It is difficult not to feel optimistic about the Brewers as the new year opens. The club is basically within one season’s length of seeing what their top young players can do in the big leagues, and in the meantime GM David Stearns is stockpiling recent ex-prospect lottery tickets. Coupled with the inverse of Murphy’s Law — “things are not likely to go as wrong as 2015” — aided by the potential for new front office, coaching, and field strategies for the season, one might be tempted to think that the Brewers will even fight deep into the 70s for their 2016 win total (Pythagoras already thought their runs scored / runs allowed of 655 / 737 were worth 72 wins in 2015, anyway, so Milwaukee has quite a good start).
Since the Brewers are still placing the finishing touches on the roster, it is difficult to make projections about the 2016 season. One especially difficult factor is judging when the young players will play. Does Jorge Lopez make the rotation in April, June, or September? When will Brett Phillips and Orlando Arcia show up? Obviously these questions will impact the club’s run production and run prevention, depending on how the prospects compare to the current full-timers on the MLB club.
However, one aspect that seems securely in place is the starting rotation. Even with a couple of questions about the back rotation, there is a strong sense that one can analyze the potential improvements in the rotation. Here, I would specifically like to return to the “Replacement By Design” theory, which fits the 2016 Brewers staff for a number of reasons:
Milwaukee will be relying on a transitional rotation as several of their best starters are young and will begin the season in the minors.
The Brewers have at least 428.7 IP, 272 R (-71 runs prevented) to improve in their rotation from 2015.
There are at least 16 rotational options for the 2016 Brewers.
Judging “average” NL replacement pitchers in 2015 can provide a strong comparison to the Brewers’ back rotation.
Compared to the National League, the Brewers’ tandem of Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and each replacement (Zach Davies, Ariel Pena, Jorge Lopez, Tyler Wagner, and Tyler Cravy) were 71 runs below average. However, this is misleading in the sense that it suggests that the replacements were bad; in fact, the Brewers’ replacements were considerably better than the low rotation spots in terms of runs prevented. (One could certainly argue the Milwaukee could have or should have explored replacement pitchers much earlier in the season than they did).
In my previous treatment of NL replacements, I isolated 78 specific replacement pitchers into four major categories: high inning swingmen, high IP replacements, mid IP replacements, and low IP replacements. This is arguably important because each class of replacements is different: a pitcher that works 115 innings by starting 15 games and relieving 40 games is much different than a pitcher like Jorge Lopez or even Zach Davies (i.e., a shorter-term, starting pitcher replacement).
|Replacement Types||IP||Normalized R (Runs Average)|
|High/Mid IP||67.7||35 (4.65)|
|Mid/Low IP||33||20 (5.45)|
|Low IP||11.3||8 (6.37)|
Judging against this list, Brewers used three mid/low IP replacements (Cravy, Davies, and Pena) and 2 low IP replacements (Lopez and Wagner).
With this template in place, one can see how a “replacement by design” rotation could conceivably improve beyond a “standard rotation” with two significantly below average low rotation starters. For example, if Brewers replacements worked 148.7 innings (adding a workload of 21 IP), in place of Garza, they would have improved rotation by 15 runs. On Lohse’s scale of 152.3 IP, the Brewers replacements would have improved the rotation by 9 runs.
It obviously seems difficult to suggest that the Brewers should have used 428.7 innings of replacement pitchers in 2015, but the 2016 pitching depth makes this workload appear much more plausible. Here is one scenario that only considers nine of the Brewers’ depth starters:
|2016 Rotation Roles||Pitcher||Maximum Workload|
|Standard||Taylor Jungmann||119.3 innings / max 208|
|Standard||Jimmy Nelson||at least 86 innings / max 207|
|Standard||Matt Garza||at least 155.7 innings / max 228|
|Standard||Wily Peralta||at least 163.7 innings / max 228|
|Swingman||Zach Davies||max 192 IP|
|Swingman||Jorge Lopez||max 193 IP|
|Swingman||Junior Guerra||max 184 IP (based on 2011)|
|Swingman||Adrian Houser||max 150 IP|
|Mid/Low IP||Tyler Wagner||max 195 IP|
|Mid/Low IP||Tyler Cravy||max 168 IP|
|Mid/Low IP||Ariel Pena||max 170-180 IP (based on 2011-2013)|
|Emergency||Michael Blazek||max 132-175 IP (based on 2014-2011)|
|Emergency||Tyler Thornburg||unlikely max 140-170 IP (based on 2015-2013)|
Mixing and matching these starters thus becomes a matter of strategy for the Brewers, rather than an issue of necessity. If Milwaukee uses these pitchers to their advantage, and quickly replaces starters (or, even, designs a pitching staff specifically to use more than 10 starters), the club will have a chance to be much better in 2016 than in 2015. This matter is merely one of strategy because teams have typically used replacement starters out of necessity; however, one could imagine that a team that employs a “replacement by design” strategy could find a “market inefficiency” that allows that team to outplay opponents.
(It actually should be stated that despite the MLB’s reputation for “forward-thinking” analysis, the analytical front offices have been very conservative with the rotation. It blows my mind that teams have not yet used “one park only” starters, home-only and road-only starting pitchers, or even the famed piggyback suggestion where a starter is removed strictly after two turns through the batting order. The team that uncovers and employs these strategies first will have a potentially strong advantage over the slogging or middling 4th / 5th deep rotational starter).
|2016 Brewers Replacements||IP||R||Runs Prevented|
|Swingmen||384 IP||196||-15 runs prevented|
|Mid/Low||99 IP||60||-13 runs prevented|
|Total||483 IP||256 R||-28 runs prevented (43 run improvement)|
In Milwaukee’s case, aggressively using their depth in 2016 could easily improve the club by at least four wins. This also becomes a clear case where one can see that Milwaukee can win more games without necessarily being “good” or “great;” penciling in 483 innings of -28 runs prevented baseball is not ideal, but it is certainly preferable to 428.7 innings of -71 runs prevented baseball. One might add that this scenario does not even consider the potential fact that Davies and Lopez (among others) could be significantly better than average as replacements, given their scouting profiles.
A replacement by design rotation alone can get the Brewers to at least 76-77 wins (655 RS / 694 RA = ~.473 winning percentage = ~76.6 wins). This is a significant improvement even before considering whether the Brewers’ “main starters” will improve in 2016.