MILWAUKEE — There’s a science to player development in baseball, and it isn’t always a perfect one. It also isn’t linear. However, when a team can pair a player's talent with a plan that fits him, even more potential can be unlocked.
Over the past five seasons, the Milwaukee Brewers have seemingly perfected the process that so many teams are forever searching when it comes to developing starting pitching. As a result, the Brewers are sending young arms to the major leagues, and their top prospects are getting high-leverage outs right away.
Homegrown starters might be the most valuable currency in baseball. Right now, the Brewers are reaping the rewards for their investments.
“The big thing that we take away is that it's harder to get big-league outs than it is to get Triple-A outs,” manager Craig Counsell said. “And so the feedback for the pitcher being in those situations and the learning curve is enhanced just trying to get outs in the big leagues."
While some teams promote young arms to the majors and immediately insert them in the starting rotation, other clubs let them get acclimated by pitching out of the bullpen. The Brewers chose the latter scenario, granting spot starts before giving an opportunity in the rotation.
If it was as easy as grooming pitchers in the bullpen and then placing them in a rotation, every team would do it. But the Brewers’ plan — combined with front office information, research and development and the implementing of all this work at the big-league level — has made them one of the best in baseball.
“This game is crazy where everyone has so many unique needs. It’s good to have a North Star to kind of help along the way,” pitching coach Chris Hook said. “(With) our front office, our R&D group and our analytics group, I think they have created a system for us. And it’s up to me and the rest of our pitching coaches to kind of get them there.”
The Brewers believe that time in the bullpen allows a young pitcher to settle into life in the majors. It also pushes one to succeed on the bigger stage, especially for a team that regularly contends for the postseason and plays meaningful games.
Longtime ace Brandon Woodruff was the first to go through the process when he debuted in 2017 and made eight starts late that season. In 2018, he was given a larger role, doing something he hadn’t done before: He had to get comfortable with the uncomfortable assignment of learning how to pitch out of the bullpen while being prepared for the occasional start.
“I didn't really quite realize what the plan was for that year,” Woodruff said. “There were definitely some growing pains. But I learned how to pitch and I think it was (due to) their way of kind of putting you in those situations, getting some big outs in important innings.”
The experience brought the best out of Woodruff, who even started Game 1 against the Colorado Rockies in the 2018 National League Division Series before becoming a regular fixture in the rotation in 2019. He quickly became the staff’s workhorse on his way to two All-Star Game appearances in 2019 and 2021.
“I think you learn how to attack (with this plan) because as a reliever, you’ve got to come in and throw strikes,” Woodruff said. “You can't be putting dudes on. You can't work around the zone. You got to come in and you got to attack. And I think that's a lesson that you can take right into starting.”
Woodruff’s success gave Milwaukee a pillar in its rotation, which then needed to be filled out. Enter Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes.
Unlike Woodruff, Peralta and Burnes had a slower time making the Brewers’ big-league adjustment. Both experienced struggles at first, and it took Burnes a little more time to figure things out. He was even demoted during the 2019 season.
“That was a tough year for me,” Burnes told Bally Sports. “I think a lot of us went through it. It's just one of the things that, at the end of the day, you got to do what's best for the team. It's not always what you want to do. But whatever you can do to help the team win."
“It takes a long time,” Counsell said. “It's a process to (developing pitching), and I think you find with pitchers it's more up and down. Not as gradual (as with hitters). It can be much more up and down.”
Peralta and Burnes were given the room to grow, and in 2020, they broke through. Peralta struck out 47 batters in 29 1/3 innings, and Burnes posted a 2.11 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 12 appearances, nine of them starts.
Last year, Peralta and Burnes continued their ascent, joining Woodruff on the NL All-Star team. It was the first time in franchise history that three starting pitchers were named to the midsummer classic.
Burnes’ mastery didn’t stop there. He finished the season with an 11-5 record and a majors-leading 2.43 ERA to win the NL Cy Young Award.
“It's a big jump from the Triple A to the big leagues, so I think it's just different for everyone,” Burnes said. “I don't think it's going to work for everyone. So far it's worked for us. It’s worked for (Aaron) Ashby. But the next three guys that come up, it may not work for them.
“Sometimes not knowing everything is good,” Burnes added. “You keep your head down and you keep getting after it.”
Even pitchers who didn’t start their professional careers in Milwaukee have taken advantage of the Brewers’ development plan. Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer were acquired in trades in 2015 and 2019, respectively, and both have benefited from the team’s pitching infrastructure.
“Coming up with the Astros, we did a tandem system where we were on a starter’s schedule, but you would have two starters on one day,” Houser said. “So one guy would start (and) then the next time around he would be the bullpen guy. So I had a little experience with that when I came over.
“There was a really good group of people here that helped me learn and make the adjustments and kind of just figure things out as we were going. And I feel like it was a pretty smooth transition.”
Houser got his shot to join the rotation last year and has taken full advantage of it, recording a 3.17 ERA over the past two seasons. Lauer, off to the best start of his career, arguably has been the Brewers’ best starting pitcher in 2022, sporting a 2.17 ERA and averaging 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings, both tops in the rotation.
“You have your North Star and every day, it's just like this really simple process,” Hook said. “You really work hard today on this particular part of your game and make it a little bit better. Just incremental things. And at the end of the year, you’re like, ‘Hey, that got a lot better.’
“Of course, everybody can look and say, ‘This guy just went from here to here.’ Well, there's a lot of work and a lot of pushing and nudging to get to that point.”
Ashby, the 24-year-old left-hander, is the next candidate to continue Milwaukee’s long line of solid starting pitchers. The Brewers’ 2019 Minor League Pitcher of the Year is the latest to pitch in dual roles, and with Peralta out with a shoulder injury, Ashby will likely see increased time in the rotation.
“With the guys we have up here, man, we're gonna be good,” Ashby said. “(Starting) is obviously what I want to do. But I think it's a little bit easier when you see these guys did the same thing.
“Those guys are all different, and it's proven to work. So it's just buying into that process of what this organization does, and it's been pretty easy.”
Woodruff, the elder statesman of the group at 29, knows the task isn’t easy. He and the rest of the group will serve as a sounding board for Ashby as he goes through “the same situation.”
“Either Ashby or whoever it is, can lean on us a little bit,” Woodruff said. “… We can go talk to him and give a little bit of advice because we've been through the same exact situations. We're here to offer that.”
Having a rotation full of homegrown arms under club control is a very big deal. And with the price of starting pitching in both the trade and free-agent markets always high, the Brewers can capitalize on their embarrassment of rotation riches by using resources to boost other parts of the roster to position themselves for a run at the playoffs and a World Series title.