It isn’t exactly breaking news that the Brewers’ “Big 5” pitching prospects in the minor leagues are putting up some really gaudy numbers early in the year. In AAA, Wily Peralta has allowed only 9 hits in 17 innings so far. At AA, Tyler Thornburg just threw 7 1/3 perfect innings before giving up a single hit and being removed. In advanced class A, the trio of Taylor Jungmann, Jed Bradley, and Jimmy Nelson have allowed a combined 8 runs in 53 2/3 innings pitched. Thornburg and Nelson are striking out better than a batter per inning and none of them are walking a particularly high number. Sometimes overlooked in all of this is the fact that, with one notable exception, they’re doing this by making batters put balls on the ground at some pretty high rates. Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here and what it means for the future of the franchise.
There is more than one way to get a hitter out, but that doesn’t mean that every way is created equal. The best and most reliable way for a pitcher to dispatch a batter is to strike him out. Other than maybe having to worry about the catcher throwing out a runner after a dropped strike three, strikeouts don’t depend on defense, luck or the way the wind is blowing. Of course, the problem with strikeouts is a pitcher has to throw enough pitches to either get the critical swing and miss or freeze the batter looking. If the pitcher doesn’t have completely amazing stuff and excellent command, that can take quite a bit of time and effort to accomplish, so a pitcher is going to want batters to put some pitches in play early in counts from time to time. Balls hit in the air have a nasty habit of turning into hits, often of the extra base variety. While all balls hit in the air are certainly not created equal, they have been shown to be more dangerous, in general, to pitchers than ones hit on the ground. Speaking generally then, the best sort of pitcher to have is one who strikes out as many batters as he can with relative ease or in critical moments, and who then generates as many ground balls as possible when the batters do put the ball in play.
For the sake of setting a baseline, let’s look at how this played out in the 2011 season. The average major league pitcher produced a groundball to flyball ratio of 1.24 last year year. In other words, for every 100 balls they allowed to be hit in the air, they produced 124 ground balls. Moving to the Brewers’ rotation, they had two starters above average in this regard, in Yovani Gallardo (1.28) and Zack Greinke (1.54). Chris Narveson was close to the league average (1.18) while both Shaun Marcum (0.87) and Randy Wolf (0.94) produced more fly balls than ground balls. Those aren’t ideal numbers for Marcum and Wolf, but they were able to get by in a variety of other ways, and still produced solidly above average run prevention seasons. Overall, the staff produced a just-slightly-better-than-average 1.25 GB/FB ratio.
Compare that with the young guns in the minors:
Jimmy Nelson: 4.00
Taylor Jungmann: 1.86
Wily Peralta: 1.85
Jed Bradley: 1.31
Tyler Thornburg: 0.82
Before going on, it’s important to note that these numbers can’t be expected to translate directly to the majors. First off, this is obviously a small sample size of 3 starts per man. Some of this simply isn’t sustainable and won’t be the same even in a few weeks. Also, just like one wouldn’t expect the ERA of a pitcher to go up facing better competition, so too will these ratios change as they face better and better players who are more adept at making solid contact and putting the ball in the air against good stuff. All that being said, though, there is still reason to think that this particular group of pitchers is going to produce ground balls at solidly above average rates in the majors. Both Nelson and Perlata have minor league histories of solid ground ball production and both are still growing into the pitchers they will become. Jungmann was a notable ground-baller in college and Bradley is still developing his stuff. All four have the bodies and stuff to produce ground balls on a fairly consistent basis. As for Thornburg, at least he strikes out tons of batters and is learning to limit the walks, and he’s probably the least likely to end up in the rotation, so his innings are likely to be somewhat limited.
Finally, while this is another reason that things are looking up on the minor league pitching front these days, it’s also something to keep in mind going forward from a team building perspective. Last year, the Brewers weren’t heavily relying on their infield defense to turn ground balls into outs, at least not much more than the average team was. If these starters continue to get ground balls at high rates as they start breaking into the majors, it will be important that the Brewers find every way reasonably possible to bolster their infield defense to support their development. The last thing the team should want to happen is for these guys to arrive in the majors and find that they can’t rely on the defense to convert grounders into outs, and then change their strategy to trying to strike everyone out. We’ve seen Gallardo lose faith in his defense from time to time, and the result has generally been high pitch counts and early exits. It would be best to try and avoid that happening too often down the road.
So how are the Brewers set up going forward on that front? Unfortunately, things could be better. Neither Mat Gamel or Rickie Weeks is a great defender, but both are at least competent. There is a pretty decent chance that both will be in Milwaukee at least through these pitchers formative years, though the jury is still out on Gamel’s long term tenure with the club. Alex Gonzalez is solid to good at short, for now at least, but when these young pitchers are really starting to log serious innings, he figures to either be gone or have declined. The biggest problem is over at third, where Aramis Ramirez is already well below average and figures to be even worse down the road. Can the Brewers find ways to bolster this group to help along the young pitchers when they arrive? Only time will tell, but it certainly seems like it would be in the team’s best interest to try, both for the sake of winning games and for the smoothest possible development of perhaps the best crop of pitching prospects in franchise history.