It seems like so long ago already, but I wrote my first series preview when the Brewers headed to Philadelphia during their first roadtrip. In that preview, I noted the similar trajectories between the Phillies and Brewers organizations, which looks shocking in hindsight: the Brewers are putting together one of the best seasons in the 2014 NL, while the Phillies dropped into the lower tier of the league. If anything, this divergence should show just how unpredictable a baseball franchise’s performance can be, and just how close a contending team can be to a basement club. Between 2011 and 2013, the Phillies posted three more victories than the Brewers, and both clubs hovered between 73 and 74 wins last season. Now, the Brewers are making the rest of the NL Central chase them, which seemed inconceivable one year ago.
My favorite statistic during this unexpected Brewers season, and from these series previews, is the number of supposed mismatches that the Brewers pitchers have faced in 2014. Counting mismatches based on pitchers’ 2013 performance (and later, their current 2014 performance + 2013 performance), the Brewers have played in 29 “mismatch” games. This undoubtedly reflects the Brewers’ struggling 2013 rotation, but the strength of their 2014 rotation can be seen in their record during these mismatches: the Brewers are 17-12 in pitching mismatches, including a 10-2 April performance. There are a lot of lessons we can draw from these performances, including lessons about using previous pitching performances to judge future expectations. My favorite lesson, however, is one of fluctuation: one could argue that fluctuation is central to baseball performances over several seasons, and so producing a great year is largely one of getting the waves of fluctuation to converge at the correct points. This, perhaps, is the best way to describe the divergence between the Brewers and Phillies.
Phillies (88 G): 330 RS / 386 RA
Brewers (89 G): 393 RS / 362 RA
The Brewers’ pitchers have had a solid stretch of outings, and even some ballooning bullpen performances has not derailed the club from improving their runs allowed. Our beloved Milwaukee hurlers are inching closer to their NL / Miller Park average; after the last five games, they’re only three runs off the average pace.
Phillies: Swept @ Pittsburgh
Brewers: Series Loss @ Cincinnati
If you’re fretting about the Brewers’ recent stretch of low runs scored and bullpen “implosions,” now’s a good time to take another detailed look at the National League’s playoff race. Ostensibly, there are nine teams within shouting distance of the playoffs (if one includes the Marlins, and I’m including them because I don’t want to look like an idiot if they go on a crazy run and make the playoffs. The Marlins are 5.5 out of the Wild Card, and the Mets are next at 9.5. So, if the Mets go on a crazy run to make the playoffs, well, I guess that’s the boundary I’m willing to gamble on).
|Distance to 90||G||Necessary WPCT||WPCT Improvement||Pythag Improvement|
The Brewers and Dodgers have the “truest” paths to 90 wins, given that a 90-win season would be a decline from both clubs’ current winning percentage and a “run differential correction” during their remaining games. The Nationals are perhaps the NL’s least efficient playoff contender, given that their current pace to 90 games lags behind their actual balance between runs scored / runs allowed. The Braves and the Pirates must be the most interesting contenders, for both clubs are significantly outplaying their run differentials. Of course, Brewers fans know better than to count out the Pirates because they “only” have a .500 run differential, due to Clint Hurdle’s ability to manage his club’s “close game victories.” The Pirates are perhaps the best close-game club in the NL Central, which means they might be the most likely team to make an unexpected / “unsustainable” run at the playoffs.
2013 Phillies: 73-89 (610 RS / 749 RA)
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)
2011-2013 Phillies: 256-230 (2007 RS / 1958 RA)
2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)
Cole Hamels (0-2, 34.3 IP, 9 R (35 K / 12 BB / 3 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Marco Estrada (2-3, 29 IP, 22 R (21 K / 10 BB / 8 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)
Cole Hamels may be known for his change up, but his fastballs are surprisingly strong. The southpaw delivers his fastballs between 89 and 93 MPH, which covers the range between his cutter and rising fastball. These pitches deliver Hamels to an undeniable level of consistency, which may get lost in a league that features highly-renowned lefties Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee. Of course, Hamels quietly follows Lee and Kershaw, preventing more than 60 runs between 2011-2013. If one asked you who were the three best starters in the National League from 2011-2013, would you say Kershaw, Lee, and Hamels?
The second-half cannot come soon enough for Marco Estrada, who is a career late bloomer. One might argue that Estrada’s difficult 2014 first-half unduly impacts his career split, but in fact, Estrada’s first-half ERA was 5.38 entering 2014. In this case, posting a 4.94 ERA is actually an improvement for the veteran change-up artist. Which leaves one wondering, if Estrada’s improvement carries over to his second half, that would mean a 3.08 ERA for the Brewers’ fourth rotational turn. While it appears that Estrada is the best bet for a midseason replacement, given his career history as a swingman, his contract, and his first half performance, his career second-half performance raises an interesting challenge to Replacement Theory.
Does one judge his potential replacement against Estrada’s second-half surges, or does one judge his potential replacement against Estrada’s 2014 first half? An obvious answer would hinge on scouting reports rather than statistics — one would say, for instance, that Jimmy Nelson has better stuff and a better 2014 performance that begs for a midseason promotion — but it’s still interesting to raise the question of Estrada’s potential second half surge.
By the way, after facing Drew Hutchison in Toronto, Estrada returns to his early season ace-slaying role during this Phillies series. Once again, the Brewers’ fourth-deep righty needs to beat a legitimate ace; the last time Philadelphia played Milwaukee, Estrada faced off against Cliff Lee.
Kyle Kendrick (2-2, 34 IP, 15 R (25 K / 5 BB / 1 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Wily Peralta (4-0, 33 IP, 16 R (22 K / 7 BB / 4 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)
Kyle Kendrick was having quite a good season entering May, but a middle-May slump knocked him off course for several starts. This means that Kendrick’s recently steady performance is serving the purpose of regaining his previous level of success. The righty can use his improvement to prove, once again, that he’s a quietly dependable and serviceable starter.
If it seems like Wily Peralta is struggling lately, well, he is — sort of. Compared to his early 2014 success, Peralta’s recent stretch of three consecutive starts with 4 R allowed is not a good development. However, compared to his 2013 season, Peralta’s recent struggles showcase his development as a starter. One difference with Peralta in 2014 is that 4 R is pretty much as bad as it gets for extended periods of time — the righty only has two starts all year with more than 4 R allowed. By contrast, Peralta pitched nine such starts in 2013, and also allowed more than 4 R in consecutive starts from time-to-time. What is the benefit of these even starts? While the Brewers were 14-18 in Peralta’s 2013 starts, they’re already 10-7 in his 2014 outings.
Roberto Hernandez (1-4, 30.3 IP, 18 R (18 K / 17 BB / 3 HR), 1 quality start in last 5 GS) @ Kyle Lohse (2-1, 31 IP, 13 R (21 K / 9 BB / 1 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)
In 2014, Roberto Hernandez is streamlining his approach. The righty’s sinker is not as hard as his career average, as he might throw his sinker between 91 and 92 MPH in 2014. However, Hernandez uses his sinker more frequently, alongside his change up and slider. If Hernandez is going to get Brewers bats to swing and miss, the change up will be his best weapon. According to Brooks Baseball, Hernandez earns missed-swings on nearly 20% of his change ups. Since Hernandez already throws 23 change ups per 100 pitches, look for the righty to top even that mark against Brewers bats.
Lately, Kyle Lohse seems to be struggling, although Lohse’s struggling stretch since May also includes some very good starts. If you follow MLB GameDay, you might notice more “four seam fastballs” from Lohse; accordingly to BrooksBaseball, since May 1 Lohse is throwing twice as many primary fastballs as his season average. While Lohse’s primary fastball still breaks in quite a bit, it does not move or sink as much as his sinker (which, oddly enough, one could skeptically counter that it’s not a “true sinker”). Oddly enough, Lohse does not use the pitch to get batters to swing and miss — that honor still belongs to his off-speed offerings. During his “struggling stretch,” batters are not missing Lohse’s change ups and sliders, which is also producing more line drives and balls in play against the righty. Since Lohse is throwing his slider so frequently (almost as much as his sinker), one wonders if the righty will go to his fastballs to reclaim the feel of his delivery and execution, or whether he will stick with his slider and change.
David Buchanan (3-2, 28.7 IP, 12 R (18 K / 12 BB / 4 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Matt Garza (2-1, 37.3 IP, 15 R (25 K / 5 BB / 1 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS)
Closing the series for the Phillies is the organizational righty David Buchanan, who debuted with the Phillies this past May. The 25-year-old righty is a moving fastball specialist, throwing a “sinker” and “cutter” more than 50% of his offerings, and another “riding” fastball nearly 20% of his offerings. According to Phuture Phillies, Buchanan’s curveball is his best secondary offering. However, the “power righty” appears to favor his low, breaking fastballs — even his 90-to-91 MPH cutter sinks more than his “sinker” (according to Brooks Baseball). It sounds like Buchanan is the type of arm that could reach the mid-90s on a radar gun, but instead focuses his power on hard, moving pitches (in that regard, it would be interesting to be able to compare the number of 90+ MPH sinkers/riding fastballs in baseball in 2014, versus, say, 2004).
Matt Garza dominated the Reds during his last outing, which ironically coincided with what must have been Garza’s best fastball of the season. Garza selected his rising and riding fastballs nearly 80% of his offerings, leaving fewer than 25 off-speed offerings for the Reds during a full nine innings. It may be a park factor (for Yovani Gallardo’s fastball also looked great on Cincinnati’s GameDay readings during Sunday’s loss), but both of Garza’s fastballs were notably stronger than his 2014 average. This complete game shutout solidifies the sense that Garza is returning for the second half of the season, which couldn’t come at a more appropriate time: if Garza improves to his standard level of average-to-slightly-above-average performances, the Brewers will have a 10-run improvement sitting in their back pocket. This is quite an advantage, given that there are no acquisition costs for Garza’s second-half improvement.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, 1996-2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2014.
Other sources cited as linked.