Tempering Expectations

Milwaukee’s Season Hinges on the Rotation

 By: Ryan Smith (@ryanhenrysmith2)

After a rough 2013 season for the Milwaukee Brewers – one that saw the suspension of Ryan Braun, the continued decline of Rickie Weeks, a regression in Yovani Gallardo’s performance, and a litany of injuries – it would have been understandable for Brewer Nation to approach the 2014 campaign with apprehension.

A 10-2 start has Brewer fans excited for 2014.

A 10-2 start has Brewer fans excited for 2014.

Then the first 12 games happened.

A 10-2 record, best in Major League Baseball.

A nine-game winning streak, including sweeps over the reigning World Series champion Red Sox and 2013 playoff participant Pittsburgh Pirates.

Cue the grand speculation.  There was some warranted attention being focused on Milwaukee, reminding fans that this team is not far removed from one that seriously contended for the National League pennant.  Sports writers from national sources and local publications were very quick to point out that this roster was not simply a flash in the pan, but instead was built for sustained success throughout the season.

Needless to say, expectations were running high.  The pitching staff – both starters and the bullpen – was lights out on the mound.  The lineup was providing timely hitting.  10-2.

And then the Cardinals came to town.

Not only did St. Louis stop the winning streak that had the entire state abuzz, they did so in a very Cardinals-y way, shutting out the Brewers at Miller Park, 4-0.  That was followed up with a 6-1 loss to the hated Cardinals.

All the “happy” feelings that went along with the nine-game winning streak had been wiped out in a 28-hour span at the hands of the team that seems to have Milwaukee’s number more than anyone else.

So where does that leave this Milwaukee squad?  Are they the team that started 10-2 with a pitching staff that could hang with anyone?  Or are they the team that gets crushed by St. Louis every time they play?

The fact of that matter is that they are probably somewhere in between.

Lohse's leadership has been as important as his consistency.

Lohse’s leadership has been as important as his consistency.

As of right now, the Brewers stand at 11-5, a win percentage of .688 through 16 games.  The early season success that the Brewers have experienced begins and ends with the pitching staff.  The starting rotation of Gallardo, Lohse, Garza, Estrada, and Peralta has an ERA of 2.55 with a 3.66 FIP.  Over 102.1 innings, they have recorded 85 strikeouts and only 29 walks.  The bullpen has been just as good, posting a 3.16 ERA with an impressive 3.28 FIP over 42.2 innings.

I’m not delusional; I don’t expect the pitching staff to keep this up over the course of the season.  In Thursday night’s 11-2 loss to the Pirates, we saw the first real implosion by the bullpen, taking over a tie ballgame and giving up nine runs over two innings.  The numbers that Brewers pitchers were putting up are simply not sustainable over a full season.

That does not mean that they can’t continue to be a point of strength for this team for the remainder of the year.  Yovani Gallardo has shown flashes of being a staff ace before, so while his 1.46 ERA and 2.89 FIP won’t be as impressive in July, he could still very well be leading the way for a dominant staff.  Kyle Lohse has continued to be one of the most reliable starters in  Brewer uniform for the second-straight year.  Perhaps more than anything else, Lohse’s leadership has been key in helping turn this staff around.  If Garza can stay healthy and Estrada maintains the progression that he’s made over the last few seasons, Milwaukee will have a pretty formidable one-through-four in the rotation.

Wily Peralta could be the key to a successful 2014 campaign.

Wily Peralta could be the key to a successful 2014 campaign.

That brings me to Wily Peralta.  I’ve been a fan of Peralta for quite some time; I always saw the potential that he brought to the mound.  He just had the pitching ability that the Milwaukee farm system seemed to lack ever since Gallardo was promoted.  His early returns have been mixed; he showed admirable durability in starting 32 games last year, but his 4.37 ERA and 4.30 FIP left something to be desired.

Through three starts this season, Peralta has shown improvement in some important areas.  He has lowered his BB/9 by over a full walk while posting similar K/9 numbers, and his ERA is a spectacular 1.96.  However, his 4.58 FIP and .222 BABIP seem to indicate that his success thus far is a product of a good amount of luck.

As the number five starter in the rotation, Peralta doesn’t need to have a sub-2.00 ERA; he doesn’t need to pitch like the staff ace.  Frankly, if Peralta can bring his FIP down closer to 4.00 and keep his ERA in the 3.75-range, Brewers fans should be thrilled.  If our number five is pitching like a three, we’re going to be trouble for the rest of the National League.

I could go on and break down the bullpen arms a little more, or I could discuss the possibility that Aramis Ramirez loves batting with runners in scoring position.  But, in all honesty, I think the hopes of a playoff run for the ‘14 Milwaukee Brewers begins and ends with the rotation.

If they can find a way to continue to produce quality starts even after the supposed lucky numbers stop going their way, the Brewers are going to force themselves into the playoff conversation, along with other National League contenders.

But, if Garza gets hurt, or Gallardo has his past issues creep up, or Peralta steps back to his ‘13 version, Milwaukee will be in trouble.  If the rotation struggles for prolonged periods of time, the bullpen will get taxed and start to break down.  If the pitching staff begins to implode, the curious struggles of the lineup will be magnified.

For the record, I think this Brewers team will challenge for a playoff spot.  I think they are capable of winning 88-90 games in 2014.

But any sustained success begins and ends with the rotation.  If that domino falls, Miller Park will be in for a long summer.

Khris Davis, man of (too) high expectations

By Nathan Petrashek

davisLet’s get this out of the way: Khris Davis had a crappy homestand.  I get that going 0-12 while only reaching base twice isn’t going to woo many fans.  It’s not like anyone else was knocking the cover off the ball during that homestand either, though.

Let’s not close out the book on Davis quite so fast.  While Davis is now only slashing .250/.278/.346 on the year, he was key during the Brewers’ nine-game win streak, batting .343/.343/.486 with 8 runs.

Davis hasn’t yet hit a home run.  I understand that’s mildly concerning since power seems to be his one plus tool, and Davis certainly showed it last year with 11 home runs over 153 plate attempts.  Extrapolating that out over a full season would have Davis hitting over 35 bombs, which I think we all know is pretty unreasonable.

Part of the problem is Davis’s aggressiveness; last year, he was one of the ten-worst left fielders in swinging strike percentage among those with at least 150 plate attempts.  He’s going to be a strikeout-prone batter.  It isn’t that he’s swinging at bad pitches, necessarily, but he’s seeing many more breaking balls so far, as pitchers have figured out that Davis feasts on fastballs.  Davis’s contact rates across the board this year are pretty abysmal; it’s clear there’s going to be a period of adjustment.

Even if that’s a slow process, the home runs will come. Davis has hit just eight fly balls this year, so its way too soon to start worrying about the power.  To some extent, I think the concerns about Davis stem in part from his performance in front of home fans, as he doesn’t have a hit at Miller Park but is slashing .406/.406/.563 on the road.

So no, I’m not worried about Khris Davis yet.  .250 is probably about right for his average, he’s never going to have a huge walk total, and the power will likely come, particularly in hitter-friendly Miller Park.

Everyone panic about bullpen use! and a bit of news

By Nathan Petrashek

bullpenThe Brewers are currently on an 8-game win streak, and everyone has rightfully mentioned what a critical part the bullpen has played in that streak.  Will Smith, Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jim Henderson are unscored upon, and Tyler Thornburg, who leads the ‘pen with 7.2 inning pitched, has allowed just one earned run (1.17 ERA).  Opposing hitters are batting just .155 and have struck out 42 times against the Brewers’ relief corps, with just 8 walks.  The bullpen bears a sparkling 0.83 ERA, easily the best in baseball.*

But have they been overused, as some seem to think?  Probably not.  The Brewers ‘pen has tallied 32.2 innings, the 10th most-used bullpen in the National League and 18th in all of baseball.  Relievers for five teams have pitched over 40 innings, and another five are pretty close.  The Brewers seem to be pretty middle-of-the-pack as far as bullpen usage goes, and they’ve certainly been much more effective than even many less-used bullpens.

What about individual players?  Not much to worry about here either.  Tyler Thornburg is on pace to throw 100 innings; Thornburg tossed 130 last year between Nashville and Milwaukee (and was great in his final starts for the Brewers).  Will Smith (6 IP) is on pace for 88 innings.  Smith pitched 89 minor-league innings and 89 major-league innings in as a starter 2012, and a total of 122 innings between levels last year.  Henderson (4.1 IP)  is on pace for 60 innings and pitched 60 in 2013.  The one guy who is even remotely worrisome is the closer, K-Rod (6 IP), and he’s simply had more work lately because, well, the Brewers are winning lots of games.  That’ll even out over time.  In essence, this is a bullpen that can handle a bigger workload.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of arms, either.  The Brewers haven’t even used Wei-Chung Wang, a lefthanded Rule 5 pick from the Pirates.  And *here’s the news* Brandon Kinzler has landed on the DL with a rotator cuff strain, and Rob Wooten has taken his place.  It sounds like Kintzler’s injury is relatively minor but lingering since spring training.  At least we won’t have to worry about him racking up more innings, I guess.

Although people complain about the starting rotation’s failure to pitch deep into games, it seems to me they’re doing exactly what they need to be at this stage of the season.  Here’s the number of innings each starter has pitched in every game during the win steak: 5.2, 5, 6.2, 5, 6, 6, 7, 6.   I can’t see much wrong with that in early April.

What’s the deal with the red card?

If you’ve attended any or several Brewers game this year, you may have noticed an individual frequently popping up near the vistor’s dugout at Miller Park, holding up cards of various colors.  I don’t recall having seen anyone doing that before.  I started looking into it, and sure enough, it’s a new position: the “Field Timing Coordinator.”

replayThe new replay system can potentially wreak havoc with broadcasts, which typically break between half-innings.  What if a batter is called out on a close play at first?  Should the broadcast cut to commercial or remain on the field in case there’s a challenge?  And what happens if the television crew cuts to a commercial only to later find out that the third out has been reversed on review?

Basically, it’s the FTC’s job to deal with this uncertainty by specifically instructing the broadcasters, verbally and visually, what’s going on down on the field.  When, for example, the FTC sees a possibility of a replay (the manager runs on the field, or the crew chief convenes a conference), it’s the FTC’s job to delay the inning break until its decided whether there will be a review.

According to the official rules, the cards are color-coded to so that broadcasters, umpires, and players can easily tell what’s happening:

  • A RED card signals the beginning of an inning break or pitching change
  • A BLUE card signals when the pitcher should throw his last warm-up pitch (45 seconds remain in the break)
  • A YELLOW card signals when the batter should approach the batter’s box (25 seconds remain in the break)
  • A GREEN card indicates the break has concluded and play can resume; the umpires can’t resume play until they see this card

And what about the umpire’s inherent ability to manage the game, including all inning breaks as has been done historically?  Although the rules pay lip service to umpire authority, they pretty much cast it aside, requiring that the umpires “shall coordinate with the Field Timing Coordinators to ensure that the broadcasters shall be afforded the applicable allotted time for inning breaks (2:05 or 2:30) following close plays involving third outs (whether or not replay review is initiated).”

If you’re like me, and want continuous, uninterrupted baseball, I guess the key is to lift that red card out of the stack before the game.

2014 Position Preview: Aramis Ramirez, Third Base

By Nathan Petrashek

Editor’s note: This is the sixth article in Cream City Cables’ 2014 position preview series. Other positions: catcher, shortstopcenter fieldleft field, and right field.

aramisWhen the Brewers first signed Aramis Ramirez, no one was really sure whether or how he would hold up through the duration of his three-year contract.  Things didn’t start too well; in 2012, Ramirez’s first year, he hit just .214/.264/.381 in April, leading many to comment on Ramirez being a notoriously”slow starter” and all that kind of nonsense.  We thoroughly debunked it in 2012 and so far in 2014 Ramirez hasn’t shown any sign of slowing down, hitting a torrid .478 in 21 plate attempts.

Red flags abound with Ramirez, though.  To say he’s not young is being charitable; he’ll turn 36 in June, well beyond most ballplayers’ primes.  His age is showing, too, as he missed a substantial portion of the 2013 season with knee issues: first, a sprained left knee, and later, tendinitis.  Even when Ramirez was active, he was clearly hobbled and had just a .773 OPS upon hitting the DL.  Ramirez returned in August, and his .301/.387/.528 triple slash in the final months (and without Ryan Braun in the lineup) probably erased whatever doubt the team had about their starting third baseman coming into 2014.

Ramirez looks to have rebounded nicely defensively from numerous horrid seasons with the Cubs, and has made a few outstanding plays at the hot corner already this season.  He’s not a rangy third baseman by any means, but still has a pretty good throwing arm and doesn’t commit many errors.

The Brewers aren’t paying Ramirez for his defense, though; they’re paying for his bat.  Ramirez has been remarkably consist throughout his career, hitting close to .300 with 25-30 home runs.  That power is clearly diminishing, but Ramirez still makes decent enough contact to hit for average.  Ramirez is aggressive at the plate though, which could result in higher strikeout totals, something he has has typically avoided.

As is true of most aging players, the big question will be Ramirez’s health.  Ron Roenicke has suggested he’ll give Ramirez regular rest, so don’t expect a repeat of the 630 plate attempts Ramirez made in 2012.

2013 Recap

351 PA, 43 R, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 0 SB, 10.3 BB%, 15.7 K%, .283/.370/.461, 132 wRC+

2014 Projections

Steamer: 533 PA, 62 R, 19 HR, 74 RBI, 2 SB, 7.4 BB%, 14.3 K%, .282/.343/.464, 125 wRC+

ZiPs: 469 PA, 56 R, 17 HR, 79 RBI, 2 SB, 7.0 BB%, 14.3 K%, .183/.343/.475, 128 wRC+

Contact Status

Will make $16M ($6M deferred) in the final year of his three-year deal with the Brewers; mutual option for 2015 with $4M buyout.

All stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.

 

Splitsville: Rattlers and Chiefs Split Double Header To Even Series At Two Games A Piece

by Kevin Kimmes
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Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you do both in the same day. Welcome to the joys of the double header.

After Friday’s game was cancelled due to the never ending icy grip of Mother Nature, the Rattlers announced that the game would be made up on Sunday afternoon as part of pair of 7 inning contests. After the Rattlers evened the series at a game a piece on Saturday, the stage was set for a showdown that was anything but Minor League.

You see, Sundays in Appleton are “Brewer Sundays”, a celebration of the team’s Major League affiliation, and what better way to kick off the first one of the season than with a visit from Hall of Famer, Rollie Fingers. Yes, the man, the myth, the mustache was in the house to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and didn’t disappoint, throwing a strike right across the plate.

The Chiefs, still stinging from Saturday’s loss, wasted no time going after Rattler starter Anthony Banda. After a throwing error by shortstop Angel Ortega allowed Chiefs’ leadoff hitter C.J. McElroy, Jr. to reach base, second baseman Mason Katz crushed a ball over the wall and gave the Chiefs an early 2-0 lead. They would never look back.

Adding an additional run in the 5th, 3 runs would be all it would take to maintain control of Game 1. The Rattlers would not go down without a fight though tallying 2 runs in the 6th as both Ortega and Johnny Davis scored off of a Francisco Castillo single. Your final in Game 1: 3-2 Peoria Chiefs.

After a brief intermission, the Rattlers were ready for Game 2 and this time they would strike first blood. The bottom of the 2nd opened up with Rattlers’ 3rd baseman Taylor Brennan working the count full before unleashing a solo homer that gave Wisconsin an early 1-0 lead.

Peoria would answer back with a solo homer of their own from Katz in the top of the 6th, knotting the score at 1 run a piece. Realizing that time was of the essense, the Rattlers fired back in the bottom half of the inning with both Davis and Chris McFarland crossing the plate to regain the lead for Wisconsin. Rattlers’ reliever Harvey Martin’s spotless 1-2-3 7th would seal the deal in Game 2.

Rattlers win Game 2 3-1.

Today’s outcomes bring the 4 game opening series to an end, resulting in a 2-2 record for both teams. The Rattlers now hit the road for a 6 game road trip beginning with 3 games against the West Michigan Whitecaps and concluding with 3 games against the South Bend Silver Hawks. The Rattlers return home on Monday, April 14th as they kick off a 3 game series against the Lansing Lugnuts.

Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and a former MLB Fan Cave Top 52 Finalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.

Wisconsin Timber Rattlers Pre-Game Notes 4/6/14

by Kevin Kimmes
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It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Hey Bernie, let’s play two!

Brewer Sunday, double-header, Rollie Fingers…if you’re not on your way to Fox Cities Stadium, WHY NOT? Here’s some quick news and notes leading into today’s contest:

- Streak Complete: The Rattlers broke a 7 game losing streak which dated back to the end of the 2013 season yesterday with their 8-4 win over Peoria.

- Rattle On: Taylor Brennan found himself on base 4 times yesterday with 2 singles (in the 1st and 3rd) and 2 walks (in the 4th and 7th).

- Deja Vu: Speaking of Taylor Brennan; he, along with Michael Ratterree and Clint Coulter each scored runs in back to back innings (the 4th and 5th). That’s 6 runs, 3 players, 2 innings. Impressive!

- Saving the Day: Tristan Archer picked up the 1st Rattler save of the season completing 4 innings of work on Saturday. His tandem partner, Barrett Astin, picked up the Rattlers’ 1st win.

Can’t make it out to the games today? You can still catch all the action on 1280 WNAM.

Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and a former MLB Fan Cave Top 52 Finalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.