I’ll bet you thought this was going to be another rah-rah piece for Matt Garza and the 2014 Brewers rotation. Nope.
Instead, I want to talk Brewers history, and question whether Doug Melvin is being judged a bit harshly in hindsight for his inability to develop quality pitching.
One leading narrative about the Brewers is that from 2007 through 2012, they developed championship-caliber bats but failed to display even adequate starting pitching, thus squandering the primes of Corey Hart, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, and perhaps even Ryan Braun.
And yet, if we look at the Wins Above Replacement for Brewers starters, as calculated by Fangraphs (fWAR), we see something rather interesting starting around 2005 or so:
The best Brewers rotation in the last several years was not in 2011 or 2012 (as most people would assume), but actually in 2006, just a year before the Brewers’ window started opening for their highly-regarded bats from the farm. The 2006 rotation featured three of the top 31 starters in baseball by fWAR: Ben Sheets (who only pitched 106 innings), Dave Bush, and Chris Capuano. Doug Davis even checked in at number 56. That’s a pretty accomplished group, and one that Doug Melvin probably expected to help keep him competitive for a few years to come.
Unfortunately, in 2006, the Brewers’ young bats weren’t yet major-league ready:
Only Fielder even played an entire season. By year-end, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks were below-average total contributors, J.J. Hardy was a defense-only player, and Corey Hart provided subpar offense and defense.
In 2007, those players started to blossom, as it had been expected they would. Ryan Braun arrived from the minor leagues to bolster it further:
2007 should have been the Brewers’ first moment of triumph. But, the Brewers’ stellar rotation from 2006, even with the return of Ben Sheets, proceeded to stumble, surrendering almost 4 wins from its 2006 peak. Ben Sheets was notably less effective, despite pitching more innings. Dave Bush and Chris Capuano were serviceable, but less effective than before. And while Yovani Gallardo and Jeff Suppan both arrived, neither was better than league average.
Even with this slight decline, though, the 2007 Brewers were certainly good enough to make the playoffs. It simply didn’t work out. Consider one final chart:
|2006||Below Average||Above Average||Bad|
|2007||Above Average||Average||Above Average|
You’ll recall, hopefully, from my last two articles, that the key to making the playoffs seems to be (1) avoiding being “Below Average” or “Bad” in your Hitting or Rotation, (2) being Above Average in either your Hitting or Rotation, and (3) not letting your Relievers get in the way.
In 2006, the Brewers weren’t going anywhere. The Hitting was below average, as the next generation had not yet matured, and the bullpen was terrible. In 2007, the rotation, despite its slight decline, was still Average. The Hitting was Above Average and so was the bullpen with Francisco Cordero at the helm. The pieces were in place to make the postseason. But, luck was not on their side, and it didn’t come to be.
In 2008, Doug Melvin had the foresight to trade the top Brewers prospect, Matt LaPorta (who would eventually bust), to the Cleveland Indians for C.C. Sabathia. One of the greatest trades in baseball history, Sabathia gave the Brewers over 4 wins all by himself over the second half of the season. Despite a bad bullpen, luck was finally with the Brewers in 2008, as they snuck into the postseason as a short-lived wild card.
But as the last chart shows, the sobering reality was that a historic second-half performance by a true ace still merely rendered the rotation “Average.” This foreshadowed what would occur going forward in 2009 and 2010. Ben Sheets was done. The Brewers decided not to pay Doug Davis after 2006, which was probably a mistake. Jeff Suppan showed his true colors. Dave Bush fell off a cliff, and couldn’t strike anybody out. Yovani Gallardo was still young, and could not do it alone. The Brewers rotation never recovered with that personnel, and Melvin was finally forced to trade prospects for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, starting the 2011 recovery.
Certainly, Melvin deserves blame for the inability to develop more young pitching that would contribute from 2009-forward, at least to the extent any GM can be blamed for failing to develop baseball’s most unpredictable asset. But it is worth remembering that when this all started, in 2006, the Brewers had one of baseball’s best rotations, a true ace in Ben Sheets, and seemed primed to ride their incoming farm talent to years of postseason contention.
Sometimes things just don’t work out.
All statistics from Fangraphs.
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