I tuned into yesterday’s game late, following work with a chance to catch the final innings of the Brewers’ battle with the Cubs. Unfortunately, my disappointment that I couldn’t hear more baseball turned into an actual extension of the game, as the Brewers bullpen and defense stumbled through a difficult ninth inning. Nevertheless, Jimmy Henderson wouldn’t be denied, not by miscues, and not by the Cubs. Thanks to Henderson’s ability to bear down and shut down the Cubs, the Brewers secured their second win of the season.
Marco Estrada’s Change Up
We all know the story by now — after Zack Greinke left the Brewers via trade, Marco Estrada stepped up and pitched better than Greinke during the closing months of the season. These types of performances are one of the reasons baseball is such a great sport — very little is predestined, and when Estrada found an open rotation spot upon returning from the DL, he rode his mechanical adjustment and a new pitching approach to great success.
In the first half of 2012, Estrada selected his change up slightly less than 16% of the time, instead hammering batters with his fastball. Even his curveball seemed to be an afterthought. By contrast, from the trade deadline onward, Estrada increased his change up and curveball selections, cutting his fastball by 10%. This shift toward his offspeed pitches foreshadowed the selection in his first two starts, which veered more toward his change up.
Estrada hammered the Rockies with his fastball, selecting that pitch more than 66% of the time, which left slim pickings for his change and curve. Notably, he favored his change up over his curve by a wide margin. This trend continued yesterday, when Estrada worked arguably the best start of the Brewers’ season thus far — certainly the longest, and perhaps the most efficient (only Kyle Lohse has a strong claim against Estrada, in terms of efficiency). Yesterday, Estrada selected 27 change ups and 22 curves, against only 51 fastballs. One might argue that a reason for Estrada’s success was his ability to keep the majority of his off-speed offerings below the belt — perhaps even out of the strike zone, while his fastball was all over the zone. Oddly enough, Estrada induced missed-swings on nearly 30% of his change ups, which countered his hittable curve — he did not miss one bat with that pitch.
These pitch locations arguably landed Estrada more strike calls; he got a strike call on 5 of 33 pitches outside of the zone, all of them fastballs, all of them at or below the belt. Perhaps this is a benefit of hammering the low part of the zone (and outside the zone) with off-speed pitches. One might argue that if a pitcher is consistently throwing his moving, slower pitches low and around or just outside of the zone, his lower, outside of the zone fastballs might look like slightly stronger pitches. Simply stated, if Estrada’s change is fading and dropping outside of the zone, a pitch that moves less and is faster — a fastball — could look more like a strike than his off-speed offerings. This might be nothing more than an optical illusion, but if the pitcher can fool batters and the umpire into giving him a larger strike zone, that pitcher will arguably be on his way to a good outing.
On a final note, we should keep an eye on Estrada’s release points throughout the year. While it’s difficult to make judgments from one outing, Estrada’s curveball, change, and fastball release points were notably different during yesterday’s start. During his Rockies start, he blended his release points more, but yesterday, his curve featured a higher release point than his change and fastball. This has happened to other pitchers in the past — Livan Hernandez being the first pitcher who comes to mind — and it will be interesting to see if Estrada continues to release each of his pitches from a different point.
I imagine that the Brewers’ 1-5 start took a lot of steam out of the fanbase. Given that many Brewers fans were skeptical of the organization’s “win-now” ploy in the first place, a 1-5 start is a surefire way to knock expectations even further. After the Diamondbacks debacle on Sunday, I took to baseball seasons past — okay, I looked at 2012 — and asked, “how frequently do NL playoff teams go 1-5?” Interestingly enough, throughout the 2012 season, each NL playoff team went 1-5 at least twice during the season, and each team lost 5 consecutive games at least once (some accomplished that feat twice). Now, this is nothing scientific, and it certainly deserves a more detailed study, but I wanted to see how frequently contending teams played poor baseball. This is not an argument that the Brewers should automatically be considered contenders just because other contenders have done so; it’s more a statement about the difficult reality of a 162 game season.
The 2012 contenders’ 1-5 stretches occurred over parts of 35 series, with 20 of those series occurring on the road. Over these 1-5 stretches, their average run differential was 16 RS / 30 RA, which shows that, on average, these types of stretches corresponded with poor offense, moreso than poor pitching. Of course, no one is calling 5.00 R/G a good outing, but 5.00 RA/G is much closer to an average pitching outing than 2.67 RS/G is for offense. Here we find two specific differences between these teams’ 1-5 stretches and the Brewers’ stretches; (1) the Brewers’ 1-5 stretch occurred at home, and (2) the Brewers scored nearly 3.70 R/G, and allowed 6.50 R/G during their rough stretch (22 RS / 39 RA). We could also judge these types of series by whether they occurred against playoff contenders or not, but indeed, that shifts a lot during the course of a season; furthermore, it’s difficult to look at the first six games of the season and say, “yes, the Brewers lost to contending clubs,” or, “no, the Diamondbacks and Rockies are clearly not contenders.” We won’t know that for a few months.
2012 Braves: 42 RS / 79 RA (3-15)
May 20-May 25 (1-5): 14 RS / 23 RA (@ Rays, @ Reds, Nationals)
June 10-June 16 (1-5): 14 RS / 31 RA (Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles)
August 18-August 23 (1-5): 14 RS / 25 RA (Dodgers, @ Nationals, @ Giants)
2012 Cardinals: 67 RS / 139 RA (4-20)
May 29-June 4 (1-5): 17 RS / 38 RA (@ Braves, @ Mets)
July 13-July 18 (1-5): 15 RS / 21 RA (@ Reds, @ Brewers)
August 28-September 2 (1-5): 14 RS / 45 RA (@ Pirates, @ Nationals)
September 7-September 12 (1-5): 21 RS / 35 RA (Brewers, @ Padres)
2012 Giants: 34 RS / 71 RA (2-10)
June 29-July 5 (1-5): 18 RS / 34 RA (Reds, @Nationals)
July 24-July 30 (1-5): 16 RS / 37 RA (Padres, Dodgers, Mets)
2012 Nationals: 24 RS / 49 RA (2-10)
April 25-May 1 (1-5): 14 RS / 22 RA (@Padres, @ Dodgers, Diamondbacks)
August 21-August 28 (1-5): 10 RS / 27 RA (Braves, @ Phillies, @ Marlins)
2012 Reds: 51 RS / 79 RA (3-15)
April 9-April 14 (1-5): 10 RS / 22 RA (Cardinals, @ Nationals)
June 18-June 24 (1-5): 25 RS / 30 RA (@ Indians, Twins)
August 4-August 9 (1-5): 16 RS / 27 RA (Pirates, @ Brewers, @ Cubs)
Perhaps the most interesting element of these 1-5 stretches by 2012 NL playoff clubs is the fact that only 4 occurred during April or May; by comparison, 5 occurred during June or July, and 5 occurred during August or September. There’s this great old baseball quote about losing streaks that goes something like, “if you lose at the beginning, you had a slow start, in the middle you had a slump, but if you lose at the end, you choke.” It’s rather curious that these losing streaks are weighted slightly more toward the back end of the season — perhaps when crunch time comes along and these teams face the back-end of the pennant race — and the middle of the season — a swoon prior to a deadline deal, dealing with injuries, etc.
This is what makes the Brewers’ 1-5 start a bit difficult to handle. Straight out of the gate, the club lost 5 of their first 6 games. There was no 5-5 buffer, or 15-10 buffer — or even a 25-30 buffer, to place those difficult games in perspective. Rather, players, coaches, fans had to jump right in to a stretch of hard losses. In this regard, the Brewers’ tough start certainly doesn’t preclude them from the playoffs — even the 2011 Brewers and 2012 Braves started the season 0-4 and made the playoffs — but it places the shortcomings of the roster as an immediate experience. Which is not to say that a 4-0 start would have been any more realistic a statement about this roster; it would have simply felt a lot better, and allowed us to call a 1-5 stretch later in the season “a slump” — or, God forbid, “a choke.”
Balance and Run Differential
After opening day, I noted that one of the ways a club can win nearly 100 games is by averaging 5 runs scored per game, while allowing 4 runs per game. Such a scenario was worth noting, given the Brewers’ strong opening game, the excitement of opening day, and, of course, a good picture of how luck and skill must converge for a great season.
On the other hand, if you didn’t think the Brewers would win 97 games, perhaps you thought they might win 53 games. Okay, almost nobody thought that, but a club that carries a 29 RS / 43 RA differential through 162 games might be expected to win 53 games. One of the results of a struggling pitching staff is that a team is unable to win games with a decent or strong number of runs scored. Over the course of last season, I tracked the club’s ability to distribute their wins across their runs scored totals, in order to focus specifically on the club’s ability to win when they scored 3-5 runs in a game (basically, the range between slightly below average, and slightly above average runs scored in a ballgame).
Here’s how the 2013 Brewers are performing against their runs scored:
6+ RS: 1-1 (.286 of games)
3-5 RS: 1-2 (0 wins between 3-to-4 runs scored) (.429 of games)
0-2 RS: 0-2 (.286 of games)
.400 winning percentage with 3-5 RS and 6+ RS
2012 Milwaukee Brewers:
6+ RS: 52-14 (.407 of games)
3-5 RS: 27-31 (18 wins with 3-to-4 runs scored) (.358 of games)
0-2 RS: 4-34 (.235 of games)
.637 winning percentage with 3-5 RS and 6+ RS.
2011 Milwaukee Brewers
49-9 in 6+ runs scored (.358 of games)
40-21 in 3-5 runs scored (27 wins between 3-4 RS) (.377 of games)
7-36 in 0-2 runs scored (.265 of games)
.748 winning percentage with 3-5 RS and 6+ RS
Note that although the Brewers’ current total of slightly less than 4.15 R/G is not great, it’s right at the 2013 National League average (given Miller Park’s recent swing in the hitter’s park direction, that makes the Brewers a slightly below average-or-so offense right now). Of course, given the Brewers’ set of injuries and immediate replacement problems, this is actually quite a surprising run scored total; indeed, we might agree that if the Brewers can continue to score an average number of runs while they face injuries at key positions, they should ideally remain in the thick of the standings.
It sounds so simple to say that the problem with bad pitching is that teams lose more high-scoring games, as well as more moderate-scoring games. Certainly, the Brewers will need to score 6-or-more runs more frequently, in order to improve their overall chances of winning. Yet, the Brewers have hardly distributed their runs to the low-end of the spectrum thus far; even with a replacement offense, four of their first seven games featured 4-or-more runs scored. With a more stable pitching staff, some of those moderate runs scored games become victories, and perhaps the Brewers don’t lose a game in which they score 7 runs.
Losses will happen in 6+ runs scored games, but those games should be markers for a team’s success; the Brewers were successful in 2011 and even 2012 largely because of their ability to win the vast majority of those games (they went 101-23 in games with 6+ runs scored). Obviously, the 2013 Brewers offense needs to improve, but while the club has their replacements on the field and is suffering through injuries, it is imperative to win each and every “big run” outing. Granted, we only have seen seven games thus far, but there’s a feeling that, given the current offense, more than half of those games were winnable.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2013.
IMAGE (Canadian Press / AP): http://www.ottawacitizen.com/sports/Capsules+Estrada+Brewers+beat+Cubs+Wrigley+Field+season+opener/8214414/story.html
Strike Zones: Trip Somers, 2009-2013.