One of the lone bright spots during the first half of the 2016 Milwaukee Brewers season has been 31-year-old rookie starting pitcher Junior Guerra. After totaling just four innings for the White Sox in 2015 as a reliever, the Brewers claimed Guerra off waivers and converted him to a starter. In his 82 innings throughout the first half, Junior has quickly become the ace of the Brewers staff. Coming into his Sunday start against the Cardinals he owned the second lowest ERA (2.93) among rookie starting pitchers behind Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer. Guerra actually played catcher while growing up and only started his pitching career at the age of 21. It was a tenuous ten years before he would finally make it to the bigs as a starter, but Junior has burst onto the scene in a big way. Let’s take a closer look at the arsenal and approach of the elder rookie in his first half finale against the St. Louis Cardinals last Sunday with 12 HD GIFs.
Let’s first sneak a peek at the strikezone plot for Guerra in the outing:
That doesn’t quite look like a plot you’d expect from a sub 3.00 ERA starter, does it? Guerra was frankly all over the place against the Cardinals. He’d show spurts of good command then struggle at times to find the strikezone with any pitch type. He would lose his Fastball command frequently and sail it way up or spike it into the dirt. The same would happen on occasion with the Split-Finger and Slider, although he did do a fine job of keeping the Slider down in the zone for the most part. One of the positives I got out of the Fastball was his ability and confidence to pound righties inside. The Cardinals rolled out 7 right-handed hitters on Sunday and Guerra did a good job hitting the inner-half with the Fastball. Despite the somewhat erratic plot, Junior only walked three batters, and two of the three runs he allowed were solo home runs. Let’s have a look at the three pitch types Guerra has been utilizing so far in 2016.
Junior’s Fastball can run anywhere from 91-96mph (averaging 94.6 on Sunday) but it stays pretty straight in its path to the plate. 41 of the 64 Fastballs thrown by Guerra ended up as strikes but only 4 whiffs were generated in the process. It’s nice that he has the velocity of nearly 97mph at times, but without any movement it becomes hittable to most major leaguers. This was shown on Sunday by the fact that 14 of the 18 balls put into play were off the Fastball.
A nice introductory GIF to Guerra’s Fastball is this 95mph 2-2 offering he blows right by Jhonny Peralta for the swinging strikeout to end the inning:
There were a couple instances when Junior would get some decent run on the Fastball but they were few and far between. Here we see a hint of life on a 93mph 3-1 pitch inside on the hands to Randall Grichuk:
Another example of some two-seamish action on another 93mph Fastball inside to Grichuk:
Guerra would sometimes miss his target and leave Fastballs up in the zone where he was getting hit hard. Watch as Lucroy has to reach back towards the middle of the plate before this 91mph 1-0 Fastball is absolutely destroyed by Matt Adams for a home run:
Guerra has good velocity on the Fastball, but without much movement to go along with it, if he can’t pinpoint his control with the pitch it’s likely to get touched. This especially becomes an issue in later innings after hitters have had a chance to time him up. The Cardinals were really starting to square up the Fastball in the fifth and sixth innings.
Guerra features a Slider that averages 83.4mph with a max velocity of about 86.6mph. He threw 26 of them on Sunday with 16 being strikes while also earning 5 whiffs on the pitch. It’s not a typical Slider, as it moves and looks much more like a Curveball. In fact, it might just be a Curveball in disguise – I’m honestly not sure. Some sites have it as a Slider and others have it as a Curveball. Let’s not worry about what it’s named though and instead worry about what it does.
Here we can see the typical break Junior gets on his Slider with this 0-0 79mph well-located pitch that Mike Leake was just able to foul off:
Guerra, once again, throwing a nice first pitch strike with the Slider on this 80mph offering to Kolten Wong:
One of Junior’s best breaking balls of the afternoon was this 81mph Slider he threw to Tommy Pham that disappeared beneath the bat for the swinging strike. This is some filth:
Guerra didn’t let Pham off the hook either (see what I did there?), as he came back with the bender in his next at-bat in the fifth inning with this dirty 81mph Slider for another ugly whiff:
The Slider Guerra possesses has some nice snapping drop to it. The only thing that worries me about the Slider is how similar it is to Guerra’s third and final pitch type – the Split-Finger. Both pitches are within the 80-85mph range and both drop straight down with hardly any horizontal movement. It’s clearly been working up to this point but I feel like Guerra would benefit more from an off-speed pitch that darted horizontally like a typical Slider would. Just my opinion.
Junior’s best pitch is his nasty Split-Finger that averaged 85.5mph and maxed out at 88mph on Sunday. He threw 10 of the 19 Splitters for strikes and generated 5 whiffs on just 10 swings. When Guerra located the Split, it was devastating. He had difficulty at times upon release though. Something I’m sure he’ll work to improve as it’s still a relatively new pitch in his arsenal as well as a tough pitch to handle in general.
This 81mph 1-1 offering to Matt Adams is disguised as a Fastball perfectly as it dips right beneath the bat head for the swinging strike:
While it typically isn’t a good idea to leave off-speed up in the zone, Guerra got away with Split-Fingers up with how many Fastballs he was locating in the same area on Sunday. He entices Tommy Pham to swing at this elevated 84mph Splitter that also takes a last second dive into the catcher’s mitt for the swinging strikeout:
Guerra gets Adams to whiff horribly at this 85mph Split-Finger that nearly goes from the belt to the dirt in a 2-1 count:
Guerra’s Splitter is brutal on hitters of all types and in all counts. The key is location and consistency in release point – which is incredibly difficult for any pitcher to master with the Split-Finger, let alone a 31-year-old rookie who wasn’t brought up on pitching and just decided to try it out. I have a feeling the 26.0% usage of the Splitter will increase as the season goes on as it is clearly the best pitch Guerra offers.
Final Line: 5.2 IP, 7 Hs, 3 ER, 3 BBs (1 HBP), 5 Ks, L. 109 pitches (67 strikes)
Guerra is an intriguing case. On the surface, I wasn’t blown away by his stuff. His entire arsenal is vertical with almost no horizontal change in direction among all pitch types. It doesn’t seem like a recipe for success when hitters also seem to be timing up his Fastball after a couple innings of seeing him like the Cardinals did.
I can’t deny the success he’s had though so he is clearly doing something right. I’m hoping I caught him on an ‘off day’ where his location wasn’t what it normally is. I’d love to see Guerra harness the command of his Split-Finger so he could mix it in more. I feel like this would improve the effectiveness of his other offerings a great deal.
The Brewers are currently 11 games under .500, and yet they’re 10-3 as a club when Junior Guerra takes to the hill. It’s simply amazing that a 31-year-old rookie has claimed the role of “team ace” so early in his career as a starter.
I’d like to end this breakdown with my favorite pitch of Junior Guerra’s outing. This 85mph Split-Finger had Kolten Wong chasing wildly with two strikes at a pitch that dropped all the way to the dirt about a foot before it reached Lucroy. That is some serious dip:
Ian Post contributes for Pitcher List and grew up on the game of baseball by playing year-round through adolescence and pitching in college before finding his love for writing about the sport. When he isn’t providing pitching analysis, he can be found faithfully rooting for the Mariners, watching Game of Thrones, and searching for a new favorite IPA in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Ian on Twitter @TheDonGiggity