The Brewers will enter this week’s series with Pittsburgh with a 5-7 record – certainly slightly disappointing for a team with the ability to contend. The scapegoat is easy to find – the pitching staff. So far, Milwaukee pitchers have allowed a 6.06 ERA – 3rd to only the Nationals and Pirates. The FIP of 4.89 is nowhere near as bad, but it’s still poor.
Despite both of these numbers, Brewers pitching has only allowed a 4.05 xFIP – 8th in the major leagues. The xFIP stat is similar to FIP, except that instead of using raw home run numbers, it uses the expected amount of home runs allowed based on the fly ball rates of the pitchers. What this low xFIP suggests is that Brewers pitchers have allowed far more home runs then we would expect with the amount of fly balls they’ve allowed, and that they have done a good job at striking out batters and avoiding the base on balls.
Certainly, the home run has been a major issue for Brewers pitchers. The staff has allowed 19 home runs already in only 12 games. That’s the most in the National League and only trails the 21 allowed by the Angels for most in the majors. The homers have been spread around through the staff, as well. Here’s the “leaderboard:”
That’s 13 for the starting rotation and 6 for the bullpen. It’s especially disconcerting to see that every member of the starting rotation has allowed at least one home run per start so far. It’s not like they have ridiculous fly ball rates early in the season, either, as Suppan is the only rotation pitcher to have allowed over 40% fly balls.
It follows, then, that the Brewers have an extremely high 16.2% HR/FB so far this season, also highest in the NL. Part of that is probably bad luck – for example, the wind was blowing heavily during Jeff Suppan’s start in Chicago. We can expect that number to revert closer to the league mean of roughly 10-12% as the season continues.
Still, there is a certain amount of skill in keeping the ball in the ballpark, to be certain. For example, even if Braden Looper was unlucky last season in allowing 39 home runs in 194 innings with a 15.8% HR/FB rate, I’m still pretty sure that he’s not a major league quality pitcher. Yes, part of that may have been luck, but mostly he didn’t have command of an unimpressive repertoire of pitches, leading to too many easily hittable pitches being left up in the strike zone.
Although they’re not quite as bad as Looper (for the most part), the Brewers pitching staff as a whole doesn’t have impressive stuff. This is particularly noticeable with the fastballs of this staff – none of the starters have a fastball that averages more than 92 MPH. They do a below average job of avoiding contact – an 81.8% contact rate on swings is second highest in the NL, only lower than Washington. Simply put, they don’t have the stuff to blow hitters away. When Ubaldo Jimenez misses in the zone, batters still swing and miss or don’t hit the ball well. When Doug Davis misses in the zone, you get this:
See the video here, and nowhere else, due to MLB Advanced Media’s ridiculous policies regarding videos.
The same goes for Trevor Hoffman, Dave Bush, Randy Wolf, and to a lesser extent Yovani Gallardo – all pitchers who need to be able to locate in order to be successful. Rick Peterson, the new pitching coach, preaches to working down in the zone in order to get more ground balls. With this staff, the margin for error is very small. On a whole, this staff must keep the ball down, because when they miss, MLB hitters won’t, and that could very well decide their fate in September.