Brewers Farm Update

Projecting the Protected: Trey Supak

Trey Supak is having a great 2018. He started the season pitching for the Carolina Mudcats, obliterated Carolina League hitters for a couple of months, and was granted a promotion to Biloxi, where he pretty much did more of the same. As a reward for the young righty’s efforts, he was added to Milwaukee’s 40-man roster a week ago, thus protecting him from the Rule-5 Draft (which allows MLB teams to select certain minor leaguers based on service time rules). Two things about that transaction: First, it further underscores the folkloric absurdity that is the Jason Rogers trade. Second, it means that it’s time to take a closer look at Supak’s profile for the first time in over a year.

The first thing that stands out about the 22-year-old Supak is his sheer physical presence. At 6’5” and 235 pounds, he cuts a classic, old-school silhouette on the mound. The guy looks like a throwback workhorse, capable of soaking up 200 decent innings with a rubbery arm and a smooth, repeatable delivery. It’s a great starting point for a pitching prospect.

What may hold Supak back from becoming a rotation mainstay is the quality of his raw stuff, which is largely average. Even at the time of his trade three years ago, Supak’s frame was more or less maxed out. Accordingly, the big Texan’s fastball velocity hasn’t really budged as he’s grown older; Supak still operates right around 90 or 91 mph, with the ability to reach back on occasion and crank it up to 94. It’s a decent pitch, as fastballs go, but hardly an elite offering. Supak has, however, taken some steps forward with his secondaries. What was once a fringe-y curveball has turned into a legitimate weapon; it now profiles as no worse than average, with good downward break and great velocity separation off of his heater (the curve spins in at 75-78 mph). His changeup, too, has been much improved over the last several years, traveling from non-existent all the way up to fringe-average. It should, at worst, become a “show-me” pitch in the majors, which may be just enough to allow Supak to stick in a starting rotation. At best, it could become average; it’s a little firm at the moment, but it comes in right around 85 mph and is at least capable of disrupting a hitter’s timing.

Supak has always shown good command of his pitches, leading to some suspicion that the solid results he produced in the low minors had more to do with the inexperience of his opponents than his own prowess on the mound. (Through A-ball, pitchers with good command and middling stuff routinely fudge their way through to impressive stat lines; once they reach the upper minors, more advanced hitters start to hit back.) That Supak was able to maintain his effectiveness as a 22-year-old getting his first taste of Double-A last season lends some optimism to his outlook.

His performance in the Southern League becomes even more impressive when it’s examined in halves. Supak made 16 starts for the Shuckers last year after his late-May promotion, with a nice cumulative ERA of 2.91. But in the first eight of those starts, he allowed 23 earned runs in 39.7 innings for a 5.22 ERA. Opposing batters lit him up for a .720 OPS. Wins don’t matter, but Supak was also winless in six decisions during that span.

The next eight starts were a little different. From July 16 through the end of the season, Supak pitched 47.0 innings and allowed a measly five earned runs. Opposing batters struggled to an anemic .527 OPS. His ERA during that time was 0.96, and he won each of the six decisions into which his performance factored.

If that line in the sand seems a little too convenient to be taken seriously, well, sure. We’re talking about a pretty small sample here, for one. I wasn’t present at any of Supak’s starts, so I’m unable to comment on how his stuff, or his demeanor, or the defense behind him, looked during that rough first taste of Double-A. For better or worse, I’m relying on the numbers and some scant video, neither of which always paints the full picture. (Exhibit A: Supak’s swinging strike percent actually edged downwards during his dominant late-season stretch.) Even so, those sorts of stats tend to jump off the page.

Add them all up, and we’re left with this: 25 games started and a career-high 137.7 innings pitched across two levels in 2018. 123 strikeouts, 44 walks, and only six home runs allowed. A cumulative ERA of 2.48, including his time in Carolina. DRA, it must be noted, is a little more measured in assessing Supak’s 2018 performance, pegging him as a league-average pitcher for the Mudcats, where his 4.69 Deserved Run Average stands in contrast to a glittering 1.76 ERA and his 99.7 DRA- is hardly exciting (a 100 DRA- is league and park average, and the lower the number, the better). But DRA also acknowledges that Supak turned it on after his promotion, finishing with a 3.73 DRA and a tidy 79.2 DRA- in Biloxi. That kind of performance is worth protecting.

Supak will start the 2019 in the minors, perhaps even back in Biloxi. But his above-average command and fastball-curveball combo make him a solid candidate to join the bullpen shuttle to the big leagues as early as mid-season. If 2018 taught us anything, it’s that the Brewers know how to make good use of their players with option years, rotating them between Triple-A and Milwaukee as needed.

The bullpen may well be Supak’s longterm home, too. If he performs well next year, he’ll have a chance to claim a spot as a middle-reliever or swingman for the foreseeable future. His stuff may also tick up a notch or two; instead of cresting at 94 mph, like he does as a starter, that number may become more of a baseline in relief.

There’s also a chance that Supak develops into an effective back-end starter, of the kind that the Brewers have had so much success with lately. He’s got that classic innings-eater frame, but limiting him to two trips through the batting order could do wonders for his ability to prevent runs. What’s more valuable: 200 innings with a 4.50 ERA, or 150 innings with a 3.80 ERA?

Supak has flown under the radar a bit in recent years. He’s pitched well, but not spectacularly; his ascent has been slower and less noticeable than those of 2016 Brandon Woodruff, 2017 Corbin Burnes, and even 2018 Zack Brown. But it has been steady. Now, he’s knocking at the door. Add his name alongside those of Woodruff, Burnes, Brown, Peralta, and others, and it’s clearer than ever that it’s time to retire the years-old narrative that the Brewers can’t develop good arms. Supak and his peers say otherwise.

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