With so much attention paid to the three-headed monster atop the Milwaukee Brewers‘ rotation, you would be forgiven if you missed that Eric Lauer had a career year in 2021. He recorded a career-high 23.9% strikeout rate to go along with a sparkling 3.19 ERA in 118.2 innings, working mostly as a starter. Though Lauer may not have the elite upside of his brethren in the Brewers’ rotation, changes he made to his windup and stuff in 2021 have him primed for another steady season.
A New Windup
The 25th overall pick in the 2016 Draft, Lauer arrived in Milwaukee alongside Luis Urias in the deal that sent Trent Grisham and Zach Davies to San Diego. A shoulder injury stole most of Lauer’s 2020, as he pitched only 11 innings and posted a 13.09 ERA. He healed up for 2021, and the Brewers got to work revamping their southpaw.
Lauer implemented several changes to his windup when he returned to game action in late April 2021. His arm path was very long as a starter in San Diego:
Come 2021, Lauer shortened his arm path considerably to protect his shoulder. He also changed how he stood on the rubber, almost starting out of the stretch. Finally, at the top of his leg kick, his back leg was bent more, putting him in a more athletic position to drive off. His new mechanics were more controlled and more repeatable:
An Improved Arsenal
A cleaned-up windup helped Lauer boost his four-seamer and cutter. Though the Brewers’ pitching coach is named Chris Hook, the organization has had remarkable success helping pitchers hone their fastballs as of late. Brandon Woodruff took off when he unlocked his sinker, Corbin Burnes wields his signature cutter, and Freddy Peralta crafts his arsenal around a dominant four-seamer. Lauer got in on the action in 2021, increasing his four-seamer’s velocity by one mile per hour relative to 2020 and his cutter’s velocity by three miles per hour. He also threw his cutter with more cut, adding two and a half inches of horizontal break.
These improvements made both offerings more effective whiff pitches than they were in San Diego, especially the four-seamer. Lauer’s four-seamer earned whiffs at a better clip last season than the four-seamers of two of 2021’s most impressive arms, Zack Wheeler and Robbie Ray. (All of the following stats are courtesy of Baseball Savant.)
Improved breaking balls, especially his slider, were another key to Lauer’s step forward. Lauer throws both a slider and a curveball. Early in the goings in 2021, Lauer temporarily ditched his slider and slimmed down his repertoire to include his four-seamer and cutter complemented by a curveball and changeup. By late June, he had reintroduced the slider. Like his heaters, he brought it back with more zip, throwing it nearly three and a half miles per hour faster than in 2019.
Having the slider back opened up how Lauer could attack hitters. Lauer’s curveball was never a big whiff pitch for him, but with the second breaker in his arsenal, he found that he could throw the hook as a get-me-over pitch. In August and September, he threw his curveball about 25 percent of the time in fresh counts and used it to steal first-pitch strikes. He could then go on the attack with his slider and four-seamer, both of which were better swing-and-miss pitches than the curve. From July 1 onward, Lauer posted a 2.41 ERA with a 3.42 FIP across 14 starts.
What We’ve Seen So Far
With all of this in mind, let’s dissect Lauer’s first two starts of 2022. His debut in Baltimore was nothing special, but he corrected in his second appearance against Pittsburgh.
One thing that jumps out from a visual standpoint is that Lauer looks to have tightened up his arm path a little bit more, not drawing his throwing hand as far back as last year. Here he is on the 18th against Pittsburgh:
This change in mechanics may connect to another story from these first two starts: Lauer is throwing his fastballs with even more juice. In Baltimore, the four-seamer averaged 94.1 mph and the cutter 91.6 mph. Their velocities were down a tick against Pittsburgh — 93.5 mph and 91.1 mph, respectively — but still up from where they were sitting in 2021. A sustained increase in velocity could strengthen both of these pitches and further solidify the foundation of Lauer’s arsenal.
As for the breakers, the two starts tell different tales. Against Baltimore, Lauer threw very few sliders and heavily featured his hook, which performed very well to the tune of a gaudy 55% CSW and a 50% whiff rate. However, the curve looks similar to last year in terms of velocity and shape, so those marks are probably a mirage. His approach against Pittsburgh looked more like what he was doing in 2021: solid fastballs, curves for called strikes, and four-seamers and sliders for whiffs.
Lauer’s slider location in his first two starts hints at some potential improvement. The slider was his best whiff pitch in 2021, but it certainly wasn’t putting up a robust whiff rate like some of the game’s elite sliders. (Robbie Ray, for instance, generated whiffs with his slider at a 45.5% clip in 2021.) For a whiff pitch, Lauer’s slider stayed up in the zone and caught quite a lot of plate last season. On the left is a heat map of his slider location in ’21, and on the right is a heat map of his slider in his first two starts in ’22:
Concentrating the slider off the plate and on the corner more could help Lauer generate more whiffs with the pitch this season.
Finally, Lauer has all but ditched his changeup so far; he has only thrown five in his two appearances. Lauer survived with his change in ’21, but the pitch got hit very hard, and its expected metrics were pretty ugly:
Scaling back the change and emphasizing his curve and slider could be a boon for Lauer going forward.
The Right Environment
There is one final, intangible, fun reason Lauer could be poised for a step forward this season. An Athletic article by Will Sammon last September explained that Lauer has some distinct names for his pitches based on what he wants them to do. For example, his four-seamer is a “zoom ball,” and his curve is a “spin ball.” An element of Lauer’s step forward last season was that Chris Hook was able to crack Lauer’s codes and communicate with him much more effectively. Hook coined the term “bullet” for Lauer’s slider, a term that Lauer says helped him unlock the pitch. Good communication is always invaluable, and Hook’s ability to speak Lauer-ese should not be overlooked in his development.
Lauer’s stuff at present is not so overpowering as to vault him into the ranks of baseball’s strikeout kings, and his .249 BABIP in 2021 suggests a low-3s ERA going forward might be too optimistic. That being said, there were several factors — both tangible and intangible — that helped Lauer take a step forward in 2021. Maintaining his newfound velocity and improving the location of his breakers could get him to a sustainable 25% strikeout rate with a decent walk rate and an ERA in the mid-to-high-3s this season. That kind of stability is well worth a look at the back end of a rotation, both real-life and fantasy.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)
Great read Miles! I just picked up Lauer yesterday so it was great to see your article today.
Prospect question. Is there a site or app that you use that posts up to the minute prospect call up news? Hoping to get a jump on my league mates when arms are being called up.
Thanks in advance for your feedback,
I have to admit that prospects aren’t quite my forte, but since you’re a subscriber, I’d recommend paying attention to the Prospects & Dynasty channel in the PL Discord if you don’t already. There’s a lot of great chatter in there about prospects who are worth paying attention to, and the chat obviously blows up if someone gets a call-up. You can pick up great tidbits along the way from PL podcasts as well — I distinctly remember Nick & Alex talking about Alek Manoah on OTC pre-call-up, not doing anything, and missing out when a league mate snagged him once he got promoted. Sometimes a calculated stash is the way to go if a guy you like is close!
would like to see less curveballs, that thing is getting CRUSHED so far