Series Preview: Brewers vs. Astros | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

One of the best FanGraphs articles I read during the offseason took to task the typical fan notion that once their beloved nine’s 162-game record falls below that 82-win threshold, there’s no difference between the remaining win totals. 77 wins, 62 wins, whatever — the team didn’t make the playoffs, and they didn’t manage to win more than they lost, therefore the win total is meaningless.

Under the knife of analysis, of course, this type of statement looks ridiculous, but fans utter versions of it under their breath all the time. Even diehards — it amounts to, “hey, I love baseball, but if my team isn’t winning, I might expend more energy on my stamp collection.” FanGraphs found significant differences within the dark area of losing records. Specifically, attendance shifts significantly between clubs with “better” and “worse” losing records; in terms of the owner’s ability to run their business, there is definitely a difference between a 77-win and 62-win club. The same goes for the length of time a club can hang onto the Wild Card race, giving fans some excitement (remember last year’s climb back by the Brewers? THAT was fun!), and so on.

The simple point is, outside of our collective frustration as fans, it absolutely makes a difference what type of losing club we’re watching.

Entering 2013, the Brewers’ organizational approach leaned toward competing, rather than rebuilding. Their 2012 ballclub hit some rough stretches of injuries and replacement players, but still managed to score more runs than anybody in the National League. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the way a group of young starters seized jobs throughout the season — contrary to the typical fan notion that the Brewers can’t field good pitching staffs, every hurler on the club except Randy Wolf was better than average. Even better, some of the club’s best performances occurred after they traded Zack Greinke, which displayed some serious character and fortitude in the clubhouse. Thus, the team decided to compete.

On the other hand, the Houston Astros remained squarely in rebuilding mode. There were no difficult wagers for their front office, perhaps other than which player they might select with their top draft pick. The last time the franchise had a winning season was in 2008, and even that club was peculiar — Cecil Cooper‘s gang outplayed their run differential by nine wins. At best, rushing a few organizational depth players to the majors while their true prospects developed, the Astros had answers about whether guys like Jose Altuve could cut it in the big leagues; perhaps learning that some of these kids could play was the best part of 2012.

Interestingly enough, the Astros went a different direction than the Miami Marlins upon receiving a grand labor development (namely the first year of their 20-year TV contract, which includes a sizable equity stake in the network). Instead of using their newfound cash in 2013 to field a winner, the Astros received at least $80 million in TV money to field a club without a pennant chance. If anything, the Astros have found that one of sports’ oldest dirty secrets translates to the new era of TV money: one can earn a fortune in sports, even while fielding a losing team. Think about the Astros’ $26 million payroll on at least $80 million of TV money the next time the Brewers cannot afford to add that extra player to compete.

And so, our Milwaukee Nine head to Houston. In terms of expected wins and losses, the Brewers are roughly on pace for 71 wins, the Astros 58. Interestingly enough, the Brewers are now underplaying their expected record by two, while the Astros are outplaying their run differential. What could be an expected gap of 13 wins between the clubs (over 162) is nearly cut in half — we’re looking at potential 67-win and 60-win clubs based on their actual winning percentages. What explains the differences between the Brewers and the Astros is not so much their pitching and hitting, but their distribution between the two:

Team Expected W% RS vs. park RA vs. park
2013 Brewers .441 -10 RS +25 RA
2013 Astros .357 -40 RS +52 RA
Team Record w/ 3-4 RS W% Record w/ 6+ RS W%
2013 Brewers 6-10 .375 15-5 .750
2013 Astros 7-14 .333 13-3 .813

I’m only isolating three specific runs scored totals for this exercise. But, I think they’re the most telling areas because (1) even though three or four runs scored is typically a below average total in one game, those totals of runs scored are rather common and isolate a club’s ability to win extremely close games, and (2) an outcome of six runs scored or more is notably above average for one game, which can isolate a club’s ability to win games it absolutely should win.

Here, the Astros’ and Brewers’ respective records are telling. Although the Astros’ pitching is notably worse than the Brewers staff, their winning percentage when scoring three or four runs is not much worse than the Brewers. However, even though their offense is much worse than the Brewers’ bats, the Astros have a notably better winning percentage when they do manage to score runs.

I’d like to point out that even with the Brewers’ current pitching staff projected over 162 games, the Brewers would be expected to win approximately 81 games if their offense measured up to the 2012 squad.

Think about that — this club is currently on pace to allow approximately 760 runs, but they are only on pace to score 669 runs. For all the talk about the pitching staff, the Brewers bats might very well score one hundred fewer runs in 2013 than in 2012.

Year 162 G Brewers RS 162 G park RS 162 G Brewers RA 162 G park RA
2012 776 711 733 717
2013 669 692 760 701

Even when we correct for the decrease in runs across the 2013 National League, the 2013 projected Brewers runs scored is more than 80 runs worse than their 2012 counterpart. That’s actually a worse performance shift than the 2012-to-2013 pitching staffs.

When we wrote about the Brewers prior to 2013, so few of us actually thought the club might be comparable to the 2013 Astros. Yet, here we are, more than a third of the way into the season, looking for ways to differentiate our own club from the Astros. In that differentiation is a unique lesson: (1) when one area of a club turns out to be so much worse than another part of the club, focus on that single area often leads one to gloss over other areas of the club, and (2) even between losing clubs, one can find notable differences that explain one club’s ability to outperform its expectations (compared to the other).

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. Andyroo says: June 18, 2013

    The 2012 Brewers were 1st in the NL in RS and 13th in RA… the 2013 Brewers are 8th in RS and 15th (last) in RA.

    I thought it would be interesting to see the lowest ranking team, in RS and RA, was to make the playoffs over the last ten years:

    2012: RS – 9th (BAL, CIN); RA – 9th (TEX)
    2011: RS – 8th (TB); RA – 9th (STL)
    2010: RS – 9th (SF); RA – 7th (CIN)
    2009: RS – 7th (STL); RA – 10th (MIN)
    2008: RS – 13th (LAD); RA – 7th (CHW)
    2007: RS – 14th (ARI); RA – 12th (PHI)
    2006: RS – 13th (SD); RA – 6th (NYY)
    2005: RS – 13th (SD); RA – 11th (BOS)
    2004: RS – 10th (MIN); RA – 6th (NYY)
    2003: RS – 9th (OAK/CHC); RA – 9th (ATL)
    MEAN: RS – 10.5th; RA – 8.6th

    I have no idea if there is anything useful to be gleaned from my rudimentary analysis, especially considering the extra playoff team from 2012 and on. However, that said, it looks as though it’s more important to have a better pitching staff, relative to the rest of the league, than it is to have better hitters, relative to the rest of the league. Let’s look at the major outliers to see how much they had to compensate by being so poorly ranked in a particular category:

    2008: LAD ranked #13 in RS but ranked #1 in RA for a total RD of +52.
    2007: ARI ranked #14 in RS but ranked #5 in RA for a total RD of -20.
    2007: PHI ranked #12 in RA but ranked #1 in RS for a total RD of +71.
    2006: SD ranked #13 in RS but ranked #1 in RA for total RD of +52.
    2005: SD ranked #13 in RS but ranked #8 in RA for a total RD of -42.
    2005: BOS ranked #11 in RA but ranked #1 in RS for a total RD of +102.

    So, four of the teams compensated by leading the league in the other category. The other two not so much. The 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks somehow managed to finish 90-72 with a -20 RD (and was one of four NL West teams above .500); the 2005 San Diego Padres, however, appear to have just been the best bad team in the NL West, winning the division by five full games at 82-80 with a -42 RD.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 18, 2013

      The trouble with using basic rankings is that they’re not park-adjusted. For example, the 2012 Brewers ranked 13th in runs allowed, but 733 runs allowed was within ~15 runs of the league/park average. By contrast, San Francisco allowed 649 runs in a park where approximately 614 runs allowed would have been average. (Edit: It looks like my calculation above was mistaken).

      So, while a basic ranking suggests that San Francisco had good pitching — better pitching than Milwaukee, even — taking into consideration their park factors shifts the picture considerably.

      The general tide of pitching-first playoff teams has subsided in the last two years, especially with SF and St. Louis in 2011. It will be interesting to see whether that trend continues in the WC era.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 18, 2013

      We can find an even more instructive example in 2012 AL — the Rangers’ total runs allowed looked uninspiring, but their 707 runs allowed were significantly better than their park (~791 RA).

      In fact, their pitching was better than the 2nd ranked Athletics’ total of 614 (park ~670 RA). In that regard, a ranking of 9th does not do the Rangers justice.

  2. Nicholas Zettel says: June 18, 2013

    Here’s an example of one season’s team rankings against their parks:

    2012 NL PITCHING 4.26 RA/G
    Team, RA above/below, actual RA ranking
    Reds 144 (1)
    Braves 97 (4)
    Nationals 89 (2)
    Dodgers 66 (3)
    Diamondbacks 29 (9*)
    Phillies 24 (8)
    Cardinals 21 (5)
    Brewers -16 (13*)
    Pirates -25 (7)
    Marlins -34 (12)
    Giants -35 (5*)
    Mets -46 (10)
    Cubs -62 (14)
    Padres -75 (11)
    Astros -97 (15)
    Rockies -124 (16)

    2012 NL Batting 4.22
    Team, RS above/below park, actual RS ranking
    Giants 110 (6*)
    Cardinals 95 (2)
    Brewers 58 (1)
    Nationals 54 (5)
    Padres 22 (11*)
    Diamondbacks 16 (4)
    Pirates 15 (10)
    Braves 3 (7)
    Mets -6 (12)
    Phillies -20 (8)
    Dodgers -19 (13)
    Rockies -56 (3*)
    Reds -56 (9)
    Marlins -68 (15)
    Cubs -71 (14)
    Astros -94 (16)

    Nationals: 4th batting / 3rd pitching
    Reds: 13th batting / 1st pitching
    Giants: 1st batting / 11th pitching
    Braves: 8th batting / 2nd pitching
    Cardinals: 2nd batting / 7th pitching

    As you can see, the general idea still holds that where playoff teams had one extreme element, they had another solid element helping them out. Furthermore, park factors don’t change ranking positions by extremes, which is a good thing — only five teams experienced ranking shifts (between actual RS/RA and park-adjusted RS/RA) that were more than 5 spots off (Diamondbacks RA, Brewers RA, Giants RS and RA, Padres RS, and Rockies RS).

    This is a good thing, I think, because it shows that we can still trust the general idea of RS/RA boundaries (i.e., allowing 850 runs will rarely be acceptable), while still noting that some extreme parks influence outcomes more than others (San Francisco is probably the best example).

  3. Bob M says: June 19, 2013

    The Brewers planned to start this season without a 1B or 3B on the active roster. Ramirez has returned to the lineup, but Hart is still out. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the offense is scoring a lot fewer runs with Yuni and Alex Gonzales, than with ARam and Hart.


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