Series Preview: Dodgers @ Brewers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

2014:
Dodgers (116 G): 479 RS / 422 RA
Brewers (115 G): 498 RS / 469 RA

The Dodgers entered Thursday’s game approximately 30 runs better than the NL / Dodger Stadium, while the Brewers bats were at least 34 runs better than average. After putting up seven runs to complete their four-game series victory against the Angels, the Dodgers continued their upward offensive climb. For all the noise about the Dodgers’ pitchers — and rightfully so, with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke leading the way — the Los Angeles bats are stronger for the club than their arms (which are between 20-and-25 runs better than their league and park). The Dodgers’ best advantage over Milwaukee is steady 1B Adrian Gonzalez, RF Yasiel Puig, and SS Hanley Ramirez, while the Brewers can claim CF Carlos Gomez, C Jonathan Lucroy, and even LF Khris Davis. (By the way, Don Mattingly could deserve manager of the year for orchestrating his outfield spots and navigating star personalities). For all intents and purposes, the difference between the Dodgers and Brewers runs scored can be explained almost solely by Dodger Stadium and Miller Park, for the batting talent on either side is equal.

Last Series:
Dodgers: Series Victory @ Angels [four game series]
Brewers: Series Victory vs. Giants

DISTANCE TO 90 / Adjusted NL Standings:
Dodgers (66 W): 24-22, .522, -2 behind current pace; -2 behind Pythagorean Pace for 46 G
Brewers (63 W): 27-20, .574, +1 beyond current pace; +2 beyond Pythagorean Pace for 47 G

In a league where few teams seemed poised to run away with a playoff spot, the Dodgers are emerging as the team to beat on the Senior Circuit. Their club now has an advantage of a “true” 90 win path, the only “true path” remaining among NL contenders. Yet, even the Dodgers’ current record does not showcase their upward trend: while it’s well-known that the Pittsburgh Pirates have come on strong in the Senior Circuit, the Dodgers have matched the Pirates step-for-step.

To capture this dynamic, and the overall development of the NL playoffs picture, I will provide standings judging teams by their March-May and June-present records (once we get into September, I can separate August performance and judge that separately, too):

March-May W-L RS / RA Adjusted Pace Current Pace
Giants 36-20 243 RS / 192 RA 104 87
Brewers 33-23 231 RS / 216 RA 95 89
Braves 30-25 190 RS / 181 RA 88 82
Cardinals 30-26 218 RS / 197 RA 87 87
Dodgers 30-27 247 RS / 247 RA 85 92
Nationals 27-27 222 RS / 206 RA 81 89
Reds 25-29 188 RS / 200 RA 75 83
Pirates 25-30 207 RS / 241 RA 73 87

Perhaps it’s disappointing to see that the Brewers have lost such an excellent early season advantage, but their recent play has not eliminated the Milwaukee Nine from the playoff picture:

June-to-Present W-L RS / RA Adjusted Pace Current Pace
Pirates 36-23 278 RS / 263 RA 90 87
Dodgers 36-23 232 RS / 191 RA 94 90
Nationals 35-24 252 RS / 189 RA 91 89
Cardinals 31-26 200 RS / 216 RA 88 87
Reds 34-29 251 RS / 212 RA 83 83
Brewers 30-29 267 RS / 253 RA 87 89
Braves 28-31 236 RS / 242 RA 81 82
Giants 26-33 209 RS / 227 RA 83 87

Of course, there’s quite a difference between serving as the road team during a one-game playoff and a Division Champion that gets home field during a season. But, this exercise shows just how much teams can change during a given season; no one would look at the early-season Pirates and call them a playoff club, and yet they have surged. The Nationals arguably underperformed their run differential early in the season, and they have since proven to be one of the league’s best clubs.

Perhaps the Brewers did outperform their “true talent level” early in the season.However, if one takes that line of argumentation, the Brewers’ June-to-present run differential shows a club that is at exactly the same level. The early season bullpen lifted the Brewers beyond their potential, while the current bullpen is diminishing the club’s chances of winning. One way or the other, the club is quite consistent, which leads one to expect that the Brewers will once again emerge: if they were out-performing talent in April and May, they are currently underperforming, and neither can be expected to last.

[Rematch] Roberto Hernandez (3-1, 34.3 IP, 12 R (11 K / 10 BB / 1 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Kyle Lohse (2-3, 31.7 IP, 17 R (22 K / 8 BB / 4 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS)

On Thursday afternoon, the Dodgers traded players to be named later or cash to acquire Roberto Hernandez from Philadelphia. The sinkerball righty gives the Dodgers a chance to alleviate their ailing back rotation, but the Twitter analysis made much of Hernandez’s recent Fielding Independent Pitching stats: the righty only has 11 K and 10 BB over his last five starts. Yet, it’s difficult to call his excellent runs allowed total “lucky,” for Hernandez has also produced 60 groundballs in his last five outings. Those groundballs alone account for more than 40% of his batters faced in those starts, including his dominant July 9 start in Milwaukee (according to Baseball-Reference, that one featured 14 groundballs). If Brewers bats are unable to elevate the ball, their experience against Hernandez could be much the same, even after his uniform changes.

It is amazing that Kyle Lohse can continue to produce quality starts, even during a rough stretch. The veteran Brewers hurler is approximately four runs below average in during his last 13 starts (dating to May 26 against the Orioles). However, Lohse averaged well over 6.3 IP during those starts, and managed to produce six quality starts, including a complete game shutout and four one-run starts. During these 13 starts, Lohse picked his off-speed pitches nearly 55% of his offerings, leaving his riding / sinking fastballs to a minority of his selections.

Throughout this season, I have noted that Yovani Gallardo’s primary-and-secondary fastball movement has changed, compared to previous seasons. Basically, both pitches are “riding” and “sinking” fastballs now, for his primary (what Brooks Baseball calls a “four seam”) fastball now sinks and breaks in on righties more than in previous seasons. Interestingly enough, the exact same phenomenon is happening with Lohse, who threw a “true” rising fastball in 2013. In 2014, Lohse’s “four seam” fastball sinks below that 2013 fastball, and breaks-in significantly more on righties (nearly 2 inches in). One wonders whether the narrative of Lohse teaching / leading the pitching staff with his sinker is true, or whether the pitchers are using new moving fastballs at the beckoning of the coaching staff.

Zack Greinke (1-3, 34.7 IP, 13 R (39 K / 7 BB / 2 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Mike Fiers (0-1, 7 IP, 2 R in 2014 thus far)

The second game of this series pairs two starters from the excellent 2012 Brewers pitching rotation. Despite some replacement woes, those 10 Brewers starters were collectively 28 runs better than average (even including Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson, who were 27 runs below average). In case you forgot just how good Fastballer Mike Fiers was, comparing him to Zack Greinke will be rather effective. Greinke worked 123 innings and prevented 12 runs in 2012; Fiers worked 127.7 innings while preventing 8 runs. Greinke was clearly the better pitcher in his brief stay in Milwaukee during that year, but both were integral elements of one of Doug Melvin’s finest rotations.

The FIP Vultures were right: Zack Greinke has finally become the pitcher he was meant to be. While Greinke was the “victim of bad luck” or “just average” in Milwaukee, he has emerged as a true top rotation arm with the Dodgers. Notably, Greinke’s approach with the Dodgers is completely different. First, he’s throwing his curveball less frequently, and he’s almost completely scrapped his cutter in 2014 (he threw the pitch in 2014, apparently). Furthermore, he’s not throwing his “riding” secondary fastball as frequently, which places the focus on his 92-93 MPH rising fastball. Most notably, Greinke’s lack of cutters and curves freed selections for his slider and change up; in fact, Greinke has almost doubled change up use in Chavez Ravine (compared to Milwaukee). Greinke is the rare pitcher that has more than a handful of weapons, great stuff and command, and an offbeat / intellectual approach, and he’s now found the alchemy for success.

Finally, for the love of all that is good, Brooks Baseball has also started tracking Greinke’s “slow curve.” It’s a shame they didn’t differentiate those pitches during his Milwaukee tenure, for I believe Greinke threw some curves that were even slower than his Dodgers curves when he and Wolf had their “slow curve” contest.

Given Marco Estrada’s fine relief performance to spell Yovani Gallardo, Mike Fiers will serve as the first replacement for the injured Matt Garza. Fiers has yet to start for the Brewers in 2014, and will be only their seventh starter this season (in August! To place this in perspective, the Brewers, Nationals, Braves, and Giants are the only NL clubs to have used seven or fewer starts thus far, and each of those clubs has already employed seven SP). On June 24th against the Nationals, Fiers worked four of his seven 2014 IP, eventually taking an extra innings loss against the D.C. Nine. However, that outing exhibited a stunning development: Fastballer Fiers was back, only this time without his famous 2012 cutter: Instead, Fiers worked almost entirely with his fastball and curve, and he spun his fastball tightly: according to BrooksBaseball, Fiers’s rising fastball both rose and broke-in against righties more than his 2012 offering. It is difficult to project Fiers’s total starts with the Brewers in 2014, but if he can simply locate his fastball, he will not need many more pitches.

By the way, with a set of upcoming off days in August, the Brewers can mitigate some of the effects of losing Matt Garza. Specifically, if Runnin’ Ron Roenicke uses the off days to skip starts, the Brewers will only need a 5th starter on August 14 and August 26. While it would be advantageous to have a streaking hot Garza in the rotation, the next best thing is going with a compact four-man set:

Date Starter
8/8 Lohse
8/9 Fiers
8/10 Nelson
8/11 Gallardo
8/12 Peralta
8/13 Lohse
8/14 Fiers / Estrada
8/15 Nelson
8/16 Gallardo
8/17 Peralta
8/18 off
8/19 Lohse
8/20 Nelson
8/21 off
8/22 Gallardo
8/23 Peralta
8/24 Lohse
8/25 Nelson
8/26 Fiers / Estrada
8/27 Gallardo
8/28 off

From August 29 into September, the Brewers will need a full rotation. Perhaps by then, the club will have a clearer picture of Garza’s potential return.

Clayton Kershaw (3-0, 41 IP, 8 R (42 K / 5 BB / 2 HR), 5 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Jimmy Nelson (1-2, 24.3 IP, 16 R (21 K / 6 BB / 3 HR), 3 quality starts in 4 GS since July recall)

Last year, Clayton Kershaw prevented 46 runs against Dodger Stadium and the National League, solidifying his run as the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. No one comes close to him, in terms of dependable, elite service over the last few years; Cliff Lee was 29 runs behind Kershaw from 2011-2013, but Lee’s injuries in 2014 ensured his inability to catch Kershaw. Cole Hamels is next, with HALF the runs prevented of Kershaw from 2011-2013. By the time one runs nine pitchers deep in the 2011-2013 NL, Kershaw has a 100 run advantage.

If you’re a Clayton Kershaw hater (are there any?), the beginning of 2014 must have seemed great: “Finally, he might not be the best pitcher for the Dodgers.” Of course, Kershaw returned to health with a vengeance, and he’s already nearly 30 runs better than average in 2014. To put this in perspective, he’s on pace to potentially match or beat his 2014 runs prevented total even if he doesn’t crack 200 innings.

Of course, Kershaw is now at the age where he can be compared to Sandy Koufax’s elite seasons, which gives most fans a clear reference to the kid’s greatness. Ironically, Koufax’s first great season (at age 26) was also shortened — Koufax made only 26 starts in 1962. Here’s how Koufax and Kershaw line up:

Age 26 IP ERA+ K / BB / HR
Koufax 184.3 143 216 / 57 / 13
Kershaw 128.3 194 157 / 17 / 6

I know I’ve done this at Disciples of Uecker already, but I can’t resist. Here’s how Kershaw and Koufax compare before and after age 25, which is roughly Koufax’s split between “okay” and “solid,” or “swingman” and “starter” (age 25 is also conveniently Koufax’s last season at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum):

Age 18-24 IP ERA+ K / BB / HR
Koufax 691.7 100 683 / 405 / 88
Kershaw 944 138 974 / 341 / 62
Age 25-26 IP ERA+ K / BB / HR
Koufax 440 129 485 / 153 / 40
Kershaw 364.3 194 389 / 69 / 17
Age 27-30 IP ERA+ K / BB / HR
Koufax 1192.7 172 1228 / 259 / 76
Kershaw ? ? ? / ? / ?

What is stunning about Koufax’s colloquial tenure as one of the greatest pitchers in the game is that he was really only GREAT for four seasons. What’s stunning about Kershaw is that he’s already had four seasons that nearly match Koufax’s greatness, and if he continues his elite 2014 performance, his age 23-26 seasons will probably be as good as Koufax’s 27-30 seasons. If you’re into baseball history, Kershaw’s start to his career compares better to Lefty Grove more than Koufax.

Best IP ERA+ K / BB / HR
Kershaw 23-26 825.3 170 866 / 186 / 48
Kershaw 27-30 1192.7 172 1228 / 259 / 76

Perhaps the most endearing aspect to Kershaw’s rise to elite performance is his ability to adjust his pitching approach. The previous fastballer-curveballer hardly threw his slider before 2009; now, he selects it more than 30% of his offerings.

Jimmy Nelson struggled against the Cardinals upon being recalled, but has since worked three consecutive quality starts. His stats for those starts appear to be misleading, as Nelson is recently victim to the big inning: seven of his eight runs allowed occurred within a single big inning. Outside of the big inning, Nelson is cruising, and he’s working primarily with his hard sinker. Surprisingly, his slider appears to be completely different in 2014 than his emergency start slider in 2013. Specifically, Nelson is throwing his slider approximately 4 MPH harder than in 2013, and the pitch does not break away as much. It is worth watching Nelson’s slider going forward, as it’s tough to gauge a pitch from one single outing (for, Nelson could have indeed thrown a different type of slider during his 2013 outing, given the match-ups he faced). With Nelson settling into a groove of quality starts, it is difficult not to imagine a gang of hard-throwing sinker / slider guys (Nelson with Wily Peralta) leading the Brewers rotation.

Resources
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2014.

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