Somehow, the Brewers didn’t score against Dan Straily or the schlubs who relieved him; then, Billy Hamilton did that thing that he does. Let’s not dwell on this one.
Best Play: Let’s give credit to someone who deserved it. Sure, he pulled it off against a pitiful offense, but Zach Davies dominated on Sunday. Of the 23 Reds hitters he faced, five struck out, four reached base — all of them on singles — and none came around to score. Davies’s ground-balling ways erased a leadoff Joey Votto single in the fourth inning; when Jay Bruce dribbled a 2-2 sinker to first, Chris Carter and Will Middlebrooks teamed up to turn two.
Bruce’s double play (+.089) gave the Brewers a 48.7 percent chance of winning, up from 39.8 percent after Votto’s hit. From then on out, Davies really got rolling, retiring the final 10 Reds to step in against him. Milwaukee’s win probability would stay above 40 percent until the eighth inning, as the club’s starter did his best to keep them in the game.
After melting down two weeks ago versus the Dodgers, Davies has twirled a pair of gems against the Nationals and Reds. On Sunday, he allowed a little too much solid contact for my liking — per FanGraphs, 38.9 percent of the balls in play off him were of the hard variety. If he can keep those balls on the ground, though, his infielders should take care of them. With Matt Garza’s second straight ugly year, Chase Anderson’s perpetual long ball woes, and Jimmy Nelson’s disturbing peripheral meltdown, I’ll take what I can get out of Davies.
Worst Play: Evidently, when the Reds shuts you out for nine innings, the baseball gods put you out of your misery before the tenth. After setting down the first five batters he faced, Tyler Thornburg dished out a base on balls to Hamilton, which prompted Craig Counsell to bring in Will Smith. The lefty proceeded to walk Joey Votto, then allow Hamilton to advance a base on each of the subsequent pitches — first on a steal, then on a passed ball.
The walkoff pitch (-.364) drained away the remaining 36.4 percent chance the Brewers had to win. Entering the inning, Thornburg had identical 36.4 percent odds; when Smith came in, those had improved to 43.7 percent. It’s probable that, had either of the two relievers preserved the tie, Milwaukee would have crossed the plate eventually; Cincinnati’s bullpen ranks 28th in baseball with a 4.71 DRA. In the end, though, the speed of Hamilton did them in.
Thornburg issuing the two-out walk didn’t concern me; at that point, he had already thrown 23 pitches, and he’s still put together a phenomenal year regardless. Smith, on the other hand, has struggled. His velocity hasn’t yet returned — his slider has topped out at 82.9 mph in 2016, whereas it averaged 82.6 mph in 2015 — and it’s cost him. His swinging-strike and ground ball rates are each about half of what they were last year. Smith hasn’t had too many control problems this year, so the walk/passed ball from Sunday were nothing more than flukes, but he will continue to allow runs in some fashion if he doesn’t get his velo back.
Trend to Watch: Instead of focusing on the negative, let’s look at one of the more positive developments from 2016: Jonathan Villar! While he didn’t net a hit in his three at-bats Sunday, he did work a free pass off Dan Straily. That meant he reached base safely for the eighth consecutive game — and the 17th out of his last 18 contests. For the 2016 campaign as a whole, he’s hit a cool .302/.384/.436, good for a .290 TAv.
Now, this comes with one massive caveat: Villar currently possesses a .412 BABIP, the highest mark among qualified hitters. Since no one can maintain something like that long-term, it’s safe to say that Villar will regress from this level of play. But even the most rabid Brewers fans realize that Villar isn’t this good. Most of us just want above-average production from the shortstop, and going forwward he should be equipped to provide that, even without an elevated BABIP.
The plate discipline progress that Villar has made should aid him. Per BP’s PITCHf/x data, he’s swung at 23.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone; that’s in line with the 23.0 percent clip he posted as a rookie. Unlike then, though, he’s also hacked at a lot of strikes, with a 62.0 percent Z-Swing rate. That combination has given him an 11.7 percent walk rate, the highest of his career, as well as a 25.8 percent strikeout rate that’s actually below his major-league norm.
Perhaps more importantly, Villar has consistently stung the ball. His 31.9 percent hard-contact rate, via FG, is the highest of his career; it’s also a level he’s never matched over as many games. Especially for a fast player such as Villar, hitting the ball hard will always guarantee some degree of a high BABIP/ISO — even if, as happened on Sunday, those balls find their way into opposing gloves.
Villar provies some value already on the basepaths, and it looks like he’ll better employ his speed going forward. And as a competent defensive shortstop, he doesn’t need to accomplish much at the plate to earn his keep. But no one would complain if Villar continues to smooth the transition to the Orlando Arcia era, or if his four remaining years before free agency entice another club to trade for him. All in all, the Brewers got a pretty solid return for Cy Sneed.
Up Next: On Tuesday, the road trip through the division continues. Pittsburgh and Milwaukee will duel in three straight 6:05 CST games on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Junior Guerra, Anderson, and Garza will take the hill for the Brewers, while the Pirates will give the nod to Jeff Locke, Jameson Taillon, and Francisco Liriano. The Bucs aren’t nearly as horrid as the Reds, but a few victories against a divisional opponent are always welcome.