If you are a Milwaukee Brewers fan, finding reasons to be upset in 2015 is not a difficult exercise.
Jonathan Lucroy and Jean Segura are both emitting the unmistakable stench of cratered trade value. Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Aramis Ramirez did nothing or worse, while drawing a combined salary approximately level with the GDP of Tuvalu. The pitching staff was 27th-best in baseball by measure of runs allowed — Garza and Lohse were both among the worst starting pitchers in the league by BP’s DRA metric before getting shut down in turn. Evan if Milwaukee manages to edge the Cincinnati Reds and avoid the basement of the National League Central, the 2015 campaign has been a sputtering failure on a big-picture level.
But six months is a long time, and 162 games offer plenty of room for variance. It was pretty bad, but it wasn’t all bad! There were a few moments to celebrate, and even a few that actually inspired legitimate hope. So, in the interest of minimizing the number of fans who succumb to alcohol poisoning this offseason, let’s remember the good instead of dwelling on the bad.
6. The Adam Lind Trade
For three consecutive seasons following the departure of Prince Fielder, first base has been a significant weakness for the Brewers. Seeking to contend in 2015, and with painfully little talent in the developmental pipeline with which to part, the team needed a creative answer.
Adam Lind was hailed as a future star once upon a time, when he hit .300 with 35 home runs as a 25-year-old in 2009. But back problems limited his availability/effectiveness, and in 2014 he hit six home runs in 318 plate appearances. The Brewers, though, were enticed by Lind’s uncharacteristically low home run rate in 2014 — with even a regression to his normal career rate, he had the potential to provide actual value at the position. It was a gamble, but a gamble with good mathematical sense to it.
As it happens, 15 percent of Lind’s fly balls in 2015 have left the yard — exactly in line with his career average. He didn’t quite hit 35 home runs, but 20 is a much better-looking number than anything with only one digit. Plus, his True Average and OBP are both in line with his 2011 numbers; he’s slugging just a hair off of that pace, but otherwise this is the same guy that burst onto the scene six years ago. If you score it by WAR, 2015 was Lind’s best season since that ’09 campaign. And if you score it by WARP, Lind was the second-most valuable Brewer this past year after Ryan Braun.
At thirty-two years old, and due to make a relatively affordable $8 million this coming season, Lind likely represents another Gerardo Parra situation for the Brewers — he’ll be flipped at approximately the one-year mark. And like with Parra, the Brewers should be able to generate a nice little profit on the flip. If this sounds familiar, that’s because the Indians followed this playbook to the letter with Brandon Moss — a slugger with a similar statistical profile to Lind — turning him into top pitching prospect Rob Kaminsky at the trade deadline. Don’t be surprised if the Brewers ask for something similar, and don’t be surprised if someone is willing to meet the asking price.
The plan was for Lind to power the offense up just enough to make the playoffs. That didn’t work out, but the acquisition has been a successful one all the same.
5. The Winning Streak
I confess: I am painfully aware of the meaning of the phrase “small sample size.” And I can read a full-season standings page — in fact, I can comprehend it, too. However, despite all of this, I’m still going to unashamedly celebrate the fact that, from June 28 through July 5, the Milwaukee Brewers went a pristine 8-0.
Were four of those wins against the hapless Phillies, on pace to finish out as baseball’s only 100-loss team? Yes. Shut up. Were the other three wins against the Reds, who might be run by the first manager in history to reach “embattled” status less than two months into the season? Yes. Shut up. Did Milwaukee then proceed to drop two of three to the bottom-of-the-barrel Braves, the cold boot of reality kicking them squarely in the teeth? Sigh, yes. Shut up.
Still, for that eight-game stretch, the team clicked and gave the fanbase a brief glimpse at the kind of thing they had come into the season expecting. It was tons of fun — but it was also a valuable showcase for offensive pieces like Aramis Ramirez and Gerardo Parra. Less than a month later, both would be exported for valuable building materials. And the winning streak roughly coincided with the launch of BP Milwaukee, which was pretty fun.
— Seth Victor (@sh_vic) July 5, 2015
4. The Emergence of Taylor Jungmann
Much has been written about Milwaukee’s rookie starter this summer, and the debate still rages as to whether his unique brand of pitching success is sustainable or unsustainable. He could be the pitching version of Ryan Braun, a rookie phenom who turned into a long-tenured superstar. Or, he could be the pitching version of Pat Listasch — one generation down the line, and he’s nothing more than an answer to a trivia question. Regardless of how his story plays out long-term, however, what Jungmann has done in 2015 is truly impressive.
Just two years ago, the Baseball Prospectus Annual had this to say about Jungmann:
“Milwaukee’s first pick in the 2011 draft, Jungmann has ideal size, a smooth delivery, and decent velocity, but didn’t miss many bats in his minor-league debut. He was effective but far from dominant in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, working his low-90s fastball down in the zone to generate plenty of groundballs, few home runs, and not many strikeouts. Jungmann’s slurvy breaking pitch and changeup are works in progress, but he throws strikes and doesn’t beat himself. It’s early, but so far, Jungmann profiles as more of an innings-eater than an ace.”
I mean, the words “he sucks” aren’t explicitly printed… but what other way is there to interpret it when a 23-year-old gets the “innings-eater” tag foisted upon him?
Fast-forward to 2015 and Jungmann is the most valuable pitcher currently on Milwaukee’s big-league roster. Coming up through the farm system, Jungmann’s numbers were never eye-popping and scouting reports generally sounded unimpressed in their qualitative assessments. So what gives? How did this precociously bland “innings-eater” grow into an inexplicably effective big-league pitcher?
Well, that “slurvy breaking pitch” that was a “work in progress” back in the day has grown up into a devastatingly effective curveballs. In 2013, just months after the above Annual was published, he switched up his grip, and after two years of refinement, the results have been incredibly positive.
Opponents are hitting just .152 against Jungmann’s curve, and generating a meager .051 points of isolated power against it. Furthermore, they’re whiffing on the pitch almost 18 percent of the time and only putting 10 percent of curveballs into play. If the knock on Jungmann was that he lacked a true out pitch, well, he’s taught himself how to throw one now — and it’s allowing him to punch far above his weight class. Plus, his mental approach to pitching shows a maturity far beyond his years. It should allow him to adapt and survive at the Major League level, where stasis is a terminal diagnosis.
Jungmann, his mental approach, and his devastating hammer remind me just a bit of a young Barry Zito. Both Jungmann and Zito were first-round picks who were seen as safe, low-upside investments that their respective teams had to settle for due to financial constraints. The two pitchers both managed to avoid prospect hype thanks in large part to the unimpressed chorus of “mehs” coming from the scouting community as they labored their way through the farm system and flashier pitchers got the accolades. And both overcame their nothing-special four-seam fastballs to build an effective repetoire around a devastating curveball.
If Jungmann can follow a similar path of development, even if he never reaches Zito’s Cy Young prime, Brewers fans will forget about this season’s failure over time. Instead, it will be remembered as the year that the next generation started to stake its claim to the starting rotation.
3. The Trade Deadline
When a front office is working with very little in the way of dealable assets, as Milwaukee’s was this summer, there is no margin for error. Each mistake hurts that much more because you don’t have the strategic flexibility to work around it. Working within this frame of mind, Doug Melvin’s swan song was an opus of transcendent beauty.
Despite his advancing age and mediocre start to the season, Aramis Ramirez was successfully turned into a young piece that could matter down the road. Jonathan Broxton’s time in Milwaukee was inconsistent — but he, too, netted a return against all odds. And the mega-deal with Houston has brought back a sturdy foundation to build upon.
I’ve already gotten into the up-and-coming talents of Brett Phillips and Josh Hader, who will both be extremely valuable parts for the franchise in the near future. And the third piece in the deal, Domingo Santana, has already posted his first Win Above Replacement in his short time as a Brewer. The small sample size warning must be issued here, and his 31 percent strikeout rate as a Brewer still inspires very little confidence. But he’s posted a drool-inspiring OPS so far in Milwaukee, and historical trends indicate that Santana’s .385 BABIP since the trade isn’t exactly an outlier, either. When you’re athletically gifted and prone to mash the ball, you make fewer outs. Santana is a talented young player, and he’s eased the short-term sting of losing Carlos Gomez considerably.
Each move the Brewers made this July was a good value move. Furthermore, Lind could still be dealt, as could either Jean Segura or Scooter Gennett if the team determines that Orlando Arcia is ready for The Show in 2016. The team improved for the future — and significantly, this July — but didn’t jump for any subpar offers, or sacrifice any strategic flexibility by overextending and leaving the big club a barren mess. All in all, there is a lot with which to be happy.
2. The New GM
The Houston Astros were a natural comparison for Brewer fans to draw, even before their former second-in-command was tapped to head up the new front office. The team’s July trades clearly show a desire to follow the same rebuilding path that the Astros took under Jeff Luhnow, and that’s not even factoring in that the biggest of them brought over three Houston prospects in return.
That was all before David Stearns, the Astros’ former assistant general manager, was named GM earlier this week. Stearns is younger than Adam Lind, and comes from an Ivy League finance background. His previous employers — the Indians and Astros — speak very highly of him. Plus, prior to working in front office positions, he worked on baseball’s CBA in MLB’s labor relations division. That kind of diverse, dynamic resume doesn’t guarantee success–but it indicates a high chance of it.
Milwaukee fans will recall that, once upon a time, Jack Zduriencik was their own second-in-command whom the Seattle Mariners lured away to run their front office. Zduriencik, of course, was fired by Seattle earlier this year, less than a month before Stearns ascended to his position.
Zduriencik serves as a prime example of the Peter Principle personified in sports. Major League Baseball’s first non-general-manager Executive of the Year proved to be wholly unfit as an actual general manager. It certainly is within the realm of possibilities that Stearns will follow this path as well. Milwaukee-area sports fans will note that the Bucks have gone with two different “youthful” general managers during this decade, with mixed results. Jason Kidd has been an unmitigated success, but the city might never forgive Larry Harris for the depths to which he sunk the franchise.
Two days into his tenure, we can’t know for certain which extreme Stearns will fill out — or if he’ll fall somewhere in between the two. All we can know is that he represents everything Mark Attanasio wanted to hire — young and analytically gifted — and will be in a very good position to succeed going forward. Again, in drawing lessons from the Bucks over the past few years: sometimes just having a sense of direction is half the battle for a franchise.
1. The Building Blocks in the Bullpen
Last week for Sports Illustrated’s The Cauldron, I posed a hypothesis that elite relief pitchers are heavily undervalued in today’s game, both in terms of sabermetric wins and in the salaries they draw. Many of the statistically-modeled preseason projections have been wildly off-base in 2015, and there’s been one noticeable constant across them — the teams with elite bullpens have largely outperformed expectations, while the teams with mediocre bullpens have failed to live up to the hype.
And even though Milwaukee’s starting rotation was a pretty rough-looking outfit beyond the aforementioned Jungmann, the Brewers’ bullpen is a capable unit that should provide plenty of outsized value at cost control for the forseeable future.
-Will Smith has less than three years of MLB service time accumulated. He struck out almost 13 batters per 9 and opponents hit .163 against his slider, as he led the bullpen in WAR. Smith is the Brewers’ comparison to Kansas City’s Wade Davis, a one-time prospect as a starter who flamed out, then turned into a lights-out late-inning reliever.
-Jeremy Jeffress was sent to Kansas City as part of the package for Zack Greinke what seems like forever ago. After that, he struggled to establish himself in the big leagues — even though he made his debut in 2010 he, too, has less than three years of MLB service time. For several years he struggled with subpar command — in 2011 he led all of baseball in wild pitches thrown — but he seems to have put that behind him. He has walked fewer than a batter every three innings during his return to Milwaukee, and that improved command has turned him into a whole new pitcher.
-Michael Blazek was acquired for John Axford two years back. He’s on the disabled list, but before that, he posted walk, strikeout, and home run ratios almost exactly in line with Jeffress. He still qualified as a rookie this year, so he’s going to be an affordable piece for an even longer stretch
-Corey Knebel struggled to keep the ball in the park, but he’s not even 24 years old yet and he’s flashed the ability to dominate major-league hitters. The former first-round draft pick is a superb option when you get this deep into the ‘pen.
(That’s not even factoring in Francisco Rodriguez, either. K-Rod will be 34 on Opening Day of next year, but from all indications he enjoys plying his trade in Milwaukee. Mariano Rivera just got done with maintaining effectiveness into his forties. It’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to say that Francisco might have a little left in the tank by the time Milwaukee is putting a contender onto the field.)
Ideally, you want your starting pitchers working deep into ballgames. But it’s insane to build your team around the premise that your starters will perform to ideal specifications 162 times with consistency. Sometimes, it’s just not that guy’s night. Having a deeply stocked bullpen gives you far more flexibility in those times of crisis — plus, it gives you more options for the last couple of innings and lets you rotate guys to keep anyone from breaking down. In 2015, this line of thinking won out pretty conclusively.
As the season winds to a close, it will be hard-pressed to find a Brewer fan who is not turning, at least temporarily, into a Houston Astros fan. The team employs two beloved former Milwaukee players, and also represents the best-case scenario for the optimististic fan — that, after just a couple years of retooling and rebuilding, the team will be making a playoff run.
Meanwhile, it will be just as hard to find a Brewer fan who isn’t following the Chicago Cubs with a little too much intensity, as well. The Cubs — led into the playoffs by the youth movement of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler — look like they’ll inevitably pose a conundrum for the Brewers who have their long-term sights set on the same division title. It’s too easy to contrast their recent success with Milwaukee’s struggles, a brutal comparison.
But there’s still a few cold brews of optimism hidden amongst those struggles. All’s well that ends well, and despite the overall run of things during the 2015 season, the pieces are all there for the Brewers to locate that light at the end of the tunnel.