Back in “Must Win” Territory
Last night’s game – Game 5 of the NLCS – was simply dreadful if you’re a Brewers fan. Defensive miscues and a lack of clutch hitting deprived the Brewers of a victory in what would have been, absent such errors, a very winnable game. Jamie Garcia tossed less than five innings, but gave up only one run and struck out five. It was the Cardinals’ bullpen – a regular season weakness turned postseason strength for the Red Birds – that was again so, so good, tossing up scoreless frame after scoreless frame the rest of the way. The Crew gave the Cardinals plenty of extra outs on three fielding errors and a throwing error, and the Cardinals took advantage for a 7-1 win and a 3-2 advantage in the series.
Tomorrow, Game 6, is an elimination game for the Milwaukee Brewers. You can pat yourself on the back knowing you’re a virtual prophet if you saw this coming; that the Cardinals, who have such a historical and philosophical rivalry with the Crew, would be the ones to push the NL Central Champions to the brink of elimination.
So all eyes shift to the man who will take the mound for Milwaukee tomorrow night: Shaun Marcum.
My pizza delivery driver last night wasn’t impressed with Ron Roenicke’s choice of pitcher. “You’ve heard Roenicke’s throwing Marcum out there for Game 6?” It took me a moment to register that he was asking because I was wearing my NL Central Championship t-shirt. “Yeah, I think its a good choice,” I said. He looked at me, eyes burning, asking if I was serious. And then explained precisely why he could manage the Brewers better than Ron Roenicke.
I support Roenicke’s choice.* It is certainly true that Marcum has not been, in Roenicke’s words, “quite as sharp” as he had been earlier in the season. But for a variety of reasons, I don’t think a lot of Brewers fans are giving Marcum a fair shake. His pitch location the last few games, if not his pitch selection, has been fairly good, and there really haven’t been any significant velocity dips (not that Marcum is a power pitcher anyway). His mechanics (arm slot, balance, etc) don’t appear to have noticeably changed, though such things can be subtle.
I’ve come to believe the problem lies in pitch selection.
I put together some graphs of a few of Marcum’s starts this season that illustrate the problem. I selected two starts in the season in which Marcum pitched pretty well. In the first on May 16, Marcum threw seven strong innings against the Dodgers, giving up one earned run on five hits with four strikeouts. Marcum throws his plus-change about 39% of the time. Combined, he throws his three fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, and cutter) about 33% of the time.
The next start I looked at was June 12 against the Cardinals. Marcum again goes seven strong innings, this time allowing three runs on five hits with eight strikeouts. He uses his change even more, about 41%, while his fastballs collectively constitute about 46%.
Here’s where it starts to get hairy. In his last three starts – September 26 against Pittsburgh, October 4 against the D’Backs in the NLDS, and October 10 against the Cardinals in the NLCS, Marcum relies heavily on his fastballs.
On September 26, Marcum threw his fastballs nearly three times as often as his change. That ratio climbed to eight to one in his abbreviated start in Arizona. And by the time we get to the NLCS, he’s throwing his very hittable fastballs about five times as often as his changeup. The diminishing use of Marcum’s best pitch is puzzling given that his fastballs really don’t work without the change.
Although Marcum seems to have taken a fancy to the heat as the season grows colder, Marcum simply doesn’t have the velocity to support his heavy reliance on fastballs. He needs to go to the change early and often tomorrow. If he can put that pitch where he wants it – and the location data suggests he can still do that – he will hopefully be back to old form. You can wonder why Marcum doesn’t have the confidence in his change he once displayed – only Marcum can answer that question – but the path out of this slump seems pretty clear as long as there is no injury or fatigue issue (and both Roenicke and Marcum assure us there is not).
You have to believe that pitching coach Rick Kranitz and the rest of the Brewers’ managerial staff have noted this pattern and are working to correct it.
So where does that leave us? I would just like to give Brewer Nation a little reminder how we got here. Marcum was a huge part of our regular season success and deserves credit for taking us this far. He also deserves our support in a time when he is not doing so well. Greinke has pitched poorly at times this postseason and yet seemingly gets a pass because the offense can generate a lot of runs for him.
Best of luck to Marcum tomorrow. And should things get off track and this turns out to be the final game of the season – which would be especially disappointing given the opponent – we should be proud of all that the Brewers have accomplished this year.
*Not that I’m a Roenicke apologist by any means. In my eyes, his decision to play Mark Kotsay in center field in Game 3 was a fatal error that cost us that game. And sure enough, first inning Kotsay can’t reach a ball that any respectable center fielder could have grabbed. Again, you cannot give the Red Birds extra outs, and that mistake falls squarely on Roenicke.