Forget the Cardinals, Brewers fans need a pep-talk! So, this series actually features an intriguing set of pitching match-ups. Yovani Gallardo arguably has an even match with Joe Kelly returning from the disabled list, Jimmy Nelson takes over Marco Estrada‘s ace-slaying role, and two up-and-coming starters close the first half. We’re not going to worry about the Cardinals right now.
RHP Jimmy Nelson will start for the #Brewers on Saturday vs. St. Louis. RHP Marco Estrada to the bullpen.
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) July 11, 2014
The Brewers have yet to play their best baseball: this is one refrain I’ve kept in my mind throughout the season, although it has been tested mightily over the last week. However, I keep this refrain in my mind for one simple reason: Runnin’ Ron Roenicke is a second-half manager.
That’s right: in each of his three seasons with the Brewers, Roenicke has yielded better second-half performances from his players than in the first half. Of course, there are several different reasons for this. In 2011, the Brewers arguably had one of the most talented rosters in organizational history, and that talented roster went on an exceptional run. In 2012 and 2013, Roenicke’s clubs weathered extreme replacement and ineffectiveness issues in the first half of the year, only to improve in the second half once those issues were ironed out. In 2013, the improvement was especially sweet, as a gang of organizational youngsters seized their jobs in a way that undeniably impacted 2014 roster construction.
|Roenicke||First Half||First Half Pythag||Second Half||Second Half Pythag|
What’s most important about these second-half improvements is that they are largely “true” improvements, which means that the improved winning percentage matches the club’s run differential (or “expected Pythagorean record”). Roenicke’s second half swings have not been swings of luck, but swings of solid performances that presented the club with favorable balances between runs scored and runs allowed.
Why did these clubs improve? Well, each club had a different identity, even if Roenicke held together a certain core of players and used generally similar strategies (such as his “aggressive” managing approach with baserunners). The best improvements are claimed by the 2011 and 2013 pitching staffs, and the “worst” improvements belong to the 2011 and 2013 bats:
|Squad||Percentage Improved (Runs)|
|2011 Pitchers||24.9% (-77)|
|2013 Pitchers||17% (-51)|
|2012 Batters||13% (+44)|
|2012 Pitchers||4.5% (-16)|
|2011 Batters||2.6% (+8)|
|2013 Batters||1.5% (+4)|
This really shouldn’t be surprising; the 2011 offense was strong throughout the season, which made a grand improvement relatively unlikely. On the other hand, in 2013, the offense was not particularly good, and the youngsters stealing jobs largely stabilized the club without necessarily improving it to a large degree. The best offensive improvement occurred when 2012 replacement issues were ironed out, and the club constructed a wicked power/speed attack with Corey Hart at 1B and Norichika Aoki in RF.
These improvements are quite stunning, taken as a body of work for Roenicke. Certainly, one can point to the players for their contributions, and absolutely no one can take their performances away from them. Yet, I’d argue that Roenicke’s personality as a player’s manager that also allows his players to attack the game aggressively helps place his team in the mindset to improve. To public appearances, Roenicke is not necessarily putting the brakes on his players’ strengths, which gives the Brewers a specific strategy to enact (“all-out baseball!”) and a certain level of preparedness (I’d argue that when athletes are given full opportunity to use their abilities, they also will have full opportunity to seize wins. We saw this during the Brewers’ white-hot stretches in the first half of 2014, when the club won games under any circumstance. Speaking of which, would someone please extend Roenicke forever?)
|Year||Second Half G||Expected Wins (by WPCT)||Expected Wins (By Pythag)||Actual||Percentage Improvement|
Not surprisingly, the most extreme improvements occurred when the Brewers had fewer games remaining (2011), and the less extreme improvements occurred when they had a longer second half (2012). This should help Brewers fans frame their expectations for a second-half surge in 2014: even if one expects that Roenicke can again rally his team for a second-half improvement, the extremely short schedule of 66 games will arguably give the club a chance to capitalize on a hot stretch (instead of evening out over a longer period games). However, there must be a cap to this, for it is extremely unrealistic to expect the club to go 48-18, let alone 52-14. Even within limited bounds of improvement, 40-26 is quite a good record, and it’s rather realistic given this team’s exhibited potential in 2014.
|66 games remain|
|1st Half||WPCT||Expected Win||+13%||+34%|
Specifically, the Brewers have already played at an extremely solid pace for 66 games in 2014. During their first 66 games, the Brewers were 39-27. However, depending on how one separates the season, there are other 66-game paces that one can find. This is just a sample of four stretches, beginning with the first game of the season, second game at Boston, the middle of that rollicking April trip to Pittsburgh, and the beginning of the shorthanded stretch at St. Louis (and then Cincinnati).
|Trend #1 (3/31-4/29)||20-7|
|Trend #2 (4/30-5/22)||8-13|
|Trend #3 (5/23-6/22)||19-10|
|Trend #4 (6/23-???)||5-11|
The recent .500 pace looks rather haunting (especially in light of the recent slide), perhaps a foreboding reminder of that “realistic collapse” that fans seem to be waiting for. However, it is also worth noting that across those shorter trends of extremely-hot and extremely-cold play, the Brewers still maintained strong long-term winning percentages; for example, those excellent first 66 games included an 8-13 stretch. Furthermore, I’d argue that we ought to hold our breath: there has not been any evidence under Roenicke that a Brewers club SHOULD collapse in the second half. This is not Ned Yost’s Brewers:
|Yost||First Half (G)||Second Half (G)|
|2003||.398 (93)||.449 (69)|
|2004||.523 (86)||.293 (75)|
|2005||.477 (88)||.527 (74)|
|2006||.489 (90)||.431 (72)|
|2007||.557 (88)||.459 (74)|
|2008||.547 (95)||.564 (55)|
In fairness to Yost, during most of these seasons he was not managing with a fraction of the talent that Roenicke strategically employs. Yost was preparing a series of rebuilding clubs that were not necessarily in any position to win, even after strong first half starts (‘04, ‘06, ‘07). It is ironic, however, that the Brewers actually improved during the second half when he was fired in 2008. Unfortunately, even if the reality of first-or-second half impact is not actually due to a manager, it appears that the perception that Yost was “nervous” or managed second-half collapses pervaded during the 2008 Brewers’ mindbending 3-11 start to September.
Anyway, this contrast between managers is one element to keep in mind while you’re worried about the Brewers’ impending / “inevitable” second-half collapse. What few people seem to consider is that Roenicke is exactly the type of players’ manager that can yield the best performances from his team when it matters. Even if analysts and fans can ultimately argue that the players on the field decide the game — and, really, they do — managers do get to hold that alchemy of personnel management and ego-soothing behind closed doors. One might not say that the 2014 Brewers are predetermined to win in the second half because Roenicke is manager, but one can look at Roenicke’s style, strategies, personality, and track record with the hope that this Brewers club indeed has yet to play their best baseball.
Say it with me: The Brewers have yet to play their best baseball.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP, 2014.
Other sources cited as linked.