Another day, another wild, high-scoring affair between the Brewers and Miami Marlins. I’m certain that we could find symbolism between the 2012 halfway point and American Independence, spurring one of the greatest outlaw nations in the world. At the very least, if the Brewers are to accomplish a winning record, they will need to mount a spirited campaign on the shoulders of some ragamuffin performances.
Bullpen Woes / One Run Games
Closer John Axford entered 23 of his 35 outings during a one-run contest: Ron Roenicke entrusted the hard-throwing righty with 11 one-run leads, 10 tie ballgames, and 2 one-run deficits, each between the 8th and 10th innings. In fact, each outing Axford pitched from June 18 forward was within one run when he entered (and by my count, 11 of his last 13 outings occurred during games within one run when he entered).
By all accounts, Axford is a big league closer and should be the type of pitcher to handle late inning stress, but this type of pressure may be a bit much. Beyond Axford’s rough stretch, several other relievers have had difficulties keeping large deficits large, and some of the tough spots Axford faced followed less-than-desirable performances by his bullpen mates.
At some point, one needs to look at all these close games and wonder whether they’re a sign of a middling club that is competitive without the ability to make it to the next level, or a very good ballclub that is simply not taking advantage of good timing.
As of now, only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers have played as many one-run contests as the Brewers. The Pirates used their ability to succeed in close contests to sustain an improbable winning percentage early in the season, but they’re suddenly turning the corner and playing all-around competitive ball (not unlike how the 2011 Brewers narrative unfolded). The Brewers’ inability to capitalize on their close contests over the month of June will severely impact their ability to win at least 82 games; when a team scores 119 runs and allows 113 over 26 games, one might expect them to perform better than 12-14. One has to wonder, will the June stretch be the lost opportunity that Brewers fans reflect on as the season closes after another 81?
During the Brewers’ last two playoff runs, the Milwaukee nine were strong teams that managed to capitalize on every ounce of their ability. Those teams won games at percentages higher than the differential between their runs scored and runs allowed would suggest. They were not necessarily lucky teams (although one might argue that the 2011 Brewers’ health and subsequent ability to run through the season without many replacement players was extremely fortunate). However, their ability to win exceeded their overall performance on the field, which simply means that they seized opportunity.
I felt this way following Bronson Arroyo‘s pending no-no a few nights ago. As soon as the Brewers fell behind, they almost immediately jumped on Arroyo’s offerings, tying the game almost as soon as they fell behind. This was exactly how 2011 felt, I remembered. Yes, seizing opportunity has a feeling; it’s the idea that a skilled team works beyond their overall abilities and combines to perform at a strong level. That’s not bogus nonsensespeak; it’s one of the key elements of the 2008 and 2011 Brewers.
Unfortunately, the Brewers’ current 38-43 record stands amidst a stretch of play where the team consistently improved. After scoring 102 runs and allowing 122 during their 11-12 April, the Brewers scored 121 runs against 119 during their 12-16 May, and 119 runs against 113 runs during their 12-14 June. These are certainly moderate improvements, but improvements nonetheless. Yet, the Brewers’ winning percentage fell in both May and June (compared to their initial April mark).
Overall, the Brewers are approximately 2 wins shy of where their run differential suggests they could be. One might explain away that type of difference between a run differential and winning percentage as inconsequential. The simple fact is, if the Brewers are not winning as much as they could be — if they’re not taking every opportunity they can to win — it will be doubly difficult for them to reclaim their winning ways as the season unfolds.
Excluding pitchers, Ron Roenicke employed 105 different batting orders during the 2011 campaign. Given the Brewers’ fluctuating roster this season, he’s already used 64 different batting orders halfway through 2012. I’m not certain this is statistically significant — I gather that one could find managers who used that percentage of different batting orders just for kicks. However, I think it’s a clear reflection of the Brewers’ fortunes.
The Brewers recently returned some serviceable bench players, meaning they climbed the replacement value ladder at a couple of positions. Cesar Izturis and Cody Ransom are at shortstop, and Travis Ishikawa is back again. Soon, the Brewers will have another starter available when Jonathan Lucroy returns. These are favorable shifts in the roster, although it’s interesting to note that the Brewers’ regular 1B and SS will probably feature replacement faces throughout the remainder of 2012; the opening day line up was a short-lived dream, and injuries short-circuited the “replace Prince Fielder through aggregate defense and batting acquisitions” experiment.
What does it mean to rely on a ragamuffin replacement roster? First, relying heavily on replacement players makes it difficult for the Brewers to compensate for performance shifts by Rickie Weeks, Nyjer Morgan, and even Corey Hart. Furthermore, it means that the overall production distribution is extremely weighted to a few positions, meaning that (a) the Brewers’ worst positional performances are notably far from their best performances, and (b) the Brewers have as many average or worse positional performances as above average performances.
The Brewers have several difficult hurdles to overcome on the road to winning:
(1) Their winning percentage is already behind their run differential, leaving them approximately 2 wins behind their run production and prevention.
(2) Their distribution of batting performances is poorly distributed, which suggests that they are missing the balance one might need to seize close game opportunities and win a majority of close games.
(3) Their bullpen is faltering during a steady diet of extremely close games, including their top relievers. This, of course, means that when the Brewers do have a close lead, they lack a lockdown bullpen ready to ensure that close lead turns into a certain victory.
This might all seem obvious, you might be banging your head on the wall because you know all this already. However, I wanted to present these challenges together to really tackle the Brewers’ fate as buyers or sellers at the deadline. I suggest that a serious notion that the Brewers are indeed in position to compete for a playoff spot must answer (at least) these three problematic areas.
I’ve noted that the Brewers fail to “fire on any cylinders” during my writings this season. I think that these three elements present a clear picture of what’s actually happening. Not only are the Brewers spreading their run production across too few producers, they are also failing to maintain leads in close games, and as a result, they’re underplaying their abilities.
I still think this is a good ballclub. If last year taught me the joys of watching an exceptional ballclub dominate their competition for two consecutive months, this year is teaching me that the line between a middling, competitive ballclub and a true contender is wire thin. Those elements can swirl and swirl and fail to produce the correct elixir — now we know when we judge and analyze our ballclubs, we must analyze distribution of abilities, as well as raw abilities.
Scott Boehm / Getty Images: http://www.zimbio.com/photos/Rickie+Weeks/Ron+Roenicke/New+York+Mets+v+Milwaukee+Brewers/KA4QGBfZa2v
Hannah Foslien / Getty Images: