NLDS Roster Prediction

I’ll join the fray and toss out my prediction for the Brewers’ 25-man NLDS roster.  Actually, moreso than a prediction, this is my preferred roster regardless of what the Brewers ultimately announce.

Catcher – Erik Kratz, Manny Pina

Infielders – Mike Moustakas, Orlando Arcia, Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar, Jonathan Schoop, Hernan Perez

Outfielders – Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, Curtis Granderson, Domingo Santana, Eric Thames

Starting Pitchers – Gio Gonzalez, Wade Miley, Jhoulys Chacin

Bullpen – Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Brandon Woodruff, Joakim Soria, Xavier Cedeno, Dan Jennings, Junior Guerra

Reasoning:  Most of the infielders are locks, so not much explanation necessary there.  However, in the outfield I’ve left Keon Broxton off in lieu of Eric Thames.  The Rockies have a ton of right-handed relief pitching (including Adam Ottavino, Seunghwan Oh and Wade Davis), and only one lefty starter in Kyle Freeland.  Having a left-handed hitter with extreme power seems like a good approach in late-game scenarios as opposed to the only occasional use Broxton would see as a pinch runner/defensive substitution.

As for pitching … this is where things get a little wonky.  The Rockies have a very balanced lineup, featuring right-handed hitters Trevor Story, Nolan Arenado, and and Ian Desmond.  The strongest outfield players, however, are all lefties:  Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, and Gerardo Parra.  This militates in favor of adding another left-handed pitcher, so Dan Jennings makes the cut in addition to lefties Cedeno and Hader.  Wade Miley can also pitch out of the bullpen if the Brewers elect to go with a different starter (update: they have, Brandon Woodruff will get the ball in game 1).   In a five-game series, mixing and matching starters and long relief with the elite bullpen components in Jeffress, Hader, Knebel and Soria should get the job done.

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.

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

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 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.

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:


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.

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.