OOTP Brewers Update: Pitching Decisions

With another week in the books, our digital Brewers aren’t any easier to figure out. In fact, it’s been much the opposite. Today, we’ll take a deep dive into the pitching staff, which has already seen a good deal of turnover 12 games into the season, and see if we can settle on roles for a mixed and largely interchangeable group.

First, there’s the Injured List contingent:

Knebel was the only pitcher to start the season on the shelf, but he’s got company now. Brett Anderson is ready to return, having missed only a single turn in the rotation, but the prognosis on the other two is decidedly worse. Lindblom will be back sometime in July at the earliest. And Claudio won’t be back — his rotator cuff injury is a season ender.

Anderson’s imminent return creates an interesting decision. The starting rotation is full of question marks and maybes. The top two feels relatively set; Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser are both staying in the rotation unless they get hurt. After that, we have some decisions to make.

Our initial rotation was Woodruff, Hauser, Lindblom, Anderson, and Freddy Peralta. Eric Lauer and Corbin Burnes are filling in at the moment. That leaves four candidates for three spots when Anderson returns. Let’s take a closer look at them, using OOTP ratings, as it’s too early in the season for stats to have stabilized:

Brewers Starter Candidate Ratings
Pitcher Age Overall Stuff Movement Control Stuff v LHB Stuff v RHB Stamina GB/FB
Brett Anderson 32 45 35 50 60 40 35 60 Extreme GB
Corbin Burnes 25 45 60 50 50 55 60 50 Neutral
Eric Lauer 24 45 55 40 55 55 55 45 Neutral
Freddy Peralta 23 45 60 45 45 55 65 55 FB

That’s right; our scouting department thinks all four carry the same overall grade, which makes the decision both difficult and inconsequential. But we still need to decide who’s staying in the starting five and who needs to find a new role. The poll for this one will come further down, because there’s a good chance that whoever we bump from the rotation will go to the bullpen. Let’s talk about that bullpen now.

With Claudio out for the year and Burnes now in the starting rotation, I’ve called up two pitchers from the minor leagues. Neither of those pitchers are on the real life Brewers; they’re depth acquisitions I made before the season: Tim Hill and Scott Barlow, late of the Royals.

Again, the top of the bullpen isn’t really in question. Josh Hader has 95-grade stuff (on the 20 to 80 scouting scale, no less!), and he’ll be the closer as long as he’s on the team — trade talks are still ongoing, but are now on the back burner given our team’s general pitching needs. With Knebel back in a month, that would be the earliest Hader could move. Brent Suter rates as a solid setup man; he’s the second-best pitcher in the bullpen by a clear margin. From there, however, things get tricky:

Brewers Reliever Candidate Ratings
Pitcher Age Overall Stuff Movement Control Stuff v LHB Stuff v RHB Stamina GB/FB
Scott Barlow 27 45 60 60 40 55 60 30 Neutral
Ray Black 29 45 75 50 35 70 80 30 Extreme FB
J.P. Feyereisen 27 45 65 50 40 60 65 35 FB
Tim Hill 30 45 50 55 60 65 45 30 Extreme GB
David Phelps 33 45 50 55 45 50 50 30 Neutral
Devin Williams 25 50 80 45 35 80 85 35 Neutral

Just like our starters, it’s a mess of fringe-average guys. Williams is an absolute toolshed; our scouts see him as a potential 70 reliever, more or less Knebel-level, though his control holds him back at the moment. I’m against demoting him, though he’s been quite bad in the majors so far, walking more than a quarter of opposing batters. After that, it’s more of an ink blot test.

Scott Barlow was a player I went after in the preseason specifically because he’s major league ready. He’s a cookie-cutter fastball/curveball reliever, and he struck out 30% of batters in the actual major leagues last year over 70 innings. You just haven’t heard of him because he did it for the Royals. His control is iffy, but he’s a quintessential out-of-nowhere reliever; good stuff, more walks than you’re comfortable with, and enough missed bats that it all works.

Ray Black is, as usual, the personification of wondering if a fastball is enough. He throws 100 mph, and sometimes knows where the ball is going. He has a hint of a slider, but his game is mainly trying to overpower batters with heat. Feyereisen is like a toned-down version of Black — strikeouts and walks, but with quieter stuff. He’s absolutely shoved at a few levels of the minors, most recently striking out 38% of opponents in Triple-A last year for the Yankees. He appeared for the Brewers in spring training and was acceptable, though he’s yet to pitch in the big leagues in real life.

David Phelps has been around a long time, but he’s been forgettable in recent years. His velocity was down in 2019, but OOTP has him sitting 96, a remarkable fact given that he’s never averaged above 95 mph in his entire career. In his favor, his fastball/cutter/curveball repertoire is pretty close to platoon-neutral, which is phenomenally useful in this new era of three batter minimums.

Lastly, we’ve got Tim Hill. In real life, Hill looks like a lock to make the Royals bullpen. In our OOTP universe, he was a depth addition in the same trade that netted us Barlow, an Alex Claudio insurance piece for a bullpen that has no situational lefties — Suter and Hader aren’t exactly coming in for a tricky left-handed batter in the fifth inning very often. That role isn’t a must given the new batters faced rules, but Hill isn’t a complete zero against righties; he was probably already an upgrade over Claudio in-game even before Claudio’s injury.

So here’s the deal: one or two of these guys have to go. The starting rotation is the first moving part; one of the four pitchers will be left out in the cold when Anderson returns. If Peralta or Burnes gets bumped, they’ll head to the major league bullpen — Burnes actually started the year there, and Peralta has been in and out of the rotation throughout his career. If Lauer gets the bad news, he’ll head back to the minors, where he was cooling his heels to start the year. And if Anderson is the odd man out, he might just get cut. He was always an experiment, he’s fragile, and he’s a free agent after the year, so there’s less to gain by stashing him in the bullpen.

So, who should move out of the rotation?

Depending on the results of that poll, we might have some more moving to do. If the demoted starter is heading to the bullpen, someone from the bullpen will need to move. Another pitcher will definitely be headed down when Knebel returns. So here’s how this works: if you voted for Burnes or Peralta to leave the starting rotation, vote for two relievers to go. If you voted for Lauer or Anderson, vote for one:

Performance-wise, by the way, the team is scuffling around .500. They’re 6-6 as of this writing, with a gruesome -16 run differential; an Opening Day nine-run thumping and recent 10-1 drubbing at the hands of the Reds account for that. Omar Narváez is the highlight of the offense; he sports a 168 wRC+ and three home runs in 41 plate appearances, and it’s not some BABIP-driven fluke — his 12.2% walk rate and 19.5% strikeout rate really pop, as does his .294 ISO.

Past that, Eric Sogard is walking a cool 18% of the time and has two home runs, Christian Yelich is keeping his head above water, and Ryan Braun has been hot of late, with a multi-homer game last night. Beyond those, the next-best wRC+ for a regular is Keston Hiura at 65. Justin Smoak is at 56, Orlando Arcia checks in at 42, Avisaíl García at 29 (Braun has been taking his playing time of late), and Lorenzo Cain at a brutal 23. The offense needs to pick it up, in other words, despite today’s focus being on pitching.

In more meta news, I’m planning on starting an hour-long OOTP decision-making stream either next week or the week after. I’ll have more details in next week’s Brewers update, but if you want to heckle me for my poor management, give me advice, or otherwise just hang out, look for it soon on FanGraphsLive. Stay safe, and go (virtual) Brewers!

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

I wonder if there’s an opportunity to get weird here. What if we just kept Houser and Woodruff as “regular” starters and then made everyone else just into an undefined role where we pair pitchers with dissimilar styles together? I feel like this could work a lot better than in real life because presumably we don’t have to worry as much about the psychological side of pitchers being uncomfortable with starting/relieving.