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.

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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.

 

 

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.

Brewers and Mets aren’t obvious trade partners for Lucroy

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

As has been reported for a couple days now, the Mets are interested in acquiring Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy.  The Mets have a clear need at catcher; they rank 20th in catcher fWAR, and the position is collectively slashing  an abysmal .214/.294/.310.  Travis d’Arnaud, a once-heralded prospect just a few years ago, has so far this season contributed to the woeful state of the position, slashing just .238/.293/.328 (72 wRC+).

Pardon me if, like the Brewers, I’m not weak in the knees by the Mets’ straight-up offer of d’Arnaud for Lucroy.

The main attraction from the Brewers standpoint would be d’Arnaud’s pedigree and remaining team control.  This from Mets GM Sandy Alderson in 2012, upon acquiring d’Arnaud from Toronto in 2012 as part of the R.A. Dickey deal:

“We viewed d’Arnaud, and I believe the industry views Travis, as the top catching prospect in the game,” Alderson said. “And not just the top catching prospect, but the one who is closest to major league ready, if not now major league ready. In addition, we think his upside is such that he could be a significant player for us over the next many years.”

D’Arnaud was, indeed, close to “major league ready,” if for no other reason than he wound up logging nearly 100 at bats for the Mets in 2013.  The results would suggest otherwise, though.  D’Arnaud was dreadful in his cup of coffee, and followed that up in 2014 with a full season’s worth of barely-above-replacement-level production.  2015 looked like d’Arnaud’s breakout season (he hit .268/.340/.485), prompting such laudatory articles as this from Mark Simon of ESPN.

Prophetically, the opening paragraph of Simon’s piece is as follows:

Travis d’Arnaud is on the cusp of becoming really good. It’s something those who judge baseball players for a living have been saying about him for the last three seasons. And yet one scout I regularly speak with says you have to be patient with catchers and give them time. The time for d’Arnaud, who turns 27 in February, is right now. But his biggest challenge may be staying healthy.

Indeed, d’Arnaud missed half of last season with an elbow injury, and has again spent time on the disabled list in 2016 with a shoulder injury.

While there’s no doubting d’Arnaud’s status as a former top prospect, there is ample reason to question the value of his remaining team control.  D’Arnaud is arbitration eligible for the first time next year, and he’s slated to become a free agent in 2020.  Don’t mistake d’Arnaud’s lack of service time for youth, though: d’Arnaud is already 27, and while Simon was right to remark about the necessity of patience with catchers, d’Arnaud is running out of time to prove his mettle at catcher.  There are already calls from the notoriously impatient New York media for him to change positions to preserve his health.

So in sum: the Mets want 1.5 years of arguably the top catcher in baseball in exchange for 3 years of a maybe-decent, often-injured once-prospect.  I’ll pass, thank you.

This isn’t to say the Mets aren’t in any sense a match for the Brewers on a Lucroy trade; it just seems very unlikely.  The player most likely to draw the Brewers’ interest is the Mets’ top prospect, 1B Dominic Smith, who is a power-hitting lefty widely regarded as a top-50 prospect in baseball generally.  A member of the 2013 draft class, Smith is currently slashing .284/.344/.447 in AA Birmingham.  The Mets have their own long-term question mark at 1B, though, with Lucas Duda set to be a free agent in 2018.  As a team with the pitching to remain competitive for some time, it seems unlikely the Mets would be willing to mortgage the future for an outside shot at the playoffs this season and whatever next season might bring with Lucroy.

Beyond Smith? Not much that would be of obvious interest to the Brewers, unless their plan is to simply stockpile talent regardless of position.  It’s not that the Mets’ farm clubs are devoid of talent; it’s just that the team’s 2nd to 7th best prospects all play SS and OF, positions at which the Brewers are currently loaded.  Perhaps SS Gavin Cecchini could shift to 2B, but I’m doubtful the Mets would be willing to pull the trigger on d’Arnaud and Cecchini for Lucroy.  And here again we have a useful building block for the Mets going forward, as their current 2B, Neil Walker, is a free agent at years’ end.

This is all to say that I find it highly unlikely Lucroy is dealt to the Mets before the trade deadline.  With that deadline looming, there’s certain to be much more noise in the coming days.

 

In support of the new IBB rule

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Last Saturday, word broke that Major League Baseball was considering altering the intentional walk rules by allowing the manager to signal an intentional walk, thereby allowing the batter to take first base, without having the pitcher actually throw four pitches outside the strike zone.

Here’s how ESPN led off its article covering the proposed changes:

A new strike zone could be on baseball’s horizon and the old-fashioned intentional walk could be a thing of the past after both were agreed to by the competition committee at Major League Baseball’s owners meetings this week, sources said.

The potentially dramatic changes could be in effect by next season.

For purposes of this article, let’s focus on the “intentional walk” portion of the quote, which is incredibly misleading.  The rule change described above is not a “potentially dramatic change,” nor does it make the old-fashioned intentional walk “a thing of the past.”  The intentional base on balls (IBB) has been around since 1870 and isn’t going anywhere.  It’s still a thing under the proposed rule, and the batters will be recorded as reaching base on an IBB.  The proposed rule doesn’t even burden managers any more than usual, as managers already signal an IBB to their pitchers.  Literally the only change is that a pitcher doesn’t need to throw four “pitches” that more closely resemble soft tosses.

Maybe it’s ESPN’s hyperbole, maybe it’s that the gut reaction of baseball aficionados to any type of rules change seems to fall somewhere between disgust and paranoia, but there’s been an awful lot of criticism of the new IBB rule.  Bob Uecker and Bill Schroeder spent about an hour combined during last Saturday’s game broadcasts complaining about the proposed change.  There wasn’t a whole lot of reasoning there, just a general kind of grumping.  As best I can tell, their principal objection is that under the current rule there’s a chance a pitcher might throw a wild pitch, or the catcher might allow a passed ball.

That’s true … but so what?  The notion of the intentional walk itself isn’t under attack (although some arguments have been made toward that end previously).  Rather, these are attacks on the manner in which the IBB is achieved.  But isn’t it important that the procedure comport with the game’s strategic objectives?  If we regard a batter reaching base as a strictly averse outcome to the defending team, why shouldn’t that team be able to concede any old base it wants to a batter?

This actually creates a distinction between the IBB and the vanilla walk.  Under the old rule, the mechanism of achieving a BB and an IBB was the same: throw four balls outside the strike zone.  The only difference was the subjective intention of the pitcher, which, admittedly, was often pretty easy to discern.  Under the new rule, an IBB actually denotes a specific way in which the batter reaches base.  The new rule creates a clear distinction and gives the IBB added significance:  An IBB signifies that the opposing manager has chosen to award the batter a base, whereas a BB signifies that the batter has reached base on four balls thrown outside of the strike zone.

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.

 

Scooter Gennett as a liability

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

In Sunday’s uncomfortably close win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, the bottom of the seventh inning looked promising.  Up 4-2, the Brewers would bring Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, and Aramis Ramirez to the plate against mediocre right-handed starter Vance Worley – an excellent opportunity to add insurance runs and seal the deal.  Indeed, everything went according to plan after Lucroy grounded out: Braun and Ramirez both singled, leaving two on with lefty Scooter Gennett coming to the plate.

Clint Hurdle did the logical thing at that point and pulled Worley, replacing him with LHP Justin Wilson.  The young Wilson’s splits somewhat surprisingly favor left-handed batters, but he still holds them to a career 247/.311/.337 line.  Scooter, however, has always struggled against southpaws, and as a major leaguer has hit just .132/.154/.145 off them.

It made all the sense in the world to substitute Rickie Weeks, the right-handed portion of the second base platoon and a career .259/.383/.440 hitter against lefties.  The Brewers had dropped the first two games in the series and are locked in a tight NL Central race in which the Pirates, at the time, were just four games back.  The Pirates would get another opportunity to bat the heart of their order against the Brewers’ bullpen, so the game was certainly still within reach for them in the late innings.

Instead, manager Ron Roenicke left Scooter in to hit, and he rather predictably grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, ending the threat.

Fan justifications for this move ranged from “Scooter’s never going to learn to hit left-handed pitching if he never faces them” to emphasizing Scooter’s admittedly superior defense at second base.  Both fall short.

It is true that Scooter is very young and might still adapt to hit southpaws; I don’t want to sell him short so early in his career.  But if he is to learn, the late innings of a tight game against a surging division rival with a man in scoring position is not the place to do it.  Whatever growth might be accomplished in that one at-bat is not worth the potential sacrifice to a team that hopes to secure a playoff berth.

And while Scooter does indeed have a superior glove to Weeks, it’s not as if Weeks is a fish out of water at the position.  He’s been a second baseman his entire career.  To be sure, Weeks’ range leaves much to be desired.  The defensive deficiencies are somewhat mitigated by the short amount of time – just two innings! – he would be stationed at second.  He might have seen perhaps two balls hit his way (in point of fact, Scooter saw one).  Any defensive liabilities Weeks brings to the ledger were overcome by the increased opportunity for a run or two during the seventh inning.

I am not opposed to offensive growth or emphasizing defense.  But there is a place for both, and in the heart of a pennant race, you have to manage for the win.