Once the team's top starting pitching prospect, Ethan Small is back with the Brewers in a new role
Ethan Small is back with the Milwaukee Brewers with a new role and mindset.
Small, the Brewers first round pick in the 2019 draft, made his way up to the major leagues last year as a starting pitcher, but after a pair of shaky outings with Milwaukee encountered an even more ill-fated final couple of months to the season as a starter in the minors.
In his final six starts after being optioned to Class AAA Nashville, Small had an 8.03 ERA, losing complete control of the strike zone as it went on. The lefty walked 15 batters over his last four starts, spanning 14 ⅓ innings.
“The big thing was I was dreading trying to get through six innings in 100 pitches,” Small said.
A season that began for Small as the team’s top pitching prospect ended with him in the bullpen, a role that became full-time heading into 2023.
The Mississippi State product settled into relief nicely with Nashville, though. He sported a 2.33 ERA across 19 ⅓ innings with opponents batting just .125 against him.
Over his last eight outings before getting promoted to Milwaukee on Friday as Tyson Miller was optioned to Nashville, Small has a 0.59 ERA with 22 strikeouts.
“For some reason starting last year, it turned into this awful grind. The focus wasn’t there,” Small said. “But out of the pen in these short stints, it’s like, I want to throw as few pitches as possible and strike out as many people as possible.”
Small’s arsenal is still mostly the same as it was when he was a starter. He’s primarily changeup-and-fastball reliant, with the former his best pitch and the latter generating excellent induced vertical break that makes it effective at getting swings and misses when located at the top of the zone.
Small’s changeup has a ridiculous 58.6% whiff rate at Triple-A this year paired with serious weak-contact generation with an average exit velocity against of 85 mph.
Command is still the at-times elusive trick for Small. He has walked 4.8 batters per nine innings throughout his minor-league career and even while finding overall success this year is still walking more than six per nine.
“I think the walks are still his – there’s enough strikes, you know what I mean?” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Friday afternoon. “And he’s kind of toeing that line. It gets harder in the big leagues because the hitters are a little better and they’ll foul off one extra pitch. So that’s still Ethan’s challenge, for sure.”
Putting the command together consistently is still a challenge for Small from a mechanics standpoint, but he feels that has mentally adjusted fully to coming out of the bullpen.
“Realistically probably 85% mental,” Small said of his struggles last year. “After a certain point there was fear, anxiety, hesitancy to even throw the pitch over the plate for whatever reason and I think that lasted pretty much the rest of the year last year.”
Small’s two previous stints with the Brewers last season each lasted all of one day before he was optioned back to the minors.
“I’ve earned the ability to be here twice and I haven’t proven that I deserve to stay yet,” he said. “Just going to keep working and put my nose down and get after it.”
Small's first outing didn't go as hoped for the lefty. He ate up three innings in a 15-1 blowout loss to the Giants on Friday but gave up five runs, all earned, on nine hits.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Former top prospect Ethan Small is back with the Brewers in relief