Series Preview: Milwaukee Brewers @ Cincinnati Reds | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

After a brawl in Pittsburgh, a tollway series against their I-94/90 rivals, and a series victory in Baseball’s Traditional Capitol, the pending Reds series serves surprisingly little hype for the Brewers. Why is this? Brewers fans get so hyped against the Cardinals, Cubs, and now Pirates, but the Reds seem mired in fourth place in terms of trash talk and series urgency. Yet, the Brewers better beware silent killers — the Reds may have an inferior record to our red hot Milwaukee Nine, but the Cincinnati club boasts a strong run differential.

If one gets the feeling that the Brewers are overplaying their potential — we just don’t know by how much, then the Reds are most certainly underplaying their potential. Which gives this series two extreme outcomes: either both teams correct at exactly the same moment, or the Brewers prove that their ability to seize ballgames and maximize potential chances to win is no fluke. In which case, I’d better get used to writing series preview introductions about the Brewers’ actual record versus their expected potential.

2014:
Brewers (28 G): 114 RS / 95 RA
Reds (27 G): 102 RS / 93 RA

If the Brewers continue this pace, they will outscore the 2013 Brewers by 20 runs, while allowing 137 fewer runs. This would be good for a 93-win ball club. If a 137 run improvement seems ridiculous, it wouldn’t even be the best improvement during GM Doug Melvin’s tenure. That would be the 166 runs allowed improvement from 2010 to 2011. (Note: I did not park adjust any of these RS / RA improvements cited in this paragraph).
Predicting Brewers Regression

Last Series:
Brewers: Series Victory at St. Louis
Reds: “Series Tie” vs. Cubs (incomplete series)

Three cheers for our shorthanded Brewers! What an excellent series victory in St. Louis, which is even better due to the fact that the Brewers bench beat the Cardinals. We’ll write a lot of critiques over the course of 162 games at DoU, but the team deserves to be praised when they play hard and outplay a difficult situation. I know these guys are professionals and should be locked in to win, but Manager Ron Roenicke sure seems to have these guys ready to win in any situation. Nice work, shorthanded Crew!

Previous Performances:
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)
2013 Reds: 90-72 (698 RS / 589 RA)

2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)
2011-2013 Reds: 266-220 (2102 RS / 1897 RA)

Stats Note: For fun, I am including “Fielding Independent Pitching Runs Estimates” in these series previews. This is to simply provide a snapshot look at whether a pitcher is allowing more (or fewer) runs than expected by their K / BB / HR rates. Obviously, this hardly tells the full story. But, it’s still fun. Since this season is so young, I’m using a basic average three-year FIPConstant of 3.49 to judge these pitchers.

Marco Estrada (2-1, 31.3 IP, 11 R (28 K / 6 BB / 5 HR; 15 FIPR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS)
@ Homer Bailey (1-2, 26.3 IP, 18 R (29 K / 8 BB / 7 HR; 17 FIPR), 1 quality start in last 5 GS)

If Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta keep up their current performance levels, keeping track of “pitching mismatches” will be a futile exercise in 2014. In April, the Brewers went 10-2 in mismatches, beating some of the game’s best pitchers thanks to the help of Estrada and Peralta (the only mismatch losses occurred to Shelby Miller). In fact, Estrada’s start against Homer Bailey is arguably his first start that comes against a pitcher that might not be qualified as a solid #1; yet, Bailey remains a top rotation starter after his 2012 and 2013 performances. In that sense, Estrada faces yet another mismatch.

In one sense, the Brewers’ absurd record in so-called mismatches explains one key element of their 2014 success: that element is the rotational swing from Peralta, Estrada, and Yovani Gallardo.

After a breakout season in 2012 — and sustained success in 2013 — Bailey did not execute at his expected level in April. The Reds’ franchise righty is throwing significantly more sliders and primary fastballs than in his previous season of work, at the expense of his other off-speed pitches (and secondary fastball). Most importantly. Bailey is allowing more line drives on his pitches across the board, but none is suffering quite like his fastball. Despite throwing the pitch more frequently, batters are whiffing at the pitch at half their 2013 rate. Not surprisingly, Bailey is earning far fewer strikes on his fastballs, which eliminates a significant element of his approach. Even if Bailey is maintaining solid strike rates on his slider, split, and curve, those pitches alone cannot correct his line drive, whif, and strike rates for his fastball. For this start, fastball establishment will be a key element of Bailey finding his sea legs once again.

Wily Peralta (3-1, 31.7 IP, 14 R (25 K / 7 BB / 5 HR; 16 FIPR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS)
@ Mike Leake (2-2, 35.3 IP, 15 R (20 K / 6 BB / 6 HR; 20 FIPR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)

While the “sinker” narrative is quite intriguing in 2014, it’s easy for us fans and analysts to get ahead of ourselves: Wily Peralta continues to throw his pitches at nearly the same rate as 2013, meaning that he is not following Gallardo to sinker land. It is worth noting that Peralta is spinning his fastballs harder in 2014, getting an extra bit of “rise” on his primary fastball, and an extra bit of “sink” on his secondary fastball. Now THIS is excellent, grinding, battling baseball talk: if Peralta is throwing his pitches at the same rate as 2013, are his increased spin-rates the key to his success? Peralta is throwing harder and his pitches are busting in on righties more than last year. His slider, on the other hand, is breaking further away from righties (while dropping slightly more). Pitching is as much alchemy as mechanical repetition, and thus far, Peralta is getting extra grit behind his pitches.

There are a lot of starting pitchers in baseball — in the NL alone, clubs will probably need to use between 135 and 150 aggregate pitchers to complete a season. So, guys like Mike Leake get lost in the shuffle sometimes. Let’s meet Mike Leake, because he’s a pretty good pitcher. In 539 innings since 2011, for instance, Leake is 10 runs above average. His ERA+ for his career is perfectly average, which is pretty valuable given Leake’s workload. The sinkerball righty throws a whole handful of pitches, including a cutter and a slider. The moving fastball specialist has a breaking fastball for any area of the plate, but it would be a safe bet that the righty-heavy Brewers batting order won’t see terribly many cutters. Leake heavily favors his sinker in 2014, and the valuable middle rotation pitcher will bust Brewers with that pitch.

Yovani Gallardo (1-0, 31.7 IP, 8 R (21 K / 8 BB / 3 HR; 15 FIPR), 5 quality starts in last 5 GS)
@ Johnny Cueto (2-1, 40 IP, 5 R (42 K / 13 BB / 3 HR; 15 FIPR), 5 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Thus far, the biggest story aside from Yovani Gallardo’s excellent performance is his newfound love of his sinker. This story is gaining traction through broadcasts and news articles, and it supplants a certain theme about Gallardo’s declining velocity. In a recent FSN article, Melvin made an excellent point about Gallardo’s approach:

“Last year everybody said it was his velocity, but his velocity is exactly the same (this year)…His walks are down. You make adjustments later in your career. Mike Mussina made it in his career later on. There’s a whole list of them that make it, and some don’t. You have to be able to command the strike zone.”

Melvin’s quote makes Gallardo’s change in approach sound like an adjustment that many pitchers need to make in their career. For quite some time, I’ve made the argument that Gallardo’s shifts in fastball velocity should be viewed alongside his slider usage, for his slider usage has increased over the years, regardless of his velocity decline (in general). If we view Gallardo’s newfound sinker usage next to his slider usage, we can see that, in fact, Gallardo may have been working on this transition as early as last year. While last year typically is spun in terms of Gallardo’s off-field and family developments, one might argue that his 2013 also was his most significant transition in terms of developing as a sinker/slider pitcher. The “velocity narrative” may be oversold, and a good, hard look at Gallardo’s long transition may be undersold.

Gallardo “Sinker” Slider Top Velocity
2014 19.5% 28.5% 91.7
2013 17.4% 24.4% 91.5
2012 14.5% 22.6% 92.5
2011 4.7% 20.0% 93.5
2010 0.0%* 17.4% 93.3
2009 0.0%* 11.1% 92.6
2008 0.0%* 5.3% 91.3
2007 0.0%* 10.7% 92.2

*May include pitch f/x classification errors

It is worth noting that in 2014, Gallardo’s secondary fastball is actually, truly “sinking.” Previously, one might simply call his secondary fastball a “riding fastball,” for it moved in on righties without dropping far below his primary fastball. Not so in 2014: not only is his “sinker” registering pfx Vertifcal Movement of 7.86”, but his primary fastball has dropped below 10.00 pfx Vertical inches. His “primary fastball” is “sinking” more than his previous fastballs, and his “sinker” is spinning nearly 2” below his primary fastball in 2014. Long story short: Gallardo may be throwing a “full-time sinker,” or even changing his primary fastball to gain more downward movement on the pitch. If this is the case, Gallardo’s slider usage becomes even more important (for, he is clearly becoming a full-time slider-first pitcher), and any velocity issues could be framed in terms of his sinking fastball developments.

In the overall arc of his career, however, Gallardo’s velocity is not that far below his rookie velocity. In fact, if one considers that Gallardo was trying to throw a classic “rising fastball” between 2009 and 2011, his spike in velocity makes sense; one would attempt to throw a rising fastball as hard as possible to keep the ball from “dropping” as much as the batter might expect. Now, take a true “sinker” approach, and velocity does not become as important as downward movement. Suddenly, Gallardo’s 91.7 MPH sinker looks solid, compared to his rookie fastball of 92.2. Sure, his velocity “dipped,” but in the grand scheme of things, Gallardo’s ability to mix his sinker and slider will be infinitely more important than his velocity.

Facing Johnny Cueto, Gallardo’s quality start makes this game another difficult mismatch to call. Cueto’s basic narrative is that he’s a true ace when he’s healthy, but he simply hasn’t had a full chance to show that ability in the last year. Not so in 2014, as Cueto is storming the NL, including back-to-back complete game dominance of the Pirates. Cueto may present Gallardo with his biggest challenge to date, which hints at an intriguing tale for Gallardo’s development in 2014.

Kyle Lohse (4-0, 33 IP, 12 R (32 K / 9 BB / 1 HR; 10 FIPR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS)
@ Alfredo Simon (4-1, 33.7 IP, 7 R (22 K / 11 BB / 2 HR; 9 FIPR; 5 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Let’s celebrate Lohse’s game-tying single from the Cardinals series. That crucial base hit actually caused Lance Lynn to say that if one cannot retire a pitcher with two outs, one does not deserve to win. Surely, this is the first time in recorded history that a Cardinals player has insinuated that the Brewers deserved to win a ballgame. Anyway, Lohse only collected 3 RBI in all of 2013, so driving in two runs against the Cardinals has him on track for an exceptional batting campaign. One wonders if this batting prowess is sustainable, as Lohse has also cut his strike outs in half this year, and he’s on pace for slightly more sacrifice hits, too. In a year where Lohse’s leadership claims a fair share of press, his bat might be the best kept Brewers secret.

There’s replacement theory, and then there’s Alfredo Simon. In any given scenario, one would probably choose Mat Latos over Alfredo Simon in order to build a rotation and a franchise. Yet, here stands Simon, pitching at an exceptional level in 2014 thus far. Outside of a year as the Orioles’ swingman in 2011, Simon has worked more starts as a primary starting pitcher than any year in his career. The righty makes things happen with a hard sinker, but he’ll also throw the kitchen sink at batters. This unwieldy series of wrinkles and drops will give the Brewers bats yet another match with pitches busting inside.

Resources
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Brewers Radio Network. WTMJ 620. WTMJ / Journal Broadcasting Gorup, 2014.
FanGraphs.
MLB Advanced Media, LP. 2014.

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