There’s no two ways about it: the Milwaukee Brewers’ season has been a disaster so far. Many thought that the team’s success for this year was predicated on a succession of “ifs,” most of which has failed to come to fruition. The Brewers offense has been baseball’s worst, and outside of some stellar work by Jimmy Nelson, the pitching staff hasn’t performed much better. It takes an awful lot of failure to find ourselves at a franchise worst 2-13 start, and now might be the time to start looking forward to the future of the Brewers’ organization.
One pitcher who should be a somewhat significant part of the immediate and longer term future of the Brewers is 26 year old righty Tyler Thornburg. Thornburg has filled a variety of roles for Milwaukee since making his major league debut in 2012, he’s started games, pitched long relief, and been a setup man at various times throughout his big league tenure. He has been featured exclusively in relief for the past two seasons, pitching 33 games out of the bullpen for the Brewers while also missing the last four months of 2014 with an elbow injury. After struggling out of the gates this season, Thornburg was optioned down to AAA yesterday morning.
Coming up through the system, Thornburg was a highly touted prospect, and ranked in the team’s top 10 prospects from 2010-2012, topping out at number two after the 2012 season, according to Baseball America. He was used almost exclusively as a starter during his time in the minor leagues, pitching only three games in relief during rookie ball way back in 2010. His minor league results have been nothing short of excellent, as well, with a 3.42 ERA in 347.1 innings pitched across 69 appearances (66 starts). Thornburg’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was nearly 3:1 during that time, and he has struck out more than 10 batter per nine innings while limiting opponents to just 0.7 HR/9.
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When Thornburg stepped into the Brewers’ injury ravaged rotation in 2013, he did everything possible to prove to the Milwaukee front office that he deserved a permanent role as a starting pitcher. In seven starts, Tyler posted a 1.47 ERA and 2.65 FIP, giving up just seven earned runs (and zero home runs) across 43.0 innings pitched. He held opponents to just a .258 wOBA as a starter, striking out 34 batters while walking just 16. Thornburg ended 2013 with a 2.03 ERA in 66.2 major league innings pitched, and looked like a shoo-in to begin 2014 in the starting rotation and begin to fulfill his promising future with the Brewers.
Things quickly changed, however, when the Brewers’ made the surprise signing of Matt Garza prior to Spring Training 2014, bumping Tyler from the rotation. He pitched well enough in spring to warrant being awarded the long-man spot in the bullpen. That role quickly morphed into a setup spot for Thornburg after some strong early season results, but things started to come off the rails for Tyler once May rolled around. Not used to the grind of having to pitch on a moment’s notice, Thornburg began to wilt as fatigue mounted. After giving up just one run and five walks in 14.2 innings in April, Thornburg gave up 13 runs over his next 15 innings of work, walking 16 and striking out just 11. Tyler succumbed to an elbow injury in early June, perhaps due to overuse, and was shut down for the rest of the season.
Given the Brewers’ lack of rotation depth heading into this season, the decision was made to stretch Thornburg out during spring training. He entered the season as one of the Brewers’ long relief options, and gave up 13 runs (six earned) in just 9.2 innings of work, covering six appearances. After struggling again when being put in a relief role, the time has come for the Brewers’ to put Thornburg in a starting role and let him thrive.
There is little argument to be made that Thornburg is more effective as a starter than a reliever. Both Tyler’s ERA (2.37) and FIP (3.95) in 57.0 major league innings as a starter are significantly lower than the 3.93 ERA and 4.44 FIP in 71.0 innings coming out of the bullpen. Thornburg has struck out 19.6% of batters as a starter versus 18.6% as a reliever, while walking batters at a 3% lower rate when starting versus relieving (8.7% to 11.7%). Not all hits are the pitcher’s fault, but it is telling that Thornburg’s batting average against as a starter and reliever are similar (.239 versus .243) while his WHIP is significantly higher when coming out of the bullpen (1.46 versus 1.23).
Given the Brewers’ early season swoon, it seems like a foregone conclusion that free agent to be Kyle Lohse and possibly Matt Garza (under contract through at least 2018) will be dealt before the trade deadline rolls around. More than likely, there will be at least one rotation spot available for the big league club before season’s end. It appears that the Brewers are finally exhibiting some sense when it comes to Thornburg’s role, and will insert him into Colorado Springs’ rotation upon his arrival in AAA. If/when one of the Brewers’ veteran pitchers are dealt, Thornburg should be the first call to step into the starting rotation.
Enough is enough when it comes to this yo-yo crap that the Milwaukee Brewers have put Tyler Thornburg through since his major league debut in 2012. After excelling as a starter both in the minors and the majors, the Brewers have played with Thornburg’s role too much to allow him to truly thrive and fulfill his strong potential. Still just 26 and able to be controlled for another five seasons before free agency, the Brewers’ former top prospect could play an important role in the team’s starting rotation for the forseeable future. However, in order to allow Tyler Thornburg to become the stalwart he’s shown flashes of being in the big leagues, they need to remain committed to keeping him in the starting rotation.