After another series victory, the Brewers continue their tour of the NL Central. This time, they face the Cubs, who are finally warming up after a series split against the Diamondbacks. This type of series is difficult to judge, for one might expect the Brewers to win the series against the Cubs. After all, if the Brewers can go 7-3 during a 10 game stretch against the Pirates and Cardinals, one might argue that they should be able to beat an openly rebuilding club that has yet to win a series in 2014 (even writing this feels like a “jinx”). However, even if the Cubs are rebuilding, they should be better than their current record; their pitching is already a strength of the club, while their bats have yet to produce. A trip to relatively warm Miller Park could be just the medicine that bats like Starlin Castro, Nate Schierholtz, and Junior Lake need to get going.
Meanwhile, the Padres series hardly solved the issue of the Brewers’ run-scoring ability at Miller Park. While our Milwaukee Nine scored five welcome runs during Wednesday’s series finale, they barely got to five runs scored over the previous two games. For whatever reason, a ballpark that trended from average to hitter-friendly over the last half-decade is suddenly guarding runs like they are a sacred entity. It could be a potentially difficult season for the Brewers and their bullpen if their home games are always 4-3, 2-1, or even 5-2 affairs. Thankfully, the Brewers starters showcased the benefits of working deep into ballgames during the Padres series, as manager Ron Roenicke could stay in the dugout during the sixth (and seventh) innings on Tuesday and Wednesday. If the close games aren’t going to give the Brewers bullpen a break, at least the starters are doing their best to spell their comrades in relief.
Cubs: 79 runs scored, 91 runs allowed
Brewers: 91 runs scored, 70 runs allowed
It’s quite wild to see two teams with almost exactly inverted run differentials. I gather that this type of thing must happen more than we know, but this is the first I’ve seen it happen to the Brewers all season. If you combined the Brewers and Cubs roster in equal proportion, you’d have a .500 club (or, so says their run differentials). In such a case, who would you pick from each roster?
Here’s how it’d look if you took the best players (thus far in 2014)…:
…and the worst:
How many games do both of these cores win? I think this exercise shows how much player fluctuation can determine teams’ success (or failure) rates in any given season. By my count, at least 10 of the “worst” roster core are solid-to-slightly-below-average ballplayers, and none of those players included are terrible. If one took the very best seasons of each of these players, that roster core would be competitive (maybe not contending, but certainly not bad).
Cubs: Series Split vs. Diamondbacks
Brewers: Series Victory vs. Padres
Three cheers for Alfredo Figaro, who just worked what may be baseball’s most thankless job this week. The Brewers recalled Figaro from their farm system to spell a fatigued bullpen, and Figaro rose to the call with three solid innings during the Brewers’ extra innings contest against the Padres. Figaro hammered the Padres with his 95-96 MPH fastball, recording eight of nine outs with the pitch (including each of his three strike outs). His 13 breaking ball selections allowed Figaro to set up the fastball, and his lone mistake was to Padres slugger Chase Headley. It’s really difficult to be upset about an organization’s ninth-deep reliever surrendering a solo shot to an opponent’s (arguably) best bat, but that was Figaro’s fate. The Brewers’ hard-throwing project pitched well, but not well enough to earn that extra-innings win. So, even though Figaro heads back to the minors with a loss, he deserves recognition for seizing his opportunity and keeping the Brewers in the ballgame. In the bottom of the 10th, 11th, and 12th, the Brewers simply needed one run to win or tie, and that’s thanks to Figaro’s work.
2013 Cubs: 66-96 (602 RS / 689 R)
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)
2011-2013 Cubs: 198-288 (1869 RS / 2204 RA)
2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)
Carlos Villanueva (1-4, 14 IP, 17 R in 2014; 128.7 IP, 3 runs prevented in 2013) @ Matt Garza (0-2, 26 IP, 15 R in 2014; 155.3 IP, 2 runs prevented in 2013)
Over the last three years, I’ve often wondered whether the Brewers would have had a spot for Carlos Villanueva. One of two season-saving swingmen for the 2008 Brewers, GM Doug Melvin let Villanueva go to the Blue Jays after two mediocre seasons in relief. In two seasons for the Blue Jays, Villanueva worked 232.3 innings in 71 games (29 starts), limiting hits and walks to minimize the damage of 34 home runs allowed over that time. In 2013, Villanueva was one of the Cubs’ excellent replacement starters, arguably leading the pack with 128.7 IP. By most measures, Villanueva has worked as a strong replacement starter in the MLB over the last three years.
Of course, if Villanueva is on the Brewers during 2011 and beyond, what becomes of Marco Estrada? As good as Villanueva has been in the last three years, Estrada emerged as another solid playoffs swingman for the Brewers, and he’s now working as one of the Brewers’ key mid-rotation starters. This is arguably one of the difficult aspects of following baseball: while the Brewers arguably gave up Villanueva for nothing (a bad move), they cleared space for the development of one of their key starters (a really good consequence). It is difficult to know if this was the plan all along for the Brewers, but it has certainly worked for both Villanueva (in Toronto and Chicago) and Estrada.
Joining the mound for Friday’s series opener is one of Villanueva’s teammates in the land of 2013 Cubs replacement starters. If Villanueva was the club’s swingman, Garza was their bigtime trade bait, as the righty became a replacement pitcher by virtue of his ticket out of Chicago. After an explosion of RHP extensions, and some bigtime free agency contracts, Garza received the moniker of “next best available RHP” for 2014. Thus far, Garza has not pitched like the next-best RHP, but it’s not for lack of trying. The righty has limited his HR and BB damage thus far, but as his start in Pittsburgh showed, the tricky timing of errors, singles, and walks can result in quite a few runs allowed. The good news is, Garza is pounding the strike zone thus far, already approaching a rate of pitches in the zone near his best mark in 2013. If Garza is already around the strike zone, it is only a matter of time before his approach with his fastball and slider produces successful starts.
Travis Wood (1-2, 25 IP, 8 R in 2014; 200 IP, 21 runs prevented in 2013) @ Marco Estrada (1-1, 23.7 IP, 8 R in 2014; 128 IP, 4 runs prevented in 2013)
With three fastballs that sit between 87 and 91 MPH, Travis Wood has 80% of his selections cut out for him. If any number of bigtime, hard-throwing pitchers are selecting their pitches 75% or more of the time, why shouldn’t Wood join in on the fun, too? According to FanGraphs, Wood’s cutter and primary fastball were his most valuable pitches in 2013. While one might typically think of a left-handed starter that throws between 87 and 91 as a soft-thrower, that doesn’t preclude that pitcher from having a valuable fastball. So, even though Wood has a curveball, slider, and change up, these are practically “show me” pitches in his repertoire, present simply so he can set up ever more fastballs.
In the last few series, the Brewers have had a set of extra-hard-throwing games, mostly thanks to Wily Peralta facing off against Joe Kelly and Andrew Cashner. Opposing Wood, Marco Estrada will add another set of upper-80s fastballs to this contest, producing what may be the Brewers’ slowest-throwing game of the season thus far. Don’t let the lack of high octane fastballs fool you, though. Wood is no chump, and Estrada once again has the task of beating an excellent opposing pitcher. In fact, Estrada has yet to face a below average pitcher in 2014, but if the Brewers’ change up specialist keeps up his current performance, these ace-slaying outings will no longer be viewed as mismatches.
By the end of the fifth inning, this game could feature more than 70 pitches between 87 and 88 MPH.
Jason Hammel (3-1, 27.7 IP, 8 R in 2014; 139.3 IP, -12 runs prevented in 2013) @ Wily Peralta (3-0, 24.7 IP, 11 R in 2014; 183.3 IP, -21 runs prevented in 2013)
In the context of the 2014 rebuilding Cubs, Jason Hammel has a chance to make his mark on the pennant race. It may sound strange, but Hammel arguably fills the role that Scott Feldman served for the Cubs last season. Hammel will first get his chance to improve on his seasons in Colorado and Baltimore, perhaps by continuing his current trend of hammering opposing batters in the strike zone. Should Hammel continue his excellent pace, he gives GM Jed Hoyer another chance to make a rebuilding trade at the deadline (such as the trade that landed Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop). This might sound insignificant, but Feldman’s own revival with the Cubs resulted in a 3-year, $30 million contract in Houston. Hammel’s work in Chicago — and, perhaps, elsewhere after the deadline — gives him a chance to mimic Feldman’s resurgence.
Last preview, I demonstrated that no Brewers starter has received better support than Wily Peralta, and the Brewers bullpen once again embraced that truth. On Monday, they dutifully helped Peralta sustain a strong quality start and 4-3 victory against San Diego. In his start against the Padres, Peralta became an equal-opportunity hard-thrower, selecting his fastball, sinker, and slider in almost equal measure. The young righty tossed in one change up just for fun, but he basically showed that he really does not need a third pitch to succeed. His fastballs and slider comprise a wicked sequence between 86 and 97 MPH, and his sinker and slider combination allow Peralta to work across planes. Not only does his slider knock off nearly 10 MPH from his hardest pitches, but he also works it away from righties, giving batters a completely different look. As much as one may clamor for Peralta to get that change up to the table (and I am one of those clamoring), the flamethrower does just fine with bread and butter.
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