The 2013 Milwaukee Brewers were a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team in almost every facet that wasn’t named Carlos Gomez. With that roller coaster pattern being such a common theme, it’s tough to call out anyone in particular, but, though the team struggled with the same problem as a whole, Wily Peralta sure had his ups and his downs.
First, allow me to get this straight: In a season that saw 12 different Brewers pitchers start a game, Peralta, 24, by no means had a bad year. His three-hit shutout of the Reds on July 9 and his two-hit, seven K, scoreless start over eight innings were two of the season’s top pitching performances. I was in attendance for his shutout of the Reds at Miller Park, the Brewers first complete game since Yovani Gallardo on April 5, 2011, and it was a gem. After giving up a leadoff single, Peralta didn’t surrender another base hit until a two-out triple in the seventh.
On the other hand, Peralta had more than his fair share of bad starts…really bad starts. Ten times he allowed double-digit base runners and nine times he allowed five or more runs.
Consistency was Peralta’s biggest downfall in 2013. At just first glance, this is evident in his month-by-month splits. In March/April, he struggled heavily with striking out batters and held a BB/9 higher than his season average, resulting in a 1.25 K/BB and 4.62 FIP. Things reached their worst in May when opposing batters hit .339 and posted a .853 OPS off him as he went 1-5 and held an ERA of 7.71. Over a stretch of 42.2 innings from June 21 through July 26, Peralta gave up only four earned runs and struck out 34. That stretch included his two superb starts against Cincinnati and Miami, in which he combined for 17 scoreless frames of work.
All said, Peralta finished 11-15 with a 4.37 ERA, 4.13 xFIP (which uses league-average HR/FB to measure fielding-independent pitching), 6.33 K/9, and 3.58 BB/9 in 183.1 IP as the team monitored their former top prospect’s usage down the stretch. For a guy who had the highest of highs to go along with the lowest of lows, it’s hard to complain too much about Peralta’s final numbers. His promising finish to the season secured himself a spot in the rotation for 2014 as he looks to take that next step.
But what exactly is that “next step”?
Well, in general, line drives mean death to pitchers, while ground balls are a pitcher’s best friend. Fly balls led to homers 10.5 percent of the time in 2013 and so looking at how pitchers fared when batters put the ball in the air is a lot harder to do–just because a pitcher was above or below league average in that category doesn’t necessarily mean they are doomed or saved from giving up home runs in the future (Peralta’s FB% of 27.7 percent was well below league average, yet his HR/FB was up, so if he continues to improve and rely on his sinker, we should see him keep the ball in the park more in 2014.)
In 2013, Peralta relied heavily on his sinker (96 mph), four-seamer (95 mph), and slider (85 mph), also mixing in a change (85 mph) around six percent of the time. Movement-wise, his sinker was his most effective pitch, registering a -7.01 HMov (horizontal movement in inches). As a ground ball pitcher, the sinker is key to Peralta’s success. In that rough stretch of May, his sinker was squared up for line drives instead of resulting in a grounder 26.5 percent of the time, far higher than the league average of 21.3.
With two strikes, Peralta tends to use his slider (at a rate of 40 percent) and, though it results in a ball over 40 percent of the time, it draws 20.2 percent whiffs, nearly double his next-best pitch with two strikes. Uncharacteristically, Peralta gave up more longballs with two strikes on the hitter than he did in 2-0 and 3-1 counts combined. His raw whiff count and whiffs/swing on the slider, change, and sinker are all among the leaders on the Brewers–35.29 percent of swings on the sliders resulted in nothing except the ball in the pocket of the catcher’s glove.
Leave that sinker up, though, and effectiveness equals gone. Just ask Mitch Moreland. On the left is where Martin Maldonado wanted that sinker (low and away, right where Moreland struggles) and on the right is where it ended up (belt-high, heart of the plate).
With a slider that’s typically only effective when ahead because of the lack of control on it, Peralta can be a devastating pitcher to opponents if and when he gets ahead with his elite velocity.
Check out the slider below to Derrick Robinson. Ahead 0-2, he buries a slider low and in on the hands of the lefty Robinson. For a good defensive catcher like Maldonado, that pitch is no problem to handle with a runner on base and there’s not a chance Robinson’s going to hurt him there.
To reach that “next step”, Peralta’s going to have to be more effective when ahead in the count, gain greater command of his sinker and slider. Or we can just ask Maldy.
For Peralta, there’s immense upside. He entered as the Brewers top prospect and we have to keep in mind that it was only his rookie campaign. He’s 24, still developing, and shut out an offense featuring Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto, and Brandon Phillips. To say we don’t expect improvement from Peralta, that him remaining at the level of a fifth starter, would actually be a shame, given his potential to be a front-end starter for the Brewers in the future.
Hat tip to Brooks Baseball and Fangraphs for the finds.