Rocky Mountain Way: Brewers Triple A Pitching Woes Explained

Is Colorado Springs bad for the Brewers?

By: Jim Boyce

The location of a team’s minor league affiliates is often an afterthought to fans of a baseball team. Throughout the years Brewers minor league teams have played ball in Wisconsin, Nashville, and Biloxi just to name a few and frankly few have cared as long as the prospects were putting up numbers and keeping themselves on track to play in Miller Park. Currently the Brewers Triple A affiliate is the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. Now as many of you know, the thin air in Colorado adds a different element and unique challenges in most outdoor sports in that state. When it comes to baseball the thin air tends to allow the ball to carry farther, which is great for hitters but a real nightmare for pitchers.

This is where we take a look at the Brewers pitching prospects. Here are the 2016 pitching statistics in Colorado Springs thus far.

statfile

If you just spit your drink all over your computer, I do apologize. Let’s run down some of the high, or low, lights of this chart. Jorge Lopez, one of the crown jewels of the Brewers farm system, is 1-6 with an ERA of 6.33. This is a pitcher who was 12-5 with a 2.26 ERA in Double A in 2015, and was rated the #59th prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2016 season. Another similar, yet startling example is Josh Hader. Called up to Colorado Springs after dominating everyone he faced in Biloxi to start this season and I don’t use that term lightly, a 0.95 ERA! And also representing the Brewers in the MLB futures game just this past week in which he struck out the only batter he faced. He has begun his stint with the Sky Sox with a 6.38 ERA over five games.

While some of Lopez and Hader’s numbers can be expected to suffer simply because they need to adjust to a higher level of competition, it seems ridiculous to say that either guy lost the stuff they had in double A. If you need an example to prove that I am not crazy, Junior Guerra started the year in Colorado Springs and had a mediocre stat line of 0-2 with a 4.63 ERA over 4 games. He is currently the best pitcher on the Milwaukee Brewers staff, going 6-2 with a 3.06 ERA in 13 games in the bigs. It seems crazy doesn’t it? That Guerra can do so well against Major League competition, but struggle against Triple A guys, many of whom will never see the big stage. This is the effect the thin air in Colorado Springs might have.

Wily Peralta and Taylor Jungmann both have had success in the majors before, they both currently sport you-have-to-look-twice-to-believe-it ERA’s over 9.00. In fact, Jungmann’s stint in Triple A has been so unproductive he is now back in Double A trying to work on his game. While there is no real data to quantify this, one has to wonder what struggling like these pitchers have does to their confidence levels. Especially for guys like Peralta and Jungmann who struggled in the majors and were sent down. Does getting shelled in the thin air of Colorado ruin their chances of ever getting back to being successful in the majors?

So what options do the Brewers have for moving out of Colorado Springs and into an environment better suited for developing pitchers? Unfortunately, not many, unless an alternate home opens up before next season the Brewers will have no choice but to stay at Colorado Springs another 2 seasons. David Stearns seems to understand the challenges of developing pitching at the current triple A affiliate as a recent piece by Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out.

“We know Colorado Springs is a very challenging environment to pitch in,” Stearns said. “The entire industry knows that; it’s no secret. It’s challenging, No. 1 because the ball flies there a lot. It has the same issues defensively that Coors Field presents in terms of outfielders playing differently.

“Also, breaking balls don’t break as much as pitchers try to manipulate spin on the ball. It’s a difficult pitcher’s environment but it’s not the only difficult pitcher’s environment in that league or minor-league baseball. Most clubs, somewhere in their system, have an environment that is a little more challenging for pitchers. We have an environment in the Florida State League (at Brevard County) that is a little more challenging for hitters.”

Stearns definitely does not give Colorado Springs a ringing endorsement in the piece when discussing the Brewers options for the future. The thin air in Colorado is a very real problem, it’s the reason the major league Rockies have trouble attracting top pitchers in free agency. The Brewers are a franchise that has struggled immensely in producing their own homegrown pitching talent.  Jimmy Nelson may be the first starting worthy option drafted by Milwaukee since Yovani Gallardo, and the team has no realistic shot at being able to afford an ace via free agency. For these reasons I think it is important that they find a way out of Colorado Springs in the near future. In the meantime, do not be surprised if Jorge Lopez and Josh Hader are called up late in the season to get some major league experience. Also do not be surprised if like Junior Guerra, they actually post better numbers against the best hitters in the world than in the gauntlet known as Colorado Springs.