Valuing Brent Suter

Last Friday, in one of the biggest games of the season, Brent Suter shone. Suter delivered seven innings of brutal efficiency, mowing through the Cubs’ championship lineup in just 82 pitches. The lanky lefty scattered four meager singles, walked one batter, and fanned five. It was an electric performance, and one that carried the slumping Brewers to their only win of the series.

At first glance, Suter seems an unlikely source for ace-level outings. The soft-tossing southpaw was never billed as a top prospect, or really as any sort of prospect at all. Blame that on his wiry build and 85-mph fastball. But he compiled a neat 3.44 ERA across more than 600 minor league innings. At the very least, Suter looked like an interesting depth arm, someone who could soak up some innings down on the farm and grab a big league cup of coffee in case of emergency.

Emergency struck last August, when the Brewers lost Chase Anderson and Junior Guerra to injury and called up Suter to be the Brewers’ first lefty starter in 474 games. The rookie battled his nerves en route to a poor showing against the Seattle Mariners, but he stuck around to post solid numbers in relief for the rest of the season. This year, the Brewers have Suter in carousel mode, cycling him back and forth from Colorado Springs to bolster the major league staff as needed. He earned a spot start in early June and was stringing together a passable year as the Crew’s 26th man when Anderson succumbed to an oblique strain at the end of the month. Suter was inserted into the starting rotation, and he hasn’t looked back since.

Across five July starts spanning an even 30 innings, Suter authored a splendid 1.50 ERA. He walked five batters and allowed 25 hits (and only one home run) for a WHIP of 1.00. For each hit allowed, Suter also recorded a strikeout. He’s playing the part of a sensational swingman, and his versatility is bringing considerable value to a stumbling Brewers team.

Depending on who you ask.

For the season, Suter is sporting a 2.40 ERA over 45 innings. He’s striking out 7.4 batters per nine, and walking only 2.2. He’s given up two home runs all year. The “baseball card stats” all check out.

Go one step further, and the picture is still pretty rosy. Suter’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is sitting at 2.90, his walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) is a cool 1.16, and he’s generating ground balls at a 45.8 percent clip. That’s good for a Fangraphs valuation of 1.2 Wins Above Replacement, which would make Suter the seventeenth most valuable pitcher not to have eclipsed the 50-inning mark this season. For context, that’s a few slots ahead of coveted trade chip Addison Reed.

Of course, Fangraphs’ version of WAR starts with FIP, which is a useful stat, but one whose central assumption is less sophisticated than one might expect. FIP asserts that a pitcher only exerts control over home runs, strikeouts, and bases on balls. All other balls in play, be they hits or outs, screaming line drives or lazy pop flies, are considered subject to the whims of chance and the quality of the defenders on the field. A pitcher like Suter, who strikes out his share, doesn’t walk many, and allows few home runs, is bound to come out looking pretty good.

Sensing a need for refinement, a number of complex statistics have sprung up in an attempt to capture a more accurate impression of pitcher performance. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Deserved Runs Average (DRA), the foundation of Baseball Prospectus’ WARP calculation. DRA, which seemingly adjusts for everything from the humidity at game time to the cut of the pitcher’s underpants, hates Brent Suter, pegging his body of work this season at an ugly 5.63. For that reason, Suter has been worth an astonishing -0.1 WARP this season in the eyes of Baseball Prospectus, putting him on even footing with Wily Peralta and Neftali Feliz.

This would suggest that Suter has been uncommonly lucky in his young career, though it’s a little difficult to envision how. Last season, Suter’s 3.32 ERA was overshadowed by a mountainous 7.99 DRA, despite the lefty’s general distaste for walking a batter and his elite 84.7 mph average exit velocity against. He’s fanning more batters this year and the exit velocity is holding steady while his hard hit percentage is inching downwards. DRA was designed to be unbeatable, but Suter sure looks like he’s fooling it.

Don’t be surprised if Suter starts to regress on the mound. Barring a scouting failure of enormous proportion, he’s not the budding ace his results would suggest. But don’t expect him to explode, either. There’s little to suggest that Suter’s ERA will someday match his bloated DRA figure; his true talent likely lies somewhere between the two leading valuations. He’s not Addison Reed, but he’s been a damn sight better than Wily Peralta this year.

Whatever the case may be, Suter has accomplished a lot this season. In the end, the most important stat in the thick of a division race might be the most passé; all that really matters at the end of each game is how many earned runs Suter allowed to cross home plate. By that measure, the 27-year-old lefty has been very valuable, indeed.

Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USAToday Sports Images

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