The name of the game for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018 has been pitching. While what was supposed to be a vaunted offense has lagged a bit in the season’s first two months, the pitching staff has allowed the Brewers to pile up an NL-leading 26 wins and has the team just a half-game back of the Pittsburgh Pirates for first place in the Central division. The Brewers as a staff have put together a 3.47 ERA so far in 2018, which ranks sixth in MLB. They have been led by a dynamic bullpen (#2 in the league with a 2.62 ERA) but the rotation has been quite sturdy as well, with a 4.10 ERA through 44 starts that ranks #13 overall in baseball.
That the rotational group is compiled entirely of under-the-radar acquisitions and graduated prospects speaks to the development of what appears an organizational philosophy under the new front office regime. David Stearns didn’t make a splash on the pitching market this past offseason despite months of swirling rumors to the contrary, with the most notable acquisition coming in the form of Jhoulys Chacin on a two-year deal. Chase Anderson arrived to the Brewers as a major leaguer but not a finished product, and has taken some steps forward since arriving to the org and working with pitching coach Derek Johnson. Team ERA leader Junior Guerra was famously a waiver claim who has improved dramatically since coming to Milwaukee, and injured Wade Miley signed as a minor league free agent this past offseason and worked with the org to change his mechanics and improve results. Brent Suter, Zach Davies, and Brandon Woodruff each made their major league debuts with Milwaukee over the past few seasons, and last week Freddy Peralta joined them with a dazzling 13 punchout debut to set a club record for most strikeouts by a rookie pitcher.
The Doug Melvin-era Brewers had no trouble developing MLB-caliber bats, but the knock against his clubs was typically that there wasn’t enough good pitching. These David Stearns Brewers, on the other hand, look to have developed a pitching factory of sorts, and it doesn’t figure to slow down anytime soon. We’ll very likely see the big league debut of Corbin Burnes at some point this season, and though he’s currently on the shelf Luis Ortiz was off to a strong start in Double-A Biloxi. But one pitcher who doesn’t get discussed as often, and probably should be talked about more, is Biloxi starter Zack Brown.
Brown, 23, was selected by the Brewers back in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of the University of Kentucky and signed for a slot-value bonus of just over $400,000. He began his professional career in rookie-level Helena, but after only three starts he was promoted to Class-A Wisconsin to finish out the season. He made nine appearances and was tabbed to start in four of them, producing a 3.00 ERA across 33.0 innings pitched. A 29:5 K/BB ratio and 1.030 WHIP helped him to a solid 87 DRA-, but the Brewers still saw fit to start Brown back with the Timber Rattlers to begin the 2017 campaign. He found work in 18 more contests for Wisconsin (getting the start in 13 of them) and after working to a 3.39 ERA and 91 DRA- across 85.0 innings, the org decided it was time to promote him to Class-A Advanced Carolina to finish out the year. He pitched extremely well in four starts to close the 2017 season, tossing 25.0 innings for the Mudcats with a 2.16 ERA, 23 strikeouts, and just two free passes. His DRA- with during his brief stint with Carolina checked in at a cool 46, or a level of production rated as 54 percent better than the league average.
Similar to the aggressive assignment given to Thomas Jankins, the Brewers jumped Brown right to the Double-A Biloxi starting rotation to begin 2018. So far, so good: across eight starts the righty has logged 46.7 innings while tallying a 2.89 ERA and 47:12 K/BB ratio. The eight home runs he’s allowed are a bit of a concern, but he’s only given up 38 hits in total and is currently boasting a 1.07 WHIP and a solid .253 TAv against. He’s also kept the ball on the ground at a rate of 62 percent this season, which is an interesting development after posting sub-50 percent grounder rates in his first two seasons as a pro. Deserved Run Average agrees with his success against the Southern League, giving him a DRA- of 77 so far on the season.
— Jim Goulart (@Mass_Haas) May 10, 2018
Zack Brown isn’t a big guy, standing at 6’1″ with a listed weight of 180 lbs. He doesn’t fit the “ideal” big-bodied mold of an innings-eater, but size isn’t something that the Stearns regime is too concerned about when evaluating a pitcher. He’s considered to have a high-effort delivery, and is one of the seemingly rare hurlers these days who actually pitches from a windup and takes the ball back over his head before making his stride and delivering the ball to the plate. That helps Brown add some deception and hide the ball a bit longer before the batter can see it. He works with a fastball that has received plus grades, sitting in the 92-95 MPH range and with the ability to both sink it and elevate it. After working in a variety of roles in college, Brown has settled in as a starter with the Brewers and MLB Pipeline credits him with an improved ability to maintain his velocity deep into starts.
— Brewers Farm (@BrewersFarm) April 13, 2018
As far as secondaries go, Brown’s curveball is his best pitch. It’s a sharp breaking offering that receives plus grades and is a pitch that Pipeline scouts feel Brown should lean on even more heavily. He also throws a changeup that’s not quite as refined as the other two weapons in his arsenal, but has potential to be a useful pitch that “that contrasts nicely against his heater.” Brown is generally around the strike zone and doesn’t walk a ton of hitters as evidenced by his career rate of 2.7 BB/9, but as with many young pitchers he could use some further improvement of his command within the strike zone.
Brown draws praise for his outstanding athleticism, and the Brewers believe that will help him stick in a starting role in spite of the effort in his delivery. Farm Director Tom Flanagan has mentioned Brown on a few different occasions when he’s been in the booth during broadcasts of the big league team’s games this year, praising the prospect’s competitive nature on the mound and the development that he’s shown this season. With the delivery concerns and further improvement of his third pitch needed, there are still questions about whether Brown will be able to remain a starter with possibly mid-to-back of the rotation upside, or if his plus fastball/curveball combination will help him become a potentially dominant reliever. Either way Zack Brown will certainly be an organizational pitcher to keep an eye on moving forward, along with what seems like a now endless list of tantalizing arms coming up through the system.