland is not likely to cost him a major-league job, but he could earn an emergency assignment down the stretch. For now, though, Bucci will be handled like lager.

Bucci's main offerings are a four-seam fastball (90-92 mph) and a big yakker of a curveball (72-78). The curve has full strike zone movement and then some, a good 42 inches off of his relatively straight heater. These numbers come from a pair of AFL games in 2012, one from each of the two covered parks.

Bucci complements his fastball with a straight change, but he doesn’t get much fade on it, resulting in action that resembles a dropping splitter. The trouble is, the pitch is softer than most splitters, checking in at 78-81 mph. Bucci's slider is about the same speed, but has some depth to it, giving it the potential to work well in tandem with his curve. Reds lefty Sean Marshall is among the best at mixing sliders and curves, but what separates Marshall from Bucci (apart from handedness) is that the latter lacks the second plane of movement that Marshall found when he lowered his arm angle.

I am concerned about Bucci’s ability to retire left-handed batters at higher levels. After considering his stuff and watching some video, I wonder if he'd benefit from lowering his arm angle a tad, similar to the adjustment that helped fuel Marshall’s success. We've just wandered into dangerous waters, as the beer taster is now telling the brew master what to do.

Bucci looks to be jerking his head, down and to the left, as his shoulders get some final tilt to bring his arm over the top. When I saw his PITCHf/x data, I was expecting something different from what I saw on video. His arm path was seemingly lower than his pitch movement implied, until that last second jerk.

From the last angle in this YouTube video, you can really see how he pulls his glove in toward his chest and gets a lot of torso rotation at release.

***

A little older and more advanced than Bucci, Hellweg was acquired from the Angels in the Greinke trade and seems like nothing more than a throw-in reliever at first glance. He's got a history of high walk rates and an impressive strikeout rate that plummeted when he hit Double-A in 2012 (6.8 per nine innings compared to 11.4 in High-A). The walks stuck around.

In an AFL relief outing in October 2012, Hellweg showed why he may be more than a throw in: high 90s heat from a mildly funky arm angle. There's just something about a two-seamer coming in at 97 mph from a guy who is 6-foot-9 (he also threw a four-seamer that touched 99). Hellweg’s breaking pitch looks slurvy at 85 mph—but that's not a knock. With his low three-quarter release, that's the movement you'd expect. It's a curveball, which gets more sweeping action because of his delivery.

Hellweg didn't show his change-up, but it appears in his MLB.com prospect video. Notice the arm slot and quiet head at release. As you'll hear in the video, he's somewhat of a longshot as a starter, but may have a future in the bullpen. Somewhere, I imagine, someone is saying that he could improve his control if he raised his arm angle.

It’s likely that Hellweg will not be called upon to start in the majors, this year or in the future. Since joining Milwaukee, Hellweg has been lagered as a starter, but I suspect that he will be re-cast as a reliever.

As we march through the alphabet, we get to some more serious candidates—and bigger piles of PITCHf/x data spanning multiple seasons.

***

Just 22, Peralta is still fermenting—but this is ale, not lager. Peralta is big-bodied and already worked his way up the ladder to the majors. Tommy John surgery in 2007 derailed his age-18 season, but now he’s 24 and ready to contribute, despite erratic control. At the very least, Peralta is in the mix and should be watched closely this spring.

Like Bucci, Peralta has the head-and-glove pull as he brings his arm around to release. From this Scouting the Sally clip, you can see that it isn't as abrupt as Bucci's jerk. Perhaps aided by his sturdy frame, Peralta’s delivery looks smoother and generates excellent arm speed.

As you’d expect, that arm speed translates to outstanding velocity. Peralta’s fastball pushes into the upper 90s and bottoms out around 92. He's also developed a sinker that he throws just as hard on average, but with the same upper range as the four-seamer. His changeup reminds me of Bucci's in terms of the movement (not a lot of fade) and speed gap (83-86), but Peralta’s overall velocity helps to mitigate that flaw. Like any other changeup, the effectiveness of this one—which Peralta throws with a three-finger grip, as far as I can tell—will come down to arm action.

Breaking pitches are another can of worms. Peralta has a reputation for having a plus slider and a developing curveball. In a 2011 exhibition game, Peralta threw a number of breaking pitches that came in slower than his change-up (80-82) and with more drop than his slider that we saw in 2012. This pitch was not a clear curveball, like Bucci's is, but I suspect what he showed in 2011 was the curve and not the slider.

The breaking pitch Peralta threw in September 2012 was shorter and harder (83-90), seemingly distinct from the occasional curveballish offering. We'll call it two pitches, but might well be one of those fermenting-in-the-majors things. Meanwhile, Bucci with his well-differentiated slider and curve, needs more time in the ice caves of the Texas League. Differentiation isn't everything. On the other hand, Peralta has developed a distinct two- and four-seam fastball pairing that Bucci lacks.

***

Already 27, but still low on big-league experience, Rogers has endured multiple delays en route to The Show. Call it barrel-aged lager.

The Brewers selected Rogers fifth overall in the 2004 draft, and he had shoulder surgery that kept him off the mound from late 2006 all the way until 2009. He wasn't fully healthy in 2010, either, and missed time in 2011 for a drug-policy violation. Now, he’s nearing 30 and out of minor-league options.

Rogers appears to have two fastball grips, but that is a difficult thing to ascertain. Pictures I saw indicate an across-the-seams two-seamer—a grip that I think was more popular a few decades ago.  While it is clear in some PITCHf/x games that he's throwing two pitches, I'm treating his fastball(s) as one offering. Like the other pitchers reviewed so far, Rogers has a slowish change that lacks fade. PITCHf/x is now the final arbiter on the quality of any pitch, and that’s true for changeups in particular.

In a single 2009 AFL PITCHf/x appearance, Rogers had a clear distinction between a short-ish slider (83-89) and a medium curveball (75-80). A year later, he earned a September callup to the majors, and during that stint, his curveball was shorter and his slider a little deeper, resulting in a less-distinct pattern in PITCHf/x. His fastball(s) had ticked up from 91-95 to 92-97, but there was less on the slider (82-86) than the previous data point from a year earlier.

That was some serious tea-leaf reading. Let's go to the videotape. In this slow-motion video, we don't get the best angle for his arm slot, but you can see a different glove action—it's more tied to the rotation of his throwing arm rather than a figure skater's inward pull to increase rotation. Yes, a figure skater. I don't have a beer metaphor for that one.

Rogers did a nice job for the Brewers in 2012: 39 innings over seven starts--not exactly a deep worker—with walk and strikeout rates better than his minor-league line for the season (3.2 vs. 4.6 BB/9 and 9.5 vs 7.0 K/9). September baseball is different from most of the season because the rosters are expanded, but at least the results were encouraging.

Stuff-wise, Rogers was about the same as when PITCHf/x last saw him in 2010. His profile remains muddled, with the curveball and slider proving difficult to separate, perhaps because of his varied fastball grips.

***

It took less than three professional seasons for Thornburg to make the jump from Charleston Southern to Milwaukee. He's more of a control pitcher than the other four and did an uncanny job of avoiding home runs in the minors.

Unfortunately, Thornburg wasn't able to keep that going in his first callup, giving up four long balls in his first big-league start and a total of seven in 14 innings. Called back in September and used more in relief, he gave up one additional gopher ball in eight innings of work. Better, but still double his minor-league rate.

In this video (there are a few of him from the same game), you can see Thornburg's arm coming a little more over the top than the other guys’. He's similar to Bucci, but without a slider. Thornburg's curve (75-80) seems to drop about five inches less than Bucci's does (relative to their fastballs). Given his Bucci enjoys more curveball break and is able to couple it with a slider, he seems better equipped for success with the bender than Thornburg

Thornburg's fastballs (89-96) are mostly four-seam with just a handful of two-seamers recorded in the limited sample we have. His changeup has the same fade drawback as those of his competitors. Thornburg doesn't seem to have an edge over Rogers or Peralta, but he also isn’t far behind them. I'd expect him to open the season in Triple-A, but there's no reason to believe he's being treated like lager. Mark this one as ale, albeit not necessarily tasty ale.

Last Call
How do the five stack up?

  1. Peralta: the potential to be a decent ale and, for this observer, the most exciting of the lot.
  2. Rogers: barrel aged lager that may be of sufficient quality for drinking this season. Will probably get tapped even if it's to make sure he doesn't go past his drink-by date.
  3. Bucci: lager that is still fermenting. Could be more interesting for 2014.
  4. Thornburg: ale. It's not going to wow anyone, but sometimes you need a swing-man.
  5. Hellweg: steam beer. He looks like lager, but just turn the heat up and see what you've got.

Harry Pavlidis is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Harry's other articles. You can contact Harry by clicking here

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