Coming into the 2013 season, it was commonly said that the Milwaukee Brewers would only go as far as the starting rotation would take them. The offense would score plenty of runs and the bullpen would be improved, but the question marks centered around the rotation.
And through the first month and a half, we’ve seen that to be true. Consider these facts:
(1) Even with Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart on the DL for the majority of the season thus far, the Brewers still rank second in the National League with a .325 wOBA.
(2) The Brewers have the third-most home runs in the National League with 42 homers, behind only the Braves and Rockies.
(3) The Brewers rank seventh in the NL in runs scored (158), but that ranking should be expected to increase of the previous points continue to hold true for the rest of the season.
(4) The bullpen has been perfectly average this year, ranking 15th in all of baseball with a combined 3.66 ERA — a far cry from the 4.66 ERA a year ago. Nothing that should sound any alarms, but certainly nothing to write home about, either.
(5) Milwaukee’s team UZR ranks 12th in all of baseball at +2.4 (+4.1 UZR/150) and ranks even better using Defensive Runs Saved (+13).
(6) The Brewers have a run differential of -20 — which is the fifth-worst mark in the National League and the worst in the NL Central. Yes, even worse than the Chicago Cubs.
Huh. Those individual facts above appeared to be describing a pretty solid baseball team until number six, didn’t they? For all the focus on the struggles of Rickie Weeks, Jonathan Lucroy and John Axford, the Brewers actually aren’t struggling to score runs on offense or prevent runs in the bullpen. We can nitpick the individual pieces and argue room for improvement exists — and it obviously does — but none of the pieces mentioned above are keeping the Brewers from being .500 on the season.
Of course, the missing ingredient to the above statistics is the starting rotation, and the Brewers’ rotation has been dreadful. No matter which way you slice it, it’s been bad. Their combined 5.11 ERA is the worst in the National League and they’re one of two NL teams with a rotation ERA above 5.00. Digging into the statistics a bit more, their 4.57 FIP ranks second-worst in the National League behind only the San Diego Padres.
The necessary fixes are obvious. The Brewers need to strike out more batters and give up fewer home runs. Anyone who’s watched more than a couple Brewers games this season fully comprehends that fact. But those are results-oriented fixes. Kyle Lohse and Marco Estrada cannot simply step on the mound and decide to give up fewer home runs. Wily Peralta cannot flip a switch and strikeout more batters.
As with almost everything in baseball, it’s the process that matters. What’s one thing that each individual starting pitcher needs to change in their approach on the mound for them to find more success?
YOVANI GALLARDO: Throw More Strikes With Offspeed Pitches
Much has been written about Gallardo’s decreased velocity this year, and that’s certainly an issue. The trend is not difficult to notice:
While higher velocity makes it easier to survive mistakes, it’s not necessarily the prime factor in a pitcher’s success. Gallardo can still be effective with diminished velocity. He may need to do it a bit differently, though, because opposing hitters are teeing off on his fastball. They’re hitting .330 with an .872 OPS off his fastball this season.
Gallardo needs opposing hitters to respect his offspeed pitches. That’s difficult to do, however, when he’s only throwing pitches in the strike zone 36.3% of the time with his curveball and 38.3% of the time with his slider. And when he’s only throwing a first-pitch strike in 54.4% of plate appearances (10th worst in baseball), he eventually needs to come in with a fastball.
Opposing hitters are feasting on it. The decreased velocity is likely making his fastball easier to handle, too, which should place an even higher emphasis on his offspeed pitches.
KYLE LOHSE: Get the Baseball Back on the Ground
Though he’s known as a sinker-baller, Lohse has seen his ground-ball percentage steadily decrease over the last five or six years.
It’s decreased to the point that he’s a bona fide fly-ball pitcher at this point in his career. And that doesn’t work well in Miller Park. His home-run rate has increased to 1.25 HR/9 this year, which is the highest mark of his career since the 2004 season with the Minnesota Twins.
Lohse hasn’t pitched poorly this season. His 3.53 ERA is the best in the Brewers’ starting rotation by a long shot (Gallardo is second with a 4.70 ERA), but he will consistently be living on the edge in Miller Park if he continues to generate more fly balls. Luckily, his walk rate remains exceedingly low. He should be able to limit the multi-run home runs, at the very least, but he should find more success if he keeps the baseball on the ground with his changeup/sinker combination.
MARCO ESTRADA: Don’t Get Too Fastball-Heavy
While this seems identical to the one outlined for Yovani Gallardo, it’s slightly different. Gallardo forces himself into fastball counts by missing the zone early in at-bats. Estrada, on the other hand, has thrown a first-pitch strike 64.0% of the time this season. So, he’s not necessarily forcing himself into fastball-only counts.
At the same time, Estrada cannot get too reliant on his fastball because it’s his one extremely-hittable pitch. Here are wOBAs for opposing hitters by pitch type off Estrada:
While he cannot abandon the pitch because the threat of a fastball must exist to make the changeup effective, he must be careful where he locates his fastball. He needs to keep it down in the zone because he’s been hammered at-or-above the belt all year with it. Nine of his eleven home runs have come off his fastball this season.
WILY PERALTA: Find The Slider
In five starts last season, Wily Peralta had a 2.48 ERA with a 7.14 K/9 strikeout rate. He had a 16.2% swinging-strike rate with his slider, and it was a legitimate out-pitch for him against big league hitters. This season, however, his strikeout rate has plummeted to 4.60 K/9 and the swinging-strike rate on his slider has dropped to 9.1%.
It’s a dramatic change and one of the reasons why he’s struggled so much with “bad luck” this season. He’s struggling to miss bats, and opposing teams are going to occasionally find holes in the defense when putting the baseball in play. Granted, it has seemed that Peralta has been on the wrong side of that random variance more often than not this season, but still, it will happen.
He needs to re-discover his slider that made him so effective last year. It’s obvious that he’s throwing a slider with less break and less depth, and while he’s throwing strikes with it more often this year, he’s not missing as many bats. Check out the difference in his horizontal and vertical movement on his slider from his final start against Cincinnati last year to his most-recent start against Cincinnati this year (courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
A higher horizontal break on a slider for Peralta means it’s moving further away from right-handed batters, while a lower vertical break indicates it’s getting more depth. So, these numbers are just one example that shows how Peralta is throwing a tighter, flatter slider than he did previously — which is why his swinging-strike rate has suffered.
I’m all for Peralta lowering his walk rate, but he’s severely limiting his potential if he’s sacrificing the swing-and-miss capability of his slider to make that happen.
HIRAM BURGOS: Avoid Getting Predictable Against Lefties
The right-hander is getting demolished by left-handed pitching thus far in 2013. It’s an extremely small sample size, but the split is huge.
Though this partially has to do with the limitations of his repertoire on the mound, he’s also been overwhelmingly predictable against lefties thus far this season. He’s pitched them almost exclusively in one way — and it’s been away, away, away, away.
Burgos cannot allow hitters to eliminate one half of the plate. Even mediocre big-league hitters can mash pitches if they can essentially ignore the inner half. He needs to throw his fastball and cutter in on the hands once in a while — or even bury the curveball at the hitter’s feet at times — to keep them from diving out at his fastball/changeup combination on the outside black.