I am certain this will be a theme that dominates the offseason, especially if the Brewers continue their competitive stretch of play: is there anything to a contending season aside from timing? Of course, we can analyze front office decisions back and forth, we can determine the best way to secure organizational talent for long term deals, we can even analyze the most effective ways to apply rookies and free agents alike, across the diamond. To infinity.
There is no shortage of questions to be asked about constructing a ballclub. I learned this last offseason, while working on arguments, narratives, and analysis about Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, and dependable starters. So, what might sound like an insulting opening question — “who wants to attribute greatness to timing?” — should actually be taken as a compliment; alongside balancing analysis, narratives, strengths, and weaknesses stands timing, the collection and cohesion of those components at the right or wrong moments.
The worst kept secret of the 2013 Brewers is that May was their worst month. As the Brewers head to Pittsburgh to complete their recent set of series against NL Central contenders, it is worth noting that the Pirates performed their best baseball in May (thus far). These two facts are not entirely random, as the Brewers and Pirates connected for seven games that month; the Pirates whipped the Brewers, 26 RS / 18 RA, earning five wins against the Brewers that month.
April, June, July, and August:
Pirates: 57-45 (407 RS / 380 RA)
Brewers: 51-51 (416 RS / 422 RA)
Baseball is a game of inches, and it should not be seen as a disparaging remark when noted that an extremely hot stretch of play can build a contender. Brewers fans can relate to the feeling when they reflect on the 2011 season, as the Brewers benefited from a white hot August to raise them above their competition. Of course, the Brewers were a pretty good club outside of August, just like the 2013 Pirates are a good club, too.
Yet, when comparing the 2013 Brewers and Pirates outside of their collective best and worst months, the clubs are remarkably close. The Pirates’ offense is much more impressive, given their park, and both pitching staffs are average to slightly-above-average, on the whole. The strengths of the Pirates performances can be drawn from some of their “everything goes right” lessons:
-Tonight’s starter, Jeff Locke broke out, performing at an above average level. On the other hand, Francisco Liriano put together his first above average season in a few years.
-Their bullpen provided a revolving door of lights out relievers (they have converted 114 of 125 saves and holds).
-Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte added significant production to their offense, taking steps forward as young bats.
-Several players with limited plate appearances or “depth” roles performed at or above average, helping to round out the offense.
Those six games that separate the Pirates and Brewers — except for May — are not insignificant. However,just as the Brewers’ May effectively derailed their season, the Pirates’ May has added approximately five extra wins. In many ways, that’s the difference between a Pirates club scratching and clawing for a wild card or division title around 90 wins, and a club that can contend for a home-field spot in the NL playoffs.
From the Pirates’ great timing in 2013, we can see the importance of great balance in a baseball roster. Sure, dependable starters’ performances fluctuate regularly, and young starters don’t always work out; but when a club pairs the right young starters and right low-risk pitchers in the right season, suddenly the mid-to-top rotation is anchored. When players with limited roles, or relievers, succeed in tandem, that gives the club more opportunities to seize victories in games they might otherwise be expected to lose (or, help to turn close ballgames into dependable wins). When young prospects develop into serviceable veterans together, that at least raises the probability that multiple players might “come of age” and produce their best seasons in the same year (consider Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in 2011, for instance; not to mention Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks).
While the Brewers continue to rebuild their minor league system, one might argue that applying the lessons of balance and timing to their big league club could yield some unexpected ways to compete. For example, one area that the Brewers did not explore in 2013 was the “low-risk” starter, such as Liriano. Now, the Dan Haren contract in Washington proves that those low-risk deals don’t always work, but there are other clubs (such as the Cubs and Royals) who have profited with low-risk pitchers looking for their chance to stay in the game. Similarly, the Brewers’ combination of (a) a strong offensive core from 2012 that was left in place, and (b) a series of harsh early season injuries left the club devoid of young, impact players on the roster (with the exception of Jean Segura). With Khris Davis, Caleb Gindl, and Scooter Gennett getting their chance to play, there is some opportunity for the Brewers to bolster their 2014 offense by working with their young depth from the beginning of the season. This could help the club improve their deficiencies from 2013, battle injuries, and present a well-rounded offensive attack.
Perhaps one of the best — and worst — arguments in favor of a win-now roster is that everything must come together in some way, shape, or form. The timing must be right in such a season, and the balance between roster components must follow that timing. At any rate, there can be dynasty rosters that don’t mesh (such as the 2013 Washington Nationals thus far), and even clubs that stretch their chances for competition without succeeding (such as the 2013 Brewers).
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC, 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, LP, 2013.
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