Boone Logan Gets the Boot

Of all the wonderful bright spots of the 2018 Brewers, perhaps no segment of the team has shone brighter than the bullpen.  With a sparkling 2.74 ERA, the bullpen- most notably the likes of Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Jacob Barnes and Taylor Williams – have established themselves as one of the best relief corps in all of baseball, second perhaps only to the Yankees.

And despite pitching only ten-plus innings this season, there’s one reliever that has been an anchor, his mere name inspiring dread in the masses each time he has been summoned to the mound:  Boone Logan.

An early May addition to the squad thanks to a tricep strain, Logan was essentially slated to be the team’s LOOGY.  He was spectacularly unsuccessful.  Lefties compiled an absurd 1.354 OPS against him, and he walked nearly as many batters as he had innings pitched.  In his penultimate appearance, he allowed a garbage-time run in his one inning of work against Philadelphia on Friday.

Saturday was a “prove it” day for Logan.  After Junior Guerra walked Scott Kingery in a one-run game, Craig Counsell summoned Logan to deal with lefty Nick Williams.  The result was a deep double, followed by another walk and a single for subsequent batters that wound up plating two runs for Philly.

And so, today Boone finds himself designated for assignment, with the comfort of a nearly $2 million contract to help soften his landing.  While the main beneficiary is the bullpen (addition by subtraction), a nice secondary effect is the lowering of our collective blood pressure when a lefty comes to the dish.  And, lest you worry about who will get left-handed hitters out … Josh Hader is currently holding southpaws to a .271 OPS.  In Hader we trust.

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Remaking an Outfield in 60 Minutes

cainWithin an hour or so last week, the Brewers committed over $124 million to two outfielders, taking on Christian Yelich’s contract in trade ($44.5 million) and signing outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a 5-year, $80 million deal.  It’s a huge monetary outlay; to date, the Brewers’ most lucrative contract went to Ryan Braun’s 5-year, $105 million extension in 2011.  The deals were made all the more significant by the substantial prospect haul the Marlins received in return for Yelich: consensus top-25 outfielder Lewis Brinson, as well as well-regarded OF Monte Harrison and IF Isan Diaz.  The deals marked an aggressive commitment to contending baseball where, in past seasons, the focus was on stockpiling young, controllable talent.

While the Brewers paid a hefty sum in money and prospects, they brought back clear major league talent that marks a substantial improvement in their outfield corps.  After showing offensive flashes in 2016, RF Domingo Santana put up an eye-popping .372 wOBA last year, but struck out in nearly 30% of his plate attempts.  Defensively, Santana gets pretty low marks using the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metrics.  While Yelich has never had an offensive season quite as good as Santana’s 30-homer binge in 2017, the 26-year-old is an annual 20-home run threat with excellent contact and plate discipline.  Defensive metrics (a substantial portion of which were, granted, based on his work in left field) are fairly kind to Yelich.  All said, he’s accumulated nearly 16 fWAR in his four full seasons.  If we assume that a win is worth about $8 million, and that Yelich will continue to produce about 3.9 fWAR for the remainder of his deal, he will produce about $100 million in excess value over the life of his contract.

Perhaps the more marked improvement is in center field, where Lorenzo Cain is now expected to roam.  In 2017, that was Keon Broxton’s territory, and despite having a 20 HR/21 SB season, Broxton was the definition of average.  He compiled just a .308 wOBA, struck out in nearly 38%(!) of his plate attempts, and took a step back defensively from an otherwise solid 2016 campaign.  Expect no such struggles from Cain, who has been an elite defender and all-around offensive contributor the last four seasons with Kansas City (+17.9 fWAR).  Statcast tells us Cain is one of the premier players in baseball.

There are a couple red flags with Cain, but they involve the difficult task of predicting an aging curve and injuries.  Cain will be 32 in April, but that’s not necessarily a cause for concern.  While no player has yet escaped Father Time, Cain’s ceiling is so high that there’s a lot of room for decline.  And Mike Petriello notes there are plenty of late-career success stories for players comparable to Cain.  Cain’s injury history is more problematic; Cain played an abbreviated 2016 schedule after landing on the DL in June with a hamstring injury, and Cain tried to play through a painful wrist injury before ending his season in September.   Yet Cain was still worth +2.5 fWAR in that season, and showed no ill effects in a fantastic 2017 campaign where he hit for a .140 ISO, swiped 26 bags, and was an above-average CF according to UZR.  One thing to keep an eye on will be Cain’s defense, though, and particularly his range, as there is a clear downward trend in his zone rating attributable to reduced range and ability to keep baserunners from advancing.

But again, the point here is that both transactions make the Brewers better now, and for the foreseeable future. The moves bring long-term stability to a lineup that has seen near constant turnover in the David Stearns era.  Yelich and Cain will join Ryan Braun as (presumably) the primary outfield trio until at least 2020.  There’s the potential for an additional year together if Ryan Braun’s 2021 option kicks in.  Cain and Yelich become free agents together in 2022.

The moves have the added benefit of preserving flexibility.  The Brewers total projected payroll for 2018 currently sits at around $84 million.  That drops to $72 million in 2019 and $64 million in 2020, though there are some arbitration salaries, for example Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies, that are not included in those totals.  Signing Cain in particular does not mean the Brewers have to forego signing another premium free agent in the next year or two, and indeed they are rumored to still be in the dogfight for Yu Darvish this offseason.

Making a substantial improvement to a team while achieving stability and preserving flexibility isn’t an easy task.  David Stearns and the Brewers’ baseball operations department deserve much credit for their efforts at remaking the outfield, in which us fans got to see the reward for months of work over the course of about 60 minutes.

 

Assessing the Brewers’ Playoff Chances

The recently completed Chicago Cubs series at Miller Park was disappointing on a number of levels.  First, it’s of course awful to lose a series to a division opponent, and the Brewers managed to win just a single game of the four-game series, three of which went into extra innings.  And of course the Cubs aren’t just any division opponent; they’re the Hated, Evil, Despised Cubs, the ones whose fans regularly turn Miller Park into little more than their own pigpen.  And of course, this wasn’t just any series.  Entering play the Brewers were 3.5 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central standings; a sweep would have placed them atop the division.

It’s not as if the Brewers had great odds of winning the division before the Cubs came to town. Down their ace pitcher Jimmy Nelson, Fangraphs gave them just a 2.9% chance of securing a division title even before the Cubs series.  That’s still better than where they currently sit, 5.5 games back with a 0% division probability.  And there’s definitely some skepticism about the Brewers baked into those prognostications, as the Cardinals (currently 6 games behind the Cubs, .5 games behind the Brewers) still have the slightest (i.e., .1%) hope of a division crown.

What the Brewers really damaged with their failure to emerge victorious was their ability to win a wild card berth.  On September 20, Fangraphs pegged the Brewers at an 18.7% chance to win a wild card; that’s down to about 13% now.  And the Brewers are lucky it isn’t less than that; the Colorado Rockies utterly failed to put away a terrible San Diego Padres team in their 4-game series, salvaging a split on the final day of the set.  Fangraphs likes the Rockies to win the second wild card at a 77% probability, which is understandable with a 1.5-game lead over the Brewers and a 2.5-game lead over the Cards with just a handful of games left to play.

Due to lineup variances and pitching changes that might happen with a playoff berth on the line, it isn’t immensely useful to predict how individual games might come out at the end of the year.  But let’s take a stab at it anyway, just for fun.  Hopefully we’ll come away with some perspective on what the Brewers need to accomplish over the final six games.

Let’s take the Cardinals out of the equation for a moment and focus on the Brewers’ and Rockies’ remaining schedules.  There are a couple reasons for doing that with just two series remaining:  (1) the Cardinals currently face an ultra-difficult opponent in the Cubs, who have already locked down game 1; and (2) the Cardinals’ other remaining opponent is the Brewers.  That’s a series the Brewers are probably going to have to win if they want to keep their playoff hopes afloat.

The Brewers kick off a three-game series tonight at Miller Park against the Reds:

Deck McGuire vs. Zach Davies

Deck makes his first major league start.  That should be a win, but we all know how the Brewers tend to struggle with new pitchers.  Half the Reds’ lineup has homered off Davies, and there are some very notable players he has trouble putting away (looking at you, Joey Votto).  Doesn’t look like a great start to the series.  Projection: (L).

Homer Bailey vs. Brandon Woodruff

Woodruff has really struggled of late, but he’s a better pitcher than his 6+ ERA over the last 3 starts would suggest.  He’ll probably get dinged around a bit, but lordy, the Brewers certainly tee off against Homer Bailey.  This one has slugfest written all over it, and I think the Brewers can win that high-scoring battle.  Projection: (W).

Sal Romano vs. Brent Suter

As a team, the Reds are slashing just .244/.318/.418 against lefties, plus Suter pitching actually removes a very potent bat in Scooter Gennett from the lineup (his troubles against lefties continue this year, hitting just .242/.286/.414).  Romano, meanwhile, has made two starts against the Brewers already this season, allowing a total of 8 earned runs over 8 innings.  I’m looking forward to this one.  Projection: (W).

Next, a three-game series in St. Louis to end the season:

Chase Anderson vs. John Gant

Projecting this far out gets us into TBD territory as far as the pitchers go.  We know Chase will start for the Brewers, but if the Cardinals’ backs are really against the wall, they could go with Luke Weaver on short rest.  Weaver would be the much tougher matchup, but I’d not bet against Chase Anderson.  St. Louis regulars Yadier Molina, Dexter Fowler, Steven Piscotty, and Matt Carpenter have all failed to do much against him in the past.  Projection: (W).

Zach Davies vs. Luke Weaver

If Weaver doesn’t start Game 1, he’ll certainly be in for Game 2.  The 24-year-old has been a phenom in 12 appearances this year (9 starts), with a 132 ERA+ and a 2.86 FIP.  No Brewer except Ryan Braun has more than a handful of at-bats against Weaver, but Eric Thames has really teed off against the young righty, amassing two home runs and a walk in six plate appearances.  Meanwhile, Jedd Gyorko, Piscotty, and Carpenter have all smacked around Davies pretty good (assuming he gets this start and not the final game, which would make this a bullpen/Woodruff start).  I don’t think the Brewers keep up in this one.  Projection: (L).

??? vs. Carlos Martinez

What the Brewers plan to do with this start is anyone’s guess.  The rotation is in shambles, they’re down to just two starters they broke spring training with, and I presume they don’t want to put too much stress on Suter by starting him on REALLY short rest.  But let’s assume this is an “all hands on deck game” and the bullpen comes through.  Carlos Martinez has shown over the last few starts that he’s mortal, and he gets another tough challenge tonight in the Cubs.  The Brewers have handled him well enough, especially Braun, Hernan Perez, Domingo Santana, and Jonathan Villar.  What the heck, it’s a win to end the season.

Even if the Brewers finish 4-2, they’re going to have to pray the Rockies drop all but a game in their final five games to win the wild card outright.  The Rockies get Miami for a two-game set, followed by three against the Dodgers, all at home.  If the Rockies go 2-3, the Brewers and Rockies tie with a regular season win total of 86-76.  In that case, the Rockies and Brewers play a one-game series to determine who wins a wild card berth.  That would be hosted by the Rockies by virtue of their having a better record in head-to-head matchups (4-3).

 

Brewers Do the Right Thing At the Deadline

david-stearnsThe high-water mark for the Brewers this season was July 15, at which point they looked down upon the NL Central from a 5.5 game perch.  With the All-Star break (signaling the unofficial beginning of baseball’s second half) having come and gone earlier in the week, and two wins under their belt to start the long summer stretch, things were looking up.

But what goes up usually comes down, and by July 30, the 5.5 game lead had become a distant memory.  A brutal road trip left the team’s record in shambles: swept in four games in Pittsburgh, losses in two out of three games in Philadelphia, a single win in Washington D.C., and a brutal series defeat at the hands of the Cubs in their return home.  The carnage relegated the Brewers to 2.5 games back at the close of business on Sunday.

What was a storied run atop the Central, the kind that had finally attracted the notice of national writers everywhere, vanished in what seemed like an instant.  And GM David Stearns was left with a mess on his hands.

When the Brewers acquired C.C. Sabathia on July 7, 2008, the trade came with the stipulation that it occur as early as possible to maximize the pitcher’s innings with his new team.  GM Doug Melvin was at the time so confident in Sabathia’s ability to propel the Brewers to the postseason that he offered up the team’s best prospect in the trade, 1B Matt LaPorta.

With a 4.66 ERA after April, the Brewers starting corps hardly looked like a solid bet to challenge the Cubs for the NL Central lead.  And yet, despite losing opening day starter Junior Guerra and Chase Anderson for extended periods, the Brewers improved their starting rotation’s ERA – in every single month, all the way to a 3.51 ERA in July.  In other words, by ERA the starting rotation improved from a bottom 5 to a top 6 rotation over the course of four months.  (FIP is a little less kind to the Brewers, but hey, when Manny Pina can throw out would-be basestealers at a 33% clip and Lewis Brinson can go over the wall to rob home runs, it’s going to fudge the numbers a bit).

The general improvement in the starting rotation-led by Zach Davies’ recent reemergence, as well as an All-Star caliber season from Jimmy Nelson-lessened the pressure to pay for a top arm like Sonny Gray.  And boy, would the price tag have been exorbitant.  The mere rumors surrounding Gray and the Brewers prompted the Cubs to make a preemptive move and trad their top two prospects (including a consensus top 5 prospect) for Jose Quintana.  The Yankees later acquired Gray for the team’s 4th, 8th, and 12th best prospects.  For reference, that would have been Brett Phillips, Tristen Lutz, and Brandon Woodruff for the Brewers, according to MLB.com.

Meanwhile, the Brewers bullpen hasn’t found similar success.  The relief corp in the top half of the league in Fangraph’s “Meltdowns” stat and lead the league in walks per 9 innings.  They give up far too many home runs, and pitched too many innings early on.  Carlos Torres and Jacob Barnes, once thought to form a solid one-two punch in the 7th and 8th innings, are giving up a run nearly every other inning.  The one saving grace is the number of ground balls they produce, in no small part due to Jared Hughes’ extreme batted ball profile (nearly 60% grounders).  Corey Knebel, the Brewers’ lone All-Star representative, has distinguished himself and still holds a sparkling 1.68 ERA with 18 saves, but one man does not a bullpen make.

It’s only natural, then, that David Stearns, surveying the team’s general collapse, his starters’ strong performances, and the bullpen’s woes, decided to address the latter issue by making modest additions.  The Brewers first nabbed a resurgent 31-year-old right, Anthony Swarzak, from the White Sox for OF Ryan Cordell, the player to be named later in last year’s trade sending Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress to the Rangers.  Stearns also pulled off a deadline deal, reacquiring Jeffress from the Rangers in exchange for Shuckers RHP Tayler Scott.

Swarzak has already slotted into the set-up role; tonight is Jeffress’ first game back in now his third stint with the Brewers.  Jeffress hasn’t had a great year with Texas, but his previous body of work stands for itself.  (We’ll ignore Stearns earlier dealing for LHP Tyler Webb, who pitched all of 2 innings with Milwaukee before being sent down to Colorado Springs).

The modest acquisitions should help shore up a taxed bullpen (though Jeffress’ home run rate this season is reason for pause).  But most importantly, the players added cost little in terms of prospects.  The best prospect given up was Ryan Cordell, #17 on the team’s list according to MLB.com in a system brimming with OF talent.  Stearns didn’t make a splashy add like the Cubs, but he also did something the Cubs weren’t able to do: hold on to the team’s future.  The middle-of-the-road approach likely won’t win amongst the Brewers fanbase, but it’s the right tactic in a rebuilding year in which the Brewers find themselves suddenly in postseason contention.

The end of the line for Wily

May 14, 2017 was an important day for Wily Peralta.  Having been blasted by Boston for four runs over four and one-third innings in his previous start, he carried a 5.30 ERA into a home start against the Mets.  Peralta’s sinker had become increasingly ineffective, even as Peralta had been relying on it more.  His command-which was never his strong suit-had been terrible.  And in what was an opportunity to restore his team’s confidence in him as a starter, Peralta fell apart.  He labored through 4 and 1/3 innings of seven-run ball (six earned), although the Brewers would go on to win, 11-9.

That would be it for Wily in the starting rotation, though.  On May 17, the Brewers announced he would transition to the bullpen, a change many (including me) thought would be a positive change.  Peralta has many faults as a pitcher, but it’s never been his raw stuff; his heavy sinking fastball and biting slider had people positively salivating for his debut when Zack Greinke went down with a freak injury in early 2011.  The results, though, have never matched that potential.

The move to the bullpen seemed great for a few reasons.  Peralta would no longer have to worry about facing the same hitters multiple times.  He wouldn’t have to worry about extending himself over six or seven innings (something that, until the end of last season, appeared to happen relatively infrequently) and could give full effort, especially on his high-90s fastball.  And management could select his usage, reserving him for those situations in which Peralta’s frequent mistakes might not be so heavily punished.

Instead, Peralta has been absolutely pounded out of the pen.  In 13 and 2/3 innings, he’s allowed sixteen runs, walking nearly as many against fourteen strikeouts.  The move to the bullpen has actually ballooned his ERA from 6.08 to 7.21, and factoring in defense improves it substantially but still shows Peralta is a poor pitcher (5.00 FIP).  Peralta has not allowed a run in only two of his nine appearances, and last night he turned a 4-1 game (still well within reach for this offense) into an 8-1 blowout against the Pirates.

Somehow, Peralta still might wind up being an above-replacement level player for the season.  And his poor performance wouldn’t even be an issue if the Brewers weren’t still in first place in mid-June.  But the fact that they are only puts added pressure on the team to put the best players on the field, which means there are precious few innings to allow Peralta to continue to acclimate to his new role.  A minor league assignment is out of the question; Peralta has no options.

And so, as Craig Counsell put it after last night’s game, “it’s getting tough.”  It’s getting tough for the team, tough for fans, tough for management to watch Wily Peralta flail in hopes of rekindling the hope everyone once had for him.  This seems the definition of a “fresh start” situation for a player.  It’s time to move on.

Doomed by starting pitching

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Most reasonable forecasts of the 2017 Brewers saw them having an above-average offense, a decent bullpen and a below-average starting rotation.  Back in mid-April, when the Brewers were the Hottest Team in Baseball, they tended to buck this expectation: a series sweep in Toronto with 4-3 and 2-0 wins, followed by consecutive wins in Cincinnati of 5-1 and 10-4.  During that stretch, starters Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Tommy Milone and Chase Anderson limited their opponents to 7 runs over 25 innings, with 22 Ks to show for their efforts.  Peralta chipped in again with a 6-inning, 2-run effort in the final game of that Reds series.

It was fun while it lasted.  The Brewers, staked at one point to a 10-4 lead yesterday, eeked out an 11-7 win over the Reds.  Matt Garza, in his 2017 debut, pitched much worse than his final line shows, allowing 4 runs over 4 innings (only 1 earned).  In the four-game series against the Cardinals, only Chase Anderson was able to last 6 innings; Peralta imploded for 6 earned runs, Zach Davies for 4, and Nelson walked 6 in his 5 1/3-inning start.

Collectively, Brewers starters are 27th in baseball in ERA (4.53), 29th in opponent batting average (.271), and 29th in WHIP (1.39).  Call me a pessimist, but I don’t see Matt Garza riding in on a white horse to improve those numbers.  Meanwhile, the Brewers lead the MLB by a huge margin in HR (37) and SLG (.463).  They’re third in SB (17), runs (102), and OPS (.770), the latter of which just goes to show that the Brewers struggle to get on base despite a seemingly team-wide trend towards plate discipline.  And of course, the Brewers lead the league in strikeouts, with 214.

Heavy hitting, high scoring, high strikeout, bad starting pitching.  The 2017 Brewers, through April 25th, are who we thought they were.

2017 Position Preview: First Base, League Context, Chris Carter, and Eric Thames

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

thamesIt’s no secret that home runs were way up in 2016.  One-hundred-eleven players hit at least twenty home runs in 2016, easily topping the 64 from 2015 and 2014’s 57.  With no obvious explanation for the home run surge, speculation has ranged from pitchers throwing more cutters to hitting adjustments against hard throwers and even “juiced” baseballs.  Whatever the cause, 2016 saw the second-most home runs ever in a major league season.  There were an average of 1.16 home runs hit per game: a higher per-game average than during most of the steroid-infused years of the 1990s and 2000s.

Although only two Brewers players topped twenty home runs for the team, they did help usher in the year of the homer.  Brewers collectively hit just a handful more homers than the league average.  And several lineup regulars set new personal single-season records in home runs: Jonathan Villar (19), Scooter Gennett (14), Kirk Nieuwenhuis (13), Domingo Santana (11), and Hernan Perez (13).

But when it came to raw power, there was only one Brewers player really worth talking about: Chris Carter.  And not just a team leader; Carter’s battle with Nolan Arenado for the National League home run title in the season’s final series was the highlight of an otherwise fairly forgettable year on the field.  They wound up tied at 41.

Carter, who hit .199 with 24 homers and 64 RBIs in 2015, made $4,175,000 in 2015 in his first year of arbitration. The Houston Astros let him go rather than pay the likely more than $5 million salary he would have commanded in arbitration in 2016.  The flaws in his game that led to his being non-tendered were apparent during Carter’s 2016 season with the Brewers; he maintained his low contact rate and struck out a league-leading 206 times.  But he also hit some monstrous home runs.

And yet, despite his prominent place atop the National League home run leaderboard, Carter couldn’t get a 2017 contract.  The Brewers weren’t interested, despite the fact that they had no obvious replacement candidate at the time.  Carter settled for a 1-year, $3 million contract from the New York Yankees, a meager deal reflective of just how little teams value power in light of last year’s surge.

To fill the gap, the Brewers looked to Korea, plucking lefty Eric Thames from the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization.  Thames, a Korean League MVP and owner of a 40/40 season in 2015, hit for a 1.162 OPS over four foreign seasons and turned his success into a 3-year, $16M deal with the Brewers.

Prior to that, Thames was the definition of a AAAA player.  He performed well enough in the high minors, with a triple slash line of .312/.389/.506 over three seasons.  And there were reasons to be optimistic following Thames’ 2012 campaign with the Blue Jays, in which he posted a .193 ISO over 394 plate attempts.  But 2013 was disastrous; Thames’ 30% K-rate and dreadful defense doomed him to the minors, from whence he would not return to MLB.

Until now. So what are we to make of Thames with the Brewers going forward?  Assuming the power sticks (and there’s no guarantee it will, as explained below), he couldn’t be going to a better park for a lefty masher than Miller Park.  And given his contract and the Brewers’ lack of a serviceable bat at the position, playing time won’t be an issue in the same way it was prior to Thames’ time in Korea.

But there’s a notoriously short track record for players coming from Korea and having success in the States.  And Korean players generally benefit from smaller parks and a hitting philosophy that does not emphasize on-base skills; in other words, Korea was perfectly suited to Thames’ predilection to swing at first-pitch fastballs.  Add that to the relative success of Thames’ Korean teammates last season (of the top eight NC Dinos players in plate attempts, all but one hit above .297), one definitely gets the sense that offensive output in Korean baseball is inflated.  So I’m not bullish on Thames, but I see the appeal.

While there’s little chance Thames will put up another 40-home-run season in his transition year, it doesn’t seem likely any of his NL Central competition will, either.  In fact of the expected NL Central first basemen, STEAMER projects only Anthony Rizzo to top 30 home runs – and then just barely.  Thames’ STEAMER projection comes pretty darn close to Rizzo’s:  their ISO is within .002 points, and while it’s safe to say Rizzo’s going display more on-base prowess than Thames, their slash lines are otherwise remarkably close (.279/.381/.523 for Rizzo, .272/.350/.515 for Thames).

It’s an optimistic projection to be sure, but if it proves accurate, Thames may push Rizzo as the most productive first baseman in the division, ahead of even Joey Votto.  I think Thames will fall short of those lofty goals given his trouble making contact and his rather average batted ball profile, but Brewers fans probably won’t be able to gripe much for his rather small contract.  With a win above replacement currently valued at around $7+ million, Thames could be an excellent return on investment even if he’s not Anthony Rizzo.