Ace(s) Up Our Sleeves: The Wonderful Dilemma of Having Two Staff Aces

By: Ryan Smith

While discussing the idea of this article with the Cream City Cables brain trust, the unavoidable question was finally asked:

How do we define “ace” in the baseball world?

There’s a number of different ways one could approach this term. The ace is the #1 starter in the rotation. The ace is the best pitcher on a given team. The ace is the guy who pitches on Opening Day.

Personally, while I think all of these definitions have some truth to them, they don’t say enough. All of these definitions imply that each team has a true ace while I feel that is not the case at all; I only have to point to my Pittsburgh Pirates preview to prove that not every team has an ace.

Before I go off on a tangent about how terrible the Pirates’ rotation is going to be, let’s go back to my initial thought. What is the definition for ace?

When I think of a staff’s ace, I think of the guy you would want on the mound in a must-win situation. That could mean that your team is in Game 7 of the NLCS, or it could mean you are on a four-game losing streak in May and need to stop the bleeding. Either way, you need to win. You want the ball in the hands of your ace.

Sabathia's run as Brewers' ace was short-lived, but it did end a 26-year playoff drought.

In the last decade or so, the Brewers have rarely been known for their pitching prowess. Ben Sheets was certainly ace-quality, but his best years were squandered on embarrassing squads. In 2008, GM Doug Melvin made a big splash by trading for CC Sabathia, an ace-for-hire who pitched the Brew Crew into the playoffs and then headed off to New York and the deep pockets of the Yankees.

Enough about the past; it’s 2012. A new season is on the horizon. Pitchers and catchers report soon. And the 2012 Brewers have two aces at the top of the rotation.

So I’m here to tackle a different question.

Yovani Gallardo or Zack Greinke: Who is the true ace of the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers?

This is certainly unfamiliar territory for Brewers fans. A few years ago, the idea of having two dominant starters in the Brewers’ rotation only seemed possible in the video game world. Instead, thanks again to Melvin’s go-for-it attitude, here we are.

2011 was the first year that we saw the Greinke/Gallardo pairing, though we had to wait longer than expected because of a certain pitcher’s tendency to play pick-up games of basketball and then get hurt during said basketball games. But I digress.

For the most part, the first edition of Zack & Yo was a smashing success. Let’s take a look at their individual numbers from last season.

In 33 starts, Gallardo went 17-10 with a 3.52 ERA. He struck out 207 and walked 59 over 207.1 innings pitched. That last part might be the most impressive stat that I mentioned thus far. Before 2011, Gallardo’s career-high for innings pitched was 185.2. It always seemed that he fell in love with the strikeout, driving his pitch count up in the early innings and forcing the bullpen into action before the 7th inning.

Taking a look at some of Gallardo’s advanced stats, you’ll see his K/9 was 8.99 – his lowest in three years. His 2.56 BB/9 was a career-best, as was his 3.19 xFIP. All of these stats basically support what I was alluding to in the previous paragraph; in 2011, Gallardo finally matured into the pitcher we had seen flashes over the previous few seasons.

While fans had to wait a little bit longer to see Greinke take the mound, he proved to be well worth the wait. In 28 starts, Greinke went 16-6 with a 3.83 ERA. He struck out 201 while walking only 45 in 171.2 innings pitched.

The advanced stats get even more impressive for Greinke, who posted a career-high 10.54 K/9 while maintaining a 2.36 BB/9, which is right around his career norm. Finally, he posted an astounding 2.56 xFIP, which was the best in all of baseball.

So while Gallardo was having a coming-of-age season, Greinke reached back and pitched a lot like his 2009 Cy Young-winning self.

While the regular season seems to have been a dead-heat, the postseason paints a different picture.

In three 2011 postseason starts, Gallardo went 1-1 with a 2.84 ERA. He struck out 16 while walking eight in 19.0 innings pitched.

Greinke struggled a bit more in October. In his three 2011 postseason starts, Greinke also went 1-1, but he finished with a whopping 6.48 ERA. He struck out 13 while only walking four in 16.2 innings pitched.

So I’ve thrown a lot of stats out there, but I haven’t really addressed the question at hand. Who is our ace for 2012?

Well, while Gallardo has proved to be a consistent pitcher who seems to be getting better every year, Greinke is my choice for the ace of the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers, and here’s why.

While I think Gallardo will continue to grow as a pitcher, I’m not sure we can expect him to improve on all of these career-best numbers while coming off of a season where he pitched 40 more innings than he ever had pitched before. It’s true that the Brewers defense should be improved (hello, Alex Gonzalez!) but I still can’t expect Gallardo to keep posting better numbers. Greinke, on the other hand, didn’t even have his best season last year. He had over 200 innings pitched in three consecutive seasons before 2011, so he won’t have to deal with the same growing pains that will face Gallardo.

With 2012 being a contract year, I predict that Greinke will pitch like the ace that he truly is.

And of course, there’s one other factor that I haven’t mentioned yet. 2012 will be a contract year for Mr. Greinke. History tends to show that players often rise to the occasion when they’re working for a new contract, and I don’t think Greinke will be any different.

Now, I know Greinke is currently representing himself, and some of you might argue that this could cause a distraction to him during the season. I don’t buy it. Greinke is a smart guy who knows what he’s doing. He knows that if he pitches up to his ability, he is going to have no shortage of teams vying for his services. And if you think he’s doing the whole “agentless” thing without any sort of advisor or consultant, you’re kidding yourself.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter which player is considered the ace of the staff. If the Brewers plan on contending this year, they are going to need both of these guys to bring their best every time they step on the mound.

So, instead of worrying about who the ace is, why don’t we just enjoy the fact that we have two of the best pitchers in baseball playing for our beloved Milwaukee Brewers?

Of course, I’d love to hear your opinions on this topic, so feel free to comment below, praising my selection or telling me to pull my head out of a certain orifice. Either way, I’d love to hear from some of my readers.

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.

The Deadliest Cardinals Lineup Yet

The Cardinals bullpen was stellar yesterday in Game 3 of the NLCS, shutting down the Brewers’ offense after Chris Carpenter coughed up three runs early.  But the Cardinals’ offense picked Carpenter up, scoring four runs in the first off an uncharacteristically wild Yovani Gallardo.  The win gave the Cardinals a 2-1 advantage in the NLCS, and puts today’s Game 4 firmly in “must win” territory for the Milwaukee Brewers.

And so its not much of a surprise that LaRussa wants his proverbial boot on the team’s throat.

Ron Roenicke has learned a thing or two in the first three games, the first lesson being that you cannot pitch to Albert Pujols.  Pujols is hitting an insane .636 in the NLCS, with 6 RBI and a home run.  After doubling in a run yesterday, Pujols found himself all but taken out of the game by intentional walks (though he did nab second on a wild pitch).  Hard for the one-man wrecking crew to do much damage if he doesn’t get an opportunity to swing.

Thankfully, Matt Holliday, batting fourth, wasn’t able to make the Brewers play for the walks, striking out both times to end the inning.

But old LaRussa is too crafty to let that situation play out again.

Today’s lineup features Pujols batting third, but instead of Matt Holliday following behind, its David Freese.  Freese has been swinging an extraordinarily hot bat in the NLCS, to the tune of a .500 average with 2 home runs and 6 RBI.  Yes, David Freese has actually outslugged Albert Pujols.  So now when the Brewers walk Pujols, they’ll be bringing up perhaps the Cardinals’ hottest hitter.  And then the Brewers will still have to deal with Matt Holliday, batting fifth.  Lance Berkman gets the day off.

Tony LaRussa obviously doesn’t want this thing coming back to Milwaukee, and with good reason.  The Brewers certainly have a shot to win tonight – of the eight position players in the Cardinals’ batting order, only Pujols (.286) and Freese (.353) have career averages greater than .260 against Milwaukee’s Randy Wolf) – but LaRussa’s move has made the road that much more difficult.

A Marked Man

Human perception is a funny thing.

Let me posit a couple scenarios.

In the first, Shaun Marcum starts Game 2 of the NLCS at Miller Park. He does not have his best stuff, but some impressive defensive plays behind him limit the damage to two runs.  In the first, Marcum fields a Jon Jay bunt for an out before allowing a solo home run to Albert Pujols. Nyjer Morgan saves two runs in the third with his glove in center field, but Marcum allows another run in the fourth when Nick Punto singles in Yadier Molina.  Marcum is removed after that inning, and the bullpen plays scoreless baseball the rest of the way.  The Brewers win, 3-2, on a Prince Fielder home run in the eighth.

In the second, Shaun Marcum also starts Game 2 of the NLCS at Miller Park.  He does not have his best stuff, but is severely harmed by defensive lapses behind him.  He misplays a Jon Jay bunt in the first, and Albert Pujols follows up with a two-run home run.  Nyjer Morgan cannot haul in a couple of deep balls in the third, and the Cardinals again score two runs.  They score a fifth run in the fourth when Nick Punto singles in Yadier Molina, and that is all for Marcum.  The bullpen suffers an absolute meltdown after that, allowing seven more runs to score.  Prince Fielder hits a meaningless home run in the eighth, and the Brewers lose, 12-3.

The second scenario played out last night at Miller Park, but it could just as easily have been the first.  And yet today, Milwaukee is clamoring for Shaun Marcum’s head. During Marcum’s last two innings at Miller Park, I had to listen to the guy next to me repeatedly shout, “You suck, Marcum!”  Now there’s motivation for you.

Marcum, of course, doesn’t suck.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  During the regular season, Marcum had the team’s second-best starter ERA at 3.54.  He held opponents to a .232 average and allowed about 1.2 walks or hits per inning, best among the team’s starters.

There’s no doubt Marcum didn’t have his best stuff last night, but he didn’t pitch as badly as most seem to think. Sports radio this morning thought it was terribly funny to play a postgame quote from Marcum – declaring the Pujols home run pitch a good one – side by side with broadcast audio of the pitch – “right down the middle!”  Which was it?

Not a terribly good pitch, but not right down Wisconsin Avenue either.  Looks like a fastball high and away that didn’t have a whole lot of movement.  Might have been tough for any other batter, but Pujols doesn’t miss those pitches often.

And here are the rest of Marcum’s pitches in Game 2 of the NLCS.  The ones that hurt him were not right over the plate; in fact, except for that one pitch to Pujols, all the hits came on pitches either low or inside.  It looks like Marcum was simply beat by good Cardinal hitting.

And as long as we’re talking hypotheticals, let’s pretend, just for the sake of argument, that Marcum gave up the five runs but the bullpen set down five scoreless frames after that.  That would have put the final score at 5-3 on a late Prince Fielder home run.  Instead of walking away from the game shaking their heads, Brewers fans would have walked away thinking the Cardinals had eked out a narrow victory.  Would Brewers nation still be so hard on Marcum?  Doubtful.  I think our perception of Marcum was tainted more by what happened after he left the game than what happened during his four ill-fated innings.

Our perception is also tainted by recent history.  Marcum didn’t have a clean slate heading into the playoffs, allowing seven earnies in his abbreviated final regular season start against the Pirates.  And folks are quick to point out that his two mid-September starts against the Phillies and Colorado ended nearly as bad.  That all fits the narrative of Shaun Marcum as a pitcher whose first 200+ inning season has taken its toll on his arm.  They forget to mention, or just gloss over, his spectacular starts on September 4th and 20th, in which Marcum allowed one run over a combined fifteen innings with fifteen strikeouts and one walk.

So let’s cut Marcum a little slack.  Maybe we can’t figure out what’s wrong with him because there’s nothing wrong; he’s simply getting beat by good hitting.  Or maybe its something as simple as his pitch selection; as Jack Moore and Tom Haudricourt point out, he’s not throwing his bread-and-butter changeup nearly as often as he should be.

Whatever the reason for Marcum’s struggles, I can’t believe I’m hearing people seriously suggesting that Chris Narveson (regular season: 4.45 ERA, 1.4 WHIP, 3.6 BB/9) should get the start in Game 6 over Marcum. We’re talking the NLCS here.  If we’re to make our stand in Game 6, I want the pitcher with the highest upside out there.  With all due respect to Narveson, that is Shaun Marcum, and he’s shown it over and over again this season.

Home Field Advantage?

I’m not a big believer in the significance of home/road splits.  Prince Fielder hit .326 at home during the regular season but only .272 away.  Nyjer Morgan had the opposite problem; he hits.279 at Miller Park, but .328 on the road.  Corey Hart batted .316 at home and .252 away.

Ballparks can affect hitters and pitchers; large ballparks, for example, might favor pitchers, while smaller parks like Great American in Cincinnati are a hitter’s delight. But those stats should balance out over the course of a season at teams travel to different parks.  And those splits can probably be explained by other things, like, say, the opposing pitcher, or (in Hart’s case, for example) where he hit in the batting order.

But I don’t know how to explain what Zack Greinke has done at Miller Park this year.

A 3.13 home ERA versus a 4.70 road ERA is a head scratcher, especially since the Keg isn’t exactly known as a pitcher’s park.  The same is true for Greinke’s 1.29 road WHIP versus 1.13 at home.  All that led Greinke to a 5-6 road record, but a perfect 11-0 at home during the regular season.

There’s some aspect of luck in this, we know that.  Wins and losses are a pretty arbitrary way to measure a pitcher’s value, especially in the Moneyball age.  A player’s record is only as good as his run support, and Greinke’s had a lot of it.  The Brewers scored 6 or more runs in 16 of Greinke’s 28 starts; 3 or more in 21.

Greinke continued his perfect trend at home in the postseason with a little help from his friends.  In Game 2 of the NLDS, Greinke was throwing BP to the Arizona Diamondbacks, allowing four runs on three dingers and lasting only five innings.  The offense bailed him out, though, with a five-run sixth, and Greinke maintained his perfect home record.

An eerily similar scene unfolded today at the Keg.  Greinke was not sharp in Game 1 of the NLCS, tossing 107 pitches in 6 innings, only 67 for strikes.  He walked two and came damn close to walking about six more; I don’t know how many 3-2 counts he was in today.  And his six earned runs – three of them off a David Freese round-tripper – would place this start firmly among Greinke’s worst of the season.

And yet on a day the Brewers should have been soundly defeated, the offense again bailed Greinke out to maintain his perfect home record.

Some people just have all the luck.

The First Step Toward a Championship

This is where we expected to be at the beginning of the season, right?

Never mind that Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder formed one of the most epic one-two punches in perhaps baseball history.  Never mind that the team won a franchise-best 96 games during the regular season.  And never mind that the team had three legitimate aces to form the front end of their starting rotation, and a bullpen that is the envy of all postseason teams.

It would have been a long offseason for Brewers fans to endure if there hadn’t been any championship games in Milwaukee.

So with Game 1 of what is sure to be a testy and classic matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals, I’m ready to declare the season a success no matter how the Brewers fare in the NLCS.

There is absolutely no love lost between the Brewers and the Cardinals.  When Lance Berkman was questioned about that very topic, he replied simply and directly: “And that’s correct.”  The last time these two teams saw each other, Chris Carpenter threw an f-bomb at Nyjer Morgan, who would have taken on the entire Cardinals roster had he not been restrained.  I’m giving a better than 50-percent chances of a bench-clearing brawl.

That all adds to the high-tension that already accompanies a rematch of the 1982 World Series, won in seven games by the Cardinals.  But the Brewers dominated the Cardinals in Game 1 of that series; lefty Mike Caldwell tossed a three-hit complete game shutout and the Brewers’ offense – Harvey’s Wallbangers – exploded for ten runs on seventeen hits.  Molitor and Yount, yesterday’s Fielder and Braun, combined to go nine-for-twelve with two RBI each.

Caldwell was not a strikeout pitcher, but the Brewers send one out today in Zack Greinke, who had 201 strikeouts in only 171 innings during the regular season.  Greinke was consistent with his strikeouts in his short start against the D’Backs in Game 2 of the NLDS (7 K, 5 IP), but allowed four runs on eight hits. Greinke, as he has all season, really struggled to keep the ball down in the zone, and three of the hits were home runs. Brewers fans won’t have much to cheer about today if he does that against a Cardinals lineup anchored by Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman.

But enough of the game minutiae for now.  The Brewers have their first playoff series win since 1982.  And that’s something even the Cardinals can’t ruin.

 

 

Game 4 Warm Up

Well, at least I was right about one thing:  it didn’t take the Brewers long to score against Josh Collmenter.  Corey Hart led off the third with a home run to left.  Unfortunately that was all the scoring the Brewers would do in Game 3 of the NLDS.

The D’Backs weren’t quite so tame, though, in what was one of Shaun Marcum’s worst starts of the year.  Miguel Montero and Paul Goldschmidt each knocked in a run in the first, Montero added another in the third, and in the fifth Goldschmidt grooved a two-strike fastball into the seats for the D’Back’s first franchise postseason grand slam.

But we’ve so often talked about defense with these two clubs, and that again was what really cost the Brewers the game.  The team had multiple opportunities to end the fifth before Goldschmidt even came to the plate, but Nyjer Morgan badly misplayed a ball to straightaway center field and Marcum dropped a tailor-made double-play ground ball.  A throwing error by Jerry Hairston, Jr. extended the inning and allowed the D’Backs to plate one more run to end the scoring for the night.

The D’Backs appeared to be testing their luck at the plate against the left side of the Brewers’ infield, as Yuniesky Betancourt had more balls hit his way than I can remember so far in the series.  He fielded most of them well, though, but you have to worry that Arizona will continue to try to exploit the Brewers’ weak left side.  Perhaps Kurt Gibson, widely expected to run away with the NL Manager of the Year award, has found this club’s Achilles’ heel.

Randy Wolf gets the ball tonight for the Crew.  Career versus Arizona, he’s 10-5 with 110 strikeouts in 128 innings, all of which are fine.  The problems are his 51 walks, 1.39 WHIP, and 4.64 ERA.  Wolf lost against Arizona his last time out, but gave up only two runs over 7 1/3, which, if replicated, I would be more than happy with.

His opposition, Joe Saunders, has not won a game in two starts against Milwaukee and owns a 5.68 ERA versus the Brewers.