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.

 

 

Second Thoughts on Scooter

By Nathan Petrashek

One of my pet peeves is people who buy so completely into an idea that they have completely closed their mind to any opposing, or even slightly contrasting, viewpoint.  This “tunnel vision” makes having a reasonable discussion at best difficult, at worst impossible.  So regardless of how firmly I might believe in something, I always try to entertain the possibility that I could be wrong.  This is a worthwhile exercise in humility.  And so far in 2016, Scooter Gennett is handing me a big helping of humble pie.

By midseason last year, I had pretty much written off Gennett as a platoon bat.  Gennett’s struggles against left-handed pitching have been well documented; he owns a paltry .123/.183./.172 slash line, although in recent years he’s had reduced opportunities against lefties thanks to the poor results early in his career.  But in the first half of 2015, Gennett couldn’t hit anyone.  He slashed just .239/.275/.384 in the first half and did a month-long stint in the minors as penance.

Gennett turned it on in the second half of 2015, dominated this year’s spring training (.457 OBP, 4 HR), and has continued his hot streak to start the regular season.  On opening day, Gennett rewarded manager Craig Counsell’s decision to give him increasing playing time against lefties, taking Giants’ ace Madison Baumgarner deep to right field.  On the young season, Gennett has tallied 3 HR and is slashing .237/.383/.474, which doesn’t account for two doubles in last night’s abbreviated loss to Minnesota.

Most notable about the “new” Scooter Gennett is his plate discipline. Gennett has benefited from Counsell’s well-documented philosophy of patience at the plate.  According to Fangraphs, Gennett has historically swung at over 40% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone; in 2016, that’s down to 25%.  He’s swinging at slightly fewer pitches in the zone as well (73% career, 66% 2016), presumably looking for better contact.

This new approach has led to a marked increase in Gennett’s walk rate.  Last year, Gennett drew a walk in just 12 plate appearances; in 13 games in 2016, he’s already walked 9 times.  The 16% increase in Gennett’s walk rate probably isn’t going to continue at that clip, but it’s easy to see how even a modest increase will add considerable value, particularly if Gennett continues to bat from the #2 position in the lineup.

Unfortunately, I can’t completely change my tune on Gennett.  While 6 of his 9 walks have come against left-handed pitching, the aforementioned home run off Baumgarner is Gennett’s only hit against southpaws in 2016; he’s 0-for-8 against them otherwise.  As a result, Gennett hasn’t necessarily changed my opinion about him as a platoon player – but I’m intrigued enough by his new plate approach to at least give him further opportunities to prove me wrong.

 

 

A light-hitting bunch for the Brewers

By Nathan Petrashek

The Brewers played their first game of the 2015 season yesterday, a confidence-boosting (sarcasm) 10-0 drubbing by the Colorado Rockies.  Four of the Brewers’ five bench players-Gerardo Parra, Luis Jimenez, Logan Schafer, and Martin Maldonado-recorded at least one at bat.  The group reached base zero times in five plate attempts (two of which belonged to Parra after Ryan Braun left the game due to injury).

This should surprise precisely no one.  Parra is inarguably the most offensively gifted bench player, and even he is thoroughly uninspiring.  Pick your metric:  Parra sports a career .325 OBP paired with a .394 SLG%, and a below-average rating per wRC+.  As a defensive outfielder, one could ask little more from the gold-glove winner, but there’s not much to like as his bat goes.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of Maldonado and Shafer.  With more or less a full season’s worth of plate attempts from both players (Maldonado has 586 in his MLB career; Shafer has 504), it’s apparent that neither is in the MLB for his bat.  Maldonado may be one of the better defensive catchers in the game, but owns just a .225/.291/.359 career slash line.  Whatever promise one might have seen in Maldonado following his 2012 season (.266 BA, 8 HR) has fallen away.  Schafer never even showed that much promise at the dish.  Even when given significant playing time in 2013, Schafer responded with 4 HR and a .211 batting average.  Again, both players are defensively gifted, but not much use coming off the bench.

Luis Jimenez and the fifth utility player, Hector Gomez, are still young, but neither are any sort of reliable bench bat.  Jimenez may have the most potential of any of the Brewers’ utility corp, hitting .295/.327/.485 over parts of three AAA seasons in the Pacific Coast League; it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll adapt to major-league pitching, though.  Gomez struggled mightily in 2013 with Huntsville, though he did show some signs of life last year with Nashville in the PCL.

But, you ask, why should we care one bit about what kind of offensive contributions the bench can make?  Aren’t they on the bench for a reason?  Those are both fair points, but the Brewers play in the National League.  They’re going to need hitters to bring in for all those exiting pitchers.  Moreover, a weak bench means there’s not much ability to play matchups in critical situations.  On a team with a lot of evident weaknesses already (Adam Lind and Scooter Gennett’s inability to hit left-handed pitching, for example), that can be a tough thing to deal with.  And that’s not to mention the problems that come with injuries to regular players – a decrease in runs that might become evident with Ryan Braun day-to-day.

The Waning Days of Rickie

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

rickie_weeks2With the Brewers eliminated from postseason contention, thoughts are naturally turning to 2015.  It’s as if the late-season collapse that brought the first-place Brewers to their knees hasn’t infected all their fans with endless pessimism about the future.  But before we cast our eyes, gleaming with irrational hope, toward the new season, let’s stop for a second to reflect on  what we’re about to lose.

Rickie Weeks is a lightning rod among fans for a lot of reasons.  His early years on the team were marred by low batting averages and nagging injuries.  Fans were frustrated by high strikeout totals, lackluster defense, and a perceived careless approach at the plate, despite the fact that Weeks led the club’s regulars in on-base percentage in 2006, was second in 2007 and 2010 to Prince Fielder, and third in 2008 … well, you get the picture.  Fan sentiment about Rickie has never actually reflected his skill set, which included a power bat not generally found in the middle infield.

One thing people were generally correct about, even in those early days, was the injury bug.  Weeks is basically Frankenstein’s monster.  He’s had wrist surgery twice (2006 and 2009), and missed additional games because of a wrist injury in 2007.  Weeks had let thumb surgery in 2005 and missed handful of games in 2008 because of a sore knee.  Availability is a skill, as they say, and Weeks took plenty of criticism because he couldn’t stay on the field.

Fan sentiment seemed to shift after Weeks’ first healthy season in 2010.  Weeks was a dynamo for the 77-85 Brewers, playing 160 games and slashing .269/.366/.464 with 29 home runs.  The potential many had talked about for half a decade had finally been realized, and the Brewers moved quickly to sign Weeks to a long-term extension in the offseason.  On the eve of Weeks’ final arbitration hearing, he and the team agreed to a four-year, $38.5 million deal with a fifth-year vesting option covering 2015.  Smartly, the Brewers built outs for themselves if Weeks was not an everyday player in 2013 or 2014.

Unfortunately, Weeks didn’t stay healthy in 2011, and couldn’t quite replicate his success in 2012.  However, he still contributed plenty to to those teams.  In 2011, Weeks shredded his ankle when he landed on first base awkwardly and was limited to 118 games that year, although he still managed to accumulate 20 home runs with a very respectable .269/.350/.468 triple slash en route to his first All-Star berth.  In 2012, Weeks again surpassed 20 home runs in a healthy season but hit just .230.  By 2013, many were calling for Weeks’ ouster at second base in favor of the much-hyped Scooter Gennett.  They got their wish when Weeks suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in August after hitting just .209.

The left-handed Gennett did well in Weeks’ absence, and the two entered into a fairly rigid platoon during the 2014 season.  Weeks has rebounded to his best season since 2011, hitting .272/.350/.451 with 8 home runs in 277 plate attempts.  He declined to move to left field early in the season, preferring instead to market himself as a second baseman as he enters free agency after this year.  The Brewers will not pick up Weeks’ option, and we are presumably watching the last days of Rickie Weeks in a Brewers uniform.

Weeks is one of the last holdovers from the Brewers postseason appearances in 2008 and 2011, and has been a lineup staple since 2006.  Very few players have that kind of longevity with a team, which itself speaks for Weeks’ skills.  While its fair to say there is a certain segment of Brewers fans who have never liked Weeks, even they have to appreciate the 18 career fWAR he has accumulated as a member of the Brewers.  In these final two games, the fans always so critical of Weeks need to step back and admire a guy that not only gave his all when able, but contributed in real, definable ways to bring postseason baseball back to Milwaukee.

 

On exercising Aramis Ramirez’s 2015 contract option

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee BrewersAramis Ramirez may be an All-Star in 2014, and it’s pretty easy to see why.  The slugging righty is currently hitting .292/.340/.492 with 10 home runs, has the second-highest wRC+ (a measure of a player’s total offensive value above league average) among NL third-basemen at 129, and he’s shown quite a capable glove at the hot corner.  There are definitely other worthy candidates (Todd Frazier and Matt Carpenter, for example) but there’s no doubt Ramirez is having a great year.

It seems a prudent move for the Brewers to pick up their portion of Ramirez’s 2015 mutual option.  Ramirez is being paid $16M this year, but his 2015 option is for $14M, and the Brewers are already on the hook for a $4M buyout if they decline.  That means the option’s net cost is $10M.  If we assume the cost of a win in 2015 remains around $6M, Ramirez would only have to contribute about 1.6 WAR to be worth the money.  Ramirez accumulated 5.7 fWAR during a healthy 2012 season, 1.4 during an injury-plagued 2013 campaign, and currently has 1.6 in 2014, despite missing most of May.

The Brewers don’t have a lot of other third base candidates.  Internally, the closest the team has to a major-league 3B is Taylor Green, who was drafted in 2005 and is already 27.  Green has had an up-and-down career in the minors, but lost all of last season to a hip injury that required surgery.  Green currently sports an OBP below .300 at AAA Nashville, and hasn’t hit will in limited time with the big-league club.  He’ll also be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2015.

The Brewers best 3B prospect is probably Nick Delmonico, who was acquired from the Orioles in 2013.  Delmonico, who currently plays for A Brevard County, will need more development in the advanced minors before he’s ready for the prime time, though.

Externally, the Brewers could do a few things, but none as good-or realistic-as bringing back Ramirez.  They could attempt to resign Mark Reynolds in 2015 and play him exclusively at third; this has the advantage of being relatively cheap.  Despite Reynolds very good year with the glove, I’m not sure it’s the wisest choice giving Reynolds’ reputation for defensive lapses.  Pablo Sandoval-the only full-time 3B free agent under the age of 30-is reportedly looking for a deal upwards of $100M and comes with health and performance concerns.  If the 31-year-old Hanley Ramirez doesn’t work out an extension with the Dodgers, he too would look for a big-money deal in likely his last long-term contract.  There’s Chase Headley, also 31, who may in the midst of a severe decline, raising questions about his fielding and plate discipline.  Beyond those four, it’s really just a bunch of guys, the most appetizing of which may be former Brewer Casey McGehee, currently hitting .309/.375/.392 with the Florida Marlins.

Of course, the option isn’t completely in the Brewers hands.  Ramirez, who turns 36 tomorrow, may think he can get a better deal on the free agent market and decline his half of the mutual option (though that wouldn’t necessarily preclude the Brewers from bringing him back).  Ramirez has also had lots of nagging injuries over the last few seasons.  In 2013, he missed time during both spring training and the regular season with knee issues, and a hamstring strain this year cost Ramirez almost all of May.  He left the game last Saturday with back tightness.  The injuries cut both in favor and against the Brewers:  they might scare off a few teams from a long-term deal and lower Ramirez’s market value, encouraging him to exercise his half of the option (resulting in the $4M buyout if the Brewers elect not to do the same).

On the whole, it seems that barring some catastrophic injury, the Brewers best plan for competing in 2015 might be to pick up Ramirez’s option and hope he reciprocates.  His big bat won’t be matched by any internal candidates, and the external candidates who could perhaps contribute equally will cost much, much more.  Even if Ramirez is true to his history and suffers some minor injury during the 2015 season, his expected contributions during healthy periods make it a worthwhile gamble.

Roenicke botches the 7th, causes loss

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

I’ve watched a lot of baseball, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like what happened in the 7th inning of yesterday’s 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

The wheels started to fall off a quality start for Matt Garza when, with the Brewers up 4-2, he allowed a pair of singles to start the bottom of the inning.  Garza departed with one out, and Brandon Kintzler was summoned to face righty Gerald Laird, who hit a ground ball to third that deflected off Mark Reynolds’ glove and trickled into left to score Chris Johnson. MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Arizona Diamondbacks

That’s when things took a decidedly damning turn for Ron Roenicke.  With Ryan Doumit batting, Roenicke summoned a lefty … only none had been getting loose.  When Roenicke walked out to the mound, the bullpen was visibly panicked.  Zach Duke wound up emerging from the gates, but Roenicke had already made the substitution for Will Smith.  So Duke returned to the bullpen and the cold-armed Smith took the mound.  Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez insisted on adherence to the eight-pitch rule, and that’s all the warming Smith was able to do.

Home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth was so concerned about the potential for injury that he tried to bend the rules and get Smith more warm-up pitches.  He even initiated a psudo-replay review to see if there was any way to help Smith, but nothing could be done.  And that falls squarely on Ron Roenicke.

The results were predictable, and as Rock said on the broadcast, Smith showed all the signs of coming in cold.  Smith allowed back-to-back singles and walked the third batter before being lifted.  Roenicke compounded his bullpen mismanagement by bringing the infield in with only one out and the go-ahead run on second, and the Braves took a 5-4 lead on the first single.

Roenicke’s post-game explanation made virtually no sense.  The Brewers were down pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell, both of whom were attending family graduations.  But there were fill-ins in minor-league pitching coordinator Rick Tomlin and bullpen coach Marcus Hanel, respectively.  Roenicke said Kranitz usually takes care of calling the bullpen, and he simply assumed-wrongly-that Tomlin would, too.  But then, for some reason, he also sent Martin Maldonado to the bullpen:

“You do things the same way every day and when it changes, it just changes what goes on. I had to make the change. I sent Maldy (backup catcher Martin Maldonado) to run down to the bullpen because we needed two guys up. Maldy went down there and said, ‘I think it’s (Zach) Duke,’ but he never got the call on who it was. So, we didn’t call.”

While the situation provides an interesting glimpse into the daily work of the pitching coach and the importance of his relationship with the manager, the failure to get it right in this case is utterly inexplicable.  There are monitors showing a feed of the bullpen in the Atlanta dugouts.  There’s a phone in the dugout with a direct line to the bullpen.  And it’s apparently pretty easy to send someone to personally check on the bullpen during a game.

How, then, it was possible for Roenicke to mess this up is beyond me.  But rarely do you see a loss traceable so directly and tangibly to mismanagement.  After the game, Roenicke said the loss was “going to be hard on me.”  It should be.

Thinking of better days (Yovani Gallardo edition)

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

yoYovani Gallardo is slated to toe the rubber today in St. Louis.  Gallardo has been nothing short of dazzling so far in 2014 and currently sports a 1.42 ERA over 31.2 innings.  He’s getting a groundball rate of over 50% and has done a spectacular job of keeping the ball in the park.  But the Cardinals, as any Brewers fan knows, present a different kind of challenge.

It’s not worth it to rehash how historically awful Gallardo has pitched against the Cardinals.  Don’t look, it’ll just depress you.  Especially the 2011 NLCS start where he gave up four runs in the first inning.  The Cardinals have pretty much destroyed him.  Let’s just leave it at that.

But we’re not going to dwell on those many, many, many terrible games.  Nope, today we’re thinking only positive thoughts, which brings me to Yovani’s start on May 25, 2009.

At Miller Park, before a crowd of 43,000, Gallardo spun eight shutout innings.  It took 126 pitches, the most Gallado threw in any single game that year, as he walked four batters.  Still, he allowed just two hits and fanned six, amazing considering Gallardo benefited from just nine swinging strikes the entire game.  It’s easy to look at the lineup and note the absence of Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick, but Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina were in there, so it wasn’t exactly a AAA squad.

Despite Yo’s brilliant start, the Brewers couldn’t muster even a single run in regulation.  They finally broke it open in the 10th on an RBI single from, of all people, Bill Hall.

It’s Brewers vs. Cardinals in St. Louis tonight at 7:15.  If you’re a Brewers fan, here’s hoping that made you slightly more optimistic.