As the Milwaukee Brewers make their final push toward a 2021 playoff spot, their top minor league affiliates are approaching the ends of their own seasons. It’s a moment two years in the making after a lost 2020 campaign for the minor leagues.
Since the last time we saw Brewers farmhands in action back in 2019, minor league baseball has undergone a reconstruction. Some teams have parted ways from the organization (goodbye, Rocky Mountain Vibes and San Antonio Missions) and one has returned (welcome back, Nashville Sounds).
There have also been plenty of new faces added to the organization to go along with some familiar ones from 2019. So now as we come to the end of the 2021 season, it’s time to consider who were some of the top performers this season.
Since 1999, the Brewers have named the top pitcher and top overall player in the organization with a yearly award. Here, we’ll be looking at candidates for the Pitcher of the Year award for 2021, an award that has been given to current Brewer aces Brandon Woodruff (2016) and Corbin Burnes (2017) as well as rookie Aaron Ashby (2019).
Traditionally, this award has generally gone to a prospect who has primarily been a starter in the minor leagues on the season. So apologies in advance to standout relievers like Luke Barker, Evan Reifert, and Taylor Floyd, among others, who have each had excellent 2021 seasons.
Here are three candidates to win the Brewers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year award for the 2021 season.
1. LHP Ethan Small
When you draft a pitcher in the first round, one hope is that they can collect awards like team minor league pitcher of the year on their way to the big leagues. 2019 first round draft pick, and MLB Pipeline’s No. 5 Brewers prospect, Ethan Small should be the frontrunner to do so this season.
After giving up seven earned runs over his first three starts with the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers to begin the season (though in one of those starts he helped combine for a three-pitcher no-hitter) Small started rolling. He would give up three earned runs total over his next five starts, earning himself a quick promotion to Triple-A Nashville.
Small adjusted just fine to the next level, giving up just three earned runs across 23 2/3 innings with the Sounds. Between both levels, the southpaw has put together a 1.64 ERA and a 1.197 WHIP, holding batters to a .199 average and striking out 11.32 batters per nine.
If Small has anything working against him, it’s that he only has 15 starts to his name this season after missing some time midseason with a finger injury. But his numbers have been so dominant, it’ll be hard to pass him up for the organization’s yearly award.
2. RHP Justin Bullock
Another reason Small might have an edge for this award is because there aren’t many pitchers in the organization with significantly more starts who have anywhere close to as impressive of numbers. At one point, though, Justin Bullock looked like he might have a chance.
Bullock began his season all the way down with the Low-A Carolina Mudcats. After a decent first start to the season in which he gave up three earned over five innings, he would give up just five total hits and four total walks over three scoreless starts to follow. That resulted in a very fast promotion to the High-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
Bullock would make twice as many starts with Wisconsin, but continued to look solid. In eight starts, including one seven-inning complete game, he compiled a 3.65 ERA and a 0.970 WHIP while holding hitters to a .206 average. That led to yet another promotion, this time to Double-A.
His time with the Shuckers hasn’t gone quite as smoothly and Bullock’s overall line on the season now sits at a 4.47 ERA and a 1.133 WHIP over 19 starts. A .230 average against plays in his favor, as does a good 96-24 strikeout to walk ratio. But his performance down the stretch likely took away his chance to win pitcher of the year.
3. RHP Noah Zavolas
While Bullock has tailed off a bit to finish out the season, another current teammate of his has had an opposite type of season. Fellow Shucker Noah Zavolas has a matching 4.47 ERA on the season, but has been steadily improving as the 2021 season has gone on.
The last we saw of Zavolas, he was winning the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year in 2019 with the then High-A Carolina Mudcats. After last year’s lay off, he began 2021 at Double-A. Seven starts and a 6.97 ERA later, it was time for the turning point in his season.
Since that seventh start on June 13th, Zavolas hasn’t had a start where he has given up more than four earned runs. On top of dropping his ERA to 4.47, his WHIP is now down to 1.221 and he has an impressive 113 to 31 K/BB ratio. He has been one of the organization’s more solid starting pitchers down the stretch, even if it doesn’t earn him that pitcher of the year award.
Each pitcher should get at least one more start to solidify their case for 2021 Pitcher of the Year. We’ll see who takes home the honors once all is said and done.