With six games remaining on the 2013 schedule, the Milwaukee Brewers are still evaluating talent with their eyes firmly set on the ’14 campaign. There are some interesting stories to discuss, including a swing change for Juan Francisco and an impressive performance on Tuesday evening from right-hander Tyler Thornburg.
QUIETING THE LOWER HALF
The Brewers traded left-handed reliever Tom Keeling for slugger Juan Francisco earlier this summer. Francisco has massive power, but thus far in his big-league career, he hasn’t made enough contact to consistently tap into that power. In a lost season, the Brewers purchased an inexpensive lottery ticket and hoped they would hit the jackpot — much like they did when trading for Carlos Gomez.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to fruition to this point. Among hitters who have collected at least 300 plate appearances this year, Juan Francisco has the highest strikeout rate in the National League.
In fact, he owns the second-highest strikeout rate in all of baseball, behind only Chris Carter of the Houston Astros. Unlike Francisco, though, Carter walks enough to still be a valuable hitter. His .340 wOBA is above average in the American League. Francisco currently owns a .314 wOBA on the season, which is comfortably below the league average for first basemen.
With that in mind, the Brewers have recently worked with Francisco to revamp his swing and cut much of the movement in his lower half. Specifically, hitting coach Johnny Narron showed him video of the best hitters in baseball and how they lack excess movement in their respective swings. Francisco has committed to the change and has implemented his new stance and swing in his last few appearances.
The change is glaring. Here is Francisco’s old setup and loading mechanism:
Compare that to his at-bat last night against Craig Kimbrel:
It’s much to early to determine if the swing alterations will make any significant difference for Francisco — and an at-bat against Craig Kimbrel hardly seems to be an appropriate litmus test — but it’s a necessary change that could potentially pay dividends. It should not only give him more stability throughout his swing, but it will also give him more time to identify pitches because he won’t have to load so early.
Of course, his issues at the plate are not limited to his leg kick. Francisco still possesses swing issues that limit his ability to handle pitches above the belt, and that’s already been discussed in this space. It will be interesting to see if his contact rates improve next spring, as embarking in such large swing changes at this point in the season likely indicates the organization plans on bringing him back next year.
The new swing appears to be a step in the right direction, but for those who believe this is the magic touch that will fix Juan Francisco: I wouldn’t hold your breath for too long.
TYLER THORNBURG: THE STARTER
Right-hander Tyler Thornburg has compiled a strong case for his inclusion in the ’14 starting rotation with his recent performance. Last night, however, was his shining moment. He shut down the Atlanta Braves (the NL East Champions) on the road with seven strong innings. Thornburg struck out a career-high eight batters and only walked one, while surrendering a mere two runs. It was a very quality start for a guy who remains a reliever in the eyes of some scouts.
The largest concern about Thornburg has always been his diminutive stature on the mound. He’s only 5-foot-11, and that largely results in a quick ticket to the bullpen. The size concerns can be seen in two key places:
(1) Thornburg has occasionally struggled to maintain his velocity deep into starts, which is due to a very stressful and unorthodox delivery that he utilizes to compensate for his lack of size on the mound. It’s a delivery that can wear down a pitcher over 100+ pitches, and it can also be difficult to repeat over the course of multiple innings.
(2) A short stature results in a lack of ideal plane on his fastball. Guys like Johnny Hellweg don’t have to do much to get a downward plane, as they’re so tall. Thornburg, on the other hand, must come well over-the-top to generate a downward plane — and when he doesn’t work down in the zone, that plane can flatten out and he becomes very hittable.
Addressing the first point, Tyler Thornburg threw 96 pitches against the Braves on Tuesday evening and did a pretty good job of sustaining his velocity throughout his start. This chart shows some decreased velocity near the end, but nothing dramatic.
He dipped into the high-80s in the sixth inning, but bounced back nicely in the seventh. This is obviously a positive sign for the right-hander if he wants to remain a starter in the big leagues.
In terms of the downward plane, it’s a more complicated issue than looking at just one start. Scouts were extremely concerned about the hittability of his fastball earlier this year, which makes sense considering he had surrendered 19 home runs between his brief big-league stint in 2012 and Triple-A this year before getting called up in the middle of this season.
And he didn’t really pound the bottom of the strike zone against the Braves. Instead, he threw his changeup and curveball for strikes, which helped keep the opposing hitters off his fastball. He threw 70.8 percent of his offspeed pitches for strikes, including seven whiffs. That will do wonders for a pitcher without an overpowering fastball.
Thornburg clearly had good stuff last night and commanded his pitches very well. However, the Braves strikeout more than any other team in the National League and have had middling success against right-handed pitchers all season. The excitement should be tempered. After all, it’s not as if he shut down an offensive juggernaut in Atlanta last night.
Thus, I’m not sure we can suddenly pencil Thornburg in as the Brewers’ fifth starter next year. The most we can say is that he’s certainly inserted himself into the conversation and will likely receive every opportunity to win the job in spring training. This, of course, is assuming the organization does not trade Lohse or Gallardo this winter and does not acquire anyone else for the rotation via free agency or trade — all of which is a huge assumption at this point.