The Brewers Rotation, and The Contenders | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

It is June 11, and the Brewers are doing better than most rational fans could have ever imagined.  They lead the NL Central by several games, and have been in first place for over two months.  The Brewers are given better than even chances of making the postseason by all the leading statistical outlets, with Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system currently assigning them 73% odds of playing October baseball.  On the surface, times are good.

And yet, Rick Kranitz, the Brewers pitching coach, is pissed off about his pitching staff, and not without reason.   In April, Brewers starters shut down the league with a sparkling 3.01 ERA.  In May, though, they regressed significantly, posting a 4.08 ERA, which was good for only 19th in the league.  Over the first 10 days of June, they’ve been even worse, providing a 4.56 ERA.

To date, this pitching slump has not been that big of a deal, as the Brewers’ bats have been kind enough to pick up the slack. Thanks to above-average offense, defense and even baserunning, the Brewers lineup now rates seventh in the league, and has been able to score enough runs to help the Brewers keep their NL Central lead intact.

While the Brewers are holding their own overall, the trend with their starters is worrisome. When the Brewers signed Matt Garza, I explained that, based on projection data, the move gave the Brewers the one thing they had really needed to compete this year: an average rotation.  I’ve tweaked my method a bit since then, but the overall conclusion is the same.  Here are my regular season rankings for the Position Players, Starters, and Bullpen for each postseason team from 2013:

Team Position Players Starters Bullpen
Athletics Excellent Above Average Above Average
Braves Excellent Above Average Excellent
Cardinals Excellent Excellent Above Average
Dodgers Excellent Excellent Above Average
Indians Above Average Above Average Average
Pirates Excellent Average Excellent
Rays Excellent Average Average
Red Sox Excellent Above Average Average
Reds Excellent Excellent Above Average
Tigers Excellent Excellent Average

For all 2013 teams, I sorted their accomplishments in each category into standardized quintiles.  Scores in the top quintile (80th percentile and above) were rated Excellent, scores in the second quintile were Above Average, and so on down through Average, Below Average, and Terrible for the bottom percentile.  If the components of the scores interest you, I’ve specified them in the appendix below, and would be happy to answer any questions in the comments.

A few things from the chart should jump out at you.  First, none of the teams in last year’s postseason ranked “Terrible” or “Below Average” in any category.  Postseason teams really do need to be fairly strong across the board.  Second, every team ranked at least “Above Average” in Position Player contribution, and “Excellent” was pretty much the norm.  Third, it was sufficient to be “Average” in starting pitching, provided the lineup could pick up the slack.

First, let’s remind ourselves of why the Brewers were going nowhere last year:

Team Position Players Starters Bullpen
2013 Brewers Below Average Terrible Terrible

Any questions?  I didn’t think so.

Now, let’s look at where the Brewers are this year:

Team Position Players Starters Bullpen
2014 Brewers Above Average Below Average Excellent

This paints a picture of a team that is decent, but also over-performing a bit, using timely hitting and some terrific relief work to paper over fissures in the team.

Admittedly, we are only 40% of the way through the season, and the Brewers are hardly alone among contenders in showing some initial weakness.  Here are the marks for the other National League teams currently in the mix, with the Brewers included:

Team Position Players Starters Bullpen
Braves Above Average Excellent Below Average
Brewers Above Average Below Average Excellent
Cardinals Above Average Above Average Average
Dodgers Excellent Above Average Below Average
Giants Above Average Average Excellent
Marlins Above Average Above Average Terrible
Nationals Average Excellent Above Average
Rockies Excellent Terrible Terrible

There is something to like and not like about almost all of these teams.  I would, for example, definitely take the Brewers over the Rockies, and perhaps the Marlins.  Yet, at least by overall production, one would be hard-pressed right now to take the Brewers over teams like the Braves, Dodgers, or Giants, all of which show more balance.  Of greatest concern should be the Cardinals, whose bullpen has regressed (along with other things), but who overall are getting solid, above-average contributions from both their lineup and rotation.

These metrics also confirm that the Cardinals are really the only team likely to catch the Brewers in the NL Central, at least barring some sort of meltdown:

Team Position Players Starters Bullpen
Brewers Above Average Below Average Excellent
Cardinals Above Average Above Average Average
Cubs Terrible Excellent Terrible
Pirates Below Average Terrible Excellent
Reds Average Average Average

As you can see, the Cubs and Pirates are essentially beyond repair at this point, and the Reds appear to be settling in at mediocre.

So, let’s get to the part you care about: is the rotation’s “Below Average” rating something to be concerned about?  The answer is “yes,” albeit with a sense of perspective.  Certainly, below-average pitching, if it continues, could take the Brewers out of contention.  On the other hand, it’s really not reasonable to view the rotation’s last few weeks as reflective of their true talent either.

Joe Sheehan has described the Brewers rotation as “average-plus,” and I think that’s a fair assessment.   Matt Garza is not a 4.49 ERA pitcher over the course of a season, and Jimmy Nelson stands ready if any member of the rotation simply cannot get it going again.  It’s also possible that the Brewers may be falling between the cracks a bit on my chosen metric for starting pitchers, which is an average of the WAR scores from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.  Finally, I’ve previously written that the Brewers are themselves facing a fairly terrible set of rotations in June, which should allow the bats to provide the rotation with some more time to sort themselves out if they need it.

All teams go through cycles over the course of the season, and good teams — including the Brewers — have enough strengths that can pick up the team when the rest of the roster is not able to do its part. That has been true so far, but Rick Kranitz is right to be concerned.  A few off weeks is one thing, but if the Brewers want to maintain command of the NL Central, their rotation needs to show that a few weeks of underperformance is an aberration, and not a trend.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.


The ratings index evaluates three areas: (1) position player offense and defense; (2) starting pitcher quality; and (3) bullpen performance.  For position players, I used Fangraphs fWAR.  For starting pitchers, I averaged fWAR and Baseball Reference bWAR, which, following Tangotiger’s lead, I believe to be the best method.  And for bullpen efficacy, I used Win Probability Added, which measures what I believe to be the most important quality of reliever: to snuff out opposing rallies and get out of jams.

For the purposes of this article, I did not regress the categories against each other, to find which was the most important.  Rather, I just presented them as they are.  If you have a strong opinion on which areas are most important, feel free to let us know below.

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