Lots of people spent the off-season lamenting the move, especially since Lawrie exploded onto the big league scene last season with a .293/.373/.580 line in his first 43 games and Marcum imploded during the postseason with an unsightly 14.90 ERA in three playoff starts. That regret has seeped into the regular season. Lawrie has avoided a sophomore slump thus far — despite a significant decrease in power production — and is hitting .281/.311/.386. Brewers fans are left to wonder what could have been, as they watch their $36 million man, Aramis Ramirez, struggle at the plate with a .151/.220/.245 line to begin the season.
While Lawrie would certainly look good in a Brewers uniform for the next six seasons, Marcum’s overall production has largely been overlooked. Despite his postseason struggles, he compiled a 3.54 ERA for the Brew Crew in 2011 and held the starting rotation together last April when Yovani Gallardo struggled and Zack Greinke was on the disabled list. Not only that, but the Brewers wouldn’t have been able to nab Greinke last December without Marcum’s transaction preceding it. Greinke turned down a deal to Washington that would have included a $100 million contract extension because he wanted to play for a winner. Marcum’s acquisition symbolized the chance to win in Milwaukee — or at least a strong desire to win now from the organization — which is why Greinke approved a move to Milwaukee.
Fast forward to this season, and we find Marcum cruising along with a 3.79 ERA. Although that level of production is no longer above average in this new, decreased run environment, the 30-year-old has shown signs that he will continue to churn out quality starts this year and anchor the middle of the Brewers’ starting rotation.
For example, the right-hander owns a 15.4% swinging strike rate thus far in 2012. The league average for starting pitchers is only 8.4%. In fact, Marcum has compiled the best swinging-strike rate among starting pitchers this season:
He has also enticed myriad swings outside the strike zone, as he has gotten opposing hitters to swing at 38.8% of his pitches that are outside the zone. Again, that vastly outperforms the league average from starting pitchers, which is only 28.9% through the first two-and-a-half weeks in 2012.
Those impressive numbers come on the strength of his offspeed pitches.
The changeup has always been Marcum’s best pitch. It handcuffs left-handed hitters and keeps them from sitting on his fringe-average fastball. Opposing lefties don’t have to guess at how Marcum will use his changeup. He has been relatively consistent with the low-and-away treatment to lefties. As illustrated in the following graphic, we can clearly see that Marcum has not deviated from that plan: His changeups to lefties are almost always low-and-away.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the above heat map is the fact that Marcum has not missed middle-in to a lefty with a changeup all season. That location has helped Marcum generate a bunch of swings-and-misses with his changeup. Harry Pavlidis, of The Hardball Times, put together some research on whiff rates on various pitches. Using that data, we can determine that the league-average swinging strike rate for changeups is 15.1%. Through three games in 2012, Marcum has 14 whiffs on 63 changeups, which calculates to an impressive 22% swinging strike rate. That’s a legitimate plus-pitch.
Marcum has also featured a slider much more frequently this season than in previous years. Last season, the right-hander only threw 10.9% sliders. That number has jumped to 22.2% in 2012. It is not difficult to see why Marcum has begun throwing his slider so often, either, as it has been extremely difficult for batters — particularly right-handers — to handle.
Once again, we find that Marcum has been remarkably consistent with the location of his sliders against right-handed batters. He has missed a couple of times this year, but he has largely been planting his sliders low-and-away with regularity. That has been a large reason why righties are hitting only .205 this season against him.
It should also be noted that Marcum’s slider is very similar to his cutter. He plays with the velocity a bit — and can get a bit more downward movement on his slider — but the two can be interchangeable pitches at times. Again employing the data that Pavlidis compiled, we can determine that opposing batters swing and miss at sliders and cutters 13.6% of the time. Marcum has generated 24 swings-and-misses this season on 125 sliders and cutters. That equates to an impressive 19.2% swinging-strike rate. Again, that’s well above average.
The Achilles’ heel for Marcum has been the home-run ball. He is a flyball pitcher and he has already given up three home runs this year. That will ultimately limit his chances of becoming an elite pitcher in the major leagues, though his 4.25 K/BB ratio and well-above-average offspeed pitches will allow him to remain effective on the mound. The Brewers need him to produce, too, because left-hander Chris Narveson just landed on the 15-day disabled list with a torn rotator cuff and could be lost for the season.
Shaun Marcum averages only 87 mph with his fastball, yet he has a career 7.25 K/9. He does so on the strength of an advanced feel for pitching and his quality offspeed pitches. In previous seasons, he relied on a plus-changeup to do most of the heavy lifting. This season, though, he has employed a devastating slider-cutter mix that has helped him compile the league’s best swinging-strike rate for a starting pitcher.
It’s difficult to assume that Marcum will continue to whiff opposing batters at this rate throughout the remainder of the season. After all, the highest SwStr% from a starting pitcher in 2011 (min. 100 IP) was only 11.8%. If he can continue to locate his offspeed stuff, however, he still should still find success through a combination of swings-and-misses and weak contact. The real question lies in whether or not Shaun Marcum can limit his home runs. If the home runs become rare and the offspeed offerings continue to be placed on (or just off) the corners, Brewers fans may not ultimately feel so sour about losing Brett Lawrie to Toronto.