'Zoom ball' helps Lauer beat Cubs, rack up K's

2 years ago

MILWAUKEE — If you don’t know the zoom ball, the spin ball and the bullet, get ready to hear a lot more about them — and the Brewers left-hander who is throwing his name into the way-too-early National League Cy Young Award debate.

Seven of Milwaukee’s runs scored via two-out hits in a second straight blowout, not that Lauer needed that much support. At 26, he finds himself on top of his game. Lauer has an Opening Day start for San Diego on his resume, but he’d never reached double-digit strikeouts in his first 76 career starts for the Padres and Brewers going into the week. Now, Lauer has reached that threshold in two starts in a row.

It’s rare territory. Only one other left-hander in Brewers history had struck out 10 or more in consecutive starts: Teddy Higuera in July 1988. And only three pitchers in the Majors this season have struck out 10 or more in consecutive starts: Max Scherzer, Corbin Burnes and Lauer. With four starts in the books, Lauer’s ERA is 1.93.

“A lot of it has to do with just confidence,” he said. “A lot of confidence in all my pitches right now. A lot of confidence in the way that I’m driving down the mound, the way games are being called. I’m just very confident with everything I am throwing up there.”

How has that confidence come so quickly? In part, it’s the added zip on what Lauer calls his “zoom ball.” Most other pitchers call it a four-seam fastball. Lauer’s fastball averaged 91.5 mph in 2020, his first season in Milwaukee after the Brewers acquired him and shortstop Luis Urías from the Padres in exchange for steady starter Zach Davies and budding outfielder Trent Grisham. In 2021, that pitch averaged 92.6 mph. This season, it was averaging 93.9 mph entering Saturday, when Lauer topped out at 95.8 mph and generated 21 swings and misses overall — four more than six days earlier in Philadelphia.

It’s not just the zoom ball. Lauer has added velocity to his “spin ball” (curveball) and “riser” (cutter), terms which caught the imagination of Brewers fans after Lauer gave an entertaining interview late last season with The Athletic. When Lauer took the mound on Saturday night, a scoreboard graphic showed his name and image with the phrase, “Let it zoom.” 

Lauer said he likes pitch names that better describe their movement, and who’s going to argue with him now? Since last June 27, when he worked six scoreless innings against the Rockies, Lauer has a 2.16 ERA over 104 innings.

The question everyone has been asking Brewers manager Craig Counsell is this: Is Lauer’s trajectory sustainable?

“Every pitcher benefits from more velocity,” Counsell said on Saturday afternoon. “So, does it make it more sustainable? I think I would say yes, it does. I think there are other things that can do that, too, but I think more velocity absolutely does make it more sustainable. I think it gives you confidence in how to pitch, and it gives you conviction.”

Few in the Brewers organization have better insight on Lauer’s transformation than outfielder Hunter Renfroe, his former San Diego teammate who was one of three Brewers hitters — with Rowdy Tellez and Christian Yelich — who hit two-out home runs on Saturday.

“To be honest, the Padres teams we had, he was one of our better starters, and to throw him into that role was not [ideal so early in Lauer’s career],” Renfroe said. “For him to be here and see Woody [Brandon Woodruff] and Corbin and those guys, it really helped him a lot. … I think that’s really impacting his career so far.”

Lauer is a man of the moment. On Saturday, he told reporters that he often forgets sequences in the time it takes him to walk from the mound to the dugout, such that pitching coach Chris Hook will ask about a certain pitch, and it will have already escaped Lauer. The short memory helps him, Lauer said.

But every now and then he takes the time to think back on the past two years and how far he’s come.

“You think about like, ‘Oh, where was I last year at this time?’ and you can be a little proud of yourself as far as, like, seeing how far I’ve come with the Brewers,” Lauer said. “It’s been a lot of effort and it’s nice to finally feel like things are falling into place.”