Baseball

Eric Lauer’s Emergence Gives the Brewers October Options

For much of the 2021 season, the story of the Milwaukee Brewers has been the dominant pitching they’ve gotten from their three aces, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. Those three all have ERAs under 3.00 and have combined for 14.6 WAR. Since July 1, the Brewers have been on an absolute tear, going 41-23; the once competitive NL Central has turned into a blowout. The roll they’ve been on hasn’t come entirely from who you might expect, though. Look at their starting pitching since July 1:

Starting Pitching Since July 1

Player IP ERA FIP K-BB% WAR
Corbin Burnes 77.1 1.98 1.79 26.8% 3.3
Eric Lauer 54.2 1.98 2.87 14.5% 1.5
Brandon Woodruff 62.1 3.47 3.44 21.0% 1.3
Adrian Houser 49.2 1.99 3.59 5.4% 1.0
Freddy Peralta 40.0 3.83 3.61 19.1% 0.9

Please attempt to ignore the nonsense that Burnes has been up to and check out how good Eric Lauer has been. Yes, Adrian Houser has been great, too, but I want to focus on Lauer. His 3.10 ERA is nearly a run and a half better than his previous best and even with him outperforming his peripherals (3.94 FIP, 4.22 xFIP, 4.05 xERA), those marks remain career bests as well. So how has he done it?

Velocity Gain

A lot of changes have led to the 2016 first round pick’s strong season and amazing second half. In 2020, his first season with the Brewers after coming over from the Padres in the 2019 trade that also brought Luis Urías to Milwaukee, Lauer had a rough year, which was due in part to a tear in his shoulder that bothered him all season. This year, his arm looks healthy. His velocity is up to 92.5 mph, which is harder than he’s ever thrown before, and he now sits about league-average for a lefty starter. The velocity improvement has helped a lot; over the course of his career, the wOBA on his fastball is about 100 points lower when it gets to 93 mph or higher. This year, he’s crossed that threshold on 35.2% of his fastballs compared to just 16% of his heaters before this season. Some of that increase in velocity could be due to more stable mechanics. In this side by side, you can see a couple of tweaks he’s made since last season:

Most noticeably, he’s ditched the full wind-up and now starts his motion from the side. This seems to be an adjustment that numerous pitchers have undergone in recent years, as it can give a pitcher more consistency in the balance point on their back leg as well as an easier transition when needing to pitch out of the stretch.

As for the mechanics themselves, watch Lauer’s hips at the height of his leg kick. He’s corking them more, with his toe almost facing all the way back to center field. This could be forcing his hips to activate more as he drives to the plate. Finally, his arm action after separating from the glove is different; his elbow doesn’t go behind his back nearly as much as before, creating a shorter arm action. This could be an intentional change to stave off the return of his shoulder issue or his arm naturally finding a more comfortable spot to reach back to. Either way, he’s throwing harder now.

All of these little tweaks are interesting, especially considering that they’ve led to velocity gain, but we haven’t even gotten to his pitch mix, which has seen the biggest change of all.

Pitch Changes

Lauer has a five-pitch mix, but about 75% of his past usage had been made up of his four-seamer and cutter. Even though he’s throwing his fastball harder than ever, he’s actually dropped its usage below 50% for the first time in his career. He’s now throwing his changeup more; it accounts for 11.3% of his pitches this year, after never being higher than 5% previously. His curve and slider make up the rest of his tool belt. In total, he’s sitting on five different pitches, all with usage over 10%. It’s an impressive mix but that doesn’t tell the full story on the changes he’s made. Look at his mix this season before and after July 1:

Eric Lauer’s Pitch Mix Change

Pitch April-June Since July 1
Four-Seam 47.1% 43.3%
Cutter 26.9% 15.4%
Curveball 13.3% 14.1%
Changeup 12.7% 10.2%
Slider 17.0%

Lauer has tinkered with his slider for a long time, never quite liking the movement he was getting on it. This year, he had completely shelved it until July, but now he’s throwing it more than his cutter. It’s not his usual slider, however, as it comes in about 5 mph harder than previous iterations. That might sound like he’s just turned it into more of a cutter, but this slider still has some vertical bite to it, more than his cutter has ever had. Take a look at the numbers on his slider, from its results to its movement:

Eric Lauer’s Slider Shape and Results

Year Usage wOBA Allowed SwStr% Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement Velocity
2018 5.8% .174 13.7% -1.6 -2.3 82.1
2019 4.2% .344 9.5% -1.2 -1.6 82.7
2020 16.8% .334 9.8% -1.8 0.4 84.1
2021 10.3% .228 13.5% -0.9 2.6 87.2

Lauer’s new slider has been a fantastic addition. Sure, it drops less, but that’s mostly due to it coming in much faster. With a swinging strike rate of 13.7%, it has also instantly become his best whiff pitch, bringing his overall SwStr% to a career high. That doesn’t necessarily make it a good whiff pitch (the average slider has a 16.9% SwStr%), but for Lauer — someone who has struggled with getting Ks his whole career — any pitch that gets some whiffs is a welcome addition. Here it is in action:

I said that this new slider drops more than his cutter, but the difference is actually even more pronounced this season because his cutter has also changed quite a bit. Lauer’s cutter has never performed all that well, earning a negative pitch value every season of his career. This year, it has finally been a net positive and that starts with him throwing the pitch harder than ever. Here’s the chart:

Eric Lauer’s Cutter Shape and Results

Year Usage wOBA Allowed SwStr% Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement Velocity
2018 19.4% .356 9.4% -0.6 4.4 87.9
2019 21.5% .334 8.1% -0.9 4.1 88.0
2020 18.0% .436 20.5% -0.8 3.5 87.3
2021 20.1% .323 11.3% 2.1 5.9 90.1

Those movement numbers show a pitch that is flatter and has less horizontal movement, both of which make sense considering it’s coming in at least 2 mph harder than his old cutter did. Baseball Savant shows movement compared to the average movement of pitchers who throw that pitch at a similar speed. It’s a great way to gauge the uniqueness of a pitch and Lauer’s cutter this season is undoubtedly more unique. It drops 4.1 inches more than average while also running 6.1 inches less than average. Here are some clips so you can see some of that drop:

It really looks like a sped up version of his slider. You can see the slight bit of drop on it that you don’t typically see on a cutter. He tries to get the pitch in on the hands to righties, which has led to about a quarter of his fly balls ending up as popups.

Lauer has clearly made some important changes that have led to his tremendous run of success since July 1, but given the large gap between his ERA and peripherals it’s fair to wonder how much his run-suppression will regress going forward; he currently has the 10th largest gap between his ERA and FIP in baseball. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t expect his ERA to match that of Corbin Burnes but there are a few things working in Lauer’s favor that may help his suppression skills continue. First and most important, the Brewers have a tremendous outfield defense and Lauer is a fly ball pitcher. The Brewers outfield ranks first in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating while ranking fourth in Outs Above Average. This stellar unit has certainly helped Lauer only allow a .287 wOBA on fly balls, compared to a .460 league average. Lauer is also fantastic at holding runners on, as runners have attempted only three steals all year. Jeff Sullivan looked at Lauer’s elite pickoff move back in 2018 and while his pickoffs have slowed down thanks to the word getting out about his skill, he still has three this season.

With such a big lead in the NL Central, the Brewers can focus on finalizing their postseason plans. The stellar second halves of Lauer and Houser have given them new wrinkles to consider as they can approach a long playoff series, especially given that Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta will all be deep into uncharted territory as far as innings pitched are concerned. In the event that Milwaukee needs a start or some bulk innings out of someone other than their big three — especially in a long NLCS — I think Lauer is the right choice for a couple of reasons. First, he’s the lone lefty, which would probably be a beneficial change of pace. Second, Houser is a sinker-baller, and both the Giants and Dodgers crush sinkers. Regardless, it’s nice to have options. The recent success of Houser and Lauer gives the Brewers starting pitching depth we didn’t know they had a couple months back, and with only a handful of starts remaining, I’m sure both are keen to continue their run suppression as they audition for October innings.

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