The Brewers are in the midst of a stunning September surge, one that could potentially find them playing themselves out of a 2017 Top 10 draft pick and — better yet — finding another MLB role from their pile of future values. This surge is stunning because thus far it’s come against the World Champion Cubs and Contending Pirates, astounding the common Brewers fan line, “well, their September is rough enough to lead to 100 losses.” Furthermore, Milwaukee has the chance to put a different spin on their season if this pace of play continues; maybe the beloved idea of the “5-year rebuild” was misdirected all along; maybe there was more talent bubbling beneath the surface of that dreadful 10-20 August campaign. Better yet, GM David Stearns put our Milwaukee Nine in fine position to improve upon the 2015 campaign, which is a serious victory for an openly rebuilding club.
Prior to that terrible August baseball, the Brewers showed an extended stretch of solid play. This stretch may need to be revisited depending on how the September string plays out, but thus far one can analyze a bizarre string of 80 games where Milwaukee flirted with true .500 baseball. You know it by heart: Junior Guerra made his singular starting pitching debut, Zach Davies attacked batters, Jimmy Nelson outplayed his peripheral performance, and guys like Hernan Perez and Keon Broxton were at various stages of acquiring their 2016 sealegs. In one sense, a rebuilding club that plays well for 80 games is a non-story; in the “regression to the mean” discussion, baseball is tough enough that even a bad team might be expected to come back to average over the course of such a long season.
From May 1 through July 31, the Brewers went 39-41, thanks to a 328 RS / 337 RA differential. That run differential shows that the club was near “true .500 talent” for three months, and also that the club was winning thanks to the strength of their pitching. By now everyone knows that the club could not keep up that pace because Stearns traded Jonathan Lucroy, Aaron Hill, Jeremy Jeffress, and Will Smith prior to the deadline (but in a hilarious twist, the Brewers are climbing back, now 15-21 since the deadline thanks to their surge).
Compiling a National League average run environment for May through July from Baseball Reference, and adjusting it for Miller Park, one finds that the almost-.500 Brewers bats were approximately 18 runs below average. Extrapolate that for a full season, and….well, you get the picture. The offense performed poorly, but what is interesting is that some of those performances were simply bad timing from players that had other good months in 2016:
|May-July Bats||PA||AVG / OBP / SLG||Season|
|Carter||319||.209 / .295 / .455||.290 TAv / 0.9 WARP|
|Gennett||266||.275 / .321 / .393||.251 TAv / 1.1 WARP|
|Villar||346||.309 / .381 / .457||.296 TAv / 4.5 WARP|
|Braun||270||.317 / .374 / .496||.320 TAv / 3.7 WARP|
|Nieuwenhuis||240||.212 / .333 / .419||.265 TAv / 0.6 WARP|
|Flores||219||.225 / .310 / .278||.215 TAv / -0.6 WARP|
|Perez||198||.288 / .313 / .435||.277 TAv / 2.0 WARP|
|Presley||114||.184 / .263 / .252||.219 TAv / -0.2 WARP|
|Maldonado||84||.243 / .361 / .429||.234 TAv / 0.1 WARP|
|Broxton||80||.212 / .342 / .379||.271 TAv / 1.0 WARP|
|Injured||Santana / Middlebrooks|
|Others||Lucroy / Hill traded before deadline; Walsh / Elmore / Wilkins bench|
In the small sample size world, it is worth remembering that the pennant race itself is nothing but creating and manipulating circumstances for success (or luck), so it absolutely matters that some of these players were better during other months of the season. They just happened to have their respective solid Aprils or Augusts when the pitching staff was getting shelled. Thankfully, the club happens to be rebuilding, so something like Keon Broxton’s explosion takes on a different note (one can then judge Broxton’s performance and future value); maybe the story of Broxton’s organic development preordained July struggles to yield late season success. It is especially interesting to see the ebb and flow of the great seasons produced by Jonathan Villar and Ryan Braun, both players that the Brewers can reserve well into their next competitive cycle and employ as part of that contending core.
Thankfully, the pitching staff excelled during May, June, and July, performing at a rate approximately 15 runs better than Miller Park and the National League. Notably, while Guerra, Davies, and Nelson had a great stretch, the rotation itself was not great across the board. Chase Anderson and Matt Garza countered some of the benefits provided by the three leaders, although those three leading starters ensured that the Brewers would have a chance to win on most days of the week.
|May-July Arms||IP||ERA / K:BB||Season|
|Guerra||103.3||2.70 / 85:34||4.51 DRA / 1.2 WARP|
|Nelson||92.3||3.51 / 68:41||5.58 DRA / -0.4 WARP|
|Davies||92.0||2.84 / 75:20||3.32 DRA / 3.6 WARP|
|Anderson||75.7||5.00 / 62:28||5.52 DRA / -0.2 WARP|
|Garza||47.3||5.32 / 29:16||4.74 DRA / 0.7 WARP|
|Others||Peralta / Jungmann minors
Cravy spot start
The bullpen is immensely more interesting, in terms of future roster assets, from this three month set. Carlos Torres and Tyler Thornburg will both be under salary arbitration control for 2017, and both pitchers could sustain roles in a serviceable (or better) ‘pen.
|May-July Arms||IP||ERA / K:BB||Season|
|Torres||39.0||2.31 / 39:13||4.28 DRA / 0.6 WARP|
|Thornburg||33.3||2.16 / 44:10||2.90 DRA / 1.50 WARP|
|Boyer||32.3||3.62 / 13:6 (!!!)||6.18 DRA / -0.9 WARP|
|Marinez||27.7||2.60 / 31:12||4.33 DRA / 0.4 WARP|
|Blazek||21.7||7.06 / 19:15||5.31 DRA / -0.2 WARP|
|Barnes||17.0||3.71 / 18:4||3.61 DRA / 0.3 WARP|
|Others||Jeffress / Smith traded before deadline|
|Others (May-July IP)||Knebel (9.3) / Goforth (5.7) / Ramirez (1.7) / Kirkman (1.0)|
Among the Brewers’ controllable arms, the club reserves Jacob Barnes, Jhan Marinez, and Michael Blazek. Blazek has seen a return of some previous command issues, but he has also fought injuries throughout the year. Barnes and Marinez have quietly worked in the background, and both righties have some intriguing traits that are worth a longer look. Coupled with Corey Knebel’s late season surge (3.65 DRA, 0.4 WARP), or even that of Rob Scahill (4.38 DRA, 0.1 WARP), it is not difficult to see a relatively deep set of relief arms ready for the 2017 campaign. This set looks even deeper when one considers the next batch of 40-man roster protections, waiver claims, or offseason acquisitions.
The most obvious response to this type of analysis will be that 80 games hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, especially when the club bookended that performance with 23-36 ball (good for a 63-win pace). Yet, those teams were not necessarily the same as the May-through-July unit, especially not in April (which featured an almost completely different cast of players). As a rebuilding GM, Stearns has effectively rotated options onto the roster while making quick decisions on some players, too; instead of hanging on to some early season flops (because, who cares if a rebuilding club wins?), Stearns adjusted the roster, made new acquisitions, and arguably found more future value because of those moves.
Now, one can look at this string of play, perhaps even considering it next to a strong September (if that continues to materialize), with an eye toward improving the roster in 2017. As I have written all year, at some point the Brewers will need to decide to keep good players to maximize current performance and future value; by making quick roster decisions and fielding some genuinely competitive players throughout the season, Stearns has already proven that the Brewers’ strategy to put the best possible rebuilding team together can pay future dividends.