When the Milwaukee Brewers needed a torrid run over the last month of their season in order to sneak into the playoffs, it was the pitching staff that stepped up and made it happen. During that stretch, perhaps nobody in the organization pitched better than Freddy Peralta. He threw 9.2 innings in relief during that month and allowed just two runs while striking out 20 batters and walking two. That works out to an ERA of 1.86 and a FIP of -0.30 — yes, a negative FIP. He made one dominant appearance after another, like when he struck out five in two shutout innings against the Cubs, or when he struck out four over two shutout innings against San Diego.
In September, he was one of the most overpowering relievers in baseball. In August? He got shelled so badly in six games that he was demoted to the minors for two weeks. This is the Freddy Peralta conundrum. And the Brewers are betting they can solve it.
According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Brewers are expected to sign Peralta, 23, to a five-year contract extension, which would buy out his arbitration years and give the team a pair of club options on the back end.
RHP Freddy Peralta finalizing long-term extension with #Brewers, source tells The Athletic. Terms expected to be similar to deal that LH reliever Aaron Bummer recently signed twith #WhiteSox – five years, $16M, with two club options that could increase total value to $30.75M.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 26, 2020
A follow-up report from Rosenthal gave slightly different numbers for Peralta’s deal — $15.75 million guaranteed, with club options that could reach a total of $30 million – but the Aaron Bummer comparison here is interesting. Bummer is three years older than Peralta but has proven more at the big league level, turning in a 2.13 ERA and 3.41 FIP in 2019. There is also little debate as to what role Bummer will fill for the White Sox going forward, while Peralta’s future home in either the rotation or the bullpen has yet to be decided.
If you’ve followed baseball for any length of time, you’ve come across a few Freddy Peraltas. He’s a smaller guy for a pitcher, listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, but he throws a really exciting heater that tends to miss both bats and the strike zone. That fastball allowed him to rise through the minors quickly, helping him debut in the majors at just 21, but his ascent happened so quickly that he never really learned trustworthy secondary pitches. His team has tried him as a starter, but he struggled enough that he was moved to the bullpen. He pitched better in relief, but not so much better that he wouldn’t still be a bit of a project there, and hell, if you don’t think he’s reached his potential as a reliever yet, then what’s the point of giving up on him starting?
There are pitchers like this in most organizations, and many of them wind up petering out, but the Brewers have seen enough from Peralta to think the odds of him turning into something of real value are pretty good. Judging from reactions from Brewers fans, they seem to agree. Peralta endeared himself to those fans quickly in his MLB debut, when he struck out 13 batters in 5.2 shutout innings of one-hit ball at Coors Field on May 13, 2018. Over his first four starts in the majors, he held his opponents scoreless in three of them, carrying a 1.59 ERA and 35 strikeouts against nine walks through 22.2 innings.
Soon after, the Peralta roller coaster reached its first big drop. After holding a 2.65 ERA over his first seven big league starts, his next seven produced an ERA of 6.19. That continued into 2019, when his first 12 appearances (eight starts) produced a 5.81 ERA, though with a more generous 4.46 FIP. Included in those first 12 appearances were three starts in which he allowed at least six runs, but also one eight-inning, 11-strikeout shutout performance against Cincinnati and another six-inning, nine-strikeout, one-run outing against Miami.
Seeking more stability with Peralta, the Brewers moved him to the bullpen full-time starting on June 17. As expected, his stuff played up in that role, with his fastball adding nearly three full ticks of velocity. But his command also took a step back, mitigating the progress made in his strikeout and homer rates.
It’s pretty clear that Peralta was better in relief than he was starting last season, but probably not so good that you’d want to count on him being an elite reliever for the foreseeable future. And because of his age, pigeonholing him into a permanent bullpen spot probably isn’t the best course of action anyway. That appears to be Milwaukee’s read on things, as they are still evaluating Peralta as a serious contender for the rotation.
Things change, but right now Brewers rotation looks like Woodruff, Houser, B. Anderson, Lindblom in some order.
Lauer, Peralta competing for 5th spot, CC said.
Burnes after that.
Shelby Miller after that. Must establish "foundation" before he's considered for MLB, CC said.
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) February 23, 2020
In hopes of bolstering Peralta’s chances at sticking in the rotation, the Brewers have had him spend the winter learning a new pitch with special assistant and former big leaguer Carlos Villanueva. That new pitch, a slider, was on display early and often in his first appearance of the spring this week, and it could go a long way toward giving Peralta some staying power as he turns the lineup over.
In 2019, he used his four-seam fastball 78.4% of the time, over nine points higher than any other pitcher who made at least eight starts. It’s a good fastball, with a spin rate that’s in the 89th percentile of baseball according to Statcast, and a deadly weapon when he’s throwing it around 91 mph, let alone when he gets up into 98-mph territory. Here it is in action late last season:
But it can’t carry the load all on its own, and while his curveball has been effective, the changeup barely even registers as an option for Peralta, consisting of just 1.8% of his deliveries last year. Trying to survive on just two pitches clearly wasn’t working for him before, so maybe the slider becomes the kind of pitch that can elevate the other two and make Peralta a real force in the middle of a rotation.
But Peralta doesn’t need to be the kind of pitcher who turns a lineup over three times to be an effective starter for this team, and he doesn’t need to be a No. 3 stalwart to make this contract worth it to Milwaukee. The Brewers are one of the most creative teams in baseball when it comes to managing pitcher workloads, averaging fewer than five innings per game with their starters last season and shortening that even further during the team’s dazzling year-end run. In that vein, a high-strikeout, high-fastball-usage pitcher like Peralta is a perfect fit for a team that might only be expecting four innings from their mid-rotation guys to begin with.
At just over $3 million in AAV, Peralta is essentially making middle reliever money until he gets to the club option years. If he’s a mid-rotation starter or high-leverage reliever by then, the $7-8 million owed to him will still be a bargain; if he isn’t, then he can easily be turned loose. It’s a pretty low-risk deal by Milwaukee, and though there’s a chance this agreement comes back to bite Peralta in the event that he puts it all together in the next couple years, it’s also hard to fault a 23-year-old with a career 4.79 ERA and a negative RA9-WAR for taking a $15 million guarantee with a smile on his face.
Freddy Peralta was met with a flurry of smiles and cheers as he entered the #Brewers clubhouse this morning. No smile was bigger than the one on Freddy’s face. Really fun scene.
— Stephen Watson (@WISN_Watson) February 26, 2020
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.