Where Have the Brewers' Lefties Gone?
Unless you’re a passionate follower of the Milwaukee Brewers or a member of Brent Suter’s immediate family, odds are you won’t recall the significance of the Brewers’ game against the Mariners on August 19 of last season. That game, a 7-6 loss, was Suter’s MLB debut. It was also the first time the Brewers had used a left-handed starting pitcher since Tom Gorzelanny took the mound on Aug. 28, 2013. In between, 474 consecutive games had seen a righty take the mound in the opponent’s half of the first inning.
Five lefty pitchers worked in at least one game for the 2016 Brewers, but Suter is the only one back with the organization for 2017. All told, the Brewers’ combined 65 games pitched by lefties in 2016 was the second lowest total in franchise history (trailing only 2004) and the lowest in Major League Baseball since 2010. Even the Brewers’ strike-shortened seasons of 1981 and 1994 saw more southpaws than last season.
Somehow, however, it’s possible the Brewers will employ a lefty pitcher even less often this year. They have 33 pitchers in camp this spring, but just five are lefties and none are a lock to make the Opening Day roster:
A former National, Athletic and Twin, Milone might have had a better chance to make the Brewers a year ago than he does today. He’s trying to rebound from a disastrous 2016 season where a penchant for allowing home runs caused him to post a 5.71 ERA in just 69 1/3 innings for Minnesota, easily the worst mark of any full season in his six years at the MLB level.
Milone is presumably going to receive an opportunity to compete for a spot in the Brewers’ starting rotation, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts out behind at least five or six Brewers in that race. If he can’t crack the roster as a starter, it wouldn’t make much sense to keep him around to pitch to lefties out of the bullpen: Over 670 career plate appearances, same-handed batters have hit .263 with a .318 slugging percentage and .425 slugging against him, only a few points worse than righties (.273/.315/.441).
Of all the lefties in camp Hader is the most likely to have a memorable Brewers career, but it’s not likely to start in April. Hader is still only 22 but dominated the AA Southern League for 11 starts in 2016, earning a promotion to AAA Colorado Springs where he struggled at altitude. Even during his struggles Hader’s strikeout numbers remained impressive (11.5 strikeouts per nine innings). He’s also dominated lefties, allowing them to hit .150/.245/.220 in 117 plate appearances across two levels last year.
Given their wealth of rotation options, however, and the opportunity to delay Hader’s eventual free agency by pushing back the start of his MLB service time, it likely makes more sense for the Brewers to have him open the 2017 season back in Colorado Springs. If all goes well, we’ll likely see a long-awaited MLB debut later in the year.
The only incumbent lefty on the Brewers’ MLB roster might face an uphill challenge if he’s going to be in Milwaukee on Opening Day this year. Many fans have likely forgotten that Suter was pretty good as a reliever for the Brewers in 2016, pitching 12 1/3 scoreless innings in that role with ten strikeouts and one walk. Overall, his season numbers look much weaker due to his eight earned runs allowed over 9 1/3 innings as a starter.
Small sample success aside, however, it could be tough for Suter and his mid-80’s fastball to draw much notice in a bullpen that features a variety of quality options. And, like Milone, Suter is left-handed but doesn’t have the traditional lefty platoon split: In two of his last three seasons in the minors lefties have actually hit him harder than righties.
Barbosa, a Puerto Rican native, is 29 and has already pitched in the Diamondbacks, Braves, Mets and now Brewers organizations in addition to a stint with the independent Long Island Ducks in 2015. He had a very interesting 2016 season, posting a 1.51 ERA in 71 2/3 innings across four minor league levels for the Mets, then followed it with a solid winter campaign in Puerto Rico. He’s in camp as a non-roster invitee.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Junior Guerra had a similar resume when the Brewers picked him up off of the scrap heap a year ago and his acquisition continues to pay dividends. Most minor league journeymen at this point in their careers, however, don’t even have a fraction of Guerra’s success ahead of them.
Sometimes top prospects don’t follow the expected path. Oliver was a second round pick for the Tigers in 2009, made his professional regular season debut at the AA level in 2010 and earned a September callup to the majors that same year. Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him among the game’s top 100 prospects for the 2011 season.
Oliver made two more MLB appearances with the 2011 Tigers but hasn’t pitched at that level since. In the meantime he’s been traded, selected in the Rule 5 Draft, released and allowed to leave an organization as a minor league free agent. He’s in camp with the Brewers as a non-roster invitee coming off a relatively solid season at the AAA level, posting a 3.43 ERA in 86 2/3 innings for Norfolk in the Orioles organization. His control has been his primary weakness over the years, but he was able to lower his walk rate from 6.3 per nine innings in 2015 to 3.7 in 2016.
Oliver is still only 29, so there’s still time for him to make an impact if he can put it together. He’s probably a long shot, however, to unseat more established candidates for a spot in the Brewers’ bullpen.
At the end of the day, it’s tough to tell if any of this matters: In 2016 baseball’s bottom three teams in usage of left-handed pitchers were the 73-89 Brewers, the 94-67 and eventual American League Champion Indians and the 84-78 Astros. At the other end of the spectrum, the 91-71 Dodgers used lefties more often than any other team, followed by two sub-.500 clubs (the Pirates and Padres). With that said, if you’re a believer in the value of left-handed pitching then you might be alarmed to discover that the Brewers don’t appear poised to employ it very often anytime soon.