Brewers 31-year-old rookie Junior Guerra has had a surprisingly strong start since joining the big league club. Michael Beller explains what’s behind it.

By Michael Beller
July 04, 2016

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Any discussion about the Brewers this season always leads to the guys who aren’t going to be in one of America’s most underrated cities much longer. Where will Jonathan Lucroy end up? Who will pay the price for Ryan Braun at the deadline? Might they consider moving Jeremy Jeffress? That’s an almost nihilistic way to go through a baseball season, but it’s also part and parcel of being a non-contender.

The Brewers have actually been one of the brighter surprises in baseball this season, with a 35–42 record that reflects respectable mediocrity rather than the outright dreadfulness that was expected before the season. They’ve gotten major contributions from unexpected sources like Jonathan Villar and Aaron Hill, but it’s the unsung hero in their rotation we’re concerned with in this space. Junior Guerra deserves your attention.

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Guerra is one of the best stories of the ’16 season. A 31-year-old rookie, Guerra is a converted catcher who spent time in the Mexican League and independent ball since being waived by the Mets back in ’08. He finally made it back into the major league pipeline last year, catching on with the White Sox and making his debut as a reliever in June. After three appearances, the White Sox sent him back to Triple A, where he would remain the rest of the season.

Guerra started this season at Triple A Colorado Springs, making four starts for the Sky Sox before earning a promotion to the Brewers. He had a 4.63 ERA in those four starts, but also an impressive 1.11 WHIP and 23 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings. It wasn’t clear that he’d be in Milwaukee for good, but he likely erased all doubt on May 19 when he struck out 11 Cubs while allowing three runs in seven innings in a 5–3 Brewers win.

Since then, Guerra has been the best pitcher in the Milwaukee rotation, along with an equally surprising Zach Davies. He has made seven starts since mostly shutting down the Cubs, notching quality outings in five of them. In one of the two where he fell short of a quality start, he tossed five shutout innings with six strikeouts, and was lifted after throwing just 84 pitches. He polished off a month of June, in which he had a 3.00 ERA and 0.97 WHIP across five starts, by shutting out the Dodgers for eight innings while allowing two hits and striking out seven.

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Guerra’s a three-pitch pitcher, throwing a four-seam fastball, splitter and curveball, with the occasional slider mixed in. No pitcher really dabbles with a splitter, since it’s too hard of a pitch to master to use it as a show pitch. But as is the case with every pitcher who throws one, the splitter is Guerra’s best offering.

The splitter to Moss was so good that it sort of handcuffed Lucroy, though judging by the way he had to haphazardly flip his glove, he may have been crossed up. It’s easy to see why the splitter is such a weapon for Guerra against lefties, and this pitch is the main reason he’s been so effective when lacking the platoon advantage, limiting left-handed batters to a .205/.297/.344 slash line this season. Guerra, in fact, has some reverse splits, with righties hitting .219/.254/.383 against him. He has been tough on hitters from either side of the plate, but the splitter has made him slightly better against lefties.

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Guerra uses the splitter against righties, as well, but its usage against same-siders is down at 19%, whereas he throws it nearly one-third of the time against lefties. With some help from Josh Phegley, we can take a look at how the splitter can be an out-pitch for him against righties.

Still, Guerra prefers the breaking ball against righties, which makes all the sense in the world since it sweeps down and away from them. He throws it about one-quarter of the time against righties, and just 11% of the time against lefties. Guerra’s is a classic 12-to-6 curveball with sharp downward movement that can create some awkward swings.

Even when hitters manage to make contact, it’s often of the incredibly soft variety.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Guerra’s curve has a 69.2% ground-ball rate and 13.1% whiff rate.

Guerra’s mini-breakout this season might not be of the lasting variety that would make him a key member of the rotation when the Brewers are ready to compete again. After all, he’s already 31 years old, and the rebuild, while underway, will really get kick-started if and when the team is able to deal Lucroy and Braun. That shouldn’t dampen Guerra’s accomplishments this year, however, and it certainly doesn’t have any bearing on his rest-of-season fantasy value.

Every discussion about the ’16 Brewers doesn’t have to center on those likely eventual trades. The organization may be focused on the future, but that doesn’t mean the present should be ignored. Guerra is having himself a fine rookie season while giving the baseball world an excellent story. His performance should land him on his fair share of fantasy rosters in the second half of the year.

Pitchers to watch this week

David Price, Red Sox

To say that Price hasn’t exactly lived up to his end of the bargain in year one with the Red Sox would be a bit of an understatement. His 4.74 ERA would be the worst of his career if it holds all season, while his 1.24 WHIP would be his highest since his rookie year. He has surrendered 10 runs on 21 hits over 8 2/3 innings in his last two starts, sending both of those rates skyward. After his last start, Price himself said that there’s no bad luck at play, and he simply has to be better. He has 120 strikeouts in 108 1/3 innings, so he’s still doing some things right for his fantasy owners. Price also has just 25 walks on the season, so clearly a few of the elements are in place. He has gotten into a ton of trouble with the longball, surrendering 15 homers on the season. The last time he kept the other team in the yard for an entire start was way back on May 12. Price will start twice next week, taking on the Rangers Tuesday and the Rays Sunday.

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Matt Moore, Rays

Moore has been all over the place this season. He was solid in April, posting a 3.66 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 35 strikeouts in 32 innings. He cratered in May, with a 7.36 ERA and laughable 2.03 WHIP. He was back on the positive side of the ledger in June, notching a 3.72 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings. Moore had one of his best starts of the season his last time out, throwing seven shutout innings while allowing three hits and two walks with six strikeouts in a win over the Red Sox. Moore has a ton of strikeout upside, something he showed even in that terrible month of May. When he pitches like he did that month, however, fantasy owners can’t take advantage of his ability to miss bats. When he pitches the way he did in April and June, he’s a capable backend starter in all formats. He’ll get a pair of starts in the final week of the first half, drawing the Angels on Monday and Red Sox on Saturday.

Danny Salazar, Indians

We weren’t shy about our love for the Indians during the preseason in the fantasy department of Not only did I pick them to win the AL Central, I had Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Salazar all finishing as top-15 starting pitchers. I did not expect Salazar to be the best of the three during the season’s first half. Carrasco fell out of contention when he suffered a hamstring injury at the end of April, but that shouldn’t detract from what Salazar has accomplished this season. The 26-year-old has a 2.22 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 1.11 WHIP and 107 strikeouts in 93 1/3 innings. He also has 10 wins for one of the best teams in the AL. There isn’t an obvious candidate to start the All-Star Game for the AL, with Chris Sale, Cole Hamels and Salazar all in the mix. Two more strong performances this week could make him the favorite, though the fact that he pitches Saturday could complicate matters. Before taking on the Yankees over the weekend, Salazar will stare down the Tigers on Monday.

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Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays

A few weeks ago, Toronto manager John Gibbons said Sanchez would eventually move to the bullpen to limit the strain on his 24-year-old arm. That’s eventual move is becoming harder and harder to justify, so much so that the Blue Jays might have to revisit the idea. Sanchez just put a bow on a strong June, going into Coors Field and holding the Rockies to one run on six hits in eight innings, striking out three and walking two. Sanchez finished June with a 2.72 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings. He had one blip in the month, allowing six runs on 10 hits in five innings against the mighty Orioles, but was otherwise excellent. The Blue Jays understandably want to protect the best young arm in their system, but they’re a better team with Sanchez in the rotation rather than the bullpen. He’s slated for a pair of starts this week, opposing the Royals on Monday and Tigers on Saturday.

Michael Pineda, Yankees

Heading into June, Pineda was all over the place. He had a 6.92 ERA and 1.65 WHIP, landing on the free agent scrap heap in a number of fantasy leagues. If you were one of the many owners who justifiably cut him, I hope you were able to get him back. He just finished off an excellent June by striking out a season-high 12 batters in a Yankees 2-1 win over the Rangers. Pineda went six innings, allowing one run on two hits and three walks. All told, he ended June with a 2.57 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 61 strikeouts in 42 innings. He’ll make one start next week to wrap up the first half, facing the White Sox on Wednesday.

Prospect watch

Reynaldo Lopez, Nationals

Some organizations have all the pitching, don’t they? Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is arguably the best 1–2 punch in the majors. There isn’t a true weak spot in Washington’s rotation, with Joe Ross, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark slotting behind that two-headed monster. When Strasburg hit the DL, the Nationals were able to reach down to Double A Harrisburg to pluck Lucas Giolito, who happens to be the best pitching prospect in all of baseball. The rich are set to get richer with the ascension of Lopez, though we may not see him in the majors until next season.

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Lopez, the No. 5 prospect in Washington’s system, made his debut with Triple A Syracuse last week, pitching around three hits and four non-intentional walks to allow just one run while striking out four in six innings. The Nationals likely won’t promote him this year unless they’re pressed into it due to injury, but Lopez will have a realistic shot at breaking spring training in the rotation in ’17. He made 14 starts with Double A Harrisburg before moving up a level, compiling a 3.18 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 100 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and gives him a foundation on which he can build at Triple A. The key for him will be developing his curveball and changeup. If the curve can turn into a true weapon for him, he’ll have serious potential as a starter in the majors. As we can see from his final start with Harrisburg, the curve is already on its way to being a devastating pitch.

Lopez is unlikely to be relevant in fantasy leagues this season, but it’s never too early to get a name in your head for the following year.

GIF of the week

Lucas Giolito made his MLB debut last week, tossing four shutout innings and allowing one hit before his night was cut short due to a rain delay. We’re planning on in-depth study of his repertoire once he gets a few more starts under his belt, but for now let’s enjoy the first of what will likely be many strikeouts in what should be a long, prosperous career.

That’s about as easy as 96 mph can look.

Two-start pitchers

  1. Max Scherzer
  2. Carlos Carrasco
  3. Danny Salazar
  4. David Price
  5. Matt Harvey
  6. Aaron Sanchez
  7. Kenta Maeda
  8. Kyle Hendricks
  9. Steven Matz
  10. Jake Odorizzi
  11. Dallas Keuchel
  12. Junior Guerra
  13. Chris Tillman
  14. Taijuan Walker
  15. Jerad Eickhoff
  16. Gio Gonzalez
  17. Jameson Taillon
  18. Rick Porcello
  19. Jordan Zimmermann
  20. Mike Leake
  21. CC Sabathia
  22. Matt Moore
  23. R.A. Dickey
  24. A.J. Griffin
  25. Daniel Norris
  26. Sean Manaea
  27. Edinson Volquez
  28. Tom Koehler
  29. Tyler Anderson
  30. Yovani Gallardo
  31. Tyler Chatwood
  32. Chris Young
  33. Jon Niese
  34. James Shields
  35. Wade Miley
  36. Kendall Graveman
  37. Ricky Nolasco
  38. Cody Reed
  39. Jered Weaver
  40. Jake Peavy
  41. Tommy Milone
  42. Nick Martinez
  43. Tim Lincecum
  44. Mike Foltynewicz
  45. Brock Stewart
  46. Christian Friedrich
  47. Zach Eflin
  48. Luis Perdomo
  49. Joel De La Cruz

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