Series Preview: Brewers @ Cardinals | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Entering St. Louis, the Brewers have a strange early season opportunity: our Milwaukee Nine can increase their early divisional lead to at least five-and-a-half games over the Cardinals with a series victory. With five months to play that lead seems academic; for, the Cardinals certainly have plenty of time to wait out the red hot Brewers and claim the division. Yet, a lead between five and six games is not entirely insignificant, either. If the Brewers increase their lead over St. Louis, and then go 67-67 in their remaining games, the Cardinals would need to finish the season at 72-61 to surpass the Brewers. I said above that this seems like an academic debate, for just about anyone expects the Cardinals to be able to win at an 88-win pace. Yet, that does not change the very real fact that with each series victory, the red hot Brewers keep their opponents on the trail, chasing them in the standings.

Brewers: 101 RS / 79 RA
Cardinals: 89 RS / 78 RA

One of the keys of the Brewers’ early season is their ability to win close games as they are presented to Milwaukee. Since Milwaukee is winning close games at an excellent pace (including a 5-2 mark in one-run games), the Brewers already have won three games beyond their run differential. If you’ve ever wondered whether tracking run differentials matters, this series provides a very specific example of a benefit of tracking run differentials: while the Brewers and Cardinals have scored and allowed nearly the same amount of runs (one might expect the Brewers to be one win ahead of the Cardinals), the Brewers are actually four-and-a-half games ahead of St. Louis. If the Brewers continue to outplay their run differential at this rate, they will have a very good opportunity to win at least 90 games without necessarily being a “true 90 win team.”

Meanwhile, if the Brewers lose this series, don’t despair; a series loss against St. Louis could simply be the Brewers “correcting” to their level of true talent for one series, signaling the end to their recent extended hot streak. Milwaukee’s run differential currently paces them at 97 wins, which is fully 20 wins shy of their current 117-win winning percentage. So, the Brewers are due for some correction in that department. If the Brewers keep up a 97-win run differential, though, one might reasonably expect them to actually win between 90 and 106 games.

The Brewers currently need to win 72 games to finish with 90 wins; the benefit of a hot start is that our Milwaukee Nine can play at a .526 winning percentage to reach that win total.

Last Series:
Brewers: Series Victory vs. Cubs
Cardinals: Series Victory vs. Pirates

The Pirates are absolutely reeling since their brawl against the Brewers. The flop-and-whine Pittsburgh Nine are 2-7 since their bench decided to take on Carlos Gomez, and even their front office appears flustered lately. Specifically, the Pirates front office encountered a procedural error while they attempted to place Jason Grilli and Russell Martin on the disabled list. One could easily explain the Pirates performance by looking at the difficulty of their schedule, but it’s fun to speculate about what Gerrit Cole‘s failure to act on his remarks to Gomez did to his teammates’ resolve to win.

Previous Performance:
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)
2013 Cardinals: 97-65 (783 RS / 596 RA)

2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)
2011-2013 Cardinals: 275-211 (2310 RS / 1936 RA)

Yovani Gallardo (2-0, 31.7 IP, 5 R (23 K / 9 BB / 1 HR, 11 FIPR), 5 quality starts in last 5G)
@ Michael Wacha (2-2, 30 IP, 9 R (35 K / 8 BB / 2 HR, 9 FIPR), 4 quality starts in last 5 G)

By my count, there are no pitching rematches in this series, even though the Cardinals and Brewers faced one another only two weeks ago. The Brewers’ recent off-day is the culprit, throwing off these rotations by one spot.

Although Gallardo did not get the win during Tuesday night’s pitching battle, his effort was arguably the best of his 2014 season. Gallardo completed seven innings for the first time in the season, striking out four (while walking two and allowing a handful of hits). Gallardo takes his season of quality starts into St. Louis, and hopefully he can draw strength from his quality approach to tackle one of his career bogeymen. Throughout his career, Gallardo is 1-11 against St. Louis, claiming 92 IP in 17 G alongside a 6.46 ERA (his career ERA is 3.66, for comparison). In those 17 starts against the Cardinals, Gallardo allowed 20 homers, by far the most of his career against any club. If it’s any consolation, only four of those homers have occurred during his eight career starts at Busch III.

If Brewers batters stand in the box looking for Michael Wacha’s fastball and change, they may be confused by a surprising number of wrinkles from the St. Louis ace-in-training. Thus far, the young 2014 campaign finds Wacha throwing a “cutter” and curveball significantly more frequently than during his excellent 2013 campaign (which was mostly fastball / change). Sure, Wacha still favors his fastball / change pairing, but he’s throwing the fastball approximately 8% less frequently than in 2013, and the change nearly 30% less frequently.

While I’m working on these Series Previews, I think I’ll keep a list of pitchers that throw “cutters” that are probably sliders. According to BrooksBaseball, Wacha’s cutter is at least 5 MPH slower than his fastball, and its spin drops it 5 inches down and 3 inches away from his fastball trajectory. If you ask my Grandpa, who came of age during the era of flat “sliders” and “drop curves,” a slider is not a pitch that breaks down; it is a breaking ball that moves away from a righty bat (from a RHP) without dropping. Contemporary language, and a gang of power relievers that throw the hard, dropping slider (think Brad Lidge) lead us to believe that the slider is a dropping pitch. On the other hand, when my Grandpa threw a slider, it was probably closer to what we call a “cutter.”

I’d wager that my Grandpa would call the “dropping power slider” a “nickel curve” or “short curve,” and Michael Wacha’s cutter a “slider.” Neyer and James do a great job of capturing this vague area of baseball’s language, noting the interconnection between baseball’s slider and cutter development. Our baseball vocabularies will be charged by the biases of each era, and perhaps in this era of increasing power pitching, a slider is more likely to be called a cutter, even when it’s 5 MPH slower than a fastball. I also simply question whether pitchers are using a new grip or method to throw the slider.

Kyle Lohse (4-1, 34 IP, 12 R (31 K / 10 BB / 2 HR, 12 FIPR), 4 quality starts in last 5G)
@ Lance Lynn (4-1, 30 IP, 12 R (36 K / 9 BB / 4 HR, 12 FIPR), 3 quality starts in last 5G)

67% of Lohse’s offerings to the Padres were off-speed or breaking pitches, which is an extreme variation of his recent trend in favor of his slider and change. Not surprisingly, the bulk of Lohse’s offerings to San Diego were sliders — he chose his primary off-speed pitch 40 times. However, he also threw 17 changes and 12 curves, both of which are greater than his 2014 trends with those offerings. It will be interesting to see if Lohse keeps up his off-speed approach against St. Louis, and one should watch how he attacks the zone. According to Brooks Baseball, Lohse is throwing just shy of 40% of his pitches in the zone in 2014; if that seems low, it’s worth mentioning that he achieved great success in 2013 by throwing between 33% and 41% of his pitches in the strike zone.

I wonder whether Lohse or Lance Lynn could win the Cy Young this year. I wonder this, of course, because both pitchers are 4-1 by the end of April, which gives them an excellent chance to win 20. A winning decision in this game could give either pitcher a substantial 5-win cushion at the beginning of May. I know that in this era of advanced statistics, a 20-win season does not carry the voting weight that it used to, but a 4-1 or 5-1 mark at the end of April puts a pitcher on a solid track for a 21, 22, or even 23 win season (if all goes well, of course). One might be able to ignore a 20-win campaign, but both Lohse and Lynn have a solid win base to build on for their chance at postseason awards with exceptional win totals.

Of course, it would be great to see Lynn win a Cy Young. He’s probably renowned as the fourth best starter on the Cardinals, but he’s off to quite a good start in 2014. His fielding independent pitching performance paces him for a four-to-eight runs above average season (in 200 innings). In a rotation with a few guys that throw really, really hard, it’s easy to forget that Lynn still rushes it up there. During his dominant seven shutout innings at Miller Park, Lynn threw 76 primary- and secondary-fastballs between 92 and 94 MPH (on average), alongside another 24 “cutters” around 87+ MPH. Facing a short batting order, will Lynn go all high octane on the Brewers once again?

Matt Garza (1-2, 33 IP, 17 R (26 K / 8 BB / 3 HR, 14 FIPR), 2 quality starts in last 5G)
@ Shelby Miller (2-2, 28.3 IP, 9 R (25 K / 18 BB / 5 HR, 19 FIPR), 2 quality starts in last 5)

Poor Matt Garza has been back and forth for the Brewers. After three mediocre-to-bad outings, the righty earned a breakout start against the Cubs. The relatively easy 5-2 win against his former teammates prompted this from the Saturday Sun-Times: “But it’s at least debatable whether you could say [Garza] ‘kicked their teeth in’ the way he said he wanted to. Doesn’t a lineup have to start with teeth before it can get them kicked in?” Gordon Wittenmyer’s question is legitimate, and one might simply suggest that Garza should be expected to beat the Cubs’ offense. Yet, the start gave him a chance to get back to his fastball/slider bread and butter; Garza is not yet joining the Brewers’ sinker club, and in fact, he just about pocketed every pitch except his fastball and slider against Chicago. Hopefully, Garza can use this start as a platform for keeping a simple, straightforward attack on the mound.

(The Sun-Times also got Garza and Aramis Ramirez to comment on Jeff Samardzija‘s opportunity to play his way out of Chicago via trade. One wonders what the Cubs did to Garza to spur these comments and the “kicking in teeth” threat).

A recent Fangraphs article focused on several up-and-coming “two pitch starters” while addressing the question of whether Reds starter Tony Cingrani could continue his 2013 success during his first full season (another article looked at this issue in spring 2013). Shelby Miller was one of those young starters mentioned, and the Cardinals’ young hurler showed the polarizing effect of his pitches over his last two starts. While Miller has flirted with strike zone disaster all season, he has used his fastball to climb out of his holes. Over his last two scoreless outings, Miller nevertheless walked nine in 11 innings, while throwing his fastball nearly 75% of his offerings. Miller will live and die with this pitch.

BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Brewers Radio Network. WTMJ 620. WTMJ / Journal Broadcasting Gorup, 2014.
Chicago Sun-Times. A Wrapports Company. Sun-Times Media, LLC.
MLB Advanced Media, LP. 2014.
James, Bill and Rob Neyer. The Neyer / James Guide to Pitchers. New York: Fireside, 2004.

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