Who are the Brewers getting in Neal Cotts?

The Milwaukee Brewers made waves (not really) Thursday when reports indicated that they had signed left-handed reliever Neal Cotts to a one year, $3 million deal. This acquisition, though somewhat under-the-radar, was a necessary one for Milwaukee. It gives them a pitcher who can create swinging strikes, and another southpaw to compliment Will Smith in the bullpen. With the market for relievers essentially bare, getting Cotts was a nice, cheap pull.

The 34-year-old Cotts almost saw his pitching career end due to an abundance of injuries. He underwent Tommy John surgery and four hip procedures and was unable to pitch in the majors for three consecutive seasons (2010-2012). It’s really a miracle Cotts found work after that. Even before the injuries took him for a ride, Cotts never had success at the major league level. From 2003 to 2009, he posted a 5.32 FIP and was worth 0.4 WAR. But even so, the Texas Rangers took a chance on him in 2013, a move that revitalized his career.

Cotts spent the last two seasons with the Rangers, accumulating 2.6 WAR in 123.2 innings. Among the 64 relievers who pitched at least 120 innings during that time span, Cotts ranks 16th in that category. His four-seam fastball sits in the low 90s with his cutter reaching the high 80s. He also throws an effective slider (10.9 career wSL) at around 85 mph. As you can tell, Cotts is anything but a power pitcher, but, as we saw with Zach Duke a year ago, blowing fastballs by hitters isn’t the only way to get hitters out.

Cotts is an interesting case study. Unlike most left-handed relievers, Cotts is anything but a left-handed specialist. In fact, he has reverse splits, meaning he fares better versus right-handed batters. Take a look at his splits.

IP wOBA HR
vs LHH 161.1 .328 25
vs RHH 218.2 .308 21

The numbers aren’t drastically different, but still significant for a lefty. Here’s what Cotts had to say about his interesting splits:

“Over my career, I’ve been better against righties than lefties. I don’t know what to attribute that to. I enjoy going out there for an inning. It benefits everybody if you have guys who can face both sides. It helps extend the game until you get to the closer.”

The Brewers now have two pitchers in the bullpen with reverse splits, Brandon Kintzler being the other one.

Aside from Cotts’ split irony, he doesn’t force many ground balls. And that’s tough for me because I love ground ball pitchers, which is why Zach Britton is one of my favorite players (go look at his ground ball rate; it’s insane). Ground ball rate is the first thing I look at when analyzing a pitcher. So when I looked at Cotts’ GB%, I admit I was a little disappointed. Cotts had a 34.7 GB% last season (league average GB% among relievers in 2014 was 45.3%), and owns a 41.9 GB% in his career. So, because he doesn’t have an admirable ground ball rate, he sure as heck better have at least a decent strikeout percentage. If he doesn’t, well then the Brewers probably made a mistake on him. But luckily, Cotts does. In 2014, Cotts struck out 22% of the batters he faced. The year before that, he struck out 29.2%. And as I mentioned earlier, a lot of those strikeouts have come from whiffs (career 10.5% swinging-strike rate). Of Cotts’ 63 strikeouts in 2014, 44 of them came via the swing-and-miss.

I doubt Cotts will be used in high leverage situations, at least to start the season. The Brewers would much rather have Jeremy Jeffress and Smith fill those roles, but, with that being said, Cotts’ RE24 has been above average the last two years, most notably in 2013 when he posted a 17.65 RE24 (12th in MLB). That means he can fill in for whatever situation, whether it be high or low leverage, and still get the job done.

Cotts fits nicely in the Brewers’ bullpen. Not only did Milwaukee sign a cheap pitcher, they signed an effective one. . As long as the strikeouts continue to be there, there’s no reason to think Cotts won’t be successful.

Before I let you go, here is what I’m projecting from Cotts in 2015:

Position Name ERA FIP xFIP SIERA HR K% BB% GB% WAR
RP Neal Cotts 4.10 3.31 4.02 3.66 4 23.0% 8.0% 39.3% 0.3
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