For much of 2010, Randy Wolf was nothing special. Although his 4.17 ERA was passable, even for a player making nearly $10 million per season, he may have been lucky to achieve even that unimpressive number. Wolf’s peripheral stats were rather sheepish: fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings and just under four walks per nine. Combine that with his propensity for the fly ball, and you have a rather poor pitcher. In the so-called “year of the pitcher,” Wolf only managed a 4.85 FIP, a potentially gloomy indicator of things to come.
Although Wolf’s first two starts were more of the same (four homers allowed in 10 innings), Milwaukee has caught a glimpse of the Randy Wolf who demanded $30 million on the free agent market just one year ago. Over his last three starts, Wolf has thrown 20.2 innings, striking out 19 batters, walking five, and allowing only one solo home run, the only run he’s allowed in this stretch.
What’s different? It’s hard to say. It certainly doesn’t hurt that his last three opponents were the Pirates, the Phillies, and the Astros, three weak lineups (Philly isn’t as bad as the others, but they’re also nowhere near as good as recent years). The biggest difference in his repertoire appears to be increased use of the slider — 20 times over the last four starts as opposed to only twice in the first two. Wolf has recorded outs with the slider so far, as evidenced by his +1.0 pitch type value on FanGraphs. However, he’s unlikely to keep doing so if the pitch can only draw 5% whiffs.
Right now, batters are fouling off the pitch 35% of the time, a major factor behind the pitch’s 70% strike rate. Something’s going to have to give here — either Wolf will have to throw the slider out of the zone, resulting in more walks, or the slider will stay in the zone and be put in play instead of fouled off. Regardless of how things even out, Wolf won’t be able to keep up this torrid pace.
Of course, that’s not to be expected. Wolf isn’t an ace, and the Brewers never had any delusions of the sort. He was brought in to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter. He did that last year (at least in terms of results), but the Brewers suffered because Wolf needed to be the second-best starter on the team. This year, he only has to be the fourth or fifth best starter. And if he’s capable of stretches like this and can put together acceptable starts (“give the team a chance to win the game,” if you prefer cliches) otherwise, the Brewers will be perfectly fine.