Changing Expectations: Competing Questions and Narratives | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Tomorrow (Friday, March 29), I will represent Disciples of Uecker on the UCB NL Central Preview show, hosted by Daniel Shoptaw (C70 At The Bat). Throughout the offseason, I spent each Tuesday and Thursday picking apart interesting elements of the 2012 Brewers pitching staff, NL starting pitchers in general, and other elements of the team and organization.While collecting my thoughts and expectations for this show, I realized just how much our team — and its question marks — shifted over this week.

These elements began with the question marks about the Brewers’ young rotation; for months, it seemed that the organization was ready to sink or swim with their gang of unheralded pitchers. In that regard, we learned about Fastballer Mike Fiers‘s pitch selection shifts and struggles, or Marco Estrada‘s inimitable career trajectory. These one a kind pitchers joined top prospect Wily Peralta, finally-healthy prospect Mark Rogers, and finally-healthy fifth starter Chris Narveson. Until spring training; Rogers reportedly threw during the offseason, and encountered velocity and control problems throughout camp. Suddenly, one of the Brewers’ rotational strengths — depth — seemed compromised before the season could start. In this light, any little struggle from the other Brewers pitchers seemed magnified; one was suddenly made to wonder, “what are these guys going to do for 162 games?”

The Kyle Lohse signing makes me think of a new series of questions. First and foremost, throughout the offseason exploration of the Brewers’ unheralded staff, I became more convinced that for all the question marks, this staff had a lot of hidden potential, both in their ability to work a full season, and their ability to perform. Signing Lohse makes me wonder, specifically, what should one think about the Brewers’ unheralded starters now that the organization added a veteran starter? Our own J.P. Breen captures the context of the Lohse deal, and beyond the idea of contention, one wonders how the shaky spring training rotation would survive the full 162. Yet, in the overall narrative, this signing stops my previous assumptions dead in their tracks: the rotation previously appeared to have a modest ceiling, strengthened by the fact that a good portion of the unheralded pitchers limited the damage and didn’t really beat themselves. There is value hidden in their combination of how they use their stuff, and how they approach batters. Lohse adds yet another low-walk, decent-HR arm to the mix.

Changing Spots
One of my favorite lines from Breen’s piece occurs in the contrast between organizational expectations to compete, and the potential that 2013 was a year the organization needed to step back (Buster Olney suggested that):

“The organization isn’t stuck. The Kyle Lohse signing hasn’t damned the franchise into the doldrums of the NL Central for years to come. It does represent a strategy that could, though, and it would be wise of Doug Melvin and Mark Attanasio to recognize that fact and make meaningful steps to increase the talent pool in the minor leagues. Otherwise, the Milwaukee Brewers will be forced to continue to walk a tenuous tightrope, and a false step or two could cause the organization to lose its balance and tumble into a full-scale rebuilding project — something the organization clearly wants to avoid at all costs.”

Here’s where the Brewers’ two offseason narratives collide. The narrative of sticking with the youngsters provided the potential for the Brewers to see how their unheralded pitchers shape up in the big leagues, and how they continue to attack batters over the course of a full season. Expanding beyond Breen’s excellent summary, one of the potential issues of the Lohse deal is digging into starts from these young starters. Certainly, there’s the potential for a pitching injury — every single MLB club has that potential — and there’s the likely scenario that the Brewers will need to use more than five starters — indeed, the vast majority of the National League faced that fate last year.

The new narrative of, “We’re competing with Lohse” potentially eats into the previous narrative of, “we have the guts to stick with our own arms” if the Lohse signing takes away big league starts from either Estrada, Fiers, or Peralta (in some combination). One might not necessarily expect any of those three pitchers to ever have a season as strong as Lohse’s 2012 (and the former two on that list might have non-traditional careers that don’t allow them to have the type of extended, mid-range career that Lohse has enjoyed). This is why I find myself re-visiting my explorations of the Brewers’ young arms, and my analysis of their tendencies, and their abilities to attack batters. One of the benefits of the Lohse deal is that he gives the Brewers a greater chance at having multiple starters that work a full season with at least an average performance; this is a good thing to have in the grind of 162. On the other hand, if Lohse does not simply replace the least valuable (or more vulnerable for injury) arms in the rotation — if his stability is not simply replacing the most unstable aspects of the rotation, there’s a real sense that Lohse is digging into potentially valuable starts for the Brewers.

This will be annoying to those of you that have already read my “Pitching Logic: Destroying the NL Central” survey, but after analyzing the criticism, expectations, and trends of other young, up-and-coming, or unheralded arms in the NL Central, I pieced together the most important elements for forming expectations for Estrada, Fiers, and Peralta. Here’s what I found:

Progressive Projections:
Using similar logic to judge the workloads and previous performances of Fiers, Estrada, and Peralta, we can present specific judgments about their abilities on the mound. Here are a few key assumptions:

(1) In each case, these pitchers will be presented with the potential of an inefficient defense. Since the Brewers’ organization does employ shifting (see The Fielding Bible III), there is a good chance that the organization will make an effort to place their fielders in the best possible positions. However, based on their 2011 to 2012 progressions (as well as some career progressions), we might assume a below-average defense for the 2013 Brewers. In this case, Fiers, Estrada, and Peralta will each be likely to allow approximately 5 more runs than one might expect.

Peralta BF:
2010: 644
2011: 618
2012: 765

2010-2011 (AA): 686 BF, .213 K /.105 BB / .020 HR
2011-2012 (AAA): 774 BF, .237 K / .115 BB/.012 HR
2012 (NL): 113 BF, .204 K / .097 BB / .000 HR;

2013? 885 BF
Fielding Independent: .201 K / .095 BB / .023 HR; 178 K / 84 BB / 20 HR/10 HBP;
Batted-ball-in-play: 593 BIP, 403 BIPOuts, 10 errors, 180 BIPH
Overall: 193.7 IP, 200 H, 100 R, 178 K/84 BB/20 HR; approximately 95 FIPruns

(2) In each case, these pitchers’ strike out totals have declined upon entering the National League, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Their minor league strike out rates, in some cases, were so high that some decline would be expected at a higher level of competition. Nevertheless, the worst likely strike out rate belongs to Peralta, and his is average.

Estrada BF:
2008: 658
2009: 593
2010: 216
2011: 381
2012: 597

2008-2012 (AAA): 1034 BF, .182 K/.068 BB/.014 HR
2010-2012 (MIL): 1001 BF, .244 K/.064 BB/.032 HR
2012 after injury: 417 BF, .261 K / .053 BB / .022 HR

2013? 778 BF
Fielding Independent: .250 K/.060 BB/.030 HR; 195 K/47 BB/23 HR/5 HBP
Batted Ball In Play: 508 BIP, 340 BIPOuts, 8 errors, 160 BIPH
Overall: 178.3 IP, 183 H, 85 R, 195 K/47 BB/23 HR; approximately 77 FIPruns

(3) While it’s popular to think about the innings pitched by these starters, in order to judge their workloads, we can also use their batters faced to judge them. This is especially important because these pitchers do strike out a strong number of batters. In this regard, we might be inclined to expect more efficient increases in workload, if these pitchers can continue their career strike out records.

Since Fiers’s workload increase is the most extreme, I have adjusted his progressions with two models. One for the workload skeptics, another one that continues to increase his workload (slightly).

Mike Fiers:
2010-2011 (AA): 374 BF, .265 BB / .061 BB / .027 HR
2011-2012 (AAA): 492 BF, .240 K / .081 BB / .020 HR
2011-2012 MLB: 549 BF, .250 K / .071 BB / .022 HR

2010: 511 BF
2011: 514 BF
2012: 768 BF

2013? 598 BF
Fielding Independent: .235 K / .080 BB / .022 HR; 141 K / 48 BB / 13 HR / 6 HBP
Batted-Ball-In-Play: 390 BIP, 262 BIPOuts, 8 errors, 120 BIPH
Overall: 134.3 IP, 133 H, 64 R, 141 K/48 BB/13 HR; approximately 57 FIPruns; or:

2013? 828 BF
Fielding Independent: .235 K / .079 BB / .025 HR; 195 K/65 BB/21 HR / 9 HBP
Batted-Ball-In-Play: 538 BIP, 366 BIPOuts, 10 errors, 162 BIPH
Overall: 187 IP, 183 H, 90 R, 195 K/65 BB/21 HR; approximately 83 FIPruns

It should go without saying that these are progressive models that build from these pitchers’ previous mechanical bases and previous performance trends. Obviously, there’s a ton that could happen in the course of the season. Yet, if we’re thinking critically about the division, we need to think critically about our own staff, too.

Rotational Chairs
First and foremost, if Lohse displaces Peralta or Fiers from the rotation for some time — the most logical decisions, given their options, service time, and their respective stages in their career — there’s a sense that he’s offsetting unknown problems. We can say, “We know what to expect from Lohse, but what if Fiers really was burned out at the end of 2012, or what if Peralta’s control problems surface throughout 2013?” These are real questions, for sure, but there are also real answers, based on their approaches, mechanics, pitch selection, and, in Peralta’s case, their ceilings. There is a chance that Peralta could work in the rotation for an entire season, and put together an average or below-average campaign (at best?); I mean, even Ben Sheets allowed 316 runs in his first 588.7 IP, despite striking out 421 batters against 161 BB and 73 HR. Without working in the big league rotation, we only prolong questions about Peralta’s ceiling. Fiers, on the other hand, offers a commanding attack where he lacks a ceiling, giving the Brewers another middle rotation arm that simply does not beat himself.

I don’t simply want to argue that Lohse should displace lefty Narveson from the rotation, because I have argued in the past that Narveson has some strong elements to his approach that could lead to stronger seasons than his 2011 campaign. Furthermore, there is a sense that if Narveson returned to health from his shoulder injury, the Brewers should employ his arm and see what he’s able to accomplish at the back end of the rotation. As far as 5th starters go, Narveson is not bad; in fact, he’s almost certainly better than the typical “no-better-than-replacement” 5th starter. Once again, the narratives compete in this sense: if the goal is to compete with Lohse, shouldn’t the Brewers simply present their best five pitchers to work in the rotation? Again, I know it’s never this simple, and I know that the Brewers are probably more-than-likely to use more than five starters in 2013 (so, in a way I’m crying over spilled milk); there is a good chance that the best five starters will have a chance to sort themselves out prior to a hot stretch run.

Conclusion
Adam McCalvy notes that the Brewers probably won’t be able to settle their roster and rotation until this weekend. The organization could even entertain a 13-man pitching staff, or send someone like Fiers to long relief in the bullpen, McCalvy reports. This roster uncertainty underscores this feeling I have that the Brewers’ narratives for 2013 are competing with one another; we have a club with a talented ceiling that can certainly win a lot of ballgames. Based on their 2012 run differential, the club is only 5 wins away from a 90-win season, and their revamped bullpen, strong offense, and fortified rotation should help them get close to that total. On the other hand, the Brewers are now in the improbable position of signing a pitcher for the sake of contending while (a) introducing more uncertainty to the roster, and (b) potentially placing a rotation that does not include their best five pitchers on the mound. I know that these are the realities that teams face when they have to consider minor league options, contracts, service time, and respond to injuries or performance uncertainty. But, I suddenly feel like I have more questions about this club than four months ago; it’s as though the concrete uncertainties of spring training, and injuries within the organization’s rotational depth chart opened Pandora’s box.

Hopefully the box is closed soon, and the Brewers can get their best five starters on the field.

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