Optimism Part One: Three Weird Tricks to Get to .500

It’d be a mistake to assume that win totals are linear for a rebuilding baseball club like the Brewers. Prospects fail more often than not, trade value and free agent spending splurges are part timing and part luck, and there’s very much an open question over when a team has actually “bottomed out.”

All that said, it’s difficult not to be excited about this year’s club. The Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana fan clubs have ordered their catering for the end-of-season celebration banquets. Eric Thames looks like the best Brewers first baseman since Prince Fielder, and has a ridiculous translated projection from Korea.  Lewis Brinson is awfully exciting, and has tools that fans can dream on as they shovel out their driveways after a mid-March snowstorm.

PECOTA shares some of that optimism, projecting the Brewers for a record of 78-84, a five-win increase over last year’s total and a sign that the rebuild is likely continuing in a positive direction. But, what the heck, it’s March, the weather is getting warmer, and opening day is just around the corner. Let’s abandon our tempered expectations and accelerate the team’s progress. What would it take to get the Brewers to .500 this season?

Given the 78 wins PECOTA has found for the Crew this year, we’ll look for 3 more wins on the current roster. In other words, where might PECOTA be a bit conservative and where can we squint and find a reasonable extra 3 wins? We’ll assume that PECOTA has the win total just about right, but if these three things break just right for the Brewers, they could return to their first non-losing season since 2014.

Scenario One: Ryan Braun repeats his 2016 season
PECOTA reasonably accounts for Braun’s aging curve, projecting him for 2.7 WARP in 2017. Last year, he achieved 4.1 WARP in just 135 games played. It’s not too much of a stretch to think he could produce that much value if he could stay healthy for a full season. Of course, it’s also not too much of a stretch to think that I’ll finally get back to running once the weather gets better, but age catches up with us all, is the point.

But even while accounting for his 2.0 and 2.3 WARP seasons in 2014 and 2015, respectively, there are plenty of reasons to think those seasons were outliers and aren’t reflective of the adjustments he’s made as he ages. For one, another season in left field should help him. Defensive metrics have been mixed on Braun almost throughout his career, but in the two injury-plagued seasons he spent in right field, he produced a whopping -11.5 FRAA. Last year didn’t see too much of an improvement with -5.7 FRAA in left, but his left field defense has typically been a couple of runs above or below average each year.

So, a healthy Ryan Braun season that looks like last year’s gets Milwaukee 1.4 more wins.

Scenario Two: Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta, or Junior Guerra pitch like an average starting pitcher
Last year, among starters who threw at least 140 innings, the average pitcher was worth 2.7 PWARP. PECOTA projects Nelson, Peralta, and Guerra each for at least 140 innings pitched and under 1.0 PWARP each.

An extra win would put any of those guys between 1.7 and 1.9 PWARP. For reference, here are the pitchers that produced similarly last season while throwing at least 140 innings:

Mike Leake 28 30 176.7 4.69 4.23 2.29
Collin McHugh 29 33 184.7 4.34 4.36 2.12
Tyler Chatwood 26 27 158 3.87 4.29 1.95
Josh Tomlin 31 29 174 4.4 4.4 1.91
Jhoulys Chacin 28 22 144 4.81 4.21 1.77
Hisashi Iwakuma 35 33 199 4.12 4.61 1.72
Jaime Garcia 29 30 171.7 4.67 4.5 1.66
Dan Straily 27 31 191.3 3.76 4.59 1.64

If just one of those guys makes a pretty reasonable step forward over that projection, that could be worth at least another win to the Brewers total. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but for just one to pitch between 1.5 or 2 PWARP seems like a reasonable possibility for younger pitchers (and, uh, Junior Guerra).  That puts the Brewers’ revised total up 2.4 wins.

Scenario Three: Domingo Santana repeats last year, but over a full season
In an injury-shortened season hampered by an elbow problem last year, Domingo produced 0.9 WARP while slashing .256/.345/.447 in 77 games. PECOTA has a 1.0 projected WARP over 487 plate appearances for 2017, including 19 home runs.

Again, there’s reason to be optimistic about Santana’s power production, given that he produced the second-highest exit velocity in the game in 2016. It’s not difficult to see how he could keep the gains he made last season and get to a full season’s worth of plate appearances.

Domingo Santana moving up to a 2-win player in 2017 adds yet another win on the PECOTA projections, and adds a total of 3.4 wins with just these three adjustments we’ve made.

The thing is, even though each of those scenarios seems reasonable on the surface, it’s the combination of hitting on all three that make this a bit of a stretch. There’s a reason that sports books offer much better payouts on combination bets, and it’s not because they’re “suckers” as your uncle claims.

Even if you want to be extremely optimistic and say that each of our scenarios has a 75 percent chance of working out, it’d still be less than even odds that all three would work out in the same season.

Of course, that’s not how a full baseball season plays out- there will be injuries, performance surprises in both directions, and trades (that add or subtract to the Brewers’ short-term win total).

The important takeaway here, though, is that the Brewers aren’t that far off from being competitive based on PECOTA’s projections for 2017. A lot could go right or wrong to get the Brewers above or below its projected 78 wins, but a winning season is well within one standard deviation of a season.

In other words, we can imagine what player and team performances to look out for, and what might go right in what ends up ultimately being a winning season for Milwaukee. But even just with the randomness of a baseball season, the Brewers might already be there, and this spring there’s more reason for optimism than in the past few years.

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