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).

 

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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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Closers and superficial baseball analysis

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Former AL Manager of the Year Buck Showalter. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

In the aftermath of the two Wild Card games, the popular dissection (including on ESPN immediately after Mets-Giants) involves a juxtaposition of game outcomes based on closer appearance (or non-appearance): “One team loses without its closer pitching, another loses when its closer blows the game.”

These are true statements, in terms of both history and in the sense that closers do not manufacture guaranteed outs.  We know this because we’ve all seen blown saves.  And so it’s curious that the closer has been elevated to something of a mythical stature, no doubt due to the fact that some of baseball’s most legendary pitchers (e.g., Mariano Rivera, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage) have earned their Hall of Fame credentials in that role.

But let’s not forget that guys like Fernando Rodney (nearly top-30 all time in saves and rocking a career 3.69 ERA) are also closers.  As anyone who has played fantasy baseball for any length of time can tell you, the closer role is one of the most volatile in baseball.  Being a team’s “closer” is a double-edged sword:  it sets the player up for a nice payday later on, but the odds are against any individual pitcher succeeding in that role for very long.  More often than not, the closer is just a guy with perhaps a slightly better skill set than the rest of the bullpen, but who is never really placed in the best opportunity to succeed thanks to always taking the ball in the 9th inning.

Zach Britton, the Orioles closer, was not just a guy this season, and had yet to pitch in the Wild Card game as the bottom of the 11th inning approached in the tie affair.  Clearly Baltimore’s best pitcher (0.54 regular-season ERA, which is the only ERA Britton would have this year), everyone expected the lefty Britton to get a shot against the heart of the Blue Jays order, consisting of right-handed hitters Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion.  He did not get that opportunity; instead, Buck Showalter sent in the homer-prone, generally terrible Ubaldo Jimenez.  The results were predictable: single, single, home run.

Showalter’s decision was indefensible, certainly not justified by Britton’s platoon splits (he is also very good against right-handers).  Showalter’s narrow-mindedness cost the Orioles in two ways:  first, Showalter was saving his closer for a time when his team had the lead, which of course was never guaranteed to happen; and second, because the Orioles’ closer was also the team’s best pitcher, he never made it into a tied, winner-take-all playoff game.  The reality is that Britton, label or not, was simply in a better position to get those three outs than Jimenez.

Terry Collins made a different decision in a similar situation in Wednesday’s Mets-Giants game.  With a tie in the top of the 9th inning, Collins brought in his closer against the bottom half of the Giants order.  This was at least a defensible decision, if not the correct one.  Familia is one of the Mets’ best relievers, has a good strikeout rate and the best groundball rate on the team.  It was reasonable to expect him to slice and dice his way through Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan, and Joe Panik.

That illusion quickly fell away.  Familia was wild, missing badly with two pitches to Crawford and sending two more right down main street.  Crawford deposited pitch #4 into left field.  If the signs of trouble were not manifest then, they certainly were even as Familia struck out Pagan on six pitches, at least two of which Pagan should have clobbered but fouled off.  Panik’s at-bat ended with a seven-pitch walk; five pitches missed the strike zone by a mile.  One would expect Collins, by this point, to have had Josh Edgin or Jerry Blevins warming to face the left-handed Connor Gillespie, but instead Collins left his right-handed closer in.  The game would effectively end with Familia’s third pitch to Gillespie, who went yard on a sinker up in the zone.  Familia threw nearly 30 pitches in the inning; one wonders whether any other reliever would have had a similarly long leash.

One team loses without its closer.  Another loses with him.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  The better point here, lost in baseball writers’ attempts at irony, is that there is nothing magical about a closer.  It’s just a label thrown on a guy who traditionally pitches in what is typically the last inning of a game, and oftentimes prevents that pitcher from being used in the most optimal situations.  Yet, in true Halloween fashion, the “closer” continues to haunt playoff teams.