Brewers' approach to pitching development paying off
Milwaukee's renewed focus on homegrown arms may prove pivotal for future rotation
When Jimmy Nelson left the mound at Marlins Park on May 25, the 5 2/3 scoreless innings he had just pitched for the Brewers stood as a testament to the strides the Milwaukee organization has made in its development of Minor League pitchers.
Nelson, who returned to Triple-A after that spot start, is ranked No. 1 on the Brewers' Top 20 Prospects list. But the right-hander, who was Milwaukee's second-round Draft pick in 2010, is just one of several Minor League pitchers who has shown huge improvement in the 2014 season.
Milwaukee has sometimes been seen as an organization that struggles to produce homegrown arms, but the emergence of Nelson and several other pitchers shows that the Brewers may be changing that reputation.
Nelson is the only Brewers farmhand ranked in MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list, checking in at No. 69. But listening to those drafting and developing Milwaukee's new crop of pitchers, it's clear they're confident in their methods.
"I've asked the guys to take a little bit more pride in what we're doing," said Brewers pitching coordinator Rick Tomlin. "Nobody likes to be looked at as lower in parts of the game or ranking lower in areas of certain things. We got the guys' attention. We asked them to redirect their thoughts and their efforts and we placed some emphasis on a few different things, and I'm very pleased with the direction we're headed right now and the effort that we're getting from everybody."
A renewed focus
Tomlin is in his second season as pitching coordinator, and after spending a year observing, his assistant, Mark Dewey, said he's been instrumental in helping the organization choose some specific points of emphasis this season.
"I think for any organization, sometimes things can get a little bit complicated by trying to do too many things at one time," Dewey said. "Rick has simplified things and said, 'Here's what we're trying to get accomplished.'"
Tomlin, whose 25-year Minor League career has included stints with four other organizations, said the mechanical points the Brewers are focusing on are common across baseball. The organization's pitching coaches are focusing on making deliveries more efficient, putting spin on the ball, creating tension in the core of the body and using that tension to create power as the player comes down the mound.
"We've placed an emphasis on not being fearful to throw the ball across the plate, trusting our pitches a little bit more," Tomlin said. "We've changed the mindset a little bit, and the guys bought in, and I think it's a combination of redirecting their thoughts a little bit and redirecting our efforts."
This year, the organization has benefited from a new self-evaluation system that opens up lines of communications between players and management. Every night during the season, each Minor League player fills out an online form rating several aspects of their day. For pitchers, questions range from "How well did you sleep last night?" to "How happy were you with your bullpen session today?"
The system, which was conceptualized at the team's annual pitching symposium last fall, allows coaches and scouting directors to more specifically address one area that might be holding a player back, while giving players a chance to reflect.
"There's grades they give in different categories and a chance to write comments," Dewey said. "The number grades are fine, but I think the comments are the best thing for me to see what a guy's thinking about. For a guy like me or Rick who's not there day in and day out, I can be in the Dominican Republic and see what guys are thinking about in Arizona."
Progress across the board
Nelson, who's knocking on the doors of an extended stay in the Major Leagues, has been the leading prospect for the organization this season. He's 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA at Triple-A Nashville.
"He's doing everything that embodies what we're trying to get across," Tomlin said. "He's a big, strong guy, he's aggressive, he's refining his craft. He's getting better use of his time in Triple-A so he can do the things to get better to have success in the Majors."
Mike Fiers, currently in Milwaukee's bullpen, was another success story: After struggling with a broken bone in his arm last season, he was 6-3 with a 2.53 ERA before his callup.
But the resurgence hasn't been confined to Nashville, and Tomlin highlighted several players in the lower levels that have had success. Taylor Jungmann, the system's eighth-rated prospect, pitched well enough at Double-A Huntsville to get a recent promotion to Triple-A. Jed Bradley, a 2011 first-round pick who has battled injuries that kept him at Class A Advanced Brevard County, has stayed healthy this year and earned a promotion to Double-A Huntsville.
Tomlin mentioned Class A Advanced players Tyler Wagner and Jorge Lopez as well as Taylor Williams and Barrett Astin from Class A Wisconsin. They might not be close to Miller Park for several years, but they show just how widespread the improvement has been.
"Those are some of the more prominent names that have moved into the limelight and onto the radar, and we're trying to get these guys moving [through the system]," Tomlin said. "Guys are having a resurgence in their career. It's directly a reflection on refocusing, grabbing hold of commonalities in pitching from a different direction, and they've sort of had a resurgence from lower A ball all the way to Triple-A."
Overall, 10 of the top 20 Brewers prospects are pitchers.
"I look up and down the line and I see guys that I think have a chance to help a Major League club," Tomlin said. "I think we're on a good path now."
Caitlin Swieca is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.