The Brewers Rotation: Seemingly Stable with a Bit of Upside

It’s time for our Depth Chart Discussions to begin. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will begin breaking them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find them gathered here.

The Brewers rotation was exceedingly stable in 2014. They had three starters who threw 190+ innings and another guy who threw 160+ innings. As a result, they only used seven starters all year, which I would imagine was at least tied for the lowest number in the league. But their workhorse starters weren’t just innings eaters. The three guys who topped 190 innings all had an ERA just north of 3.50 while the 160-inning starter had an ERA just north of 3.60. Unfortunately, none of their starters were aces or even close to it, which is why they ranked just 15th in ERA and 17th in WAR.

The stability is expected to continue this year despite Yovani Gallardo’s departure as they have five starters projected to throw between 160 and 180 innings. Again, none are projected to be aces, and several are projected to regress from what they did last year. But if nothing else, they have the classic innings eaters who can keep them in games and give the team a chance to win, a trait that is far more appealing to color commentators than it is to fantasy owners.

The most interesting thing about the Brewers rotation is that despite having so many high innings guys last year, it’s the starter that threw the fewest innings for them that is most intriguing. Mike Fiers pitched 64.2 innings as a starter last year, and he posted impressive results: 2.13 ERA, 2.94 SIERA, 21.5% K-BB%.

As Eno noted in Fiers’ FG+ profile, we shouldn’t get carried away with those numbers because there hasn’t been much difference in Fiers’ velocity, movement and location in any of his stints in the majors. Pod also threw a bit of water on this fier (hahaha) by noting some downside with Fiers’ strikeout rate. But if we take his career numbers which include his awesome 2014, a woeful 22.1 innings in 2013, and a decent 2012, we get a 3.54 career ERA in 223.2 innings. The Pod Projections have him pegged for a 3.40 ERA and Steamer has him at 3.49. So something in the mid-three’s seems quite reasonable to expect.

As far as the strikeouts go, the projection systems are projecting decline from what he did last year, but not to the point where he isn’t projected to have a healthy strikeout rate. Steamer has him striking out more than a batter per inning and Pod has him at 8.67 per nine. He has always had slightly above average control, so expecting above average strikeout and walk skills doesn’t seem unreasonable at all. If there’s one knock on him, it’s his Arsenal Score. He ranks 93rd by that metric, most likely because his fastball is lacking.

But to what does all this total up? Steamer and Pod have him as a top 30 projected starter, his recent performance was amazing, but we have good reason to expect regression. Given how I prefer to weight those factors, Fiers is a borderline top 30 starter for me. It’s understandable if valuing him so highly concerns you. But the good news is that you don’t have to pay that price for him. He’s going 49th among starters and around #200 overall according to NFBC ADP, and I got him at pick 236 last week in one of Howard Bender’s Mock Draft Army drafts. His price may continue to climb, but there’s enough cushion between his ADP and my valuation that I imagine he’ll be worth drafting all draft season.

Outside of Fiers, the three workhorses returning from last year’s rotation, Wily Peralta, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, are all most likely relegated to spot starter territory in mixed leagues and fourth of fifth starter territory in 10-team, NL-only leagues. Both the Pod Projections and Steamer have all three within that range.

Lohse and Garza probably are what they are at this point, though Garza could potentially reach consistent shallow mixed league relevancy if he stayed healthy (don’t hold your breath). But Peralta might have some upside. He ranks 40th in Arsenal Score, which is obviously encouraging. He’s also got just over 400 career innings, which obviously means there’s room for growth. Paul Sporer said as much when he wrote about Peralta last week. I liked the way Paul put it: “Don’t necessarily look at what he can’t do and assume that it’s set in stone.” Yes, Peralta could certainly address some of his weaknesses and deliver on some fantasy upside that a solid Arsenal Score indicates he has.

Assuming Peralta kind of hits the middle that the projection systems are projecting, his price as the 77th starter off the board on average is a very appropriate one. With an ADP of 293 overall, you can get him in the last round or two of a 25-man roster, 12-team mixed league. It’s well worth seeing if he comes through on his upside at that price. On Wednesday I mentioned that Trevor Bauer can be had around the same spot but that there were better upside options than Bauer available. Peralta is one of those better upside options.

The last guy projected to throw big innings for Milwaukee is Jimmy Nelson. The results weren’t great for Nelson in just shy of 70 innings last year, but there are some encouraging signs in the underlying numbers. His ERA was near 5.00, but his SIERA was under 4.00 thanks to an above average walk rate and a strikeout rate not too far below average. He also generated a fair amount of ground balls (48.4%). Earlier this offseason Nicholas Minnix noted Nelson’s ability to induce the grounder with a good sinker. Unfortunately, Minnix also rightly noted Nelson’s lack of a third pitch that can help him dispose of lefties. To underscore that point, 97.7% of his pitches last year were classified as some form of fastball or slider by PITCHf/x. Minnix further noted that Nelson claimed he was throwing more changeups, which is a bad sign if PITCHf/x was classifying them as some version of a fastball.

Ultimately, Nelson isn’t mixed league relevant at the moment, but he can probably be had as a fifth or sixth starter in an NL-only league, which is a decent enough price given that he has a bit of upside. But until he figures out a third pitch, his fantasy relevance will be limited.

With Gallardo out of town and all five guys discussed above seemingly entrenched in the five rotation slots, there’s not much else to discuss with the Milwaukee staff. The Brewers depth chart only lists one other starter behind those five, Taylor Jungmann. Jungmann is also projected to throw the most innings as a starter outside of the top five (47). Jungmann has all of zero major league innings at this point and posted a 3.98 ERA (4.32 FIP) in AAA last year. If he had a job he probably wouldn’t be too relevant, but until someone else gets hurt, he’s not fantasy relevant at all.

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“As Eno noted in Fiers’ FG+ profile, we shouldn’t get carried away with those numbers because there hasn’t been much difference in Fiers’ velocity, movement and location in any of his stints in the majors.”

I don’t have access to FG+ so I can’t speak on his analysis directly, but Fiers’ fastball was up 1.67 mph from his only other season of any significant time in the majors (2012). His cutter also increased 1.81 mph. For a pitcher whose velocity is his biggest weakness and at the same time relies on it with his tendency to pitch up in the zone and inside to batters, that increase seems significant to me.

The projected homerun rates of 1.21/9 from Steamer and 1.28/9 from Zips seem off considering his career rate of 1.09/9. Since pitchers who generate high rates of popups tend to have their HR/FB% deflated a bit, it’s hard to imagine his career 10.6 HR/FB% getting worse as seems to be indicated by the projections.

I agree his strikeouts will likely go down some, but his increased velocity, decreased LD% (perhaps regression toward the mean), and continued control and high IFFB% make me optimistic. One thing to watch out for may be if his velocity regresses back to his 2012 level, or if it stays at his 2014 level.