Tyler Cravy: Best Brewers Debut? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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Let’s forget the offensive woes for a moment, and praise Tyler Cravy for his exceptional Major League debut. Last night, the organizational righty worked each of his pitches against the Cardinals, varying speeds and planes to confound Cardinals batters. While BaseballAmerica suggested a sinker / cutter approach from Cravy, with a full change / slider / curve off-speed arsenal, BrooksBaseball called Cravy’s main pitch a “four seam fastball” last night.

Regardless of its name, Cravy did not generate many missed swings with his main pitch, but the Cardinals consistently fouled off the fastball, which arguably improved Cravy’s ability to establish his off-speed pitches (since Cardinals batters were likely off balance from the get go). The slider was definitely Cravy’s “go-to” off-speed offering, but he also mixed in his change and curve enough to vary his approach, too. In fact, by my count, Cravy thew at least one off-speed pitch in every single plate appearance except to Mark Reynolds (who grounded into a double play in the bottom of the fifth in a two fastball at bat) and Matt Carpenter (who walked on a fastball-only plate appearance to open the bottom of the seventh). It seems clear that Cravy capitalized on the Cardinals’ lack of familiarity by compounding the potential looks and pitch approaches to each batter.

Given the state of the 2015 Brewers rotation, most Brewers fans probably felt that Cravy’s start was instantly one of the best of the year. This is absolutely true. Based on GameScore, which balances the basic pitching elements into a simple number where 50 is average:

  • Cravy’s seven inning, one run, six strike out / two walk campaign is worth a game score of 69.
  • Only Jimmy Nelson has at least three starts that were better than Cravy’s outing last night.
  • Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza have two exceptional starts apiece, but drop off after that.
  • Mike Fiers’ Monday-night outing was one-point shy of matching Cravy’s debut.
  • At the seventh best GameScore of the season (thus far), Cravy instantly places in the top 15% of all games started by 2015 Brewers.
2015 Brewers Top Game Scores
Kyle Lohse 85 (May 15) / 66 (April 23) / 52 (May 20)
Jimmy Nelson 80 (April 11) / 75 (April 22) / 73 (May 19)
Matt Garza 73 (May 10) / 58 (April 29) / 54 (May 5)
Mike Fiers 72 (May 2) / 68 (June 1) / 61 (May 12)
Tyler Cravy 69 (June 2)
Wily Peralta 64 (May 6) / 60 (May 22) / 57 (April 8)

Brewers Legacy
Given that the standard report on Cravy is that he could end up as a middle reliever (according to some), but also has worked as a tenacious starter in the Brewers’ organization (BaseballAmerica), it is difficult to place Cravy’s first start in the context of his career. Cravy worked an excellent debut, but we obviously don’t know how his career will follow. However, just based on anecdotal experience, Cravy’s already off to a better start than many Brewers organizational arms (even Ben Sheets didn’t have a debut as strong as Cravy’s, although he was much younger when he began his career; mid-2000s “depth saviors” like Jorge de la Rosa and Ben Hendrickson did not get their careers off to a good start, either). Of course, de la Rosa’s career path shows that even a dependable middle rotation arm can have a rough start, where other starters like Chris Saenz never have another chance to build off their debut.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the Brewers’ debuts during the 21st century. By my count, 22 pitchers made their MLB debut with the Brewers as starters at the age of 25 or young (during their first season). Some of these arms began in relief (like Wily Peralta‘s emergency relief role in 2012, or Jimmy Nelson‘s relief appearances in 2013), while others were instant emergency starters (like Hiram Burgos and Johnny Hellweg). In the following chart, I noted each pitcher’s first start (judged by GameScore), and for fun I added their overall rookie season and career WAR. If you felt that Cravy might have been the best Brewers debut you ever saw, your hunch was right (and you get extra points if you remember that Chris Saenz was better):

Brewers Debut 25 or Younger (First Start) IP / R / K / BB / HR / GmSc Season Career WAR
Chris Saenz (April 24 2004) 6.0 / 0 / 7 / 3 / 0 / 72 1-0 / 6.0 / 0.00 ERA 0.5
Tyler Cravy (June 2 2015) 7.0 / 1 / 6 / 2 / 0 / 69 ??? ???
Carlos Villanueva* (June 14 2006) 6.0 / 0 / 5 / 2 / 0 / 67 2-2 / 53.7 / 3.69 ERA -1.5
Nick Neugebauer (2001) 5.0 / 1 / 9 / 3 / 0 / 63 1-1 / 6.0 IP / 7.50 ERA 0.0
Jimmy Nelson* (Sept 28 2013) 5.0 / 1 / 4 / 3 / 0 / 62 0-0 / 10.0 IP / 0.90 ERA 1.0
Mark Rogers* (Sept 24 2010) 5.0 / 2 / 6 / 1 / 0 / 60 0-0 / 10.0 / 1.80 ERA 1.0
Yovani Gallardo (June 18 2007) 6.3 / 3 / 4 / 3 / 1 / 54 9-5 / 110.3 IP / 3.67 ERA 16.4
Hiram Burgos (April 20 2013) 5.0 / 1 / 1 / 0 / 0 / 54 1-2 / 29.3 IP / 6.44 ERA -0.7
Manny Parra* (July 28 2007) 6.0 / 3 / 3 / 2 / 0 / 53 0-1 / 26.3 IP / 3.76 ERA -3.2
Wily Peralta* (Sept 5 2012) 6.0 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 0 / 49 2-1 / 29.0 IP / 2.48 ERA 3.3
Allen Levrault* (2000) 6.0 / 4 / 4 / 5/ 0 / 49 0-1 / 12.0 IP / 4.50 ERA -0.7
Matt Ford* (June 29 2003) 3.0 / 1 / 2 / 3 / 0 / 46 0-3 / 43.7 IP / 4.33 ERA 0.5
Zach Jackson* (June 4 2006) 6.3 / 4 / 2 / 1 / 0 / 42 2-2 / 38.3 / 5.40 ERA -0.7
Ben Sheets (April 5 2001) 6.0 / 5 / 5 / 5 / 1 / 40 11-10 / 151.3 IP / 4.76 ERA 26.1
Ben Hendrickson (June 2 2004) 5.0 / 4 / 2 / 2 / 0 / 37 1-8 / 46.3 IP / 6.22 ERA -1.0
Jorge de la Rosa (Aug 14 2004) 5.0 / 4 / 0 / 2 / 0 / 37 0-3 / 22.7 IP / 6.35 ERA 11.0
Tyler Thornburg (June 19 2012) 5.3 / 5 / 2 / 0 / 4 / 36 0-0 / 22.0 IP / 4.50 ERA 1.6
Dave Pember (Sept 3 2002) 3.7 / 4 / 1 / 5 / 1 / 35 0-1 / 8.7 IP / 5.19 ERA -0.1
Luis Martinez (Sept 3 2003) 4.0 / 3 / 1 / 5 / 0 / 34 0-3 / 16.3 IP / 9.92 ERA -0.6
Tyler Wagner (May 31 2015) 3.7 / 5 / 2 / 1 / 1 / 24 ??? ???
Johnny Hellweg (June 28 2013) 1.7 / 7 / 1 / 2 / 0 / 18 1-4 / 30.7 IP / 6.75 ERA -1.2
Ben Diggins (Sept 2 2002) 1.3 / 8 / 2 / 6 / 0 / 12 0-4 / 24.0 IP / 8.63 ERA -0.7
*pitched in relief prior to starting

Note: I know that this criteria unnecessarily discriminates against some pitchers (like Mike Fiers), but the age-25 cut-off is meant to approximate “prospect” status. Ironically, if Fiers qualified due to age, he would be disqualified because he began his Brewers career as a brief reliever in 2011, before starting in 2012. C’est la vie!

Players in Bold & Italics are currently on the Brewers 40-man roster.

It’s fun to see how some careers match debut outings (like Yovani Gallardo, who was very good from the get go), while others (like de la Rosa or Peralta) took a while to warm up. One of my favorite arms on this list is Carlos Villanueva, who strikes me as a type of anomaly in baseball: while many of the arms on this list are emergency replacements or injury call-ups, Villanueva has made a rather successful career as a swingman / long man / fifth starter type. I suspect that this role is rare, because if a pitcher is a “true replacement,” they probably are returned to the minors (like Tyler Wagner, even), and if they’re moderately good to dependable (like de la Rosa, Gallardo, etc.), they work as full-time starters (instead of starting and relieving games).

What does all this mean? Cravy could have many career paths, depending on the chances the Brewers provide him, his stuff, and how he approaches batters; one might not expect him to turn into an ace, but still, the range from de la Rosa to Villanueva to Ben Hendrickson is quite wide.

Just for fun, some observations from this chart:

  • There is no set pattern between positive Career WAR and Debut Season Innings. While Sheets and Gallardo were big inning studs from the beginning of their respective careers, de la Rosa, Tyler Thornburg, Peralta, and Nelson are all good examples of positive WAR pitchers that did not reach 50 IP in their debut season.
  • There are so many interesting “what-ifs” and “injury issues” on this list that show just how tough developing pitching is for an MLB club. Granted, the Brewers might have made an undue number of drafting mistakes in recent seasons, but the fact is, even guys with solid stuff (like Mark Rogers) can turn into a case of “what if…”
  • This might be wishful thinking, but it does seem that pitching under Doug Melvin has improved since the early-2000s replacements.
  • Carlos Villanueva had such a great start to his career: remember his crucial role (along with Seth McClung) as a 2008 swingman, when that competitive squad needed to bridge the gap to CC Sabathia?
  • It’s amazing how much WAR can inflate a pitcher’s value, in some cases: take Sheets and Gallardo. Gallardo is only about 250 innings short of Sheets thus far, and both have very similar ERA (3.70 to 3.78) and ERA+ (109 for Gallardo, 113 for Sheets). Nevertheless, Sheets’s 1325 K / 369 BB / 184 HR makes him more valuable than Gallardo’s 1271 K / 493 BB / 143 HR. This bugs me: I don’t think it’s right to say that Sheets is approximately 10 wins better than Gallardo; I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Sheets is the better pitcher, but I do think Gallardo makes a better case than their respective WAR suggests.

At the end of the day, I am sure many scouts and analysts will continue to remind Brewers fans of Cravy’s “ceiling” or “potential MLB role.” However, we must celebrate Cravy’s debut, because it was arguably the best of the century (thus far) for the Brewers. Furthermore, it wasn’t simply a fluke outing for the righty: by mixing his pitches, and using each of his weapons, Cravy showed what a pitcher with a 90-91 MPH fastball can do in an era where everyone seems to be moving onto harder throwers by default.

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