2014 Position Preview: Back of Rotation | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Starters: Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta
Replacement Depth: Tyler Thornburg, Jimmy Nelson, Will Smith, Tom Gorzelanny, Alfredo Figaro
AAA depth: Mike Fiers, Hiram Burgos
The Future: Jimmy Nelson, Johnny Hellweg, Taylor Jungmann

In 2013, the Brewers received 26% of their total innings from replacement pitchers. These seven replacement pitchers (before considering Jimmy Nelson‘s “emergency” start) worked 376.7 innings and allowed approximately 25 more runs than an average NL/Miller Park pitcher. If you’re still skeptical about the Matt Garza signing, yesterday Jaymes noted one of the strengths of the signing: working Garza / Lohse / Gallardo at the top of the rotation takes pressure off of the low rotation, in a best case scenario. One of the issues with the 2013 season was that the replacement starters effectively shifted Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta higher into the rotation, with mixed results. It is worth noting that even if the Brewers only receive 250 IP from Garza and Estrada in 2014, they could easily reach 810-to-830 innings from the 2014 rotation core. That’s a welcome change from the 690.7 IP of the 2013 rotation core.

Indeed, the Brewers have an “ideal theory” rotation heading into 2014, which is the first chance for a true “1-to-5” rotation that the club seems to have since 2011. Both Peralta and Estrada have “second half” performances to build on, which raises the question about whether Estrada or Peralta are “true” four and five starters.

It is worth noting that even though teams use an “ideal” five pitcher rotation to model their clubs, ranking pitchers by actual Runs Prevented shows that fourth and fifth starters are not very good, leaving plenty of room for replacements to enter the picture:

Rank 2012 IP 2012 Runs Average 2013 IP 2013 Runs Average 3-Year FIP
#3 154 4.27 144.3 4.16 4.30
#4 144.3 5.05 155.3 4.92 4.30
#5 141.3 5.98 138.7 6.34 4.57
League 4.31 4.04

What this basically shows is that the Brewers, while building a true five-spot rotation with at least three dependable starters, do not necessarily want Peralta and Estrada to serve as #4 and #5 starters. 290 innings pitched at a runs average of 5.00 is not very good, and arguably below the ultimate potential of both Estrada and Peralta. The benefit of having rotation depth is simple: while Garza, Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse could shift between two and three starters, both Estrada and Peralta have the chance to surpass those starters at their best. By contrast, one does not want to see Peralta and Estrada on the list of actual #5 starters; here are those true #5 starters from 2011 through 2013 (since NL clubs used well over 200 replacement spots and emergency starters over these years, there are surprisingly few #5 starters):

2011-2013 NL #5 Starters IP Runs Prevented
2012 E. Bedard 125.7 -19
2011 R. Nolasco 206 -20
2011 E. Volquez 108.7 -21
2011 J. Westbrook 183.3 -22
2012 R. Wolf 142.3 -23
2011 M. Pelfrey 193.7 -24
2011 D. Lowe 187 -24
2011 B. Arroyo 199 -25
2013 E. Jackson 175.3 -27
2012 C. Volstad 111.3 -28
2012 J. Lyles 141.3 -29
2011 J.A. Happ 156.3 -31
2013 R. Vogelsong 103.7 -32
2012 T. Lincecum 186 -33
2013 B. Zito 133.3 -41
2013 E. Volquez 142.3 -42

Marco Estrada has worked more than 100 IP in each of the last two years, and he also served as one of the Senior Circuit’s best “swingmen” during the Brewers’ Division Championship season of 2011. Although his innings pitched do not match the typical middle-to-upper rotation starters, Estrada has prevented runs at a strong rate. Estrada is approximately 10 runs above average over his last two seasons, which places him solidly in-between the #2/#3 range of NL starters. While his flirtation with the longball is well-documented here at DoU, it is worth repeating that Estrada is a true second-half pitcher over the last three years:

2011-2013 Estrada IP R K% BB% HR% BF
First Half 177.7 99 22.3 6.9 4.5 739
Second Half 181.3 64 25.7 5.0 2.1 716

These two halves showcase the basic issues with Estrada: first and foremost, he has had trouble staying healthy the last two seasons. However, his injuries are not always solely due to his pitching, which means that one might not necessarily question the health of his arm. Secondly, when Estrada limits home runs, he is a near-dominant pitcher. In fact, even if Estrada’s collection of first-half campaigns places him squarely in #4-starter territory, his exceptional second half surges result in a pristine 3.17 runs average. If the Brewers’ league and park environment is anywhere near the levels of the last three seasons, a 3.17 runs average over the span of a full season would place Estrada near the top of the league. It is this type of potential that should lead Brewers fans to feel excited about their club’s low rotation.

One of the reasons for Estrada’s success is his ability to use his change up. In 2013, Estrada threw fewer curveballs, instead turning to his change-of-pace as his dominant pitch. Judging by FanGraphs’ Pitch f/x values, Estrada’s change up was hands-down the best pitch on the entire ballclub. Only Brandon Kintzler‘s fastball, Tyler Thornburg‘s curve, and Wily Peralta‘s slider came close. Ironically, even though this is an analysis of the #4 and #5 starters on the Brewers’ depth chart, with Peralta’s slider and Estrada’s change, the low rotation might have some of the best claims of “pure stuff” on the Brewers’ rotation. This “stuff” is why Estrada and Peralta could ultimately be better pitchers than the #4/#5 spot suggests.

Brewers fans also ought to feel excited about the low rotation potential due to Wily Peralta’s presence. Peralta presented true improvement on the diamond in the middle of an adverse 2013 rotational situation. His second-half improvement was perhaps one of the most positive developments for the 2013 Brewers. I know it’s easy for some to scoff at the idea of judging a pitcher’s character, but Peralta’s ability to stick with it and adjust during a tough season is a noteworthy achievement for the youngster:

2013 Peralta IP R K% BB% HR% BF
Through June 16 80 63 12.1 8.6 2.4 373
June 21 and after 103.3 44 19.6 9.6 2.3 429

Peralta’s walk rate is clearly one of the most troubling areas of his approach. Unfortunately, that area of Peralta’s game has been an issue since the upper minors, where he walked more than 10% of batters faced in both AA and AAA. However, in the upper minors, Peralta coupled those walks with stronger strike out rates. He clearly demonstrated the need to focus on commanding the strike zone in 2013, especially given his base velocity and the potential strength of his fastball / slider punch. Brooks Baseball shows that aside from Peralta’s basic issues getting the baseball into the strike zone, the quality of his pitches in the strike zone can be an issue. In May and June of 2013, for example, batters hit .364 and .343 on Peralta’s pitches in the zone. Not surprisingly, during his successful second half, Peralta forced batters to look at more of his pitches in the zone; their lack of swings at pitches in the zone corresponded to that notable improvement for Peralta.

One of the benefits of the Garza deal, alongside Gallardo’s and Lohse’s current contract situations, is that both Peralta and Estrada have a chance to keep their rotational spots over the next two years. Since Nelson and Thornburg could fight for potential rotation spots by 2015, Estrada and Peralta do have incentive to perform to the best of their ability in 2014. However, there is also a feeling of stability in the rotation, since the Brewers reserve rights for each of their top five starters into 2015. Peralta and Estrada have a true opportunity to grow into their jobs at the back of the Brewers’ rotation.

Best Case Scenario:

Both Peralta and Estrada capitalize on their second-half gains, and remain healthy throughout the course of the season. Their ability to use their strong secondary pitches helps them to challenge Lohse, Gallardo, and Garza for the best performances among Brewers’ starting pitchers. Their ultimate runs prevention through a full season places them clearly in the middle-top rotation range, spurring the Brewers to notable pitching improvements. Furthermore, their ability to work full seasons allows depth options to improve in the bullpen or at the minor league level, giving the Brewers’ front office several options to consider for 2015.

Worst Case Scenario:

Estrada continues his trend of getting injured in the middle of the season, which limits his ability to reach 140 innings during the season. He cannot limit the home run ball, and never really gets into a groove. Peralta cannot find the strike zone, and batters hammer his fastball when he is in the zone. With Garza taking another rotation spot and a surprising amount of depth knocking at the door, Peralta is optioned to AAA. This forces the Brewers to dive into their sixth, seventh and eighth starting pitching options. Neither Estrada nor Peralta maintain a guaranteed 2015 job after their performances. However, the Brewers’ minor league depth cannot make strides in the system, raising the question of when they will impact the big league rotation.

Most Likely Scenario:

Both Estrada and Peralta struggle early in the season, but they find their strengths in July. Tyler Thornburg and Jimmy Nelson pitch well enough to raise questions about the status of the 2015 rotation, but Estrada and Petalta use July surges to thwart the newcomers. Floating within shouting distance of the Wild Card, the rotational improvements force the front office to improve their club via trade. Once Estrada and Peralta cement their spots in the rotation, Doug Melvin turns to his newcomers for a win-now trade at the deadline. The Brewers fail to make the playoffs, but their midseason trade maximizes return on questionable prospects, allowing both Peralta and Estrada keep their jobs for 2015.

Marco Estrada PECOTA: 117 IP, 3.57 ERA, 3.95 FIP

Marco Estrada ZiPS: 135 IP, 3.92 ERA, 3.74 FIP

Wily Peralta PECOTA: 156 IP, 4.43 ERA, 4.39 FIP

Wily Peralta ZiPS: 163 IP, 4.40 ERA, 4.36 FIP

Earlier in the series:

 3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position

3/11: Curt previewed first base

3/12: Jonathan previewed second base

3/13: Steve previewed third base

3/14: Vineet previewed short stop

3/17: Adam previewed left field

3/18: Alex previewed center field

3/19: Ryan previewed right field

3/20: Jaymes previewed the top of the  rotation

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