One of the difficult aspects of following a sudden Wild Card contender is that the cybermarket is flooded with loads of virtual ink analyzing said team and verifying the “what-ifs.” Of course, if this type of run happens to a team virtually overnight, there might be a month or two where articles about that team have little or nothing to do with the playoffs. This entire playoff industry produces a huge set of analysis, and then we wait.
So, here we are. Approximately two weeks after we, Brewers fans, corrected our states of disbelief from “there’s no way this could happen” to “holy crap, this could happen!,” the Brewers remain SCORCHING hot. Our Milwaukee nine won yet again, this time holding the Pirates to minimal run production over a close ballgame. Swingman-turned-pocket ace Marco Estrada followed the pitching staff’s excellence memo, working seven scoreless innings against the Bucs.
Yet again, the Cardinals won. After the Cardinals beat the Astros for the second consecutive night, the Brewers’ wild card position remained 2.5 games out.The excitement over the last two weeks was (a) seeing the playoff win threshold lower as Los Angeles and St. Louis sputtered, while (b) the Brewers stormed over their competitors, overtaking a few wild card spots. Now, the Brewers nearly reached their final stop on this improbable run, and it’s the most difficult step: how on earth does a team overcome a Wild Card leader without playing them? Not only does St. Louis control their own destiny, they also control the win threshold for the playoffs. Merely two days ago, the Cardinals’ winning percentage placed them at approximately 85 final wins; now they’re inching to 86 wins, just like that.
What does this mean for the Brewers? If you’ll recall, at the beginning of the week, the Brewers needed to go 11-5 to reach 85 wins. Luckily, the Brewers did not use either of those 5 losses against the Pirates, but it did not matter. Once the Cardinals won two consecutive games against the Astros, their winning percentage paced them to 86 wins, requiring a 10-4 record for the Brewers from here out. Basically, consecutive Cardinals wins are as good as a Brewers loss, even when the Brewers win, too. As J.P. mentioned yesterday, and the general comments tone suggested, if this improbable run results in a playoff berth for the Brewers, it would basically be miraculous. Over the last two days, we have seen why this run is improbable.
BUT, enough about that, this Brewers squad is playing EXCELLENT baseball. One of the reasons for the Brewers’ success over the last month is their starting pitchers. As noted by many, Gallardo is putting together his best stretch in his career — the Brewers were victorious in EACH of Gallardo’s last 10 starts (his previous high was 6 consecutive wins, in 2011). However, the Brewers also received lights out performances from two of their prospects at the end of August and into September, as well as an excellent campaign from Estrada. (Perhaps one of the most interesting steps in this streak is that of Estrada from good swingman/5th starter to serviceable top end hurler). Fastballer Mike Fiers‘s exceptional starts have been less frequent, although he’s helped the Brewers stay even in his starts. The only downsides in the last month were eating Randy Wolf‘s contract and Shaun Marcum‘s difficult injury return.
Gallardo: 45.3 IP, 15 runs since mid-August (7-0)
Estrada: 41.7 IP, 12 runs since mid-August (6-1)
Peralta: 20.0 IP, 4 runs since September (3-0)
Rogers: 15.3 IP, 4 runs in the end of August (3-0)
Fiers: 32.3 IP, 19 runs since mid-August (3-3)
Marcum 23.7 IP, 19 runs since returning (2-3)
After their disastrous series in Colorado, the Brewers are 24-8. As you can see from the list above, the Brewers have basically received ace performances from three rotation spots since that series at Coors Field. Gallardo’s runs average is below 3.00 during that stretch, and Estrada is allowing fewer than 2.60 R/9 IP lately. Taken as a single rotation spot, Rogers and Peralta contributed to six lights out starts — their combined runs average is 2.04 over 35.3 IP. Now, a lot of other things have gone right for the Brewers over that time, as none of those pitchers suffered tough luck losses (and the Brewers’ bats took over whatever poor outings those starters had in the last month). Over those 122 innings from Gallardo, Estrada, Peralta, and Rogers, the Brewers are 19-1.
These strong starts mean significant things for the Brewers moving forward. First and foremost, these starts should allow the Brewers’ front office to give the vote of confidence to their young starters to work in 2013. This is significant because if the Brewers can stay away from the free agency pitching market, they will be able to focus significant funds on other aspects of their ballclub. Even though the revenue situation in the MLB is improving, freeing money from the pitching rotation to spend on other parts of the club allows the Brewers to maximize the value for their dollars (perhaps allowing them to make a splash elsewhere, or provide another contract-extension to a regular player).
Secondly, these strong starts simply show a rotation subtly morphing into a consistently above average group. As of today, the 2012 NL runs average is approximately 4.50 when adjusted for Miller Park’s 3-year environment. This means that three of the Brewers’ future pitchers have solid, above average seasons to build on in 2013:
Gallardo: 193 IP, 79 R, 194 K/76 BB; +18 runs
Wolf: 142.3 IP, 94 R, 96 K/45 BB; -23 runs
Estrada: 126.3 IP, 55 R, 129 K/26 BB; +8 runs
Greinke: 123 IP, 49 R, 122 K/28 BB; +13 runs
Fiers: 114.3 IP, 44 R, 115 K/32 BB; +13 runs
Marcum: 106 IP, 52 R, 97 K/34 BB; +1 run
When the Brewers traded Zack Greinke, Estrada had 35 runs allowed in just under 68 IP. While his 75 K/14 BB mark hinted at better things to come, Estrada allowed 15 home runs over that first stretch of the season. Since Greinke left, Estrada pitched 58.7 IP, striking out 54, walking 12, and allowing 2 gopher balls. Indeed, Estrada’s 3.07 runs average since Greinke left is markedly better than Greinke’s 3.78 mark, and Greinke’s 54 K/22 BB/9 HR mark with the Angels actually projects to a worse performance than Greinke’s 3.78 runs average (although, to be honest, Greinke deserved to finally have a stretch of his career where he outplayed his FIP).
Long story short, the Brewers traded Greinke and Estrada stepped in without missing a beat. Both Estrada and Fiers have a chance to surpass Greinke’s value to the Brewers in 2012, which is somewhat remarkable given (a) the expectations for Greinke and his actual performance (which was very strong), and (b) the preseason roles Estrada and Fiers served in the organization. If we add Gallardo’s campaign — arguably the best in his career — to that equation, suddenly the Brewers have three strong pitchers in line for their 2013 rotation.
To underscore the value of Estrada, Fiers, Gallardo, and even Greinke, here is a list of comparable pitchers from the 2011 National League. The pitchers below were not necessarily the top aces in the 2011 NL, but their strong runs prevented over moderate-to-high workloads landed them the #8-#20 spots among NL starters with 100+ innings.
2011 Comparable “Moderate Aces”
Daniel Hudson (Arizona): 222 IP, 98 R; +8 runs
Matt Cain (San Francisco): 221.7 IP, 82 R; +14 runs
Tim Hudson (Atlanta): 215 IP, 86 R; +13 runs
R.A. Dickey (New York): 208.7 IP, 85 R; +9 runs
Hiroki Kuroda (Los Angeles): 202 IP, 77 R; +14 runs
Shaun Marcum (Milwaukee): 200.7 IP, 84 R; +11 runs
Jhoulys Chacin (Colorado): 194 IP, 87 R; +19 runs
Ryan Vogelsong (San Francisco): 179.7 IP, 62 R; +15 runs
Jeff Karstens (Pittsburgh): 162.3 IP, 69 R; +8 runs
Jordan Zimmermann (Washington): 161.3 IP, 62 R; +13 runs
Josh Collmenter (Arizona): 154.3 IP, 61 R; +13 runs
Jair Jurrjens (Atlanta): 152 IP, 52 R; +18 runs
Vance Worley (Philadelphia): 131.7 IP, 47 R; +15 runs
This group should be instructive for the Brewers going forward (as should any group of this level). We can conclude that (1) pitchers can indeed overplay their abilities for one season, and land at the top of the league, while (2) some moderate aces can continue or exceed their performances, and (3) pitching performances and value will always be subjected to injury and ineffectiveness risks.
Of these 13 pitchers, nearly half spent 2012 injured, or faced a shortened workload due to other ineffectiveness issues. Daniel Hudson, Collmenter, Jurrjens, Marcum, Karstens, and Chacin did not have a clear opportunity to match their 2011 value. Steady Matt Cain continued his stretch of above average seasons in 2012, almost perfectly matching his workload and value once again, while Dickey, Zimmermann, and Kuroda worked more innings and had stronger performances in 2012. Worley and Tim Hudson both worked similar or smaller innings totals, with moderate results.
If anything, the 2012 Brewers campaign should prove that pitching injuries can hurt a ballclub. However, the Brewers have proven that they have strong depth in their minor league system, and that’s before they even get to potential surprises Jimmy Nelson and Hiram Burgos, or top prospects Taylor Jungmann and Jed Bradley. Obviously, there are questions or concerns about these arms, but these arms still serve as notable depth as potential replacements for the Brewers. Meanwhile, Estrada and Fiers have morphed into extremely valuable starters thanks to very simple premises: throw strikes, and don’t beat yourself.
While we might not expect Gallardo, Fiers, and Estrada to each repeat their 2012 value in 2013, we should feel confident about how their pitching profiles project. Rounding out the rotation with Peralta, Rogers, Tyler Thornburg, and maybe even Chris Narveson, it’s clear that the Brewers suddenly have a gang of arms to consider for 2013.
Aoki (AP): https://www.dailyherald.com/article/20120919/sports/709199658/photos/AR/