Brewers write plan for better pitching success

Brewers write plan for better pitching success

MILWAUKEE -- Right off the top, Doug Melvin admits that the Brewers have made mistakes drafting, signing and otherwise acquiring pitchers during his nearly seven years as general manager. But he rejects -- forcefully -- the notion that the Brewers are alone in those mistakes. Now, Melvin is on a mission to defend the staffers and scouts who helped him develop a 30-page plan to get the club back on track.

Melvin revealed some of the "Milwaukee Brewers Pitching Development Organizational Plan" to reporters this week. It includes new guidelines for both amateur and professional scouting, plus a streamlined player-development process that emphasizes the team's increased focus on biomechanics.

The highlights include a checklist of factors the Brewers will begin using to evaluate starting pitchers. They will ask themselves whether the player:

1. Owns "plus" fastball velocity?
2. Can throw a quality breaking pitch?
3. Has "solid arm action and delivery"?
4. Is 6-foot-2 or taller?

If the Brewers are quiet at Saturday's non-waiver Trade Deadline, it could be because the pitchers being offered don't meet these criteria.

"If you look at all of the better young pitchers in baseball right now, three-quarters of them have all four of those criteria," assistant general manager Gord Ash said. "That's why we believe it's important. Now, there are going to be exceptions."

The Brewers believe they have a number of pitching prospects who meet those criteria, such as Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Odorizzi, Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers and Kyle Heckathorn. But none of those pitchers are above the Double-A level at this time, and there are no guarantees that any of them will make it to the Majors.

Still, the picture is more optimistic than Melvin and Ash believe the club gets credit for. And Melvin in particular has grown tired of hearing his club's efforts in this area belittled.

"I feel I have a responsibility to protect out scouts and our development people, people who work extremely hard at what they do," Melvin said. "We take responsibility if we sign a guy and he doesn't do well. ... We study this thing until we go nuts on it."

"The context," Ash added, "is that we're not where we want to be. But it is an inconsistent process. Everybody has the same issues that we have, to some extent."

Searching for solutions

As part of the study, Melvin had staffers compile detailed information of how teams acquired their starting pitchers, how player payroll translates in the standings and where the Brewers missed in past First-Year Player Drafts.

Among the findings:

• The Rays and Giants have more homegrown starters -- four -- than any other team. The Orioles, Twins, Giants, Rangers and Blue Jays have three apiece. The Brewers have two: Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra.

The Giants have one of the best starting staffs in the game -- including in-house pitchers Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner -- and have a knack for moving those pitchers quickly. Cain (first round, 2002) made 31 starts at 21 years old, Sanchez (27th round, 2004) was in the Majors two years later, Lincecum (first round, 2006) won the first of back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards in 2008 and Bumgarner (first round, 2007) debuted briefly in 2009 and is pitching well this season.

The Rays' group might be even better. James Shields, Jeff Niemann and David Price were all first-round Draft picks. Wade Davis was a third-rounder.

"Two of them, there's no way we get them: Niemann and Price," Melvin said. "If you want to finish last and lose 100 games to get those kind of guys, you can do that.

"We know we make mistakes on certain guys. But this perception that certain teams are so much better than others [is unfair]."

• The Giants are the exception; it usually takes a long, long time to develop pitchers.

Take the Rangers, who have opened a wide lead in the National League West thanks partly to a quality staff that includes homegrown players like Colby Lewis (first round, 1999), C.J. Wilson (fifth round, 2001) and Scott Feldman (30th round, 2003). Lewis, who has blossomed this year after a stint in Japan, and Wilson, who has developed as a starter this season after five years in the bullpen, both were drafted when Melvin was the Texas GM.

"The big part of this," Ash said, "is the patience factor."

Getting a pitcher to the Majors is only the first step.

For example, the Brewers looked at some of today's best pitchers in their age 25 season. Chris Carpenter, at that point in his career, had pitched 175 Major League innings with a 6.26 ERA and a 113-to-83 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Lewis had a 7.30 ERA and an 88-to-70 ratio in 127 innings.

Compare those pitchers to Milwaukee's Parra, who at 25 owned a 4.39 ERA with a 147-to-75 strikeout ratio in 166 innings.

Yet Parra has regressed since then. Carpenter won the NL Cy Young Award at 29 for the Cardinals and Lewis is having a breakthrough season for the Rangers at 30.

"Patience is part of this process, and it's very, very difficult to have," Ash said. "I don't think you can look at [Carpenter's age 25] line and say, 'That's a Cy Young winner in the making.' But it was. Unless you're drafting at the top, there's no quick fixes."

• Sometimes, there are few better options.

Melvin pointed to 2006, when the Brewers picked Jeffress, a Virginia high schooler.

Jeffress has been relatively healthy and still throws upper-90s fastballs, but his career has been slowed by problems with marijuana. One more positive test and Jeffress is banned from organized baseball for life. The Brewers placed him on the 40-man roster last month partly to protect their investment, and have him working relief at Double-A Huntsville to stay engaged on a daily basis.

Melvin has gone back through that Draft and wonders if the Brewers really can be accused of making a "mistake" on Jeffress, the 16th overall pick. He went two slots before the Phillies took right-hander Kyle Drabek, whom the Brewers also liked. Drabek and Jeffress are both in Double-A. Right-hander Ian Kennedy went 21st overall to the Yankees and is currently in the Majors with the D-backs, but the Brewers believe he has a lower ceiling than Jeffress. Plus, Kennedy demanded a signing bonus over the "slot" recommended by Major League Baseball, as did 28th overall pick Daniel Bard, who has become a quality reliever for the Red Sox. Adam Ottavino went 30th in that Draft to the Cardinals, and he's had trouble sticking in the Majors this season.

"We took a high-ceiling guy in Jeffress, and we still believe there's a lot of upside with him," Melvin said. "You can get [back-end of the rotation] college guys in the first round if you want to, but we look for upside guys who can be one, two or three starters. ... Sometimes we'll gamble to get a one, two, three guy."

• Baseball's Draft process is broken.

It's no surprise to hear this from Melvin, a major critic of the First-Year Player Draft. Melvin takes particular issue with the way "signability" has interfered with teams' ability to simply pick the best available players, and with MLB's system of compensating teams for losing ranked free agents. Under that system, the Blue Jays had nine picks in the first three rounds of the most recent Draft, and the Angels had eight. The Brewers had three.

"We're hoping that changes," Melvin said.

New tools

Some of the Brewers' high-profile pitching picks have been derailed by injuries, including 2001 first-rounder Mike Jones, who was released this year, and Rogers. Part of the Brewers' plan to combat such setbacks involves biomechanics, an area in which the club invested heavily even before hiring Rick Peterson to be their pitching coach last winter. Head team physician William Raasch developed a portable lab that the club began using in Spring Training to analyze pitchers' throwing motion.

Ash offered an example of a "fairly high" pick from the 2010 Draft. The player underwent his physical exam on a Thursday that included a biomechanical analysis, which raised some red flags. By Sunday, he had a workout plan in hand specially designed to combat some of those troublesome movements.

Ash would not reveal the player, but the team drafted six pitchers in the first eight rounds and has signed five of them, all right-handers: Jimmy Nelson, Tyler Thornburg, Matt Miller, Joel Pierce and Austin Ross.

"We put a plan together to make sure he didn't end up on the surgery table," Ash said. "We identified at the front end. That's the way it should work. In the past, what would happen is you sign the guy in summer, he reports to the Instructional League and [says], 'Gee, it's not feeling so good.' You shut him down.

"Now, we know on day one of his professional career that there is a risk. He can address that risk through the motion analysis exercises that have been designed to treat those kind of issues."

Slowly, it's starting to work, according to Ash. But progress will become evident only over time.

"It's a game of mistakes, and we're not saying that we're not making them. We are making them," Ash said. "But you have to put it in context of the industry, not just the club. What we're trying to do is be proactive on this front. We recognize that we haven't done what we feel we should do, so we put a plan together."

On the free agent front

Melvin admits that the Brewers also have missed on some of their Major League pitching acquisitions. But again, he argues that the issue is more complicated than railing against the inadequacies of Jeff Suppan. Melvin has studied the list of free agents who signed big-money contracts -- $15 million total and up -- and found only one who he had a legitimate chance to sign and did not. The Cubs, in Melvin's view, got fair value from their four-year, $40 million deal with left-hander Ted Lilly.

Part of the Brewers' trouble is luring the top arms away from the big markets and to Milwaukee, a problem that, in part, hurt the club in its attempt to re-sign CC Sabathia after 2008. An extra $60 million or so from the Yankees also played a role.

Melvin had his staff compile a list of what he considered the "good, quality pitchers" in baseball and found that 24 of them have no-trade clauses that include Milwaukee. Dan Haren, recently traded from the D-backs to the Angels, had such a clause. Melvin said the Brewers made a very serious offer to the Blue Jays in December for ace right-hander Roy Halladay, who had no-trade rights and preferred a club that spends Spring Training in Florida. The Phillies, his eventual destination, train in Clearwater, near Halladay's home.

"We made as good an offer as anybody. He wouldn't come," Melvin said. "We went out on a limb and offered pretty good players for Roy Halladay. It came down to [the fact] that he had his choice of where he wanted to go. Philly had the advantage on him. So the talent pool that we get to pick from sometimes is smaller than other teams."

Melvin is also frustrated by the number of free agents who engage with the Brewers to drive up their value, then sign elsewhere and include the Brewers in a no-trade clause.

"These are not excuses," Melvin said. "But they are things we have to work against."

Melvin plans to continue working.

"Do we have pitching problems? Yeah, we have pitching problems," he said. "But we work at this as hard as anybody to try to identify what the issues are."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.