Since Mark Attanasio‘s group purchased the Milwaukee Brewers, the organization has operated in perpetual “win now” mode. Some Brewers fans (including myself) were skeptical of this motive at first, probably because the Brewers were in the middle of their youth-movement and rebuilding process, and the ideals presented to the fanbase were not necessarily “win now,” but, “build an organization that can compete for years to come.” In hindsight, I’m not certain that those goals are incompatible, and Attanasio’s willingness to manage a front office that is aggressive about marketing, competing, winning, and ultimately, mixing those traits into a “brand” convinced me of the virtues of this approach to baseball. One might summarize the Brewers teams of the last 8 years as, “keep competing, and you will only be a piece or two away from winning.”
I’ve been visiting and revisiting the legacy of this current Brewers front office, lead by Doug Melvin, in the midst of the Brewers’ extremely frustrating start to 2013. One habit that I’ve never kicked, as a Brewers fan, is my ability to allow my attitude to nosedive and assume the worst; as a born-and-raised Milwaukeean, I wonder if this is in our blood, or, more plausibly, in our water. Growing up, I remember my Dad teaching us about the Hoan Bridge, which was then affectionately known as “The Bridge to Nowhere;” I remember the Midwest Express Center, a convention hall that was outdated by the time its doors opened; I waited for buses that might actually come 5 minutes early, as much as they might come 5 minutes late; and of course, we had that ballclub that always seemed as willing to cut payroll, and keep perpetual, aimless rebuilding seasons, never culminating in a winning club. You might accuse me of being grim, but I assure you, this is civic pride at its heights for a Milwaukee native; I gather that one needs a certain amount of tough love to brave 45-minute waits for a specific bus route (is that a “Mayfair” 31 or a “Watertown Plank” 31 I see? Perhaps it’s never the one you expected or hoped to see).
On the other hand, it’s ridiculous to hold this start against the win-now expectations of the organization in general. Certainly, the idea of the Brewers losing this season seems more frightening because of the lower draft budget and lack of first round selection; however, the greatest number of draft picks or the highest draft budget doesn’t change the reality that most ballclubs cannot withstand concurrent injuries to several starters and bench players. Ballclubs also cannot withstand concurrent meltdowns out of the bullpen, or consecutive 5 inning starts from the rotation. Yet, baseball itself loves to hand out these types of scenarios, as Murphy’s Law rules the sport as much as Replacement Value and “Moneyball” strategies. This year, not even the April weather is cooperating; forget one rain-out yesterday, let’s rain ’em all out. April agrees with the fates bestowed on the Brewers roster — it is nothing more than wishful thinking to expect win-now attitudes to immediately, consistently correspond with easy season starts.
This day off, and yesterday’s rain out, provided the Brewers an excellent opportunity to reorganize their rotation, rest some of their banged-up regulars, and reset their course for the season. So too, can we place this start in the scope of our organization’s goals and approach. In the grand scheme of things, we know that Mark Attanasio’s Brewers front office will keep the team competitive, which we know means that we will perpetually be close to winning. We can appreciate this if we compare it directly to the perpetual rebuilding seasons of the decade prior to Attanasio’s arrival. Our Milwaukee nerves might lead us to the ledge faster than others, and we might even be more willing than others to nosedive and immediately expect the worst, but our front office and organization have proven time and again that this is not the Milwaukee Brewers we grew up with. This might sound like nothing more than a babbling pep talk, but this early in the season, there’s nothing else to say except, “well, it can only get better” (or, “please, please, don’t let it get worse than this”).
The bottom line is, when we’re upset about one particular organizational move (say, signing Kyle Lohse and surrendering draft money and a pick), one particular organization trend (say, a dreadful handful of games to start the season), we actually have a trend of competition and success as our foundation. It may seem strange, but “win-now” need not mean, “sacrifice the future;” “win-now” can mean, “we’re not going to let this organization fall far from winning.” In competitive ballclubs, our beloved Milwaukee Nine will always remain close; closer, perhaps, than a catchy “three-year” or “five-year” rebuilding plan.
One of the toughest elements of the Brewers’ season thus far is their combination of blown saves and big innings during close games. Here’s one way to look at it: of the 74.5 innings that the 2013 Brewers played thus far, the game has been within one run (+1, 0, -1 runs) in 36 of those 74.5 innings. Furthermore, they have only played three games that were out of reach for more than 5 innings: Fastballer Mike Fiers‘s start against Arizona, and both games of the Cubs series (only two innings of that entire series featured a one-run lead, deficit, or tie game for the Brewers).
I think there are a lot of ways that we can analyze, criticize, and address the Brewers’ roster management during the first eight games. We can question whether a four-man bench cost the club early games, and we can question whether the bullpen could be used more efficiently or effectively. I suppose these are questions you can always ask of a club, though; even when clubs are winning, the manager is always to blame, something on the bench or the bullpen is never quite right. The difference, of course, is that fans ultimately have wins to downplay (somewhat) their anger with their hometown skipper.
I think this is why fans are so upset with manager Ron Roenicke‘s moves thus far. First, he has to employ a gang of struggling players, or replacement players, in various ways, and that’s almost never going to look great. Secondly, the perception is that he continues to stick with players even when they are playing ineffective baseball. To a certain degree, this is always going to be a part of a baseball season, but thirdly, the problems with potential strategical moves or roster employment will always be amplified or compounded during close games. This is the real problem — the Brewers, as awful as their run differential and 2-6 record appear, have played five games in which they remained within one-run for 31 innings (nearly 65% of the total innings played during those five games). No wonder we’re a grumpy bunch; in those close games, the moves are going to be scrutinized, and, the success (or failure) of those moves will be immediately (or, painfully) known. Obviously, it’s always going to feel worse losing games during which it felt like the club was just out of reach.
This isn’t meant to be a defense of Roenicke’s moves, but rather, a sort of “phenomenology” of Brewers fan experience. From our experience of these close games, we can feel good about the fact that our club has competed in the majority of their contests, as much as we can be extremely angry at the outcomes of strategies and performances in those close games. This season has simply turned on a few decisions and performances thus far, and the fact that our club has been so close fuels our perception of failure. I gather we wouldn’t be as upset if this club were 2-6, but they simply weren’t close in those games. Another curse of competitive ballclubs, and another pact between Murphy’s Law and Baseball.
Brewers @ Cardinals, April 12 through April 14
I haven’t done one of these in quite some time. So, what better on a rainy, cold April day than a series preview?
April 12: Kyle Lohse @ Shelby Miller.
Lohse (2013): 1-0, 6 IP, 1 R, 5 K / 0 BB / 0 HR
Lohse (2012): 211 IP, 74 R (98 NL/park average), 24 runs prevented
Miller (2013): 1-0, 5.3 IP, 2 R, 4 K / 4 BB / 1 HR
Miller (2012): 13.7 IP, 2 R, 16 K / 4 BB / 0 HR
As though Brewers and Cardinals fans needed any fuel for their fire, the opening game of their season series features a collision of both clubs’ 2013 narratives. The Brewers send their win-now hope, Lohse, to the mound against one the Cardinals’ best reasons they did not need to re-sign Lohse: prospect Shelby Miller.
Lohse started his inaugural season with the Brewers with a strong performance against the Diamondbacks, riding his change up to victory. While Lohse is known for his sinking fastball — he selected that pitch nearly 50% of the time during his last two years with the Cardinals — he selected his change up more than any other pitch against the Diamondbacks.
I had the privilege of watching Miller’s nationally televised start against the Giants on Saturday (free TV! free baseball!), and although he struggled somewhat, the Giants never got the best of him. He always seemed to perfectly time his mistakes; a hard-hit ball or home run with no one on, a well-placed out, etc. Miller was the exact opposite of Lohse in his first start; he selected his fastball for 70 of 95 pitches. Even during the broadcast, it was mentioned that the Cardinals know he relies on his fastball; the only question is, how effective will he be with his fastball at the big league level?
April 13: Yovani Gallardo @ Adam Wainwright
Gallardo (2013): 0-0, 11 IP, 7 R, 6 K / 3 BB / 2 HR
Gallardo (2012): 204 IP, 86 R (102 NL/park average), 16 runs prevented
Wainwright (2013): 1-1, 13 IP, 6 R, 12 K / 0 BB / 0 HR
Wainwright (2012): 198.7 IP, 96 R (92 NL/park average), -4 runs prevented
In my haste to discuss the effects of TV contracts and the absurd proliferation of right-handed pitching money last week, I completely forgot about Adam Wainwright‘s 5-year, $97.5 million deal, finally giving the former ace a chance to cash in after a series of notably team-friendly, low service-time arbitration buyout deals. I’m tempted to bash the deal for all the obvious reasons — Tommy John surgery, over age 30, below average season after years as an ace, etc. — but, isn’t that unfair to Wainwright? Wainwright went 64-34 over 119 starts from 2007 through 2010, allowing only 287 runs over 797.3 innings, and he earned only $8.1 million while doing so. Certainly, I know that the Cardinals paid that paltry sum to Wainwright because of his service, which underscores the importance of developing and controlling young pitching. For Wainwright’s sake, I am happy that his service is being rewarded handsomely, and while fans inevitably criticize the deal when Wainwright doesn’t perform like a $97.5 million pitcher, hopefully they remember the way he performed when he was only an $8.1 million pitcher.
From the Alfonso Soriano deal to the Jayson Werth deal, to the Carl Crawford deal; to Matt Cain, to the Zack Greinke deal, and now the Justin Verlander and Wainwright deals, it is abundantly clear that in the landscape of this new TV deal, we can no longer judge player value by their performance and their salary. The fact is, the new CBA is producing a wild number of deals that simply reward service; this is arguably one of the benefits of the MLBPA’s bargaining stance, to sell amateurs and minor leaguers and future members up the creek to ensure handsome service wards for their current members, and it is also one of the benefits of the clubs signing monstrous TV deals. Why should MLB clubs now be expected to sign players for the value of their performance, when all this money is laying around and they can’t spend it on amateurs? I gather this is the new MLB — this is one of the detrimental aspects of labor peace. Certainly, the players are being justly compensated for their entertainment value and drawing power, but, how great will the future free agents be, should lower signing bonuses or draft slot limits draw talented athletes to other sports?
Anyway, I previously argued this off-season that the Brewers should re-sign their franchise starter, Yovani Gallardo, sooner rather than later. But, it’s quite clear that it now won’t matter when the Brewers offer Gallardo an extension; in a climate where Greinke can land the top righty deal ever (for a few months, anyway), and a pitcher can land $97.5 million after a below average season and a DNP-Injury season, Gallardo will be one of the next righties to benefit from this scrumptious labor market.
April 14: Marco Estrada @ Jaime Garcia
Estrada (2013): 1-0, 12 IP, 6 R, 14 K / 1 BB / 3 HR
Estrada (2012): 138.3 IP, 62 R (68 NL/park average), 6 runs prevented
Garcia (2013): 1-0, 12 IP, 4 R, 14 K / 7 BB / 2 HR
Garcia (2012): 121.7 IP, 58 R (57 NL/park average), -1 run prevented
In a way, the closing game of this series places two pitchers with expectations of improvement against one another. Garcia began his career with flashes of brilliance, but has always seemed to underplay his expectations, and last year injuries further hampered his ability to succeed. If you believe Fielding Independent Pitching stats, from 2010-2012, Garcia allowed approximately 27 more runs than expected from his ratio between strike outs, walks, and home runs. While not as extreme, Estrada also has shown flashes of being a better pitcher than his results show. Specifically, his ability to limit walks and consistently strike out batters places remaining questions about his ability to succeed onto his home run rates. While Estrada is aggressive, and his ability to attack batters limits mistakes such as walks, his fate often follows the long ball. Both Garcia and Estrada are keys for the success of the middle rotations for the Cardinals and Brewers, and both pitchers could use an opportunity of a full slate of starts to prove themselves this year.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Referen ce, LLC. 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, L.P., 2001-2013.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2013.
IMAGE (Corey Hengen): http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/10/gun-rights-activist-dismisses-polls/?hpt=hp_t2