Tag Archives: Eric Lauer

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.

Breaking down the offseason acquisitions of the Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers have been busy.

The Brewers — in need of a roster rebuild after a plethora of free agents and non-tendered players moved on — have signed six free agents to major-league contracts (three to minor-league deals), made three (two significant) trades and claimed two players off waivers so far this offseason. And there’s still plenty of time for more moves to happen.

However, as per usual, Milwaukee Brewers fans are complaining that general manager David Stearns hasn’t done enough to improve the team. The free agents they’ve signed aren’t the type to make the team a playoff contender, they say.  Fans, by nature, are unhappy and restless and want fast results. But the moves Stearns has made so far are his typical under-the-radar deals that could pay off in a huge way in the end.

The Brewers non-tendered a couple of interesting, bounce-back candidate players (I’ll never get over letting Travis Shaw walk), freeing up a considerable amount of money. As the roster stands now, FanGraphs projects the Brewers to carry a payroll of $107 million. The team’s payroll was around $134 million in 2019, meaning the Brewers have the capacity to spend more and sign/trade players while taking on more money. Whether they do that remains to be seen, but I’ve learned not to doubt Stearns’ operation. You shouldn’t either.

So let’s go in order by time of acquisition and learn about the new players who will soon be donning the new and improved Milwaukee Brewers uniform.

INF Luis Urias

On November 27, the Brewers traded Zach Davies and Trent Grisham to San Diego for Luis Urias and Eric Lauer, the former being the main prize for Milwaukee.

Urias has long been a top prospect in the Padres’ farm system. In 2018, the shortstop slashed .296/.398/.447 in Triple-A and followed that up with a .315/.398/.600 line in 2019 for his Triple-A squad. He has superior bat-to-ball skills, though his short time in the major leagues has been a disappointment. Over 302 plate appearances, the 22 year old owns a 79 wRC+ with a meager .318 on-base percentage. Luckily for the Brewers, those 302 plate appearances qualify as a small-sample size, and that, coupled with his young age, really doesn’t mean much. He’s proven he can hit at a high level in the high minors, and at the very least, he’s an immediate upgrade over Orlando Arcia — who was the worst hitter in baseball last year. Urias will likely spend most of his time at shortstop, though Stearns has said he is more than capable of handling third base, which is still a hole the Brewers should work on filling.

Urias and Keston Hiura have the opportunity to spearhead Milwaukee’s infield for years to come, and if Urias turns out to be the hitter he was in the minors with just a little more power, he could ultimately become a star.

LHP Eric Lauer

By trading away starting pitcher Zach Davies and Chase Anderson — reliable, consistent hurlers if nothing else — Milwaukee’s already thin rotation became even more of a weak point. And that’s why getting Eric Lauer in the Padres deal was significant. Urias was the big get in the in the trade with San Diego, but Lauer should be considered more than just a throw-in, especially considering he’s slotted to be in the starting rotation.

Lauer is just 24 years of age with 261 innings under his belt. The southpaw has a career 4.40 ERA and 4.35 FIP and has made more than 20 starts in each of his two seasons. In his second year, Lauer raised his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate while forcing more ground balls. Home runs were an issue, however, as he gave up too many, and the move to Miller Park won’t be any more friendly to him. Strikeouts and keeping the ball on the ground will be crucial to his success in 2020.

Lauer and Davies are similar in many ways, so replacing one for the other doesn’t really hurt or help the Brewers rotation in any immediate way. But it could turn out to be a solid, long-term investment; Lauer is under team control until 2024, while Davies will become a free agent after the 2021 season.

C Omar Narvaez

The Brewers needed a catcher and the Mariners were selling one. Acquiring Omar Narvaez for minor-leaguer Adam Hill and a Competitive Balance draft pick was a no-brainer for Milwaukee and a bit of a head-scratcher for Seattle.

Narvaez will be tasked with replacing Yasmani Grandal‘s 2019 production, and while that may seem like a big leap, the two have very similar offensive skill sets. Here is how they’ve fared over the past two seasons:

Narvaez: .346 wOBA, 120 wRC+

Grandal: .356 wOBA, 123 wRC+

Narvaez should be able to replicate Grandal’s production with the bat, but his defensive skills are lacking. He’s been graded as one of the worst pitch framers in the game and struggles throwing out runners, but the Brewers are confident they can turn him into at least an average defensive catcher. But this is why having Manny Pina — who will likely see much more playing time in 2020 — as a backup is important.

The former Mariners catcher is just 27 years old and isn’t eligible for free agency until 2022. He’s displayed high on-base capabilities in each of his four professional seasons, and last year he hit a career-high 22 home runs on his way to a 1.8 WAR season.  For how good of a hitter Narvaez has proven to be, he doesn’t hit the ball all that hard, which questions the sustainability of his above-average bat. His average exit velocity of 85.4 mph in 2019 ranked all the way down in the eighth percentile.

Orlando Arcia somehow hit the ball with more oompf than Narvaez last season. Yet, it’s Narvaez’s launch angle that has helped him find success. His launch angle ranked among the top 60, tying with the likes of Nolan Arenado and Eugenio Suarez, which allowed him to hit for power and find gaps. His lack of exit velocity is something to keep an eye on going forward, however, and it’ll be interesting to see if Narvaez can show the same home-run power in the friendly confines of Miller Park that he displayed in Seattle without hitting the ball with much authority.

RHP Josh Lindblom

Lindblom is an interesting player, and someone who, like Eric Thames, reinvented himself in Korea. Before making his way overseas, Lindblom was a struggling major-league pitcher. In 114 innings that only included six starts, Lindblom left Major League Baseball for Korea with a 4.10 ERA and 4.27 FIP. He was worth 0.4 WAR over that time period.

However, he found almost immediate success in the Korean Baseball Organization — the highest level of baseball in Korea. In 72 innings in 2017 as a starting pitcher, Lindblom posted a 3.79 ERA. The following year he finished with a 2.88 ERA and then a 2.50 ERA in 2019. He comes to America as the reigning MVP of the KBO League and a two-time winner of its Cy Young Award equivalent. In such short time, Lindblom went from an outcast to the most dominant pitcher in Korea, which is why the Brewers quickly pounced when Lindblom expressed interest in returning to the United States. The Brewers gave Lindblom a three-year, $9.125 million deal — that could eventually be worth $18 million with incentives — hoping he’ll be a fixture in their rotation for the next few seasons.

Lindblom doesn’t throw relatively hard — his fastball averages around 91 mph — but his spin rate on his four-seamer and sinker is up there with top major league pitchers, a quality the Brewers were surely aware of and interested in. He’ll likely slot in Milwaukee’s rotation behind Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser.

The Brewers found success when Thames returned from Korea, and they’re hoping for similar results with Lindblom, who will be a fascinating case study in 2020.

LHP Brett Anderson

The Brewers signed Anderson to a one-year, $5 million deal to be the team’s fourth or fifth starter. I like to call him the Alex Claudio of starting pitchers.

2019 K% GB% WHIP
Brett Anderson 12.1% 54.5% 1.31
Alex Claudio 16.5% 57.4% 1.31

They both make their living without striking out hitters. In fact, Anderson’s 12.1% strikeout rate was the lowest among qualified starters in 2019, while Claudio was the owner of the seventh-lowest rate among qualified relievers. Though to make up for their lack of punch outs, they force ground balls more often than not, which is undoubtedly why Stearns was drawn to Anderson. Any pitcher who can keep the ball on the ground in Miller Park has a decent shot at success.

Other than his ground-ball rate, though, there’s nothing really exciting about Anderson. He’s thrown over 100 innings just once since 2015, and that was this most recent season. The 31-year-old has dealt with injuries throughout his career and can’t be expected to remain healthy through all of 2020.

The Brewers plan on using him as a starter, but I think he could end up being more useful in the bullpen. Yes, $5 million is a lot to pay for a middling reliever, but he could fill a Chase Anderson-type role and could ultimately be an effective ground-ball pitcher out of the bullpen. With the way the Brewers use their pitchers, don’t be surprised if Anderson is deployed in multiple ways.

OF Avisail Garcia

Maybe the most surprising move by the Brewers this offseason, the team agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal with Avisail Garcia. Critics questioned the move because an outfielder didn’t seem like it should be on top of Milwaukee’s wish list, but Stearns goes after good players, and doesn’t let their position dictate his interest. And Garcia is just that; a good player. He is an outfielder capable of playing all three positions, a hitter with strong Statcast marks and a runner with top-flight speed.

Garcia is coming off a season in which he hit a career-high 20 home runs, and posted a 1.8 WAR and a 112 wRC+ in his first and only year with the Tampa Bay Rays. The 28-year-old is just two years removed from a 4.2 WAR and 138 wRC+ season with the White Sox, during which he slashed .330/.380/.506.

Garcia will see a lot of time in the outfield when Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun need days off, or in Braun’s case, when he plays first base. It’s clear that Garcia is an upgrade over Ben Gamel and could even be better than Cain if Cain repeats his abysmal 2019 campaign. Expect Garcia to set a career high in home runs (granted he sees enough at-bats) and be an exciting patroller of the outfield.

INF Ryon Healy

As the roster is currently constructed, Ryon Healy and Eric Sogard will platoon as the team’s third basemen, and before you freak out and jump off a building, it’s reasonable to expect that situation to change before Opening Day on March 26. The Brewers signed Healy to a one-year deal after he was non-tendered by the Athletics. The 27-year-old infielder was limited to 47 games in 2019, as he spent most of the season dealing with a hip injury. He had hip surgery in August but should be ready for Opening Day or shortly thereafter.

Healy is known for his power and not much else. He has 69 career home runs in 401 games and  owns a career 102 wRC+. He doesn’t get on base and his defense is atrocious, and yet, I liked this move by the Brewers. Healy hits home runs and is someone with three minor-league options remaining, which gives the Brewers flexibility with how they use him. This is a no-risk move that could turn out to be great if Healy can be a league-average hitter. And like I said before, it’s likely he won’t be an everyday player, but he’ll have an opportunity to be a very useful bench bat.

INF Eric Sogard

Guess who’s back, back again? Eric Sogard — aka Nerd Power — makes his return to the Brewers after being one of the worst players in Brewers franchise history in 2018. Think I’m over exaggerating? In the team’s history, there have only been four players (minimum 100 plate appearances) who have recorded a worse wRC+ than Sogard’s mark in 2018.

Name Year wRC+
Marty Pattin 1971 -27
John Vukovich 1973 4
Alex Gonzalez 2013 11
Lenn Sakata 1977 13
Eric Sogard 2018 14

Yeah. Sogard was historically bad that year. But he proved enough in 2017 (1.1 WAR, .393 OBP and 109 wRC+) and 2019 (2.6 WAR, .353 OBP and 115 wRC+) to earn a $4.5 million contract from the Brewers. Why they couldn’t afford to pay that to Travis Shaw is beyond me, and I’ll take my hatred of that decision to my grave.

As of now, Sogard will play third base, though his lack of power makes that an odd fit. Usually the hot corner is considered a power-bat position. He is, however, capable of playing multiple positions, and the Brewers crave versatility, so this could end up being a nice signing. Sogard will have to hit like he did last year, though, to justify his $4.5 million contract.

1B Justin Smoak

The Brewers inked 33-year-old Justin Smoak to a one-year, $5 million deal with a 2021 club option to become the team’s primary first baseman. This is my favorite move the Brewers have made this offseason, and it paints a pretty clear picture as to why the Brewers declined Eric Thames’ $7.5 million club option, a move I found puzzling at the time.

Smoak is coming off a down season that was injury-riddled. He posted a 101 wRC+ and hit 22 home runs, both of which were considerably lower than his previous two seasons. He did, onm on the positive side, manage a career-high 15.8% walk rate, which was the seventh-highest mark in baseball. That’s why his .342 on-base percentage was so much more impressive than his .208 batting average. It’s a good thing we don’t care about batting average, right?

Smoak is a switch-hitter with most of his power coming from the left side, making Miller Park the perfect place for him to hit. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he bombed 30+ home runs in 2020. He’ll likely platoon at least a little with Braun, but Smoak should take the majority of reps at first base. He has equal if not more power than Thames and has a much better eye at the plate and fewer holes in his swing, and he comes on the cheap side. Smoak could easily be a 120 wRC+ hitter for the Brewers, making an already potent offense even more explosive.

Here’s a fun fact about Smoak: Since 2010 (Smoak’s first year in the league), he has 35 home runs in the ninth inning. That’s the most in Major League Baseball. Get ready for some walk-off dingers at Miller Park.

*****

The Brewers haven’t nabbed a front-line starter or a top-tier hitter so far this offseason, but they’ve nicely rebuilt a team that saw so many valuable players leave. Replacing Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas and Drew Pomeranz isn’t an easy task, but Stearns has worked his magic and found relatively cheap players who could put up similar production.

The team still has room in its budget to make more improvements. And hey, Josh Donaldson is still out there. Just saying.