Thursday Morning Coffee: Cubs @ Brewers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

The wins keep coming for our beloved Milwaukee Nine, as the Brewers followed Tuesday’s small-ball, nail-biting win with a big-ball laugher. Immediately opening the game with some timely two-out action, the Brewers boasted a 5-0 lead before the Cubs took their second turn. Tyler Thornburg notched another strong outing, locating his fastball and generally attacking Cubs’ bats. This strong balance between great batting and excellent pitching provides a signature game for September; the 9-7 Brewers claim more than 4.30 RS/G this month, against slightly more than 3.60 RA/G.

Rebuilding / Labor Dynamics
Throughout this series against the Cubs, I’ve been thinking about the off-field, organizational contrasts between both clubs. On the field, the Brewers’ victories against the Cubs further separate their drafting position from Lakeview’s Nine, nearly ensuring that only a trio of clubs have a fighting chance at drafting ahead of Chicago in 2014. Of course, the Brewers’ competition is thinning, too, and our Milwaukee Nine have a chance at one of those protected Top 10 picks. As the Cubs face a Top 5 pick, their organizational strength is growing, while the Brewers’ potential Top 10 pick comes with question marks about their organizational path.

As the DoU gang grapples with ESPN’s recent ranking of the Brewers’ Future Organizational Health, I can’t help but think of the irony of the Brewers’ situation compared to the Cubs. Specifically, although the Cubs are losing in 2013, their aggressive International signings (for which they will be punished in the future), and development of high-draft pick prospects provide a big-market model of “doing things the right way.” Yet, as the Cubs do things the right way, working through a complete organizational rebuild, analysts in Chicago are suggesting that the Cubs are purposefully trying to lose (and, generally, Chicagoans have lost interest in watching the rebuilding team). One of the underlying assumptions in Chicago is that a big market baseball team should not be able to rebuild its organization in such a way that uncompetitive big league clubs result.

I find this contrast between organizations interesting at this point and time, because Brewers fans generally seem to be clamoring for some type of makeover for the club. The Brewers seem stuck in the middle right now, perhaps with a few question marks about competing, and definite question marks about their ability to sustain their current farm and develop those players into serviceable-to-impact MLB players. The Chicago press and their fans provide a stark reminder to Milwaukee of the difficulties of rebuilding, even in a big market. Of course, Brewers fans are no strangers to losing baseball, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to face the prospect of losing seasons while attempting to build up a new farm.

Compared to the current criticisms of the Cubs’ ownership group, Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio seems to provide the perfect profile of a “big market” owner for which Cubs fans are clamoring. Attanasio’s devotion to competitive baseball, payrolls, stadium development, and Brewers fans is admirable, even where one can criticize his practices on some level. Ironically, those criticisms in Milwaukee — that Attanasio doesn’t look to build the farm for the future, that he runs the payroll beyond Milwaukee’s market means — are the exact inverse of the criticisms in Chicago. Ultimately, this whole 2013 inversion between “big” and “small” market identities seems rather silly, as one knows that as the Cubs graduate their top players to the MLB, the crush of their forthcoming TV deal and big market clout will make these 2013 complaints seem laughable. It is interesting that the complaints are there in the first place; perhaps this suggests that no matter how proper an organization’s building goals, working through rebuilding and facing the labor realities of the MLB are never easy or enjoyable.

Rusin’s Strike Zone / Rhythm of the Game
In general, Cubs’ southpaw Chris Rusin did not have “it” last night. He was leaving his sinkers and off-speed pitches around the zone early, and Brewers bats capitalized on some key opportunities. However, while his first inning progressed, I couldn’t help but wonder if his called strike zone instantly shifted the balance of the game.

Overall, Toby Basner called nine of Rusin’s 10 pitches in the zone “strikes” (one called a “ball”), all 19 pitches outside the zone “balls,” and each “borderline” pitch a ball (there were three such pitches). Two of Rusin’s borderline pitches occurred in the first inning, when the up-and-coming lefty was working on 0-0 and 0-1 counts, respectively. The first borderline pitch was a first pitch fastball that hit the low border, right across the plate, against Khris Davis. The other was a curveball against Sean Halton, one that arched into the outside border on its final descent (even with my rooting affiliation, that was a nifty bender. Where else do you want a pitcher to throw a 0-1 curve?).

One of the tough aspects of calling a zone for an umpire is that while the strike zone is clearly defined, the conditions of the game are never clear until they emerge. What this means is, the umpire will need to follow the rhythm of the game in order to apply the strike zone, and maybe other factors influence that zone arbitrator (Is the pitcher young? Does the pitcher get the benefit of the doubt? Is the pitcher on the road? Are there pending dinner reservations at a hot new bar immediately after the game?). In Rusin’s case, he was wild early. Witness the walk against Segura, which was legitimate:

Once Segura walked, Rusin was hit on a sequence of change ups and sinkers that were right in and around the zone. Suddenly, the rhythm of Rusin’s first went from “wild” to “wild and getting hit.” Jonathan Lucroy spat on an inside sinker, and then knocked a change up strike for a hit; Aramis Ramirez feasted on a borderline strike sinker to plate a run and keep things going. By the time Davis and Halton respectively came to the plate, there were runners on base, and Rusin had established that he may not have “it” — and, arguably (justifiably?), Basner didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, an old baseball saying goes, “if the Brewers are swinging mean bats against Rusin, then they will establish whether a pitch is a strike,” obviously voting with their bats. In this context, witness Davis’s walk and Halton’s homer:

Given Rusin’s overall struggles last night, it’s difficult to argue that the Brewers definitely would not have hit Rusin if he had 0-1 and 0-2 counts against Davis and Halton, respectively. However, one cannot deny that an 0-1 count, and an 0-2 count, would have theoretically put Rusin in an advantageous position; one also cannot deny that those borderline pitches were perfect pitcher’s pitches, simply without the desired outcome from the umpire (a strike) or the batter (a swinging strike or out).

It was great to see the Brewers’ bats take advantage of this chain of events in the first. Not only were they aggressively hitting strikes (“fat” and “borderline”), but they also waited out Rusin. When getting calls in their favor, they worked Rusin into deep counts, and generally moved their plate appearances to advantageous situations. They followed the rhythm of the game, and benefited from their efforts. While the applications of the strike zone may not have been fair, the Brewers bats used those conditions to their advantage, and manipulated the game into an early crooked number.

Gennett’s September
.265/.308/.408 feels like perfect balance from Scooter Gennett, compared to his .415/.449/.634 from July 30 through August, and his .214/.250/.357 during his June cup of coffee. A rather clear profile for Gennett is emerging from these months: he features a moderate contact profile (in terms of K / BB/ HR and batting balls into play), he likes to swing, and when those pitches are strikes, his swings will make contact at a strong rate; when they’re balls, there’s a good chance he’ll swing anyway. Only Norichika Aoki and Lucroy make strike-zone contact at a stronger rate than Gennett (among Brewers’ regulars). Of course, among regulars, only Carlos Gomez and Yuniesky Betancourt swing more than Gennett, and no Brewers regular swings at more pitches outside the zone than Gennett (unless you count Alex Gonzalez as a regular).

Gennett’s swinging will provide a breath of fresh air to those Brewers fans who grew tired of Rickie Weeks‘s disciplined non-contact approach (high K / BB / HR, low batted-ball-in-play); Gennett’s undisciplined moderate contact approach is almost as anti-Weeks or opposite-Weeks as one can get. Yet, in September, one of the problems that is emerging for Gennett is his ratio between strike outs, walks, and homers. Specifically, for a player who is not expected to hit for power (and, who does not walk), Gennett is striking out more frequently than average in September (22.6% of plate appearances). Although Gennett makes contact on a solid percentage of his swings outside the zone, one might attribute his strike out rate to a general balance between his overall swinging tendency, his swings outside the zone (approximately 45 swings on approximately 103 pitches outside the zone in September, for example), and a large strike zone (umpires called strikes on 4 of 58 pitches outside the zone, and on 5 of 6 borderline pitches, in September).

One could say this about most MLB players, but Gennett’s ability to define himself as a hitter will depend on his ability to swing his K / BB / HR ratio into balance; after all, if Gennett is going to get by on his “contact” and batting average, he is going to need to hit the ball into play more than 69% of his plate appearances (which is his current September rate). On the other hand, .265/.308/.408 sticks at second base; in fact, even considering Miller Park’s general environment, that’s near-average at second base. Ultimately, the balance of Gennett’s September has the benefit of (a) establishing Gennett’s batting profile at the MLB level, (b) providing a playable month compared to his wicked hot streak, and (c) hinting at his general value at 2B.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, 2013.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2013.

Strike Zones from Trip Somers, 2009-2013, GameDay captures from MLB Advanced Media, 2013.

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