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Optimism Part Two: The Brewers Will Make the Playoffs

Just a few weeks ago, fellow BPMilwaukee writer Sean Roberts laid out a scenario where the Milwaukee Brewers become a .500 club in 2017. The Brewers, who PECOTA projects finishing 78-84, are just a few right breaks away from hitting that 81-win plateau, a feat they have only accomplished once in the past four seasons. We are all well aware of the current rebuilding state they are (have been) in, so it has not been a complete disaster in terms of future hope and prosperity. The system is loaded, there are quite a few important pieces at the Major League level, and the team has plenty of money to spend when the time is right (we hope). However, in today’s piece, I am here to tell you why this is the year. 2017 is the year that the Brewers shock the world and make the playoffs. Do I wholeheartedly believe that previous statement? Not entirely. But I will tell you – there are a couple of somewhat believable scenarios that could make this happen.

With the Brewers projected to finish 78-84, we are looking for a few players to exceed expectations. Last season, the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants made it to the Wild Card game with 87 wins. And in 2014, the Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates made it to the one-game playoff with 88 wins respectively. With that being said, I am going to try to find ten additional wins amongst this current roster.

Keon Broxton Becomes a Budding Superstar
There may not be a player who has gotten more analytical love than Keon Broxton. After putting up a 1.4 WARP in only 244 plate appearances last season, there have been numerous underlying numbers that show us he could be much better. We will begin with his extremes at the plate. Broxton led Major League Baseball in strikeout rate at 36.1 percent for those with more than 240 plate appearances. That is quite poor. When you look at the rest of that “leaderboard”, you will see it is not necessarily ideal to be a leader in strikeouts.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, Broxton finished 11th in the league in walk percentage at 14.8 percent (remember, a minimum of 240 plate appearances). That is better than Carlos Santana and Dexter Fowler, both guys who have been known for their plate discipline. In a perfect world, Broxton would cut down on his strikeouts and maintain his walk rate, but that might not be the type of hitter he is. The hope is that even if he continues to run a high strikeout rate, he can continue to walk 14-plus percent of the time.

Not only did the centerfielder impress with his above-average plate discipline, but he showcased what kind of pop he has off the bat. For players with a minimum of 30 batted ball events, Broxton finished 4th in exit velocity. The three men in front of him include the likes of Nelson Cruz, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton, while the three that trail Broxton are Matt Holliday, Miguel Cabrera, and David Ortiz. Now that is a list you want to be a part of!

Earlier this month, I discussed Broxton’s stellar defense in centerfield, according to Statcast. Yet strangely enough, he only posted a 0.5 FRAA last season, meaning he was rated as a pretty average fielder by Baseball Prospectus’ metrics. It will be very interesting to see what his FRAA number looks like this year. If his FRAA number begins to represent what Statcast’s new defensive data is showing us, his WARP should take a healthy leap forward. Combine that with elite exit velocity, an impressive walk rate, and plus-speed on the base paths, Broxton could possibly emerge as the best player on this ball club.

Broxton’s current WARP projection is only giving him 319 plate appearances (half of the playing time allotted to Brewers’ centerfielders). If we give Broxton 85 percent of the playing time, his projection shoots up to 2.2. And now let’s assume that he exceeds expectations due to everything I mentioned earlier, and we get a 4.4-win player! The Brewers just added three wins. However, we did just subtract part of the 0.6 WARP Lewis Brinson is projected to provide in centerfield. So let’s just say he still provides 0.6 WARP in fewer plate appearances, because why not? We are trying to have some fun here folks.

Keon Broxton’s Current WARP Projection: 1.4
Keon Broxton’s Updated “Projection”: 4.4 (+3 wins added)

 

Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar Are Not Completely Awful
According to the PECOTA projections, Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar are expected to make up 95 percent of the plate appearances at first base for the Brewers this season (the other five percent is Travis Shaw). Between Thames and Aguilar, they are projected for a negative WARP! Negative! PECOTA is telling us that the guy who hit 124 home runs in Korea the past three seasons and the other guy who tied for third this spring in home runs will collectively be worse than a replacement level player! I just cannot buy that.

Trust me, I am not sold on either Thames or Aguilar. I understand Thames raked in Korea, but he had an unsuccessful first attempt in Major League Baseball and baseball stateside is a completely different game. As for Aguilar, he has yet to prove himself at the Major League Level. I also detailed last week that I am not entirely sure how they plan on utilizing the two sluggers. However, a negative WARP out of the first base position seems unrealistic to me, even with my reservations on both players.

But hey, this is an optimistic article…The Brewers are making the playoffs! If this dream does come true, I can guarantee they will need more production out of first base than they are projected to, and I do not think it is too absurd of an assumption to wrap the mind around.

In the case of the Thames, let’s just take a peak at some other projections. ZiPS is projecting the 30-year-old slugger to be worth 1.2 wins, while Steamer is very optimistic, projecting two wins and for Thames to be the best player on the team! I look at these other projections because predicting players from Korea is not an easy thing to do. Each projection system has a different way to interpret certain numbers from overseas and how they will perform. Even though PECOTA is down on Thames, their 90th percentile ranking projects him having a 2.6 WARP. That may be the most unrealistic scenario for Thames to achieve if you ask PECOTA, but it is a projection nonetheless! I am giving Thames that 2.6 WARP.

For Aguilar, he is projected a 0.1 WARP in 119 plate appearances, split between first base and as a pinch-hitter. To me, that number seems reasonable and I would not expect it to waver to any extreme. His bat has not hit well against lefties in recent years at the minor league level (a matchup I would assume the Brewers would attempt to pursue) and he will provide zero defensive value. Yet in the case of this article and my preference for round numbers, Aguilar will exceed his 0.1 WARP projection and projection 0.3 wins above replacement player. He will become a solid depth piece and have some valuable pinch-hitting appearances throughout the season.

Thames & Aguilar Current WARP Projection: -0.1
Thames & Aguilar Updated “Projection”: 2.9 (+3 wins added)

Jonathan Villar Repeats his 2016 Performance
Jonathan Villar posted a very impressive 4.7 WARP last season, on route to leading Major League Baseball in stolen bases with 62. The Jonathan Villar trade has been the best deal for David Stearns, production wise, as of yet, and the hope is Villar can continue with that production.

The age-26 infielder is only projected to be a 1.6-win player this season, drastically down from 2016. What is the reason for the drop in production? My understanding is that it is because of two things. One, he has not had a track record of previous success (a lot of this is due to lack of plate appearances). Secondly, he ran an extremely high BABIP, .373 to be precise, which ranked fourth in the league. The argument is that he had a lot of “good luck”. However, fast players are always known to run higher BABIP’s due to the “luck” they can create with their speed. And even in prior years, Villar has had a higher than average BABIP.

Villar’s speed will continue to help his offensive production going forward. Another positive to take from last season is how he progressed through the season. After running a .410 (!) BABIP the first half of the season (337 plate appearances), that BABIP came back down to earth in the second half to .328 in 342 plate appearances. His batting average did dip from .298 to .270, but his slugging percentage spiked from .426 to .493. He hit seven more home runs in the second half of the season and stole the exact same number of bases.

Lastly, Villar will be moving from shortstop to second base. With 0.9 FRAA last season at shortstop, Villar was pretty much a league average defensive shortstop. Combine that with an above-average season at the plate and that makes a pretty good player, which he was last season. The switch over to second should only increase his defensive value, as second is a much easier position to play than shortstop. Also, Villar has set some pretty lofty expectations for himself:

I am definitely a fan of the switch over to second, which will also allow for Orlando Arcia to find his rhythm at the Major League level. Villar’s athleticism and defensive skills in the field should allow for him to at least maintain, and hopefully exceed, his defensive value in years past.

To top off the ridiculous lineup I have created in this hypothetical, my prediction is that Villar will almost repeat his 2016 performance, adding an additional three wins to his current PECOTA projection.

Jonathan Villar Current WARP Projection: 1.6
Jonathan Villar Updated “Projection”: 4.6 (+3 wins added)

To summarize, I have just added nine more wins to the current Brewers roster, putting them in range of a Wild Card birth. Keon Broxton will emerge as one of the better centerfielders in the National League, Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar will not be a complete disaster at first base, and Jonathan Villar will repeat his 2016 season. If you include Sean Roberts’s original feature on the Brewers’ PECOTA projections, we could easily sprinkle in some additional value from Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, and a starting pitcher. Easy enough, right?

Not so fast. All of this might sound so easy, but there is a reason why projections are not as optimistic on these scenarios. There are plenty of valid and explainable reasons why these players are not projected to do as well as my wild assumptions. And on top of that, my assumptions also mean that I were to assume the other current PECOTA projections would be accurate, such as Travis Shaw and Orlando Arcia posting a 1.9 WARP apiece. A lot could go wrong with those two players. Yet, a lot could right between the two of them. We will all find out beginning today.

My assumptions also include zero pitchers exceeding PECOTA projections, which was not an accident. The rotation is…not good. I contemplated writing an article why Chase Anderson was going to be a good pitcher this season, only to find out his second half stats from last season were due to an extreme 94.3 Left On Base (LOB) percentage in August and 90.3 LOB percentage in September and October. Junior Guerra and Zach Davies put together better than expected seasons in 2016, yet there are many indicators that regression is on its way. Jimmy Nelson is, well, Jimmy Nelson, and seems to disappoint our mildly lofty expectations set for him each season. Nevertheless, BPMilwaukee’s Seth Victor sees some encouraging signs from the former second round pick. Then there is Wily Peralta, who may be the most volatile of the group. If you check out Dylan Svoboda’s latest BPMilwaukee analysis on the righty, there may still be some hope.

The odds are the Brewers will not compete for a playoff spot, let alone be in any sort of contention come the end of July. But it is the start of a new season and it is always fun to daydream when Opening Day comes. Last time I checked, the Brewers and Cubs start with the same record. Maybe the future is closer than it seems.

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