It proved to be a weekend to forget in Atlanta. The Brewers put together rallies on Friday and Saturday, but were simply unable to break through for a victory. On Sunday, however, the Braves’ bats came to play and blew out Chris Narveson and the Brewers.
It has now been two years since the Brewers have won at Turner Field in Atlanta. To be exact, it has been since July 17, 2010. The Brewers have dropped eight consecutive games. Whether the last domino to fall is a late-inning collapse or stranding the bases loaded with only one out, the Brewers simply cannot figure out the mystery of Turner Field.
Needless to say, Miller Park has likely not looked as appealing as it did when the Crew returned to Milwaukee on Sunday evening.
STRONG START FOR MARCUM
After a late-season collapse by Shaun Marcum last September and October, a large portion of the fan base questioned whether or not the right-hander would continue to be effective in 2012. Instead of a blip on the radar, his 5.17 ERA in September was viewed as a harbinger for the future.
Two starts into the year, and it appears that Shaun Marcum is just fine. He has walked only two batters in thirteen innings and has struck out twelve. His fastball is back on the corners, and his changeup is once again a game-changing pitch. The right-hander has also begun spotting his pitches in the lower-half of the zone, which helps to alleviate his tendency to surrender a healthy amount of home runs to opposing pitchers. On Saturday evening against the Braves, look at how Marcum pounded the corners and the lower portion of the strike zone:
With the grey line at 2.5 feet separating the top and bottom half of the strike zone, we can determine that Marcum only threw eight pitches the entire evening that were above the belt and within the strike zone. That is precisely how he only surrendered three hits — none of them home runs — throughout his seven innings of work.
The most impressive pitch as of late, however, has been his slider/cutter. He can vary the speed and shape of the pitch to his liking, and opposing batters have tied themselves up attempting to handle it. On Saturday evening, Marcum generated 12 swinging strikes on a slider or a cutter in 51 pitches (23.5% swinging strike rate). That is tremendous. It gives him another pitch aside from his plus-changeup that will keep batters from sitting on his fastball. It is also the key reason right-handed batters are only hitting .120 off him through his first two outings of the season.
So much for those concerns that Shaun Marcum was “done” following his late-season fade. He has been the only consistent starting pitcher the Brewers have had in their rotation this season.
PITCHING STARTS STRONG IN THE MINORS
Milwaukee has long struggled to develop quality starting pitching from within. That shortcoming proved to be one of the catalysts for the Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum trades that suddenly left the Brewers’ farm system bereft of elite talent. A little more than a year later, however, the Brewers have significant pitching depth within their system, and it has gotten off to an extremely strong start over the past two weeks.
Take a look how the top five pitching prospects in the organization have performed in 2012:
Those are tremendous numbers.
None of those five arms profile as a true #1 starter in the major leagues, but the Brewers appear to have a number of potential #2 or #3 starters at the big league level. Although pitching prospects should never be treated as sure things (see Manny Parra and Mark Rogers for recent examples), it becomes tempting to dream of a 2014 starting rotation that features Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and three of the five starting pitchers listed above.
Of course, it should be noted that we have not even mentioned the likes of Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers, and Cody Scarpetta — all of whom could pitch at the major league level within the next year or two. Nor have we mentioned the high-ceiling arms such as Jorge Lopez and Osmel Perez, who have yet to log significant professional innings.
Pitching depth. What a luxury to possess.
ARAMIS RAMIREZ’S SLOW START
The former Cubs third baseman has notoriously been a slow starter. That has been well documented over the past weekend as an explanation for a horrendous start to the year, which currently sits at .114/.179/.171 with zero home runs. Some, however, have begun to suggest that Ramirez is pressing and swinging at too many pitches outside of the strike zone.
That has always been Aramis Ramirez at the plate. In 2011, Ramirez swung at 37.2% of pitches outside of the strike zone. In 2012, he has swung at 38.7% of pitches outside the strike zone. While certainly a higher number, the overall trend remains the exact same. Aramis Ramirez will always swing at a myriad of bad pitches. Eventually, however, he will begin to covert those free-swinging ways into production at the plate. After all, despite a career high in his O-Swing%, Ramirez still hit .306/.361/.510 over 149 games with the Cubs.
Be patient. The madness will eventually transform itself into some sort of haphazard method, and the 33-year-old third baseman will once again tear the cover off the baseball for an extended stretch of time.
Of course, one has to wonder: How long can that approach last at the plate? Can it last into his mid-to-late 30s? The Brewers certainly hope it can, as they have him under contract for the next two seasons, as well.
NARVESON STRUGGLING WITH COMMAND
The left-hander put together a solid season as the Brewers’ fifth starter a year ago. He compiled a 4.06 FIP and struck out 7.01 batters per nine innings, numbers that suggested he was one of the better fifth starters in all of baseball and guaranteed him a spot with the big league roster yet again in 2012.
Now that the season has begun, significant concerns exist regarding Narveson. On Sunday afternoon, the Atlanta Braves lit him up at the plate. Narveson struggled to locate his offspeed pitches within the strike zone — only 15 of his 34 pitches were strikes — and found himself restricted to his below-average fastball while behind in the count. That has been a common theme this season for Narveson. He has only thrown a first strike in 48.8% of his at-bats, which is well below the league average and his career average. The left-hander does not have adequate stuff to consistently battle from behind. That statistic will have to greatly improve.
His fastball velocity has always taken another drop. Over the past four years, his fastball velocity has consistently dropped:
His fastball has featured noticeably more tail in toward left-handed batters, though, so it does appear that Narveson is attempting to rely more on a two-seamed fastball than a four-seamed fastball, which could explain why his velocity has been down to begin the year. In that case, the concern should be more on his lack of command thus far.
LOOKING AHEAD: DODGERS @ BREWERS
The Brewers (4-6) limped back to Wisconsin after getting swept in Atlanta and are now poised to welcome the scorching hot Dodgers (9-1) to town for a three-game series. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
On ESPN Insider, Paul Swydan argues the Dodgers may not be as good as they appear due to their soft schedule, which has featured the likes of the Pirates and Padres, while the Brewers are likely better than they have played thus far due to a pitching staff that has underperformed to its talent and a rather difficult schedule.
One of the best ways to figure out what a team’s ERA will be like moving forward is with xFIP, which is a regressed version of FIP that replaces a pitcher’s (or pitching staff’s) actual home runs allowed with the amount of home runs he (or they) would normally be expected to allow. It is here that we see light for the Crew. While the Brewers’ pitching staff entered Sunday with a 5.54 ERA that ranked 28th in the game, its 3.72 xFIP ranked 12th. One of the main victims has been Opening Day starter Yovani Gallardo. While Gallardo certainly hasn’t covered himself in glory in his first two starts, he isn’t going to allow four homers for every 10⅔ innings he works — that would equate to more than 75 homers allowed over a 200-inning season.
Gallardo isn’t the only Brewer who has been victimized in the early going. Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf both have endured BABIPs above .400 in the early going, and the staff as a whole entered Sunday with a .335 BABIP, a mark that was second worst in the game. When that regresses back to a more normal rate (team BABIPs ranged from .265 to .307 last season), Brewers pitchers will suddenly look a lot better.
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