The Brewers have an almost absurd level of organization depth and MLB roster flexibility at the moment, which leaves many questions about the shape of the roster for the 2017 season. At this point it should almost be a given that the August 1, 2017 roster will not be the roster that breaks camp, in many different regards. One specific area of depth is the Brewers bullpen, which is relatively young, relatively untested, and therefore wide open in terms of winning jobs. Sure, the easy narrative goes something like, “Corey Knebel takes the next step to becoming a high leverage reliever by setting up Neftali Feliz,” but even that future could have several others that derail it. Even outside of the set roles, there are players like Paolo Espino or Stephen Kohlscheen that could force their way onto a big league club.
One of the best parts about spring training is that many ballparks have PITCHf/x technology, which means that Brooks Baseball begins updating some player cards with data. This is a great chance to get an actual idea about what depth prospects throw, even taking the data with gigantic grains of salt (for example, there are relatively few pitches tracked during spring, which leaves open several debates about calibration and significance). Nevertheless, this is a tasty dish even with that giant grain of salt, so let’s take a chance to see what members of the Brewers bullpen camp are throwing.
|88+ High Rising FB / also SL-CRV-CUT
|More armside run than in 2016
|95- Hard Riding FB / also CH & Slider
|94+ in 2016 / 97+ in 2015 [AFL]
|90- Riding FB / also CRV-SNK-SL-CH
|No other record / Junkball supreme!?
|95+ Riding FB / 80+ gigantic curveball
|Same FB & CRV as 2016
|96+ true sinker / also SL-CRV
|More armside run than 2016 sinker
|97+ Hard Riding FB / 84+ “slider”
|Same FB & SL as 2016 season
|93+ Rising FB / 86-87 Short Slider
|Also threw a change in 2014
|92- “Cut” FB / also SNK-CRV-CH
|FB shifting from 2016 & 2015 versions
|91+ Hard Riding FB / 81+ CH / also CRV-SL
|No other record
|87-88 Riding FB / 80-81 CH / also a slider
|No other record
|91+ Hard Riding FB / 78+ split / also SL-CRV
|96+ in 2012; 92+ in 2011
|All 94+ “cut” Rising FB
|95+ in 2016 / Slider breaks “armside” from FB!
|95+ Rising FB
|No other record
|J. Olczak / B. Woodruff / A. Wilkerson / D. Goforth / A. Oliver / T. Dillard / J. Chamberlain / B. Suter / R. Scahill / M. Blazek
Many of these arms are featured in previous BPMilwaukee spring stories, which only goes to show that we love our prospects here and hope they grab that big league cash. Among the most interesting minor leaguers are the aforementioned Kohlscheen and Espino, along with newly converted southpaw Nick Ramirez, and some surprises like Preston Gainey. Unfortunately, no 2017 data are yet available for Jon Olczak, Aaron Wilkerson, or even Tim Dillard.
The Brewers signed many minor league contracts during the 2016-2017 offseason, and in the wake of the Junior Guerra success story, it seemed as though GM David Stearns was looking to expand on the age-discrepancy-market. Several “non-prospects” thus joined camp, including Andrew Barbosa. The 6’8″ lefty does not have a fastball to match his size, which leads one to wonder if that 87-88 MPH riding fastball is surprising and deceptive coming from such a large frame. In the Eastern League in 2016, the southpaw struck out 36 of 154 batters faced during seven starts, leading a 3.50 Deserved Runs Average (DRA). Barbosa’s main question mark may be a flyball tendency.
Although it’s easy to focus on the new signings, Milwaukee also has a couple of aging “non-prospects” within their own system that have intriguing statistical performances. Stephen Kohlscheen is entering his second year in the Brewers organization, and will be working a level removed from the MLB during his age-28 season. The 6’6″ righty is currently working a fastball-slider combo of the bread-and-butter variety; the fastball is rising, and the slider’s vertical and horizontal movement is relatively short. Perhaps Kohlscheen will join Jacob Barnes as a true fastball-slider, meat-and-potatoes reliever. The 32.8 percent strike out rate, 3.94 K/BB, 2.26 DRA, and are worth another look.
Nick Ramirez’s story is by now well-known in spring camp, as the stalling first baseman shifted back to the mound to reclaim a previous college pitching role. Ramirez is now the best kind of longshot story as a player who will throw his first professional pitch at age-27. Thus far the PITCHf/x looks nice for the southpaw, who is flashing a lot of break on his fastball while also working on three off-speed offerings. Make no mistake about it, Ramirez has a long way to go to prove that he can retire professional batters, but as a left-handed pitcher he will undoubtedly receive as many chances as he needs to prove his strengths from the mound.
Among the competitors that saw time in the 2016 Brewers bullpen, the spring training stuff already looks like last year’s stuff. This is arguably a good thing, as it means that Jacob Barnes, Jhan Marinez, and Corey Knebel are ready to take the next step to preserve close ballgames in Milwaukee. Barnes has the most fascinating fastball/slider combination, so much so that I’d actually suggest describing his PITCHf/x mix as “cutter-screwball.” Looking at Barnes’s delivery and stuff, there does not appear to be a lot of room for deception, but yet the “fastball” nearly moves glove-side, which is very rare for right-handed pitchers (even rising fastballs usually have armside run). As a result of the unorthodox fastball, Barnes’s slider has more armside break compared to the fastball, which effectively makes it a screwball in practice. Barnes is so much fun to watch because he’s quite a throwback reliever, so Brewers fans must enjoy this hard, no-nonsense arsenal while it’s still around.
What’s striking about the Marinez, Knebel, and Barnes trio is that each reliever works in a completely different range. Marinez is a true sinker reliever, while Knebel throws a riding-running fastball, and Barnes has his little cutter. Meanwhile, Knebel changes it up with a huge curveball, while Barnes uses a much tighter arsenal in his cutter-screwball approach. Marinez also uses a slider, but his variation is quite different than Barnes’s; Marinez throws a much more traditional slider insofar as the pitch breaks approximately five inches gloveside (i.e., “away” from righty bats) from his fastball.
Finally, it’s interesting to see readings on Josh Hader’s fastball, as well as a much quieter delivery from the southpaw. Certainly, Hader is not rushing up that true-70 southpaw heat that he flashed during a short Arizona Fall League stint in 2015. Yet, if the lefty still works in the mid-90s, but a quieter delivery allows him to regain command and repeat his change up, that’s quiet a strong delivery if it allows Hader to stick as a starter. Less “exciting” and more “repetition” with a broader arsenal for Hader should be music to Brewers fans’ ears.
There’s a lot to watch in spring training, including PITCHf/x statistics, so enjoy March while you can: this is a great chance to get a look at depth prospects, and also associate some “stuff” measurements with minor league statistics later in the season.