Ostensibly, the only reason that Chris Narveson even started the season on the Brewers MLB roster was because he was out of options, and couldn’t be sent back to AAA without being exposed to waivers. Narveson began the year in the bullpen, but really struggled in that role as he was often used against right handers (probably due to his changeup) and the struggles that plagued his first innings as a starter were evident in his relief outings as well. He was one run below replacement in his 10 relief innings, which doesn’t sound like much, but in so few innings that is extraordinarily poor performance.
However, when Jeff Suppan was finally and mercifully evicted from the rotation, it was Chris Narveson who was called to replace him. The issue that has held him back in the past continued to work against Narveson from his first start against the Pirates on April 28th: home runs. Narveson allowed two home runs against Pittsburgh that day and has allowed at least two home runs every month of the season. Narveson was particularly bad in July, when he allowed seven home runs, including three against the Giants on July 7th (the series that effectively sank the season for good) and two against the Nationals on July 23rd. All in all, Narveson has allowed 19 home runs on the season, and the fact that he’s a fly ball pitcher who doesn’t tend to induce weak contact in the air means that he will probably continue to give up a lot of home runs. His 1.25 HR/9 rate – 130% of the league average – is almost entirely responsible for his 5.33 ERA and is the reason why his 4.48 FIP is above the league average.
Narveson does everything else as well or better than the average pitcher. He has struck out nearly seven batters per nine innings, which is almost exactly the league average. His three walks per nine innings is about 90% of the league average. Were Narveson better at keeping the ball in the yard, we could expect him to be a league average pitcher.
His mighty struggles against right handed batters in particular seem to suggest that he would perform better in the bullpen, but there are two strong reasons for keeping Narveson in the rotation going forward. First of all, Narveson’s first inning struggles have followed him to the rotation, and although it is extremely rare, Narveson just seems to have more trouble with the first time through the order as opposed to the third time through like most pitchers. Hitters hit 60% better against Narveson in the first inning by OPS+ and 70% better against Narveson as a reliever. The sample is small but these numbers pervade his entire career, although to a lesser extent.
Secondly, Narveson is simply too good as a starter despite these struggles. He projects as a roughly 1.5 WAR pitcher going forward, which means a #4 or a #5 in a good rotation, and a #3 in what the Brewers have on hand. There’s little chance that Narveson could approach that kind of value in the bullpen, so unless the Brewers can amass a starting rotation with five superior pitchers, they’re better off letting Narveson work around his issues as a starting pitcher.
Chris Narveson was definitely a question mark entering the season, but Doug Melvin and Ken Macha saw the potential in him to be a solid big league starter. Although he will probably never become an average pitcher or better, the Brewers have a productive, cost-controlled, back-end starter in Narveson, and that’s an important piece as this team attempts to contend over the next few seasons.