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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Will the real Eric Thames please stand up?

eric-thames b4na

The ultimate fate of the 2017 Brewers, in the surprisingly weak NL Central, depends largely on which version of Eric Thames we see in the 2nd half. Is the mythic, god mode version we saw through April something we might see again?

Much of the evaluation of his drop-off thus far has been focused on a tight hamstring and illness he suffered in mid-May, and if not that, the natural adjustments made by major league pitchers/catchers and defenses in their approach when facing him.

These are both reasonable assessments worth considering. One consideration I haven’t seen much of however is the effect of losing Ryan Braun batting behind him in the lineup. While many feel lineup protection is a myth,  if players believe in it, it matters . It seems entirely plausible to me that Eric Thames, after breaking franchise records in April, might put extra pressure on himself to carry the team offensively, after the team’s best hitter went down with an injury. Might he expand the zone a bit in an effort to be the hero? Or swing for the fences instead of shortening up with 2 strikes? To me this seems only natural, especially if you don’t trust the guy behind you to drive in runs. I’ve been accused of dime-store psychology before, so let’s look at the numbers and see if there’s any support for this theory.

Ryan Braun went on the DL on May 10th, here are his numbers to that point:

  • 27 Games .287 AVG,  .968 OPS, 48.6% Hard contact, 7 HR, 18 RBI, 13 BB, 22K

Compared with the Brewers 3 hitters afterwards:

  • 45 Games, .250 AVG, .722 OPS, 35.7% Hard contact, 5 HR, 16 RBI, 16 BB, 55K

Overall Braun’s wRC+ of 146 (Weighted Runs Created Plus is supposed to quantify a players’ overall offensive contribution minus effects of the ballpark) was good for 10th overall among 3 hitters through that point.

Brewers 3 hitters after Braun’s injury? wRC+ 87, ranking them 27th out of 30 in offensive contribution from the 3rd spot in the lineup.

Now let’s look at Thames while Braun was there:

  • 32 Games (139 PA), .333 AVG, 1.182 OPS, 13 HR, 25 RBI, 20 BB, 30K, Hard contact 47.1%, wRC+196 (7th in all of baseball)

Compared to Thames without Braun:

  • 39 Games (156 PA), .172 AVG, .711 OPS, 7 HR, 15 RBI, 26 BB, 49K, Hard contact 38%  wRC+ 84 (207th in baseball)

Thames without Braun is not quite as sad as “Garfield without Garfield“, but it’s pretty damn close.

Image result for The saddest Garfield without Garfield

It’s clear that the production behind Thames dropped off drastically when Braun hit the DL, and with it Thames’ production also fell.  I looked at heat maps to see how pitchers had changed their approach against Thames before and after Braun hit the DL, and here’s what I found:

Thames Breaking Balls post Braun

When Braun was with the team (on the left) pitchers threw Thames breaking balls for strikes much more often. They’ve especially vacated the middle bottom of the strike zone (green), preferring to stay low and away, or to sneak one low and inside (yellow). Overall though, he’s seeing the same numbers of Sliders and Curves.

The biggest change is in Fastballs. Again the heat map on the left is prior to Braun’s DL stint and the map to the right is after. In close to the same # of Plate Appearances, Thames went from seeing 260 Fastballs to seeing 326. Thames is getting challenged much more than before. The key though is where those fastballs are going. Prior to Braun’s DL trip Thames got a lot of Fastballs right down the middle (yellow box), afterwards, yeah…not so much. In the green box you can see that many of those fastballs that used to be right down the middle are now being thrown in on his hands.

Thames Fastballs post Braun.png

It’s clear that Thames isn’t getting as many good pitches to hit as he was early. This doesn’t prove that Ryan Braun’s absence is the cause, certainly it could just be that Thames did so much damage on mistake pitches right down the middle that everyone quickly learned to avoid the heart of the plate. As usual it’s probably a combination of the two not an either-or, but I think there’s enough here to be optimistic that a healthy Ryan Braun returning to the 3 hole will very quickly pay off. If pitchers have more reason to worry about walking Thames, this would translate to less nibbling around the zone and more pitches around the middle of the strike-zone. It certainly didn’t work that way Wednesday as Thames earned a Golden Sombrero batting in front of Ryan Braun, (despite facing his best frenemy the Cincinnati Reds). It was probably smart of Counsell to give Thames the day off. Now that Braun has made it clear he’s back and healthy (2HRs in 3 games off of the DL) here’s hoping Thames can relax, worry less about the result, and focus on the process again. If that doesn’t work he should probably just go back to pressing Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Select Start before each game.