Premature Associations: Pound Town, Silver Linings, Ax Factor | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

The Brewers have played eight games and given up 95 hits so far this season. That leads the league and averages out to just under 12 hits per game – or 11.875, to be exact. The Mariners aren’t far behind, and prior to Thursday’s game, had given up 92 hits. Except the Mariners allowed those hits over ten games to the Brewers’ eight. It’s fair to say from those numbers that the Brewers’ pitching staff has been taken to Pound Town through the first few series of the year.

After watching the Rockies bang out 41 hits in the first series, I kept saying that one series does not make a season. I told myself that any associations made would be premature. Sample sizes way too small to lead me to any concrete conclusions. So I crossed my fingers and kept hoping that things would improve. After the Arizona Diamondbacks completed their sweep of the Brewers, I understood why many baseball bloggers and pundits picked the Crew to finish fourth in the NL Central. But I still refused to believe them. This team was better than how they were playing. How much better? Well, I wasn’t so sure anymore.

On the offensive front, it would be tough for any major league club to compete after losing their third, fourth, and fifth-place hitters, as happened to the Brewers during the Diamondback series. That’s a lot of offense for replacement level players to pick up. The solution for a better offense seems simple enough – get healthy. Luckily for the Crew, and my fantasy team, Ryan Braun’s neck spasms shimmered down enough for him to return to the line up against the Cubs and go 3-for-4 on Monday and 2-for-4 on Tuesday. Even with the injuries, the Brewers are batting .277 as a team, which is tied with the Diamondbacks for sixth best in baseball. Once proven run-producers Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart return, this offense should be as formidable as many expected.

Of course, the offense wasn’t what most of us were worried about going into the season. It’s the pitching staff that holds the fate of the Brewers’ season in their hands. Over the first eight games, here’s how they’ve performed –

Hits Home Runs Earned Runs ERA Strike Outs Walks
95 14 49 5.47 65 21

Those are some gaudy numbers that don’t bode well for the Brewers. But before I point out some silver linings, let’s look at the good news – 65 strikeouts to 21 walks. That’s a K/BB ratio of 3.10, which is seventh best in baseball and just behind the Nationals’ highly touted pitching staff. Only the Nationals and Dodgers have walked fewer batters than the Brewers so far. Again, due to postponements and scheduling, not all teams have played the same amount of games. So, if we look at BB%, the Brewers still have performed very well by only walking 6.3% of all batters faced. That’s third best amongst all other teams and a full two points below the league-average of 8.3%. Brewers’ pitching might be getting pounded for hits but they’re not giving away many free passes.

Onto the silver linings, as I mentioned above, the Brewers have given up more hits than any other team (going into Thursday’s games). Part of the reason is the .305 batting average and .349 BABIP against the Brewers’ pitching staff. The .305 AVG is the worst for any pitching staff and the .349 BABIP is second worst in all of baseball. For a little context, the league-average is a .250 AVG and .292 BABIP. Since BABIP normally hovers around .300 for pitchers, Brewers fans can expect opponents BABIP to drop. That will, in turn, also reduce the opponent’s AVG and the numbers of hits allowed. Simply put, expect the Brewers’ pitching staff to catch a few more breaks in upcoming series.

Regarding the Brewers’ ugly 5.47 ERA, I noticed a few interesting things. First, it’s accompanied by a 4.67 FIP, which indicates they have pitched better than their ERA suggests. More surprisingly, the Brewers’ 3.95 xFIP is pretty good. How good? It is the ninth best in the league — one spot behind the Braves, whose team ERA sits at 1.89. How could the Brewers get punished for 49 earned runs and end up with a xFIP only slightly worse than the Braves, a team that has only given up 17? The simple answer is home runs.

The xFIP stat takes into account that home run rates fluctuate wildly. The formula for xFIP takes the number of fly balls given up by a pitcher — whether home runs, hits, or outs — and multiples them by the league-average HR/FB rate. By neutralizing home runs, xFIP tries to put pitchers on a more level playing field by removing park factors from the equation. Of course, sabermetric theory ends the second a team takes to the field and what really happens can’t be corrected to reflect a league average. In fact, ballpark factors show that Miller Park is a hitter friendly environment and more home runs will be hit there than the average league park. So before getting all excited by the Brewers decent xFIP, fans must realize that, by its nature, xFIP over-values the Brewers’ pitching staff. But I mention it because it does highlight some good news for the Brewers’ staff — they will give up home runs less frequently from here on.

The 14 bombs allowed by the Brewers, which would’ve been 15 if not for this sick play by Carlos Gomez, is unsustainable. Currently, the Brewers’ HR/FB rate sits at 16.7%, fifth worst in the league and well above the current league average of 11.8%. During the 2012 season, the Brewers’ HR/FB rate was 12.1% and league average 11.3%. Brewers’ pitchers will continue to give up home runs, especially at Miller Park. Just don’t expect them to continue giving up one home run out of every six fly balls. That rate should lower and, in turn, pull down the team’s ERA and FIP.

Finally, let’s look at the Ax factor on the bullpen. Here are John Axford’s numbers on the season –

Innings Pitched Earned Runs Home Runs ERA
3.1 9 4 24.30

As a team, the Brewers’ bullpen has a 6.11 ERA, the fifth worst in the league. Now, just for fun, let’s remove Axford’s numbers from the equation to see how the rest of the bullpen has performed. Subtracting Axford’s 3.1 IP and 9 ER, the Brewers’ bullpen ERA drops to 3.65 – right down the middle for 15th best in the league. Remove Axford’s four home runs and the rest of the bullpen has only given up two.

So, a less-than-stellar start to the season still leaves Brewers fans some reasons for hope. But it’s hard not to think of the old baseball axiom – you can’t win a pennant in April, but you sure can lose one.

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