Five (More) Reasons the Brewers are in First Place (and the One Thing They Must Do to Win the Division).

at Miller Park on April 7, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In the final week before the All Star Break the Brewers swept the Orioles, stomped the Cubs and came a Corey Knebel Curveball away from sweeping the Yankees in the Bronx. This was “the statement” all the pundits needed to finally accept that the Brewers were a story worth talking about, not just a 1st half fluke. Despite the National attention, the most comprehensive analysis was Milwaukee’s own Tom Haudricourt. I agree with pretty much all of his “10 Reasons the Brewers are in 1st Place“, but there are a few important ones that were left off the list. And when the division could easily be won by a single game, any one of these factors could be the thing that secures the Brewers their 5th playoff appearance in franchise history.

1. Double Plays

The Brewers are second in all of baseball with 98, behind only the Rockies (101). They led the league for most of the season and a number of early analyses of the Brewers cited this as a reason they’d fade, after all you can’t lead the league in double plays unless you allow a lot of base-runners right? Looking at the leader board in this stat this logic seems to hold. Besides the Brewers and the Rockies at the top, teams 3-12 are all under .500. Not until the Nationals at 13 does another winning team show up. Look a little closer and some interesting things show up.

Brewers MLB rank in a number of  pertinent stats:

  • Tied for 14th with a 1.35 WHIP (Walks + Hits/Innings Pitched)
  • 7th best at generating soft contact (19.7%)
  • Tied for 9th best at generating ground balls (45.7%)

While middle of the pack in terms of WHIP is not where you want to be, check out the league with runners on base:

WHIP with Runners on

With Runners on the Brewers WHIP drastically improves. There they sit at 4th, right in the middle of the 5 other Division Leaders. They also get better at soft contact % (5th) and Ground Ball % (6th).  It seems the Brewers ability to generate soft contact and ground balls means that letting someone get to 1st is not actually that bad for the Brewers, as long as they can keep him there. Which brings us to #2.

2. Shutting Down the Opponent’s Running Game: Manny Pina is a bad, bad man. Among MLB Catchers with at least 100 innings Manny Pina ranks 4th in rSB (Stolen Base Runs Saved). Per Fangraphs “rSB measures two things: the pitcher’s contributions to controlling the running game, and gives the catcher credit for throwing out runners and preventing them from attempting steals in the first place.” I love this stat because it helps to control for the Jimmy Nelson’s of the world who are terrible at holding guys on, while also measuring the extent to which base-runners are too scared to even attempt to run. Manny Pina definitely falls into this latter category.

It’s not just Stolen Bases however, Manny is the 2nd best Catcher in all of baseball in Defensive Runs Saved, and tied for 4th in Defensive Runs Above Average. When he’s behind the dish even the best running teams in baseball become cautious, moving station to station, and getting short leads.

3. Bullpen “Shutdowns”

First, let’s get something clear, Saves and Holds are garbage statistics, and we should never mention them again. Anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly a troglodyte and is no longer my friend. While I’m amenable to Nate Silver’s replacement stat, the Goose Egg, Fangraphs doesn’t track it. Instead they produce an infinitely more useful pair of stats called “shutdowns” and “meltdowns”. The first and most important reason these stats are better is that they track all relievers successes or failures, not just pitchers in “Save” or “Hold” situations. 2nd reason it is a great stat is that it factors in the context of the appearance. We know for example that giving up a home run in a tie game in the 9th is much worse than the same homer in a 10-0 blowout. Beyond that if you wanna understand ’em better, go read the links and level up player!

Alright now that that’s out of the way, why am I bringing up Shutdowns? Cause of this:

Shutdowns

See that SD column? The Brewers have far and away the most Shutdowns of any team in baseball. You might be thinking “but Javi, what about that MD column right next to Shutdowns?” Hold your horses there bud, all in due time.

Ignoring for a minute the Meltdowns (a category which astute readers of charts will have noticed the Brewers also lead), when we combine Shutdowns, with Manny Pina’s base-running prevention, and the Brewers success at turning double plays, we have three elements of “Run Prevention” that will often get overlooked. This gets missed because overall the Brewers are not great defensively (15th in Defensive Runs Saved and 23rd (ouch) in Defensive Runs Above Average) and because standard measures of bullpens (14th in K/9, tied for 11th in ERA) mask the Brewers successes in shutdown appearances.

Let’s look at two more areas that explain the Brewers first half success. One is the inverse of Manny Pina:

4. Speed on the Base-paths

The Brewers are tied for the NL lead with 75 stolen bases, and this comes with Jonathan Villar (the league leader in SBs in 2016) greatly under performing in the first half. Beyond that the Brewers rank 6th in all of baseball in Base Running (BsR) “Fangraphs all encompassing base running stat“, and 3rd in raw Speed. This speed has the obvious benefit of getting extra bases for the Brewers, but it also has benefits in distracting the pitcher, altering defensive alignments, avoiding double plays, increased number of infield hits, and increased pressure on defenses.

Last but not least of my 5 (more) reasons the Brewers are in first is:

5. Management

At the halfway point of the season Craig Counsell’s gotta be on the short list for Manager of the Year doesn’t he? With a bunch of players no-one’s ever heard of, your Opening Day pitcher leaves in the third inning on crutches and misses two months, your best hitter and highest paid player misses more than 50 games, your closer implodes and is released from the team, and somehow you cobble together a 5 1/2 game lead over the World Series Champs and sit 9 games above .500 at the All-Star Break?

By all accounts the Brewers seem to have followed Counsell’s lead and have done a tremendous job focusing exclusively on the game at hand. The Brewers are one of only 5 teams in baseball who have avoided getting swept in a 3 or 4 game series (the other four: D-Backs, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Blue Jays). They’re also often working with a lead, as the Brewers lead all of baseball in runs scored in the 1st inning. At least some of this should be attributed to good preparation from coaches.

Then there’s David Stearns. Just looking at players he’s acquired this year, whom any team could’ve had, (Thames, Sogard, Aguilar, and Vogt) that’s a total of 4.4 WAR. All 4 of these players were acquired without giving up any of our own players (Thames was a Free Agent and the other three were claimed off waivers). That’s to say nothing of the highway robbery perpetrated upon the Boston Red Sox. As of right now Travis Shaw (2.8 WAR) for Tyler Thornburg (yet to play for the Red Sox) looks one sided even as a one for one deal. Yet somehow Stearns was able to get 3 more prospects from Boston!  We would be remiss if we didn’t consider the role that management and coaching have played in this team thus far.

Speaking of Stearns, let’s take a look at that Meltdown stat that I avoided a few paragraphs ago. As I mentioned above, the Brewers lead the league in shutdowns (96) but also meltdowns (56). This is partially a function of an overtaxed bullpen. The Brewers are currently 4th in Relief innings pitched, but only dropped to that spot from 1st, after an extended run of solid outings from our starters. They’re 1st in all of baseball with 60 1/3 High Leverage Innings pitched (stressful innings where the game hangs in the balance) during the 6th-9th Innings. And while no team in baseball has a better shutdown/meltdown ratio, if they had avoided even a few more of these meltdowns the Brewers would actually be much farther ahead in the Division, and we’d be looking at the Brewers as one of the best teams in baseball.

One more chart courtesy of Fangraphs:

Brewers SD vs MD

We already knew Knebel has been fantastic. But seeing Barnes SD/MD ratio is a reminder of how important he’s been to the team this year. In the majors both he and Knebel are in the top 20 for Shutdowns. No other duo has more than their combined 44. In early June, Jared Hughes did not look nearly as good as he does now, but both Torres and Drake are a huge risk being put into any close games.

So now I come to what I promised in the title of this blog “the one thing the Brewers must do to win the division.” They absolutely must reduce the number of meltdowns in their bullpen. Some of this has been addressed by stronger starting pitching performances. By this logic Stearns might improve the current bullpen simply by finding a good front-line starter, thereby decreasing the number of high leverage bullpen innings. The more direct strategy is to get another back-end bullpen arm. One who can join Barnes and Knebel as a reliable shut-down artist helping to turn our late-inning leads into wins. Is that player the recently acquired Tyler Webb? Maybe. He certainly has some nice #’s at AAA this year (15.67 K/BB with a 1.08 WHIP). We know Stearns is good at finding talent so I have confidence that Webb could do the trick. It’s also possible that Josh Hader’s success thus far could be sustained. That said both of those guys are rookies and it would be nice to have someone legit we could trust, perhaps someone like Zach Britton of the Orioles 118/14 SD/MD over the last 3 years? The cost might be expensive, but with just 4 playoff appearances in Brewers history, we can’t afford to squander what’s in front of us.

There are so many reasons the 2017 Brewers are better than expected, now it’s time to get the final pieces that will ensure they have what it takes not just to make the playoffs, but to make a sustained run at their first pennant since 1982.

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