Unknown Player A pitches in the minor leagues and a scout let it slip that he was throwing 94-96 MPH with a legitimate two-plane slider. The scout goes on to say that his control and command are spotty, but the young right-hander can truly be dominant on any given night. It’s likely that Player A would become one of the hottest prospects in that organization’s minor-league system.
Player A is a quality prospect for any organization — one that has upside and can shut down hitters at the major league level.
What makes Player A so attractive is that he’s devoid of context. We don’t have minor league numbers to dissect or arm injuries about which to worry. It’s the exact same thing that makes newly-drafted prospects so attractive. They haven’t failed yet.
When Player A is Mark Rogers, however, the excitement quickly wanes. After all, the 26-year-old has undergone four surgeries since joining the Brewers’ organization in 2004 and scuffled his way to a 4.72 ERA with Triple-A Nashville this year before his promotion to Milwaukee. His stint in Nashville also included an unsightly 4.63 BB/9 walk rate.
It’s been said numerous times: any value Mark Rogers yields should not be expected, but rather seen as a bonus. As an asset, he is simply too volatile — both regarding his health and day-to-day performance — to be considered a sure thing for the organization. In other words, Doug Melvin and the Brewers should not base their offseason plans around Rogers being healthy and effective.
Fortunately, after eight years of having Rogers in the organization, Melvin and his staff know that better than anyone.
That’s not to say the right-hander has a perpetual dark cloud looming over him. He still possesses some of the best raw stuff in the organization, and Brewers fans have gotten to see that since his promotion to Milwaukee in late July.The former first-round pick in 2004 has shown excellent feel for his slider against both lefties and righties, which has helped him strikeout more than a batter per inning through his first five starts.
On Monday evening, he fanned seven Chicago Cubs over five innings, limiting them to just three runs despite some serious threats in the first two frames. The Brewers offense also exploded in the bottom of the fifth to ensure Rogers earned his first major-league victory — and that first win became even more poignant considering the recent talk that he may be shut down in the near future to limit his overall workload.
It’s unclear whether Rogers will pitch from the bullpen going forward or truly be shut down for the remainder of the season, but this offers a convenient endpoint to discuss his role on next year’s club — assuming the best-case scenario in terms of his health.
Can Mark Rogers remain a starting pitcher at the big league level, or does he need to move to the bullpen?
Though a bit simplistic, a question such as this can be broken down into two parts in hopes of answering that difficult question: repertoire and durability.
No one denies that Mark Rogers possesses electrifying raw stuff. He has taken a two-pitch repertoire and translated that into swing-and-miss stuff on the mound, which is extremely difficult to do.
It’s precisely that two-pitch mix, however, that could limit him to a bullpen role. Most starting pitchers need a three-pitch mix to be successful as a starter. This is because (1) starting pitchers need three pitches to better sequence opposing hitters for future turns through the same batting order, and (2) starting pitchers generally need multiple breaking pitches to neutralize both left-handed and right-handed hitters.
Rogers is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher. He does possess a curveball, but that serves mostly as a show-me pitch to change the eye level of the opposing hitter. It does not function as a main piece in his arsenal. He will also toy with a changeup from time to time, but has only thrown it 1.9% of the time this year. In other words, it’s essentially been non-existent.
Sequencing for Rogers has generally not been a huge issue, thanks to his extreme confidence in his slider, which allows him to feature it at anytime in the count. He will throw it to open an at-bat. He will throw it in a full-count with the bases juiced. That willingness to spin a slider at all times prevents him from being overly predictable on the mound. Sure, a legitimate third pitch would increase that unpredictability, but he does surprisingly well with only two pitches.
When it comes to neutralizing both left-handed and right-handed batters, however, the situation becomes more opaque. The danger of heavily featuring sliders to lefties is that it breaks in toward them. They see the pitch out of the hand better, and they can track it better. That’s why someone like Shaun Marcum tends to throw his slider to righties and his changeup to lefties. Those pitches break away from the respective hitters.
Granted, the sample size is rather small, but Rogers has predictably struggled to consistently retire left-handed batters.
vs. RHH: .231/.286/.365
vs. LHH: .281/.344/.491
Some starting pitchers can still find success with a severe platoon split. Platoon splits, however, also force pitchers to the bullpen, where their manager places him in better matchups with a greater chance of success on the mound.
Then, we come to the overall efficiency (or lack thereof) on the mound for Rogers. His pitch count has surprisingly not gotten to unruly with the Brewers, but Monday evening provided a prime example of how his spotty control can cause his pitch count to snowball and become an issue early in a start. Through two innings against the Cubs, he only surrendered two runs, but he already had thrown 49 pitches. Thus, it was extremely unsurprising when he was only able to throw five innings prior to being lifted for a pinch hitter.
Inefficient starters put an unnecessary strain on the bullpen, causing them to pitch earlier in games and log more innings. Few starters stick in the starting rotation if they cannot consistently go more than five innings, and Rogers — a shaky control, strikeout pitcher — is exactly the type of pitcher who could regularly throw 100 pitches in just five innings and leave the bullpen on the hook for the remainder of the game.
One of the other main reasons a starting pitcher moves from a starter to a reliever lies in his ability to maintain his velocity deep into games. Fellow right-hander Tyler Thornburg serves as a great example of this debate. Maintaining velocity has never been an issue for Rogers, though. His arm strength has long proven to be a key asset — even to the point that he continues to pump mid-90s fastballs in the sixth and seventh innings after four surgeries.
In some ways, one could legitimately ask … why discard that rare ability by moving him to the bullpen?
The number one concern about Mark Rogers has always been his health. He has never thrown more than 126.0 innings in a single season during his professional career, and this season will mark the second time he has ever eclipsed the 100 inning plateau.
In short, the native of Brunswick, Maine does not possess the track record that suggests he can handle a 200-inning workload that comes with the job description of being a major league starting pitcher. Whether it be carpal tunnel syndrome or a shoulder injury, something has always hindered Rogers from regularly taking the mound every five days. Like it or not, the stigma of being a “fragile arm” will always follow him.
Doug Melvin and his staff then need to decide whether it’s more prudent to keep him in the starting rotation and risk further injury, or move him to the bullpen — where he is admittedly less valuable to the organization, but could potentially stay healthy for a longer period of time.
Of course, that assumes that Rogers’ arm can handle life in the bullpen. A reliever must be able to pitch consecutive days on a regular basis, which is certainly not a guarantee. Look at Tyler Thornburg, once again. He found himself back in Nashville because his arm couldn’t handle the stress of pitching back-to-back days. It simply couldn’t bounce back fast enough, which made him replaceable as a reliever.
Perhaps Rogers will have that same issue. His arm has displayed an ability to bounce back from injuries and surgeries, but can it handle warming up, cooling down, and warming back up in the same day? Can he pitch consecutive days more than once per week? We don’t know the answer to those questions. It’s not something to take lightly or assume, though, and it’s something that could make him a better fit to remain in the starting rotation in order to keep a more regular schedule.
As with most questions in baseball, whether or not Mark Rogers can stick as a starting pitcher at the big league level is too complex and nuanced to have a simple answer. Both sides have legitimate risks — health and value risks — and the organization must decide which path makes the most sense for both parties involved.
Fortunately, I’m not in the position in which I’m paid to make that decision because after roughly 1,500 words on the subject, the answer continues to elude me.