Fun With Pythagoras: Winning Now!

By curious coincidence, this ragtag bunch of upstarts now known as the Milwaukee Brewers are winning. The rebuilding campaign looked terrible after the 2016 trade deadline, as a young team fell to 10-20 after the removal of Jonathan Lucroy and Will Smith. But the roster elements converged, forming an aggressive offensive identity and fortifying their pitching performance in just enough time to close the season with a 16-13 September & October. Even that 10-20 August mark was vastly below the club’s run Differential, and the post deadline club was near .500 with a 254 RS / 259 RA performance. Adding the strong 2017 start (16-16, 155 RS / 147 RA) to that season closing roster core creates a 42-49 record that betrays a 409 RS / 406 RA differential; over the last 162 games, these Brewers are 672 RS / 691 RA.

2017 Brewers Run Differential 162 W Pace
Current 155 RS / 147 RA 85
Best / Worst Bats +90 RS (April 19) / +20 RS (May 7) 90 / 83
Best / Worst Pitching +73 RA (April 15) / -52 RA (April 25) 88 / 75
Worst Bats / Worst Pitching -32 runs 77
Best Bats / Best Pitching +163 runs 97 (!!!)
Median +55.0 RS / +9.5 RA 88
Current Average +25 RS / +25 RA 85+
2017 Median 85
2017 Mode 85
2017 Mean 82.7

Fittingly, that 672 / 691 run differential is good for approximately 79 wins, which precisely matches Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection for the 2017 season. As is always worth noting, one standard deviation within a baseball season can constitute a massive six win swing, which basically means that the Brewers are a 73-to-85 win club.

This range conveniently outlines the spectrum of fan expectations for 2017, splitting please-tank-pessimists and time-to-win-optimists. The problem of the 2017 Brewers is literally a “glass half full / glass half empty” test for fans.

Furthermore, a 155 RS / 147 RA differential in 2017 already paces the Brewers for 85 wins, which is to distressingly say that the club is perfectly within the range of expected variance thus far. I’ve begun tracking Daily Pythagorean W-L records on BPMilwaukee Twitter, as it turns out that a portion of Brewers fans are (unsurprisingly!) hungry for such (fun!) information. As they say, this Brewers team is producing such great spreadsheets, I don’t even need to watch the games (;-D)!

Nevertheless, those wins are real: on the field, the club can set aside those Pythagorean W-L deviations and capitalize on the club at hand. As a number of National League expected-contenders have been nearly as unseasonably cold as the spring weather thus far, the Brewers’ deviation to 85 from 79 appears all the more real.

2017 Brewers Run Differential 162 W Pace
April – May 2017 (32 G) 155 RS / 147 RA 85
August 2016 – May 2017 (91 G) 409 RS / 406 RA 81+
May 10 2016 – May 7 2017 (162 G) 672 RS / 691 RA 79

Which obviously means it’s time to win in Milwaukee, and improve the club’s weaknesses.

2017 Brewers Major Areas for Improvement
CF Keon Broxton (0.1 WARP)
UTIL Nick Franklin (0.0 WARP)
RF Domingo Santana (-0.1 WARP)
2B Jonathan Villar (-0.2 WARP)
SP Z. Davies / W. Peralta / J. Nelson (-1.2 WARP aggregate)
High Leverage N. Feliz (89% leads converted / two blown ties [Both Losses])
RP C. Torres (-0.2 WARP)

At least two justifications support this view:

  • Unlike many contenders, the Brewers are ready to graduate a slew of advanced prospects that could potentially serve as realistic upgrades over the weakest margins of the current roster.
  • Unlike many contenders, the Brewers have the prospects to graduate players and make smart, aggressive moves to turn surplus into MLB wins. Milwaukee could trade half of their 2017 Top 10, and the likes of Freddy Peralta, Mario Feliciano, a resurgent Jake Gatewood or (dare I say) Taylor Williams, Brandon Woodruff, Demi Orimoloye, or Corbin Burnes are ready to stare into the abyss of forthcoming prospect hype. This is before one even considers the handful of “just interesting” prospects that fell outside of the BP Top 10.

Of course, there are three problems with this line of reasoning:

  • It is substantially feasible that the Brewers are playing at an 85-win level through sheer luck, and that regression back to 79 wins is readily within reach. In fact, if one controls for the fact that the Brewers have whipped the Reds more than their other opponents, and only face the Reds six more times in 2017, even that 73-win end of the deviation looks quite reasonable for 2017.
  • The Brewers are generally playing well with this current core, and aside from some improvements that can come from within the organization, it is questionable as to whether a series of trades for MLB talent would demonstrably bolster this club. Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, Ryan Cordell, and even Hernan Perez or Ivan De Jesus are internal candidates to bolster CF, RF, and 2B, if push comes to shove in the win-now department. Let’s not run through the pitching depth at the risk of firing shots in the coming Paolo Espino / Jorge Lopez World War.
  • The league as a whole is so mediocre as to negate the possibilities that many impact players will be available at the trade deadline.

An impasse. A true middle of the road for these intriguing Milwaukee Nine. Granted, there is no reason that GM David Stearns can’t split the difference, perhaps targeting “counterbuilding” trade strategies that simultaneously bolster the near- and far-term outlooks for the club. In this universe, imagine a trade involving Eric Thames or Matt Garza or even Manny Pina or Jett Bandy and some price-is-right trades involving prospects. This Brewers roster has enough holes short- and long-term that any number of strategical positions are worthwhile prior to the non-waiver trade deadline. It is time for the front office to begin justifying the acquisition cost for the best possible MLB talent to bolster the club now, the best possible in-system promotions to improve the club, and (paradoxically) the best price-is-right rebuilding deals (if any are remaining).

Of course, none of these scenarios consider the role of Milwaukee’s market size and revenue shortcomings in the equation. It must be emphasized that where other clubs might wait for their competitive window to be halfway open before they make strategic win-now moves, the Brewers justifiably must hunt down every additional source of revenue available to the club. The Brewers cannot ever waste an opportunity to win. They just cannot afford to do so! There is no “wait for next year” with piles of TV cash dependably flowing. Here the Brewers front office is justified in pursuing competitive MLB trades even if their window is only cracked; it’s why President Doug Melvin, no matter how frustrating the 2009s or 2012s or 2014s were, was always completely justified in trying to win and win-now forever. David Stearns has already proven himself able to assemble quite a stockpile of talent, but nobody prints pennants for that. It will be time for Stearns to prove that he can build an MLB winner before many expect; hopefully he’s ahead of the curve for those next strategic winning moves.

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