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A 94 mph slider? This Brewer can throw it

@AdamMcCalvy
February 24, 2020

Two days into the Cactus League slate, it’s far too early to draw conclusions about Milwaukee’s starting rotation candidates, but Brandon Woodruff's first pitch Monday and Corbin Burnes' last pitch provided something to dream on. Woodruff, the Brewers’ presumptive Opening Day starter, opened his start against the Angels with a

Two days into the Cactus League slate, it’s far too early to draw conclusions about Milwaukee’s starting rotation candidates, but Brandon Woodruff's first pitch Monday and Corbin Burnes' last pitch provided something to dream on.

Woodruff, the Brewers’ presumptive Opening Day starter, opened his start against the Angels with a 98 mph fastball. In the other split-squad game in Mesa, Ariz. against the A’s, Burnes finished a scoreless inning with a swinging strikeout of Matt Olson.

Burnes got strike three with a slider. A 94 mph slider.

“That’s pretty extreme. It’s hard. It was hard in the ‘pen, too,” said veteran Shelby Miller, who was warming up to pitch the second inning while Burnes was on the mound against Oakland. “If he’s commanding those pitches and honing in on getting hitters out, he’s going to be elite. He’s going to be good for a while. I wish I had a 94 mph slider.”

For reference, there were 78 sliders thrown in MLB at 94 mph or higher in 2019, according to Statcast. All but five came from Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler.

Burnes spent the winter honing that pitch, which he threw 31 percent of the time during his disappointing 2019 season with the Brewers, with an average velocity of 87.9 mph according to Statcast. He wanted a harder, tighter pitch, and used the technology available in the Brewers’ pitching lab at American Family Fields of Phoenix to smooth his mechanics and shape the pitch.

Against the A’s, the damage against Burnes was limited to a two-out walk.

“Some of the stuff we worked on this offseason, we tightened things up a little bit [with the slider]. It’s a little bit harder,” Burnes said.

Burnes’ firmest slider last season was 91.7 mph. His fastball reached 99 mph last year, so even at 94 mph, there would be some differentiation.

“I think that was just that we cleaned up some stuff mechanically,” Burnes said. “A lot of that stuff, the hand was working around the baseball and not through the baseball. Cleaning that up a touch has allowed me to get a little more on that. With everything we have done around that slider, it will make the slider better.”

Said bench coach Pat Murphy, who managed the Brewers’ 14-4 win over the A’s: “We all know Corbin is a work in progress. It’s not for a lack of effort and desire. The game is tough. As he keeps getting out there, he’s going to get better and better. He learned from last year and he’s going to continue to make adjustments.”

In the home game, meanwhile, Woodruff walked one and didn’t allow a hit in a scoreless first inning against the Angels.

After firing his first pitch, he looked for the scoreboard reading.

“I told [Brewers manager Craig] Counsell and [pitching coach Chris] Hook that I wasn’t sure where my velo was going to be for my first outing and of course, when I look back at my first pitch, it was 98 [mph],” Woodruff said. “So I needed to tone it down just a hair.”

Getting their work in
A day after making his one-inning spring debut, Brett Anderson told a reporter that he doesn’t begin evaluating Spring Training results until he surpasses four innings in an outing. Counsell told the rest of the team’s beat reporters that he would love for the group to adopt a similar policy.

“Can you guys abide by that?” Counsell said.

That would require some serious patience, since the Brewers tend to build up their starting pitchers as slowly as any club. The schedule this year has each pitcher throwing one inning the first time out, followed by two days off, then two innings, then three days off, then three innings. Only after that do they adopt an every-five-day schedule and surpass the four-inning threshold that Anderson mentioned.

“One of the reasons we do it how we do it is to just get them on the mound more so they don’t have to wait as long between starts,” Counsell said. “We’re not evaluating a guy’s first time out there. It’s not fair. They’re getting in shape. They haven’t played games in six months. They haven’t competed in six months. For Brett, that’s how I would see it.

“All these guys -- specifically starting pitchers -- you work yourself up to a certain place where you want it to mirror what your regular season is going to look like. Somewhere between that fourth and fifth start is where guys start to think about the season a little more.”

For the pitchers, that means staying patient.

“When you get out there and feel like you did today, you feel like you can go 3-4 innings,” Burnes said. “But it’s one of those slow processes that you kind of have to build into it. Next time we’ll stretch out to two.”

Last call
• Minor Leaguer Chad Spanberger homered for the second time in as many days Monday in the Brewers' home game against the Angels, and he’s not even in Major League camp. Spanberger, acquired from the Blue Jays in the Chase Anderson trade, is one of the players coming over from Minor League camp to help cover the late innings.

Keston Hiura made his spring debut against the Angels, but some of the Brewers’ other middle-of-the-lineup players are still awaiting their first game action. Lorenzo Cain is expected to play later this week (the Brewers are home Thursday, and that’s a good bet). Ryan Braun and Christian Yelich aren’t expected to play in a game until next week.

Up next
“Fastball Freddy” Peralta will put his new slider to work Tuesday when he starts the Brewers’ 2:05 p.m. CT game against Kendall Graveman and the Seattle Mariners at American Family Fields of Phoenix. Peralta, who previously worked with two versions of a four-seam fastball plus a curveball, introduced the slider during a successful stint in the Dominican Winter League and remains encouraged by its progress as he battles left-hander Eric Lauer to be the Brewers’ fifth starter. Fans will have to wait to watch the pitch in action, as Tuesday’s game is a radio-only affair on Gameday Audio and the Brewers Radio Network.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.