Series Preview: Reds @ Brewers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Throughout this season, various Brewers narratives have gnawed at the boundaries of reality and ideology. One of the most persistent narratives (used periodically or specifically by Brewers haters) is “the Brewers are X-X since their 20-7 start.” Not surprisingly, this narrative appears more frequently during terrible stretches than great stretches — on June 22, for instance, I’m sure it wasn’t as popular to say “The Brewers are ‘only’ 27-23 since their hot start” as it was before the Marlins series (“The Brewers are 54-62 since their hot start”). This is an ineffective narrative because, really, the Brewers only have a few wins since August 19; pick a date in the season, and you can use the Brewers’ record to support your feelings about the club. Of course, any specific date of the season will not reflect the complex dynamics, developments, and streaks throughout the season.

Another popular narrative among fans and analysts is the “Brewers simply overplayed their talent level, and never had the talent to compete” line. This is similar to the basic idea that the Brewers should have been a .500 club, if it weren’t for their ridiculous start, but it assumes a level of “base team talent” or “true team talent” that is difficult to discern. Recently, I heard an analyst on MLB Network use this line, which fits with their general feelings about the club on that Network. First, one of the issues with this line of reasoning is the idea that there is a “true talent level” for baseball clubs. This idea is difficult to unfold and unpack simply because any given club could hit a range as large as eight and 16 wins throughout a season; even if one agreed with the idea that “run differential predicts true team talent,” teams can rather easily outplay (or underplay) their run differential by a few wins (and sometimes by as much as a 10% increase or decrease). Saying “The Milwaukee Brewers are a true .500 team” does not necessarily explain their recent collapse, for even a team with “.500 talent” can keep up extended winning stretches with certain skills.

Which brings me to the Brewers’ actual talent: I don’t think it’s a factually true statement that the Brewers were outplaying their talent during their strong stretches of play. To showcase this point, I’ve compiled pitching and batting performances through August 19 (by key contributors), and compared those performances to each player’s career level.

Brewers Production Through August 19     Career Through 2013    
Player PA AVG / OBP / SLG Note PA AVG / OBP / SLG Note
J. Lucroy 500 .304/.370/.493 42 2B 2273 .279/.331/.426 Improved K and BB
M. Reynolds 383 .204/.296/.417 18.5% XBH+BB / PA 3947 .233/.329/.464 Career 49.9% BIP
L. Overbay 233 .230/.322/.333 Power Outage 5506 .267/.348/.782 9% career XBH/PA
S. Gennett 365 .307/.341/.472 Sneaky Power! 230 .324/.356/.479 Improved K and BB
R. Weeks 231 .251/.329/.401 .341 BABIP! 4414 .247/.346/.422 Career 60% BIP
A. Ramirez 393 .301/.341/.459 High AVG / Declining XBH 7939 .285/.345/.501 10.3% Career XBH / PA
J. Segura 453 .230/.264/.313 Steady fielding & baserunning 789 .287/.326/.403 LD AVG .651 to .563
K. Davis 454 .255/.308/.487 Unexpected Defense 153 .279/.353/.596 Steady K/BB and power
C. Gomez 519 .285/.349/.489 Continued 2013 surge 2720 .255/.303/.406 Improved K/BB & power
R. Braun 443 .275/.327/.482 10.8% XBH / PA 4107 .312/.374/.564 Plate discipline back to ‘07

Abbreviations:
BIP: Batted Balls in Play
XBH: Estra Base Hits
XBH%: XBH / Plate Appearances
LD: Line Drive

Milwaukee’s offense was deep throughout the first four-and-a-half months, sticking easily at 30-to-40 runs above average from June through August. Offensive strengths up the middle allowed the Brewers to remain thoroughly productive even with weaker production at 1B and SS. Specifically, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez continued their current career climbs through their primes; it would be absurd to suggest that a “prime” player is “overplaying his true talent.” Meanwhile, veterans like Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Braun continued to produce, and newcomers Scooter Gennett and Khris Davis morphed from hot rookies into solid regular contributors. The Brewers offense did not perform well because of overperform, but rather because of depth, strength up the middle, and key seasons by prime-age players.

The pitchers are more difficult to analyze because (a) the Brewers starters are not the types of pitchers that lend themselves to clear FIP-based analysis (which means you’ve got to follow the luck with the pitchers), and (b) the bullpen had five distinct phases of the season.

Brewers Pitchers Through August 19     2011-2013 Career Through 2013  
Player IP / RPV ERA Note IP / RPV FIP Note
K. Lohse 159.7 / 1 3.49 Ankle twist before collapse 598.0 / 43 4.32 Improved K/BB & LD%
Y. Gallardo 154.7 / 10 3.32 Received worst team support 592.0 / 15 3.67 Completely reinvented fastballs
M. Garza 145.7 / -2 3.58 ERA discrepancy 457.0 / 7 3.98 Worse K & BB rates
M. Estrada 127.3 / -12 4.74 Removed from rotation 359.0 / 9 3.81 K / BB / HR implosion
W. Peralta 157.0 / 5 3.27 Thorough Improvement 212.3 / -15 4.09 Improved K & BB rates
M. Fiers 28.0 / 9 1.29 August 9 into rotation 150.0 / -2 3.73 Completely reinvented approach
J. Nelson 42.0 / -1 3.86 5 consecutive QS n/a 2.95 Improved K & BB rates

Abbreviations:
FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching (Baseball-Reference calculation)
RPV: Runs Prevented (my calculation or estimate (in the case of ’14))
QS: Quality Start

For the starters, there is some room to argue for underperformance from at least three starters. Marco Estrada was not nearly as good as many expected, and he failed to build off of his 2013 improvements. Matt Garza posted solid FIP ratios for the most part, but those peripherals did not translate into runs prevented. His underperformance seems slight — maybe he’s 5-to-10 runs worse than expected — but then again, that disqualifies him from a “Brewers were overperforming” argument. Finally, Kyle Lohse was one of the NL’s top five righties from 2011-2013, but he was unable to carry that success into 2014. Judging Yovani Gallardo, Fastballer Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta, and Jimmy Nelson is difficult because the former two completely reinvented their arsenals and approaches, and the latter two are young pitchers coming into their own. Again, arguing that Gallardo, Fiers, Peralta, or Nelson outperformed their potential talent does not seem to explain the Brewers’ success. (Even the “pitchers outperformed FIP” argument does not work, given the Brewers’ penchant for aggressive shifting and the starters’ reliance on batted balls in play. If any team is built to outperform FIP, it’s probably the Brewers).

Relief Pitching Key RP #1 Note Key RP#2 Note Key RP#3 Note
3/31-4/29 F. Rodriguez 16 scoreless IP W. Smith 8/9 SVHLD T. Thornburg 14.7 IP / 1 R
4/30-5/22 F. Rodriguez 4/5 HLDSV & 1 L B. Kintzler 1/3 SVHLD & 2 L J. Henderson 1 L
5/23-6/28 F. Rodriguez 10/12 SV & 2-1 Z. Duke 12.3 IP / 2 R R. Wooten 9/9 HLD & 0-2
6/29-7/13 W. Smith BLSV & 2 L Z. Duke 1 BLSV F. Rodriguez 1 L
7/18-8/19 F. Rodriguez 11/12 SV & 1-1 W. Smith 8/8 HLD & 0-1 J. Jeffress 3/4 HLD & 1-1

Abbreviations:
HLDSV: Hold or save
SV: Save
HLD: Hold

Finally, it’s difficult to judge relievers against their career numbers, so I’m taking a different approach: the story of the 2014 Brewers can also be told through relief cycles. At least three distinct bullpens worked in Milwaukee in 2014: (1) The lights-out “ideal” season-opening bullpen, (2) The injury-riddled middle-season bullpen, (3) The (nearly) completely rebuilt bullpen. (One might add: (4) The fallen performances of the lights-out “ideal” bullpen). Together, these bullpens help to explain why the Brewers were able to win so many close games early in the season (thereby outplaying their run differential), and also why the Brewers were unable to capitalize on some of their leads and ties during May’s injury swoons and July’s awful homestand (where three key arms combined for two blown saves and three losses).

If it seems strange to run this kind of analysis prior to the end of the season, well, Brewers fans are trying to make sense of this unbelievable collapse we’ve witnessed. There are going to be many ways to tell this story; some will say that the Brewers’ collapse shows that the organization should rebuild entirely, while others will look at the strength of midseason performances and argue that the core should be augmented. So, it seems helpful to work out arguments and potential narratives prior to the end of the season. One narrative that needs to go: “The Brewers simply outperformed their talent level.”

2014
Reds (147 G): 550 RS / 557 RA
Brewers (147 G): 612 RS / 616 RA

Last Series
Reds: Series Sweep vs. Cardinals
Brewers: Series Split vs. Marlins

MLB.com and MLB Press Pass Probable Pitchers
Mat Latos (1-2, 29 IP, 16 R (27 K / 8 BB / 5 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Kyle Lohse (1-2, 15.7 IP, 13 R (), 1 quality start since ankle injury)

The Reds have a difficult series of contractual questions regarding their starting pitching rotation. While there was a certain order to their rotation over the last few years, as their young core starters (Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake) fully emerged to support Johnny Cueto (when healthy) and Bronson Arroyo (yes, Arroyo) at the top of the Reds rotation. Tony Cingrani was unable to follow-up his strong rookie campaign, which makes a low-cost replacement of these arms seem less certain. Yet, as Homer Bailey heads to elbow surgery after signing a solid extension, the potential for the Reds to see valuable investment in extending starting pitching could wane (unless they believe that Cueto’s and Latos’s respective injury issues have lowered their contractual cost).

Of these challenges, Mat Latos probably provides the best wager for the Reds. The righty has been solid and relatively dependable even after his 2014 injury. Along with Leake, he’s significantly younger (two years) than Cueto. Unlike Leake, Latos has a history of top rotation pitching performances (which isn’t to dismiss Leake, but only to place his dependable, average performance in context). Leake may come as a bargain, given the sudden stability for right-handed pitchers after the Matt Garza deal (if I were Leake’s agent, I’d compare him to Tim Lincecum and demand $25 million a year!). Anyway, Latos is an impact arm that could promise to lead the Reds rotation into the future. With big money tied into Bailey and Joey Votto (not to mention Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips), the Reds might have to make an unfortunate choice between Latos and Cueto.

(Speaking of this decision, why don’t MLB clubs and the MLBPA agree to extended contracts that are paid out over longer periods of time? Recent CBAs have improved revenue sharing and salary cap provisions to an extent that allows smaller markets to dabble in contract extensions, but it seems that smaller teams (like the Brewers and Reds) are typically only allotted room for one grand contract (like Votto). If the Reds want to keep Votto, Latos, and Cueto, why couldn’t they pay these players over the course of, say, 30 years? Baseball players — from an organizational perspective — are a lot like investments, except that clubs are not allowed to nourish those investments over incredibly long periods of time. Since the sticker price is so important to players — that big, $250 million, or $175 million, or $80 million headline-grabber is more important than Average Annual Value — even with relatively short reserve rights on their contracts (like the typical five-, six-, or seven-year deal) the players could still be handed that gigantic, headline grabbing figure…to be paid over 30-40 years (perhaps with a guaranteed minimum/base salary and a hefty bonus upfront).

Gomez / Lucroy Extensions Lucroy (9/$170) Gomez (10/$220)
Bonus $17 million (paid ’18-’26) $25 million (paid ’17-’26)
2017 n/a $0.800
2018 $0.800 $0.800
2019 $0.800 $3.00
2020 $3.00 $0.800
2021 $0.800 $3.00
2022 $3.00 $0.800
2023 $0.800 $3.00
2024 $0.800 $3.00
2025 $0.800 $3.00
2026 $0.800 $3.00
After Career 30 $4.70M payments 40 $4.35M payments

Here’s a basic example of my idea, using the Brewers’ two most likely players to be extended. The players are paid large bonuses up front, and low salaries during the reserve time of their contract. Then, the lump sum of the contract is paid over 30-40 years. The players maintain the gigantic headline payment, but by stacking the payments over-time, a club like the Brewers could devote $20-to-$30 million a year to several players, rather than one superstar (like Braun’s contract).

Now, maybe I don’t understand this because I’m not earning the money, but I don’t see how earning $250 million as an elite player over 40-years is worse than earning it over 10-years; for a club like the Brewers or Reds, I definitely see the advantages of extended payments. For instance, what if the Brewers braintrust decides that they’d like to keep Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Wily Peralta on their future rosters? Should their financial state as a smaller market bar them from keeping the players that they developed and coached to success?)

Over the course of his first two years in Milwaukee, Kyle Lohse is proving the value of obtaining veteran pitching, even in lieu of extending organizational arms (depending on how far you want to extend the argument in favor of Lohse’s performance). Even in a “down” year in 2014, Lohse has hovered around average for most of the season, giving the Brewers a solid base for their rotation. Now, it’s simply a matter of holding our breath: as Lohse pitches through his ankle-driven mechanical issues to close the season, finding that proper delivery could suddenly give the Brewers a much needed boost.

David Holmberg (0-0, 6.7 IP, 0 R since September call-up) @ Yovani Gallardo (1-3, 27.7 IP, 20 R (12 K / 11 BB / 5 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Johnny Wholestaff appeared for the Reds on September 8, thanks in-part to injuries. David Holmberg worked nearly six innings after Dylan Axelrod left the game with an oblique injury. Holmberg is a lefty the Reds acquired from the Diamondbacks. Once noted as one of the Diamondbacks solid pitching prospects (BaseballAmerica rated him “Top Control Pitcher” in the Diamondbacks’ organization prior to 2013), Holmberg favors an 89-90 MPH riding fastball and low-80s change in the big leagues. Of course, the lefty can throw a whole gang of pitches to the plate, including a couple of tight breaking pitches between 75-80 MPH. Realistically, though, those offerings hardly comprise 15% of his selections.

I had the pleasure of traveling to Milwaukee to watch the ballgame on Monday night, during which Brad Penny and Yovani Gallardo could hardly execute their pitches. Gallardo admitted to the press that it’s difficult to simply go out without any stuff during a stretch like this, but it’s hard to feel vengeful against a pitcher that simply does not have it. One of the most difficult aspects of the Brewers’ recent collapse is that certain “ho-hum” losses that will always occur throughout a season (a pitcher simply doesn’t have his stuff, a good pitcher crosses up the bats, the bullpen blows a tie game) take on extra importance. So, Gallardo’s tough start did not win him any favor with the fans, who mercilessly booed him throughout the game (and hardly noticed when he notched the franchise strike out record!). But, these things happen, and Gallardo’s recent rough patch should not take away from the positive development of his 2014 reinvention.

Mike Leake (2-0, 30.7 IP, 14 R (20 K / 5 BB / 3 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Matt Garza (0-1, 7 IP, 8 R (10 K / 2 BB / 1 HR), since returning from DL)

Lately, Leake loves his sinker more than usual. Since mid-August, the righty has gone to the pitch nearly 15% more frequently than his 2014 averages. It’s all fastball / cutter from Leake, then, as 3-of-4 offerings will land between that 90-92 MPH range. While both his sinker and cutter work at the same vertical plane, he can twist both pitches to either side of the plate, which gives him the benefit of choosing two distinct fastball locales to either righties or lefties. Effectively, both pitches work like sinkers, with one dropping and breaking in against righties, the other darting away.

While Matt Garza’s outcomes don’t look great since he returned to the rotation, there is one element of his game that should have Brewers fans and analysts doing backflips: the veteran righty suddenly struck out 10 of 36 batters faced. To place this in perspective, Garza’s previous strike out rate would have netted him six Ks in those first two games. This is a significant development because even though FIP Vultures can point to Garza’s peripheral performance in 2014 and argue that he’s simply been unlucky, his strike out and walk performance has not been laudable in 2014. Until now: we’ll have to watch these last few outings and see if Garza can keep up this new strike out rate. Such a development will raise new questions about 2015, questions with answers that could project a more successful sophomore campaign in Milwaukee.

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

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