WILL SMITH SHOULDN’T START
The notion that Will Smith could transition back to the starting rotation has been bandied about over the past couple months, as he’s seemingly figured out how to consistently retire opposite-handed batters. Righties have only hit .150/.218/.200 against Smith this year. Our own Ryan Romano has linked this development to his increased curveball usage, which could be seen in the eighth inning on Tuesday evening against the Padres. Smith started right-handed Jedd Gyorko with back-to-back curveballs, allowing him to steal a strike early and get to his better pitches with a better count.
Being a starter is more than just having three pitches and a small platoon split. Those certainly help, but starting pitchers also must pound the strike zone. It helps a pitcher work deeper into games, controlling one’s pitch count and avoiding high-stress innings. Smith would struggle in that area, as he’s only thrown 43.4 percent of his pitches in the strike zone — much lower than the 48 percent league average. This extends to the 2014 season, too. Smith pounded the zone with 44.0 percent of his pitches, while the league-average pitcher did it 48.8 percent of the time. Only eight qualified pitchers in Major League Baseball throw a lower percentage of pitches in the strike zone.
Much of this inability to pound the strike zone stems from the fact that his slider is his best pitch, and it best functions outside the strike zone. It’s a bona fide out-pitch with the ability to miss bats against righties and lefties. His fastball, though, is a bit more limited. He struggles to spot his fastball to the arm side, which often leaves his fastball over the plate to lefties — and is why they’re hitting .333 with a .567 slugging against his fastball this year.
Say what you want about his slider being his best pitch, Smith has to be able to control the inner-half of the plate with his fastball, too. He cannot be a one-pitch guy against lefties. Moreover, he can’t be a one-location guy, allowing lefties to eliminate an entire portion of the plate and focus on the outer half. This becomes even more important as a starting pitcher, seeing hitters two and three times per game.
Will Smith has a 2.70 ERA with a 2.51 DRA. He’s been brilliant, on the whole, out of the Brewers’ bullpen this season. Unless something changes with his command and his ability to throw his fastball to all quadrants of the plate, he should remain a key reliever that can be utilized in high-leverage situations. Nothing more.
WALK RATES & POWER
The Milwaukee Brewers have a team walk rate of 6.6 percent, which is fifth-worst in all of Major League Baseball. That’s obviously undesirable. However, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Kansas City Royals and how their 5.5 percent walk rate is the worst in all of baseball — yet they’ve scored 34 more runs than the Brewers and have a 100 wRC+, meaning they have a league-average offense. The biggest difference between the Royals and the Brewers lies in the strikeout rate. The Royals not only have the lowest walk rate in the majors, but they also have the lowest strikeout rate.
Perhaps the Brewers’ main problem isn’t a lack of patience, but rather a high proclivity for striking out?
While such an argument fits into the stereotypical criticism of the Milwaukee Brewers over the last 15 years, it doesn’t hold water. The team has a 20.4 percent strikeout rate, which ranks 14th-best in all of baseball. Moreover, six of the top-10 run-scoring teams have a worse strikeout rate than Milwaukee. Scoring runs doesn’t correlate very well with strikeout rates or walk rates. Instead, it correlates very well with power production. Seven of the top-10 run-scoring teams have an ISO over .150 (which is a top-10 ISO in the league). The only three who don’t are the Giants, Diamondbacks, and Royals. Of those three, the Giants and Diamondbacks have team BABIPs over .310 and rank in the top-four BABIPs in baseball. The Royals are, again, the only team that stands out as unusual.
This isn’t to argue that the Royals are somehow a phantasmic offense that is destined to blow up in September and October. It’s rather to suggest that teams shouldn’t seek to construct an offense like the one in Kansas City. It rarely works. The Brewers have historically built their offenses around power and have found success. That still holds true in Major League Baseball. Without consistent power, the Brewers will struggle to score runs.
WILL THE BREWERS SPEND?
Now that the Brewers are in a “rebuild” mode — or whatever you want to call it — one rightfully may wonder if the team will be active in free agency this winter. The club only has $46 million committed for the 2016 season. Guys like Jean Segura, Wily Peralta, and Will Smith will enjoy arbitration for the first time; however, those deals will hardly break the bank. Perhaps we conservatively estimate that those three will require $15 million in raises (an admittedly rough and random allotment), the Brewers will still sit around $60 million in guaranteed contracts. That’s over $40 million under their 2015 opening-day payroll of $104 million.
Common sense suggests that Milwaukee will not make a play for any of the elite free agents — such as Justin Upton, Ian Desmond, Yoenis Cespedes, Johnny Cueto, David Price, or Jordan Zimmermann — but I’d be surprised if the Brewers don’t grab two or three free agents on short-term deals. The Cubs have done such a thing in recent years, signing Jason Hammel, Colby Rasmus, etc. on one- or two-year deals.
These sort of signings serve two key functions: (1) they help fill holes on the roster with expected production; and (2) they can serve as midseason trade pieces. For example, the Cubs packaged Hammel with Jeff Samardzija to land Addison Russell and Billy McKinney in 2014. They wouldn’t have acquired one of the best offensive prospects in baseball without having a second starter to send to Oakland with Shark.
In other words, rebuilding doesn’t have to mean that the club refuses to spend money in the free-agent market. The Marlins and Astros (to some extent) worked under that rubric, but it would be wise for the Brewers to pick their spots and identify a couple short-term deals that have moderate upside. That will probably be in the bullpen or at third base, but it’s important that the organization does not withdraw into a shell and refuse to spend money. Of course, if the Brewers refuse to spend in free agency and re-allocate that money to the international market, that’s great, too. It’s simply about being creative and maximizing one’s chances to acquire talent. For rebuilding teams, free agency can be seen as the first step in acquiring more minor-league talent. At least, that’s how the Brewers should approach it this winter.