Taylor Jungmann and Tempered Expectations

The Milwaukee Brewers’ pitching staff owns a combined 4.50 ERA in 2015. Skillful, consistent pitching performances have proven too rare. Brewers starters have only tossed 27 quality starts, which ranks third-worst in Major League Baseball. Furthermore, the bullpen has only 42 “shutdown” outings, fifth-worst in the league.

Thus, it’s understandable that Brewers fans have been encouraged by Taylor Jungmann’s solid debut. In three starts, the right-hander has compiled a 3.50 ERA with a 3.27 FIP and 3.43 SIERA. Even his DRA (Deserved Run Average) is currently 3.01. Both the traditional and advanced statistics suggest the former first-round pick has genuinely performed well. At an imposing 6-foot-6 and with a prolific amateur career, it appears the Brewers may have found a mainstay in their rotation — something that would be most welcome this summer.

The standard small-sample-size caveats naturally apply to a three-start sample, but it should also be noted that the above statistics are not considered to be predictive. That is to say, they describe what has happened and not necessarily what will happen. Digging into his performance, both past and present, demonstrates that Jungmann has major hurdles to overcome to be anything more than a fifth starter or perhaps a swingman at the big-league level.

Jungmann has primarily relied on his heavy fastball and his curveball through his first three starts. He’s thrown the two pitches 96.9 percent of the time. This combination allows the right-hander to play to his strength: generating ground balls. He boasts a 60 percent ground-ball rate in the majors, which is almost perfectly in line with his 59.5 percent ground-ball rate with Triple-A Colorado Springs this year. Quite simply, the right-hander is most effective when he fills up the zone and gets opposing teams to pound the baseball into the ground.

Such an approach is predicated on two things: being able to throw strikes consistently and avoiding massive platoon splits. Significant question marks remain on both fronts.

Jungmann, a former National Player of the Year winner at UT-Austin, owns a stellar 5.3 percent walk rate through his first three starts, which is hardly cause for concern. However, that’s a severe outlier from past performances. In fact, this year in Triple-A, his walk rate (11.2 percent) more than doubled his major-league output thus far. Baseball Prospectus’ own Jordan Gorosh expressed similar worries when he saw Jungmann pitch for Colorado Springs earlier this season:

Through three games, Jungmann has gotten to three-ball counts 13 times. Given the fact that he also has posted walk rates higher than 4.00 BB/9 at every level in which he’s thrown 100+ innings (save his debut in High-A as a 22-year-old), one wonders whether this sudden improved command is “real” in any sense of the word. Perhaps he has begun to pound the zone more by focusing on a two-pitch mix instead of playing with his harder slider or his changeup. That’s mainly speculation, though, and history tells us that we should be skeptical of abrupt improvements over a short period of time. There has been talk that Jungmann has tweaked his mechanics for this year, but those didn’t result in better command in Triple-A. What makes the majors so different?

For a pitcher who relies on putting the baseball in play and relying on his defense, it’s imperative that he limits free baserunners. Wily Peralta is much the same way. Results vary wildly from start-to-start when one relies on BABIP and questionable infield defense.

Of course, Peralta can also miss some bats. His swinging-strike rate is 8.5 percent for his major-league career, while Jungmann has only missed bats 5.7 percent of the time in 2015. To put that in context, only six qualified starters have a lower swinging-strike rate this year, and only two of those pitchers — Mark Buehrle (3.90 ERA) and Mike Pelfrey (2.97 ERA) — have earned run averages under 4.00. Needless to say, hoping someone can be “the next Mike Pelfrey” does not inspire confidence for sustainable success.

Like most sinker-ballers or two-pitch hurlers, though, one would expect Jungmann to have extreme platoon issues. After all, lefties are hitting .323/.364/.452 against him in his first three starts. The interesting piece about Jungmann is that he does have platoon problems; they’re just reverse-platoon splits.

Year Level vs. LHB vs. RHB
2015 AAA .238/.333/.341 .293/.368/.449
2014 AA .199/.294/.289 .280/.363/.418
2013 AA .232/.361/.314 .232/.323/.362

One easily notices the discrepancy. Jungmann characteristically allows more walks to lefties, but he has stifled the power production from opposite-handed batters in the minors. The difference through his three starts in the majors lies in the fact that lefties have a .400 BABIP against him.

Thus, Taylor Jungmann simultaneously has and doesn’t have the common issue that plagues two-pitch, sinker-ball starters. Historically, he has had a notable platoon split, but not the one that his major-league performance would lead the normal observer to believe. With that said, it’s going to be interesting to see how he handles lefties going forward, because he still will allow more walks to lefties than would otherwise be advisable due to his lack of a put-away pitch, but it doesn’t appear we should expect lefties to hammer him like they have over the past couple weeks.

The most interesting aspect of his reverse platoon splits is that he’d actually be better off if he struggled more against lefties than righties, as more right-handed batters exist in Major League Baseball. It may not kill him right away as opposing teams work to write the book on Jungmann and notice his current split, but down the road, he could be victimized by having the “wrong” platoon issue.

As far as Taylor Jungmann’s outlook in the Brewers’ rotation is concerned, though, there are several points that must be addressed.

His cFIP (which is the best pitching metric to evaluate future performance) is just 103. That’s barely worse than average, which is 100, and the Milwaukee Brewers would love to have a league-average pitcher right now. The problem, though, is that cFIP is working with an unsustainable level of command information. Jungmann has not shown plus-command throughout his minor-league career. That goes away, there’s a good chance that Jungmann becomes a ground-ball pitcher who doesn’t miss many bats and walks too many batters. That ain’t a pretty picture, either. That’s essentially Eddie Butler, who had a 4.80 ERA in 54.1 innings before getting sent back to Triple-A last week.

Thus far, he has limited the damage that right-handers have disproportionately done to him throughout his minor-league career. What does that mean for projecting his future performance, once that likely reverts to career norms? After all, he’ll face more right-handers in the future than he would lefties, so we can’t assume his ERA would remain stable due to simply flip-flopping the platoon.

One also questions the organization’s confidence in him. The Milwaukee Brewers passed over Taylor Jungmann twice earlier this year. They opened up a 40-man roster spot and promoted Tyler Wagner from Double-A Biloxi for a spot start and then did the same for Tyler Cravy from Triple-A Colorado Springs. If the organization thought Jungmann was poised for sustainable success at the major-league level, it seems hard to believe they would have bothered with the roster gymnastics needed to promote Wagner and Cravy in May and June.

It’s great that the Brewers have an arm that is producing. His 3.50 ERA is the best mark amongst starters, which is a rather depressing statement to make in the middle of June. Still, it’s important to keep in mind what challenges Jungmann faces in his quest to become a long-term starting pitcher in the big leagues. The fact that he hasn’t failed yet can easily cloud our judgment; however, the same issues with his repertoire and his command remain. They didn’t miss the flight to Milwaukee and stay exiled in Colorado Springs. To find success as a starter, he’ll have to buck the trends that he showed in the minors and in past spring camps, and unfortunately for Brewers fans, those are not easily overcome or altered. Don’t be surprised if it turns out to be a rocky road for Jungmann throughout the remainder of 2015.

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