Attempting to use Eric Lauer’s success against the Dodgers to build a better pitcher

When the Milwaukee Brewers acquired Eric Lauer from the San Diego Padres in November, the instant reaction from almost everyone — particularly Brewers fans — was a shoulder shrug. The prize of that trade for Milwaukee was Luis Urias — a former top prospect with enormous upside. And it was Urias who was talked about the most, and it was Urias who made giving up Trent Grisham and Zach Davies easier to swallow. Lauer was considered by many as a throw-in in a deal that centered around other players. And that makes sense. Lauer has a career 4.40 ERA with a low-velocity fastball. There’s nothing flashy or eye-opening about that, especially compared to a player in Urias who MLB.com ranked as the 16th-best prospect in baseball in 2019.

But I see potential in Lauer, and the potential spawns from his continuous dominance against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Is there a reason why he looks like an ace when he faces the Dodgers? Does he do something different? Let’s investigate.

First, we need to look at just how successful Lauer has been against the Dodgers relative to other teams. Here is how Lauer has performed against opponents in his former division, the National League West.

Opponent IP ERA
Dodgers 42.2 2.11
Diamondbacks 39.0 2.77
Giants 35.1 4.08
Rockies 26.0 9.35

Lauer has thrown 42.2 innings against the Dodgers in his career, the most out of any other opponent. Over those 42.2 innings, he has a 2.11 ERA with 43 strikeouts. Need further proof that he owns the Dodgers?

Opponent AVG OBP SLG OPS
Dodgers .199 .254 .354 .608
Diamondbacks .263 .333 .388 .721
Giants .259 .306 .400 .706
Rockies .370 .347 .563 1.000
Career as a starter .275 .342 .435 .777

The Dodgers must be over-the-moon happy that Lauer makes his living in a different division now. Maybe they’ll finally win a World Series. I joke with all seriousness. But the question remains; does Lauer do something different when he faces the Dodgers? Does he switch his pitch sequences? Does he attack a different zone? Or is it as simple as Lauer’s a left-hander and the Dodgers’ lineup is made up of mostly left-handed hitters?

The lefty against lefty argument actually doesn’t hold any weight in this case. Lauer has surprisingly been worse against left-handed hitters than righties in his career, and it hasn’t been particularly close. Lauer has allowed a .377 wOBA against left-handers versus a .318 wOBA against right-handers. So we can reasonably move on from that line of thought.

Let’s get into his pitch mixes.

According to Baseball Savant, Lauer throws five pitches but really relies on four. His arsenal includes a four-seam fastball, a cutter, a curveball, a slider and a changeup.

His breakdown of pitch usage is as follows:

Pitch Pitch %
Four-seam 53.1%
Cutter 21.4%
Curve 13.8%
Slider 8.0%
Changeup 3.6%

Lauer’s four-seamer and cutter make up most of his repertoire, as he launches those pitches around 75 percent of the time. Lauer has allowed a .332 wOBA against his four-seam fastball and a .360 wOBA against his cutter, which are not friendly marks and broadly illustrates why Lauer’s career ERA sits at 4.40.

So now that we know his pitch repertoire and usage, we can look at his splits against the Dodgers and see if there’s a difference. There just has to be a reason Lauer looks like Nolan Ryan when facing Los Angeles. I broke down every one of Lauer’s starts against the Dodgers by pitch type, and then lumped them all together in the end to compare them against his career.

May 6, 2018

In Lauer’s third career start, he began his dominance over the Dodgers. He went six innings and allowed no runs on seven hits. He walked one and struck out five. Unfortunately, it appears Baseball Savant doesn’t have his pitch types for this game, so we’re going to have to exclude this outing from the data. And that’s too bad because Lauer was brilliant.

July 10, 2018

Lauer pitched maybe the greatest game of his young career during this outing, as he finished one out away from a complete-game shutout. Max Muncy hit a solo home run with two outs in the ninth inning to spoil Lauer’s outing and end his night. In total, Lauer pitched 8.2 innings of four-hit ball, with one run allowed and eight strikeouts. That’s close to a masterpiece. Here are his pitch breakdowns:

Pitch Pitch %
Four-seam 53.0%
Cutter 22.6%
Curve 12.2%
Slider 12.2%
Changeup 0.0%

There’s nothing that jumps out to you when you compare his pitch usage to his career norms, though he did rely on his slider more often than usual and didn’t throw a single changeup.

September 21, 2018

Lauer went five innings in this September start against the Dodgers, limiting Los Angeles to one run on four hits. He struck out five and walked one. Yet another solid performance from the rookie pitcher.

Pitch Pitch %
Four-seam 55.8%
Cutter 13.7%
Curve 15.8%
Slider 10.5%
Changeup 4.2%

In this outing, Lauer reduced his cutter usage dramatically from his previous start against the Dodgers. He also cut down on his cutter and mixed in a changeup here and there while relying on his four-seamer a bit more.

May 3, 2019

In his seventh start of 2019, Lauer once again limited Los Angeles’ potent offense. The lefty finished five innings of two-run ball with five strikeouts.

Pitch Pitch %
Four-seam 48.8%
Cutter 35.0%
Curve 13.0%
Slider 0.0%
Changeup 0.0%

This is drastically different than Lauer’s previous outings against the Dodgers, and it’s a bit shocking. He still threw his four-seam fastball the most, but it dropped under 50 percent, while he threw his cutter over a third of the time. Lauer also completely set aside his slider and changeup. He went with a different pitch mix and still saw positive results.

July 5, 2019

Lauer gave up one earned run in six innings. He allowed four hits and set down six via the strikeout.

Pitch Pitch %
Four-seam 49.5%
Cutter 14.7%
Curve 3.2%
Slider 29.5%
Changeup 3.2%

After completely throwing away his slider in his May start against Los Angeles, Lauer brought it back with a vengeance. For the first time, he threw it more than his cutter. This makes one thing certain; Lauer has done a good job of changing things up in order to keep the Dodgers guessing.

August 2, 2019

Less than a month later, Lauer faced the Dodgers again and Los Angeles still couldn’t figure him out. Lauer pitched six innings of two-run ball with six strikeouts.

Pitch Pitch %
Four-seam 65.5%
Cutter 10.3%
Curve 3.4%
Slider 16.1%
Changeup 4.6%

For the second-straight start against the Dodgers, Lauer used his slider more than his cutter. His four-seam fastball, however, was his go-to pitch even more of than usual, as 57 of his 87 pitches fell into that category.

August 26, 2019

In his final start against the Dodgers, Lauer struck out eight batters over six innings while allowing three earned runs. Not a bad way to end a season against his favorite opponent.

Pitch Pitch %
Four-seam 55.0%
Cutter 18.3%
Curve 7.3%
Slider 22.9%
Changeup 0.9%

Although his cutter usage surged a little, Lauer continued his slider-over-cutter trend for the third consecutive outing. His eight strikeouts matched a career high against Los Angeles.

Now that we’ve broken down each of Lauer’s starts against the Dodgers, it’s time to compare that to his career as a whole. Hopefully, we’ll be able to figure out why he’s had so much success against the Dodgers while being basically a league-average pitcher against the rest of the league. And if we can’t, well, this was a fun exercise anyway.

Pitch Pitch % against the Dodgers Career Pitch %
Four-seam 53.7% 53.1%
Cutter 18.9% 21.4%
Curve 9.6% 13.8%
Slider 15.7% 8.0%
Changeup 2.1% 3.6%

The biggest difference seems to be Lauer’s slider usage. Lauer has thrown his slider nearly eight percent more often against the Dodgers than he does against the rest of the league. Could that be the thing keeping him from being a front-of-the-rotation type arm? Maybe. But maybe not. Lauer has allowed an unbelievable  .177 wOBA when throwing his slider to the Dodgers, but a .313 wOBA against it for his career. The latter ranks 182 of 218 qualified pitchers. So while his slider is dominant against the Dodgers, it’s largely ineffective against most other teams. And if we break it down even more, it makes sense. The Dodgers have the fourth-worst wOBA against the slider since 2018 (when Lauer began his career). Their .286 wOBA is only better than the Pirates, Red Sox and Astros during that time.

The last thing I want to look at is Lauer’s pitch locations. The heat map on the left is Lauer’s pitch locations against every team he’s faced. The heat map on the right is his pitch locations against the Dodgers.

Lauer has been able to locate his pitches better against the Dodgers than he has against the rest of the league. When facing the Dodgers, Lauer has been able to stay out of the middle of the zone more often and has hit the bottom corner on a relatively consistent basis. Placing a cutter and/or a slider on the bottom corner edge as he does against the Dodgers is borderline unhittable. There’s no doubt that location has played a significant part in Lauer’s success and failure, but I don’t necessarily think it explains his complete and utter ownership of the Dodgers’ franchise.

I don’t know if we solved anything here, but it was still a fun attempt. In 2020 as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers,  I would like to see Lauer continuously change his usage between his cutter and slider in drastic and noticeable ways, while maybe being less reliant on his four-seam fastball. Lauer has said in the past that his slider is a constant work in progress, so maybe with more time to hone it, his slider can be just as devastating to the rest of Major League Baseball as it is to the Dodgers.

1 thought on “Attempting to use Eric Lauer’s success against the Dodgers to build a better pitcher

  1. Ben Reagan

    Is it possible that the pitch identification varies? The curve, slider, and cutter are all similar pitches. The total of the three comes withing 1% of his career totals. Even if it is mostly correct, it could be that he goes with whatever “feels” more effective that day. And different catchers might call games differently. But the basic premise that Lauer needs to mix things up is the best point. Soft tossers have thrived in Milwaukee. Which is a good thing, considering that they are usually cheaper and can give a drastic change for hitters if there are enough power arms in the pen.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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