If there’s one constant in Milwaukee, it’s that pitching remains forever fickle, and there was no better proof than the 2019 season.
Despite lacking top tier arms, the Brewers were again poised to upset projections and naysayers alike with a patchwork group of “out-getters” bolstered by some of the club’s top pitching prospects. Jhoulys Chacin, slated for Opening Day, had just come off a career year. Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta had both hit the majors and shown significant promise. The bullpen, behind the dominance of Josh Hader, had been one of the best in baseball. And yet, over the course of the season, nearly every one of those narratives had been turned on its head, leaving the pitching staff league-average if not ineffective, the Opening Day starter on waivers and most of the rest with more question marks than ever.
Entering 2020, David Stearns is again leaning on what one could only call an unconventional staff, complete with a mix of mostly unproven arms, aging veterans, and even a two-time KBO MVP. Yet, in the eyes of the fans, it somehow looks more uncertain than ever.
While skepticism is warranted, there seems to be an air of unspoken promise. Much of the fanfare that has surrounded some of the team’s best young pitchers seems to have died—barring Brandon Woodruff—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should. In fact, despite some of the setbacks many have suffered, one could argue that added major league experience and health could make all the difference in whether 2020 looks more like the team’s breakout pitching performance in 2018 or the beginning of the end.
Here’s a look at those who could make it or break it in 2020.
After an impressive 2018 debut that included a 2.61 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and nearly a strikeout per inning, Burnes took a major step back in 2019—but there are plenty of reasons to think that 2020 might be the year he finally figures it all out. Besides the fact that both his xFIP (3.37) and SIERA (3.55) were a far cry from his unsightly ERA (8.82), it seems that Burnes far too often turned to his four-seamer when behind in the count—and was promptly teed off, leading to a whopping .414 BABIP, 42.1% hard hit rate and the worst home run rate of his professional career.
Whether he was a victim of his own inconsistency, the change in baseballs, or some combination of the two—or others for that matter—remains to be seen, but given that he actually boosted his strikeout rate to a career-best 12.86 K/9 last year, maintained healthy numbers outside of the long ball, has a clear focus this offseason, and plenty of upside to boot, Burnes could shore up what looks to be a pitching staff seemingly rife with uncertainty.
Since arriving to the majors, Peralta has been truly boom or bust. Much like Burnes, many hoped that the young righty would hit his stride in his first full year of major league ball. Unfortunately, his moments of brilliance were often followed by a routine bludgeoning, much of it suspected to be a combination of a limited arsenal and a lack of command.
This offseason, he’s working in an additional pitch more regularly and if his small sample of Winter League numbers are any indicator (1.35 ERA, 0.30 WHIP, 14K 1BB in 6.2IP), a rebound or even just maintaining some consistency could be a massive boon to a team who penciled him in as a starter just last season. Plus, word has recently surfaced that manager Craig Counsell aims to treat both Peralta and Burnes as rotational depth, a prospect that excited fans one year ago—and for good reason.
If there was anyone the Brewers missed during the 2019 season, it was surely Knebel.
Over the last four years, Knebel has been an absolute force out of Milwaukee’s bullpen, averaging a 3.02 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 13 K/9, while also making an All-Star appearance in 2017. Unfortunately, heavily leaning on a 97-mph fastball eventually caught up with him last March, sidelining him for the season after Tommy John surgery.
While he won’t be ready for Spring Training or even the start of the regular season, having Knebel for any portion of 2020 will be a welcome boost to a bullpen that largely struggled last year. And although there’s no guarantee he’ll avoid post-surgery setbacks, the procedure is proving to be more reliable than ever and even occasionally provides some benefits—just ask Brent Suter, who added velocity to both his fastball and slider while also posting a 0.49 ERA and 0.60 WHIP over the final 18.1 innings after returning.
Not many really know what to make of Bobby Wahl and for good reason—few outside of the club have actually seen him pitch in a Brewers uniform since he was traded from the Mets last January. Just two months later, a freak accident while pitching in Spring Training left him with a torn ACL in his push-off knee, sidelining him for the entirety of 2019.
Looking at his major league stats (6.92 ERA, 1.92 WHIP, 1.4 HR/9, 5.5 BB/9) one might wonder why the Brewers front office has been so high on him throughout the process. For starters, he still has three years of control and cost only Keon Broxton when the team was already flush with outfielders.
But even more compelling is his arsenal. Strangely enough, Wahl’s scouting report is akin to Knebel’s, which, given the team’s success with the latter, is likely why Stearns and company are excited to see what he can do. He throws just about everything hard, especially his fastball, which tops out at 98 mph, and most of his pitches come with above average spin rates and deceptive movement—all of which combines to produce elite whiff rates.
While he’s only seen five innings in the Arizona Fall League and garnered mixed results while working out the kinks in his timing and delivery, there’s a good chance that if he’s able to harness his talent and maintain his health, he could be breaking camp with the team and becoming the high upside arm the Brewers have been hoping for.
While everyone has been concentrating on the fact that “Fastball Freddy” only has two pitches, Taylor Williams has quietly spent the last three years doing almost the exact same thing—except with a slider instead of a curveball as his No. 2.
But looking at Williams’ numbers seems anomalous by comparison. Generally known to be a groundball pitcher, Williams actually tallied the highest groundball percentage of his career in 2019, but also matched it with a career-high hard-contact rate that jumped nearly 10% over 2018—and a brutal .438 BABIP to boot. And yet, both his SIERA (3.98) and xFIP (3.69) tell a different story about how effective he actually was at a base level.
While most of the outward numbers make it hard to isolate the cause of his pitching woes, they seem to indicate that batters were either sitting on his fastball, perhaps noticing a tip, or just leveraging the launch angle revolution to take advantage of a pitcher who routinely throws low and just outside the corners.
With no sign of that slowing down anytime soon, Williams may have to change his approach significantly if he doesn’t want a repeat of an ugly 2019 that forced him back into Triple-A. Should he rebound, however, the Brewers may end up with another serviceable arm in the bullpen.
While it may not be exciting to state it in this context, unlike several other pitchers on this list, most of Lauer’s numbers indicate that the last two years accurately represent the kind of pitcher he is: a stable 4/5 not blowing anyone anyway—but that doesn’t mean he lacks upside.
Since starting his professional career, Lauer actually posted some pretty impressive numbers in the minors, including ERAs under 3.30, a strikeout rate above 9.5, and a solid walk rate, all while giving up an exceptionally low number of home runs.
But what makes Lauer truly intriguing is the same thing that makes him a somewhat unknown quantity. Since being drafted by the Padres out of college, it took him only three years—only 178 innings to be exact—to make it to the majors. It’s a small sample size to be sure, but that’s no slight on his talent.
While scouts generally yawned at his low-90s fastball and league-average secondary offerings, he does boast a five pitch arsenal (four-seam, cutter, curve, slider change). What’s more, he actually uses them all, proving that even without heat, he can still keep hitters off-balance with good location and sequencing—and his strong command and mature mound presence were key notes throughout his professional development.
While there’s no telling how a shift from Petco to Miller could impact him, it seems likely that his repertoire, his potential, and his noticeably studious attitude toward the game could make him the perfect replacement for Zach Davies—except two years younger with four years of control, better command and more strikeouts.
When Black came over with Drew Pomeranz at the deadline, it seemed like there was a collective groan hovering in the Milwaukee air. In short, it meant that one of their final high-ceiling prospects (Mauricio Dubon) left the system for a starter-turned-reliever on a down year and a high-heat righty reliever who still hadn’t figured it out at the major league level. But there’s a reason Stearns had cause for optimism.
Sure, Black has pitched fewer than 40 major league innings, given up a troubling number of runs, and is already approaching 30 years old, but there’s still no denying he has a LOT of upside.
What kind of upside? A fastball that maxes out at 103 mph. A slider that’s straight nasty. Both of which possess elite—top-five in the league elite—spin rates, the kind of stuff that can turn legs into human jelly. Unfortunately, all of that comes with significant command and control issues, the kind that can turn a career into human jelly. But rest assured, that with the right guidance he could reel it all in and, if he does, he will be an absolute force in the bullpen—and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.