Brewers Rotation: Dishing Out Love To Estrada, Again

The Brewers’ starting rotation got much more interesting last week, as they inked right-hander Matt Garza to a four-year deal with a vesting option. He and Kyle Lohse should headline a rotation that could surprise some people who wrote them off after posting a 4.13 ERA and 4.23 FIP in the first half last year.

In the second half, the Brewers’ rotation collectively turned a corner. Their 3.42 ERA was better than the Cardinals and Athletics in the latter half of the season, and it hints at what could be brewing in Milwaukee if the majority of breaks go the Brewers’ way. Marco Estrada was a beast down the stretch, Wily Peralta displayed signs of putting it together, and Yovani Gallardo finally tightened the tourniquet and stopped the bleeding.

Adding Matt Garza to the mix gives the Brewers five solid starters with a pair of intriguing arms waiting in the wings with Tyler Thornburg and Jimmy Nelson. It’s not a top-heavy rotation that will awe opposing teams, but it’s a rotation that could pair a couple number-two starters with three mid-rotation guys. Of course, that’s banking on no severe regression from anyone, but the organization has quietly assembled a starting rotation that projects to be at least league average.

But let’s look at the fantasy value because the name brands may not be where the value truly lies.

The Brewers will likely trot out Kyle Lohse on opening day, representing the first pitcher not named Yovani Gallardo to take the ball on game number one since Jeff Suppan presumably bribed the organization in 2009. There’s a chance Garza or Gallardo pitches on opening day, but Kyle Lohse should receive the honor. He’s the best pitcher on the staff.

Since the 2011 season, Lohse owns the 17th-best earned run average in Major League Baseball. His 3.19 ERA ranks better than Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke and Mat Latos, and he proved he could sustain his recent success in a non-pitchers’ park. It was significant that his swinging-strike rate remained above the seven-percent mark. He won’t amass many strikeouts, but the 35-year-old starter still needs to miss bats to keep guys off his hittable fastball.

Two seasons ago, Lohse featured a wonderful changeup that induced whiffs 18.1% of the time. That number lessened in 2013, but he compensated by foregoing his fastball for more offspeed pitches in general. He leaned on his slider, curveball and changeup more than ever. That was predicated on him getting ahead in the count (65.9% F-Strike%), which has been paramount for him the past three seasons.

Unfortunately, his wonderful run prevention hasn’t resulted in elite fantasy production because he doesn’t strikeout enough batters. In fact, of the qualified pitchers with the top-50 ERAs, only Bartolo Colon owned a lower strikeout rate. That’s the main reason why Kyle Lohse only checked in at 47th in Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings. He’ll provide above-average ERA and WHIP, but you’ll be forced to sacrifice the ever-important strikeouts category.

I see no reason Lohse will be anything more than a fringe top-50 starter unless he delivers a truly dominant run prevention year or his strikeouts inexplicably explode. Since neither of those are likely, though, expect more of the same: useful, but nothing to write home about.

The Brewers’ shiniest new toy in the rotation is Matt Garza. I’m entering draft day with tempered expectations, however, because Miller Park isn’t likely to do the right-hander any favors. Check out Garza’s earned run average and home-run rate per season the last few years:

Year HR/9 ERA
2009 1.11 3.95
2010 1.23 3.91
2011 0.64 3.32
2012 1.30 3.91
2013 1.16 3.82

Essentially, when Garza compiles a home-run rate over 1.00 HR/9, his ERA has consistently been 3.80-3.95, which is precisely league-average in the National League. His best season came in 2011, when his home-run rate was well below his career norm. And as he moves to Miller Park, I’m not about to push in my chips and bet Garza beats his career-average home-run rate, which is 1.03 HR/9. Add in the standard injury concerns, and the 30-year-old doesn’t seem very attractive in most fantasy formats. The strikeouts should carry his value higher than Lohse’s. I’m just convinced his ADP this spring will be too rich for my blood, considering my worries.

Continuing down the rotation, I’ve already written on Yovani Gallardo this winter. My opinion hasn’t changed:

Yovani Gallardo may have found more success in the second half last season, but his red flags are only becoming a deeper shade of red and being run further up the flag pole. If his curveball continues to decrease in effectiveness, his strikeout rate will not rebound. And considering he’s always walked his fair share of batters and doesn’t offer much in the WHIP category, he needs the strikeouts and ERA to be an above-average fantasy starter.

I’m not confident to project the strikeouts return at this point. Yovani Gallardo is someone I will be wholly avoiding on draft day. Other owners may see a bounce-back candidate. However, I see nothing but red flags. Not to mention the concern about a possible arm injury perpetually exists as his velocity continues to drop. Too many negatives exist for me to invest on draft day. I suggest you follow the same advice.

I like bounce-back guys on draft day as much as the next guy. With Yovani Gallardo, though, that’s just not a game I’m willing to play this year.

On the flip side, I’m very comfortable driving the bandwagon for Marco Estrada. I championed his cause last winter and was punished with a brutal first half, but after returning from injury, the right-hander strutted his stuff and shoved throughout the second half.

The sparkling 2.15 ERA grabs most of the attention, but it is important to recognize he benefited from an ungodly .199 BABIP. Before writing that off, however, the underlying skills must be highlighted. His 11.8% swinging-strike rate was seventh-best in Major League Baseball during the second half — higher than Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer. His 5.09 K/BB was sixth-best in the league. He was nasty across the board. He can be a good source of strikeouts and WHIP. The key will be whether he can corral the home-run rate enough to limit his runs allowed.

In the first half, Estrada imploded and threw up a home-run rate of 1.82 HR/9. No qualified starter even approached that mark on the season. Home runs will always be an issue for Estrada — a problem that’s occasionally exacerbated by pitching in Miller Park — but it was unreasonable to expect that number to sustain itself throughout an entire season. And it didn’t. The home runs cut back significantly in the second half. He dominated.

If the home runs can scale back to 1.00-1.15 HR/9 like his previous two seasons, he’s a good bet to offer a mid-3.00s ERA with good strikeouts and a good WHIP. I’m on board, especially since he already had a higher fantasy ranking than Garza last year, and that was with the disastrous first half.

Wily Peralta projects to round out the rotation for the Brewers. It’s easy to glance at his numbers and see a low-strikeout, high-grounder pitcher, which is uninspiring for fantasy owners. That ignores his second half, where he became much more intriguing considering his 3.99 ERA and improved strikeout rate.

Month K/9
Mar/Apr 4.71
May 6.11
June 4.33
July 7.82
Aug 6.67
Sept/Oct 8.75

The big right-hander started to be much more effective with his slider in the second half. He dialed back the velocity on his breaking ball in an effort to throw more strikes, and it appears to have paid off. If he can build upon his effective second half, he’s not only an attractive fifth-starter option for the Brewers, he’s a sneaky addition in the late rounds of fantasy drafts. Of course, if he struggles with his control once again and cannot miss bats, he’s not ownable. Not a bad flyer in deep leagues, though.

The Brewers also have Tyler Thornburg, who impressed in his late-season audition, but the Garza addition should move him to the bullpen. He should find success in that role. He possesses three legitimate pitches — fastball, changeup, curveball — and can miss bats when he commands his fastball well enough to get to his offspeed stuff. In the bullpen, his velocity should play up, too.

Overall, the Brewers’ starting rotation is interesting. I adore Marco Estrada this season and see value elsewhere, despite no elite fantasy options. It’s not a rotation on which you should focus early in drafts, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Play your cards right, and you could grab solid value. And really, that’s the name of the game.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

6 Responses to “Brewers Rotation: Dishing Out Love To Estrada, Again”

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  1. yosoyfiesta says:

    Estrada, what a let down

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    • J.P. Breen says:

      Unless you picked him up for the stretch run. In that scenario, he was a godsend.

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      • yosoyfiesta says:

        All the stuff is there, good article by the way, and I really liked him going into last season following 2012. He was money down the stretch, but I bought on him to start the season, and he was pretty rough to own in the first half, so he’s on the all jilted squad.

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  2. Steve says:

    Thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness I rode Jimenez, Tyson Ross and Estrada to the title.

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  3. srpst23 says:

    Unless I’m reading your table on Garza’s HR/9 wrong, his best year was 2011 not 2009. And his corresponding ERA was also the lowest in 2011.

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