Over the last two years, if you’ve had the feeling that the Brewers’ 2011 glory is slipping away, you’re probably not alone in the National League. In fact, the Brewers’ upcoming opponent has been on exactly the same trajectory since 2011. The Philadelphia Phillies appeared poised for a dynasty merely five years ago, but the injuries of their aging, expensive core insisted otherwise. As a result, both the Brewers and Phillies share almost exactly the same record over the last three years, delivered in almost exactly the same increment. From elite seasons in 2011, both teams overcame their issues to hover around .500 in 2012, before imploding in 2013.
An early season meeting in 2014 is fitting for these clubs; they can impact organizational feelings of optimism or pessimism, even setting the tone for the rest of the month. Specifically, the Brewers look to take a successful road trip home, in order to keep a positive mind before weathering tough divisional opponents at Miller Park. The Phillies split a road trip to Texas and Chicago, and at the very least, could afford their fans the pleasant feeling of a home-opener victory. From there, the Phillies and Brewers might have the same 2014 outlook, although with different question marks; while the Phillies are looking to re-establish their veteran offense, the Brewers are looking to a trio of veteran hurlers to lead their team to success.
Brewers: 21 runs scored, 14 runs allowed
Phillies: 31 runs scored, 27 runs allowed
Brewers: Series Sweep in Boston
Phillies: Series Victory in Chicago
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)
2013 Phillies: 73-89 (610 RS / 749 RA)
2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)
2011-2013 Phillies: 256-230 (2007 RS / 1958 RA)
By the way, this series is an excellent example of how quickly rotational orders and pitching match-ups can be obscured by schedules, injuries, and personnel decisions. Specifically, the Phillies have used their early season off days to work a four-man rotation while Cole Hamels works rehab starts in the minor leagues. On the other hand, the Brewers have used a full five-man rotation despite their off days. This results in a decidedly skewed series only two weeks into the season. In this sense, fans can really see that a 1-2-3-4-5 order does not really matter; what matters is having enough quality pitching depth to weather strange pitching match-ups (such as Thursday’s evening getaway game).
Kyle Lohse (7 IP, 3 R in 2014; 198.7 IP, 16 runs prevented in 2013)
@ Kyle Kendrick (7 IP, 1 R in 2014; 182 IP, -21 runs prevented in 2013)
Later in the series, the Brewers will face one of the very best National League starters over the last three years. Kyle Lohse’s opening start against the Phillies may receive less praise, but Lohse is among the very best in the NL. Based on runs prevented, Lohse was the 13th best starter in the 2013 NL, and his 2011 and 2012 performances catapult Lohse above his competitors. Only Wisconsin native Jordan Zimmermann is a better right-handed NL starter than Lohse over the last three seasons; Lohse’s 598 IP, 43 runs prevented performance from 2011-present is fifth best among all NL starting performances. The sinker / slider artist is not deviating from his recipe thus far, and his moving fastball / breaking ball combination accounted for nearly 8-in-10 deliveries in his first start.
2014 will be a season of redemption for Kyle Kendrick. After two average-or-better seasons as a swingman and starter for the Phillies, Kendrick was notably below average on a struggling 2013 Phillies club. It’s no secret by now; Kendrick will throw his sinker early and often. According to BrooksBaseball, Kendrick is starting 2014 by r4elying on both his sinker and cutter more frequently than last season. This approach takes away from his splitter and curve, but gives Kendrick moving fastballs to both sides of the plate.
Matt Garza (8 IP, 1 R in 2014; 155.3 IP, 2 runs prevented in 2013)
@ Roberto Hernandez (5.3 IP, 2 R in 2014; 151 IP, -18 runs prevented in 2013)
During his exceptional tough-luck loss last Wednesday, Matt Garza hammered the Braves with fastballs. While one start is certainly not authoritative, his fastball and sinker velocity increased compared to last season; Garza’s average fastball and sinker both approached 95 MPH, and he threw them in nearly 80% of his offerings. Even more importantly, according to BrooksBaseball, Garza threw nearly 48% of his pitches in the strike zone, compared to top months of 41% and 45% in 2013. Both of these elements of Garza’s approach are worth watching. It is not that velocity alone will make Garza a better pitcher, but if his velocity and his location both improve, Garza could convincingly answer most Brewers’ fans questions about his role in the Milwaukee rotation.
Following Kendrick, Roberto Hernandez gives the Phillies yet another sinkerball option. Hernandez is playing his first season on the Senior Circuit after spending seven years in Cleveland and 2013 in Tampa Bay. Even in the pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field, Hernandez could not limit the damage, and his last successful season came as Fausto Carmona in 2010. That year, a sinker and riding fastball were top choices, and Hernandez is doubling down on the fastballs in 2014. His change up switches places with his slider, which was his go-to secondary pitch in 2010. By cutting his slider usage in half, Hernandez can throw some type of fastball in three-of-every-four pitches.
Marco Estrada (5.7 IP, 2 R in 2014; 128 IP, 4 runs prevented in 2013)
@ Cliff Lee (12 IP, 8 R in 2014; 222.7 IP, 25 runs prevented in 2013)
Is Marco Estrada really a fourth starter? Over the last two seasons, the National League’s low rotation starters — fourth and fifth combined — have allowed approximately 89 runs in 145 innings pitched. Even if Estrada cannot finish 6 innings in some of his starts, his ability to limit the damage, as in Boston, is crucial. In fact, if Estrada works 25 starts at 5.7 IP, that gets him to 142.7 IP; if he averages between two and three runs allowed per start, that places Estrada on a 50-to-75 runs allowed pace in 25 starts. That basic pace makes Estrada significantly better than the typical low rotation starter; Estrada is more like a mini-one / two starter than a low rotation starter. While he might not work a typical full season, his ability to prevent runs is crucial for the Brewers rotation.
Cliff Lee closes the Phillies’ opening series by looking for his third straight win. Lee has experienced both ends of the pitching spectrum this season, winning in a Texas slugfest and holding the Cubs scoreless at Wrigley. Now, the sinker/cutter artist takes the hill in the second mismatch of the series. While Estrada can claim to be one of the National League’s best swingmen-turned-starters, there is only one starter better than Lee over the last three seasons in the NL. In fact, only Clayton Kershaw and Lee have averaged 30 runs prevented per season since 2011; with Kershaw sidelined indefinitely, Lee could seize the top pitcher title for the 2014 NL.
2013 NL SP 100+ IP Rankings
2011-2013 NL Rotations
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, LP. 2014.