Last year’s Brewers starting rotation was not particularly strong to start the season. This year has been a different story.
Going into 2020, Brewers GM David Stearns knew that he couldn’t start the season with the same quality of starting pitching as the year prior. If the rotation started this season like they did 2019, the team could be out of contention before they knew it.
It felt like everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for the Brewers starters at the beginning of last year. The young trio of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta all struggled early in their first endeavors as full-time starters, as did Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin.
Things eventually turned around for the rotation as the year went on, and Milwaukee made its second consecutive playoff appearance. But that team had 162 games to get things figured out. The 2020 version does not have that luxury.
Luckily, a different approach to the rotation has led to a much better start to 2020 for the starting pitching. Even compared to the rest of the league, the starters are setting the bar high right out of the gate.
Offseason moves bring different look to rotation
The vision for the rotation to start 2019 was clear: give young starters Woodruff, Burnes, and Peralta a chance to begin their careers as starters alongside solid veteran holdovers Chacin and Zach Davies. That vision faded into a distant memory quickly.
Only Woodruff and Davies would remain in the rotation by the end of the year, eventually being joined by free agent signees Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Lyles as well as Minor League call up Adrian Houser. Davies, Gonzalez, and Lyles all left in the offseason, so a new approach for 2020 was needed.
Stearns decided, this time, to bolster the rotation with a more veteran presence, bringing in Josh Lindblom and Brett Anderson along with their combined 16 years of Major League experience. Woodruff and Houser’s performances in 2019 assured them spots on the starting staff for this season, really leaving just one spot unclaimed going into 2020 Spring Training.
That basic rotation structure has proven to be much more effective than the one the team rolled out in 2019. It is also one that has the staff toward the top of the statistical leaderboards for starting pitchers in 2020.
Starters leading the way early for Brewers
Nearly every pitcher who has taken the mound for Milwaukee to start a game this season has done their part in keeping the game under control and the numbers show it. Through Thursday’s games, Brewers starters have pitched to the tune of 3.04 ERA, 6th best in the MLB and 4th best in the National League.
That ERA is no mirage, as the staff has a similar FIP of 3.28 that ranks 3rd in the MLB. But it’s not just runs that the starters are limiting for their opponents. Their 1.12 staff WHIP (7th in MLB) shows that they are limiting baserunners and their .331 slugging percentage allowed (5th) and 0.8 home runs per nine (3rd) prove that they are limiting the extra base hits as well.
The advanced stats show that this is being done through little solid contact, or in some cases no contact at all. Per FanGraphs, the Brewers’ starters lead all of MLB in percentage of soft contact induced (26.3%) and ground ball percentage (56.1%). And if they’re not forcing weak contact, they are striking out opponents at a rate of 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings (4th in MLB).
The performance of the rotation has been especially important considering the notable struggles of players like former MVP Christian Yelich, among others. By keeping the team in games, it has allowed Milwaukee to still scrape together a .500 record despite their random power outages.
The starting rotation will look to keep their strong momentum going as they continue a tough August schedule. As long as the bats can wake up soon, the combination could set the Brewers up for a big mid-season run.