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  • Eric Lauer's Ascension and Ceiling

    Kyle Lobner

    Less than two years removed from looking like he might be done as a major leaguer, Eric Lauer might be the best pitcher on one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. How did he do it, and how much better can he reasonably get?

    Image courtesy of Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

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    A year and five days ago, the Brewers made a roster decision that seemed, at best, dubious. Even they couldn't have imagined it would go this well.

    On April 29, 2021, they summoned Eric Lauer from AAA Nashville to make a start against Trevor Bauer and the defending World Series champion Dodgers. At the time, Bauer was one of baseball's elite pitchers, and Lauer was, at best, a massive question mark. He suffered a shoulder injury in one of his first appearances as a Brewer in the 2020 Cactus League. He pitched in just four games that season, allowing 16 runs and 28 baserunners in eleven innings. While Trent Grisham and Zach Davies were thriving in San Diego, Lauer and Luis Urías did not bring much to the table and looked like a rare miss for the Brewers' front office. The narrative around that trade was about to shift.

    Lauer had made just one start in the minors, working five scoreless innings, when the Brewers recalled him to face one of the best lineups in the sport. He didn't appear to be positioned to succeed, but he did: He worked five scoreless innings, and the Brewers held on to win 2-1.

    Lauer's triumphant return to the majors was not without its challenges: He got roughed up in his next start against the Phillies and allowed ten home runs in 33 innings across eight appearances. He's been dominant ever since, though, and is now closing in on a full calendar year as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

    Over his final 15 appearances in 2021, Lauer posted a 2.23 ERA, pitching into the seventh inning in four starts and limiting opposing hitters to a .188 batting average, .261 on-base .285 slugging. After allowing ten home runs in 33 innings, he gave up just six in his final 80. Lauer, who opened the season in the minors six months earlier, started a postseason game for one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

    His second act, however, has been even better. Across four starts this season, he has a 1.93 ERA. Two weeks ago, he stole the show against the Phillies on Sunday Night Baseball, setting a career-high with 13 strikeouts across six scoreless innings. He followed the first ten-K game of his career with another, logging eleven of them against the Cubs on Saturday. 

    While it's far too early in the season to take WAR numbers as gospel, fWAR captures the story of Lauer's rise nicely: Through April, he has already accumulated 0.6 wins according to FanGraphs' measurement, which is more than significantly more-heralded pitchers like Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta (both at 0.5). Corbin Burnes is the only Brewer leading Lauer in that metric, who is at 0.7 and has made one more start.

    Much has been made of the role terminology played in Lauer's emergence, with the team now referring to his pitches with names like "zoom ball," "riser," and "bullet." And while his pitches may have gotten better because of some mental advantage gained from this shift, there's also a more conventional explanation: Lauer throws a lot harder now than before.

    During his serviceable-but-unspectacular years with the Padres, Lauer's fastball sat routinely in the 90-92 range, somewhat slow by the current standards. Last season his average fastball approached 93, and, unsurprisingly, his performance followed that upward trajectory. This season it's up around 94, and he's striking out more batters than he ever has before by a wide margin. After being told for years that his velocity was holding him back, Lauer now throws harder than all but a few dozen lefties in baseball.

    Last spring Lauer told reporters a mechanical change had led to his increased velocity: He shortened his arm path in response to his shoulder troubles and found some extra speed in the process. Whether it's health, strength, or more efficient mechanics, his transformation is drawing notice: Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently highlighted him as one of six pitchers who have improved their repertoires this season.

    And while Lauer feels like he's already seen a career's worth of twists and turns, it's worth noting that he doesn't turn 26 until June. He's younger than Brandon Woodruff, Adrian Houser, and even Corbin Burnes. He's roughly the same age as Dallas Keuchel was, for example, when he rebounded from being a pitcher with a career ERA over 5 to a Cy Young Award winner with the 2015 Astros. It remains to be seen if Lauer can reach that height, but if he keeps up this level of production there's certainly time for him to become one of the game's best lefties.


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