When the Milwaukee Brewers selected Taylor Jungmann with the 12th pick in the 2011 draft, he was seen as a polished prospect with an advanced feel for pitching who would move quickly through the organization. If everything went to plan, Jungmann would be in the major-league rotation by late 2013, with a long career as a mid-to-back of the rotation starter ahead of him.
At the time, I wholeheartedly agreed with these sentiments. I saw Jungmann pitch several times during his college career at the University of Texas, and it was easy to see why he was viewed as such a sure thing. He had a mid-90s heater with a sweeping curve that projected as a plus pitch, and a change-up that seemed plenty good enough to avoid nasty splits.
The lanky righty had compiled a 1.85 earned run average in 356 collegiate innings — 215 of which came before the switch to the new offense-suppressing bats in 2011 — with a strikeout-to-walk rate that improved annually. In 2011, he won the Dick Howser Trophy for best college baseball player. Jungmann appeared to be the definition of a safe, projectable mid-rotation college arm.
Jungmann pitched pretty well in High-A in 2012, finishing with a 3.53 ERA over 26 starts. His 5.82 K/9 left much to be desired, but his control was solid (2.71 BB/9), he kept the ball in the park (0.41 HR/9) and generally had the type of season that neither increased nor decreased his stock. Then came 2013, when a promotion to Double-A exposed an issue no one expected — Jungmann simply could not command his fastball.
Whether this had been masked, in part, by facing inexperienced hitters or was a new problem entirely is anyone’s guess. Reviewing tape of Jungmann’s 2013, I didn’t notice anything in his mechanics that would raise a red flag — he had the same 3/4 arm slot, the same balanced delivery, the same full-body burst toward home plate upon release — in short, he looked like the same pitcher. He just frequently had no idea where the ball was going.
His walk rate surged to a terrifying 4.72 BB/9 while his strikeout rate dipped to a downright ugly 5.30 K/9. He issued at least three free passes in 16 of his 26 starts. At first, it seemed like he simply had a hard time adjusting to Double-A — his 7.89 ERA and 5.82 BB/9 in five April starts were followed up with a 2.61 ERA and 2.90 BB/9 in five May starts.
On the surface, he was even better in June, posting a tidy 1.67 ERA, but his 4.04 FIP from that month told a different story, as did his walk rate, which had climbed back up to 4.18 BB/9. As it turned out, he ended the season just like he started it. In July, his control went flying off the rails again, as he walked 5.76 per nine. August was an unmitigated disaster in every conceivable way, with a 6.44 ERA, 5.52 BB/9 and 3.99 K/9. Jungmann looked completely broken.
His prospect status tumbled, as he fell from second to sixth in Marc Hulet’s organizational top prospects list here at FanGraphs, and let’s not go pretending that the Brewers have an especially deep or talented system.
Hoping the former 12th overall pick could regain his form, the Brewers sent him to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, where he was very bad in three starts (7.1 IP, 9.82 ERA, 7 BB, 7 K) before a groin injury took him out of action. Just 24 years old, there was still hope for Jungmann to turn it around, but hope and optimism are very different things. It would be hard to find someone who was still all that optimistic about his future.
Fast-forward to this Wednesday. I’m sitting at my computer, scrolling through pitching matchups to determine what game I wanted to watch on MiLB.tv, and Jungmann’s name caught my eye, as did the (1-0, 3.27) sitting next to it. Watching him throw six strong innings, the first thing that stood out to me was that he was really hitting his spots with the fastball.
He has abandoned his four-seamer in favor of a low-90s sinker, which he used to regularly paint the black, burying the pitch in the low corners of the zone as catcher Adam Weisenburger often didn’t need to move his mitt an inch. Jungmann’s curveball is even more slurvey now, but he was locating it pretty well, with good two-plane movement. In general, Jungmann spent most of the outing pounding the lower third of the strike zone.
In his first three starts of the season, Jungmann has pitched to a 3.18 ERA (3.26 FIP), with 17 strikeouts and just three walks in 17 innings. Those of you who feel the need to scream about small samples can do so right about now, but this is extremely encouraging production from a guy who looked completely lost just a few short months ago.
Moreover, he looks confident. He’s going out there and attacking hitters, generating tons of ground balls and weak contact. Most importantly, his control problems appear to have been ironed out — hopefully it stays that way. Hope springs eternal in April, when promising small samples allow us to dream on players. For Jungmann, the hope is that he has salvaged a career that was careening off the rails in a hurry. So far this season, he’s done everything he can to show that he’s still got that mid-rotation upside the Brewers thought they were getting, when they used the 12th overall pick on him three years ago.
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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.