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An Ode to Chumps

In my household, a “chump” comes as highly regarded as any baseball player not named Jose Altuve, Khris Davis, Geoff Jenkins, or Scott Podsednik. I owe this concept to one of my closest friends and baseball watchers, when we cut our teeth with a wrecking crew tasked with watching the likes of Seth McClung, Craig Counsell, Vinny Rottino, and Brian Shouse on the 2007 Brewers. Those were the days, not unlike these heady 2017 days, when a rough-and-tumble gang of elite prospects were cutting their teeth to the tune of a 26-17 record on May 19th (sound familiar!?). That bizarre mix of up-and-coming superstars and scrap heap punks ultimately succumbed to the contending Cubs in a gutwrenching collapse, but they solidified the appeal of the chump as baseball’s greatest driving force.

You see, a chump is a guy, certainly not a superstar, definitely not a long-term average player, maybe a one-time average player, but not really a replacement player in the forgettable sense, perhaps a good replacement player in the memorable sense, a guy sitting on the heap that just needs his chance; there is something memorable, poetic, and ultimately audacious about a chump. (Okay, after checking back, Craig Counsell was a 17.3 WARP player, definitely not a chump. Perhaps #1 in the Chump Hall of Fame?). A chump has no right! to do that, and there he went, making memorable baseball plays, contributing to a winner, or just generally going about the diamond with a spark that even some superstars cannot match. You see, a chump is playing for his chance, his job, his livelihood, and when he gets that chance and succeeds, it’s the best thing in baseball. Better than superstars. Better than hype prospects. A chump might have been a Player-To-Be-Named-Later (PTBNL) in not one but two trades during their respective career; a chump might have been passed up during a couple of waiver windows, only to return with a vengeance at a later date; a chump might have made their MLB debut at age-31 after having traveled across the globe in the singular quest to throw the best splitter in baseball for a time.

So Craig Counsell played 334 PA for the 2007 Brewers with a .222 Total Average (TAv) and 4.9 Fielding Runs Above Average, good for a sparkling 0.2 WARP during that campaign. Now, Counsell has inherited a team that’s even better than those McClungs and Rottinos, for this leader has his Hernans, Keons, Jetts, and Jacobs, among other notable guys. That does not even scratch the surface of other lovable replacement players, like Chase Anderson (who just keeps riding the negative WARP and is therefore not a chump) and Jimmy Nelson (who may be a chump for learning the split change), or system guys like Brent Suter. That does not even include the prospects learning their way, like Zach Davies and Orlando Arcia, both forging roles as serviceable MLB regulars. Like 2007, Ryan Braun is also around, and he’s still fantastic. Some things never change.

These Brewers are just an absurd gang of ragtaggers who just won’t quit. You like situational baseball? These Brewers advance runners at a solid rate, have one of the best productive out percentages in the 2017 NL, and also have one of the highest totals of pinch hits. Oh yeah they also strike out like it’s going out of style, draw some walks, and hit the ball over the fence. Their bullpen is driving the bulk of their pitching staff success despite the loud (and expensive) shortcomings of their closer. Like 2007, we’re playing 4.70+ R/G baseball again, but unlike 2007 these Brewers are not outplaying their run differential. Perhaps one could see the collapse of the 2007 Brewers coming as their early record outpaced their runs scored and runs allowed, but there’s no such luck for this 2017 crew….Pythagoras says they are a 25-18 club, a true top five team on the Senior Circuit.

How, you ask? How did the Brewers assemble this club?

First, they made a whole bunch of transactions that did not make sense on paper throughout the offseason. That’s right, by nearly any metric one could design, the Martin Maldonado trade did not look good. The Neftali Feliz signing was questionable even for a club that needed to spend money. Almost anyone could have picked apart their starting rotation, and hey the starting rotation is weak!, but here we are watching an above-average pitching staff thanks to a strong bullpen and Miller Park’s hitting paradise. I panned their offseason every chance I could because none of this made sense, and I couldn’t be happier to be wrong and enjoying this club…even though their moves did not look great on paper! Cognitive dissonance is the next market inefficiency.

Second, and I’ve selected a group of ten chumps to demonstrate this below, ten chumps worth approximately 6.3 of the Brewers’ 8.4 WARP entering Friday’s game, the Brewers are giving playing time to a group of extremely advanced minor league players that previously had relatively limited (or no) MLB pedigree. These are players that are almost all below 2.0 career WARP, and Eric Thames is the only one threatening 3.0 WARP thus far, and have lists of shortcomings and career detours that could fill the pages of articles galore (some have appeared on this very site!). Perhaps the most important aspect of the Brewers rebuild thus far is not the (boring) assemblage of prospects, but the continual answer to that question, “What if we let this guy play?” Incidentally, several of these players are appearing in peak-range seasons, which suggests that even if these players do not have long-term futures in Milwaukee, this might be the ideal spot on the normal curve where their skills overtake their weaknesses. These players have been adjusting and refining their respective games for years, and now have a chance to showcase their skills in regular MLB time. This is decidedly not the ideal “Next Championship Contending Core” idolized by the win-never cohort of Brewers rebuilding fans, but they are ironically the Next Contending Core if one follows the Runs Scored / Runs Allowed and strengths of this current cast.

An ode to chumps, ranked by Fantastic Chump Factor (FCF), a perfect companion to the 2017 Brewers Top 10 prospect list. The greatest FCF meets three Chump Factors:

An Ode to Chumps (Age) Career TAv/DRA (WARP) Factor One Factor Two Factor Three
Hernan Perez (26) .247 (1.8) Superutility Waiver Claim Minor League Free Agent
Junior Guerra (32) 3.94 (2.1) age-31 rookie (2016) Waiver Claim 7yrs International Play
Eric Thames (30) .277 (2.9) 1443 AA & AAA PA DFA’d / Released (twice) 3yrs KBO
Manny Pina (30) .261 (0.9) PTBNL (Twice!) 2353 AA & AAA PA
Oliver Drake (30) 3.57 (0.8) PTBNL 6yrs AA & AAA Splitter-First Pitcher
Jesus Aguilar (27) .239 (-0.3) Waiver Claim 2301 AA & AAA PA
Jett Bandy (27) .256 (1.3) 31st Round Pick 1087 AA & AAA PA
Keon Broxton (27) .270 (1.9) 1613 AA & AAA PA 300+ PA & 2.35 AB/K
Domingo Santana (24) .279 (1.4) Traded Twice 1374 AA & AAA PA -14.6 FRAA
Jacob Barnes (27) 2.70 (1.3) 14th Round Pick 3yrs AA & AAA Slider-First Pitcher

An ode to chumps in 2017 is providing sensible win-now moves, at the right price, given the fact that this may be the best convergence of seasons for this uncanny group of grinders. This is the 2002 Angels for the Ivy League Analytics era, a perfect storm of nobodies ready to mash and dash any chance they get, a perfect collection of guys simultaneously having their best seasons. On a 162-game scale, the Brewers offense is on pace to score 95 runs more than an average NL/Miller Park club, and the pitching has swollen to a pace that would be 60 runs better than average (note: the current average run environment is scaled to a 79-win club in 2017 NL/Miller Park). Even if you are inclined to not believe in that park-inflated figure, the bats appear strong enough to turn an average team into a 90-win threshold club. This is all before any of the club’s next-wave prospects reach the MLB. It is impossible to ignore this start, even if it’s “not real,” even if it’s “not a part of the plan,” especially given the Brewers’ obscene stash of cash and prospects ready to maximize MLB wins.

I have previously written that the biggest mistake in the self-perpetuating myth of the rebuild is assuming that time is linear. Rebuilding time is not linear, and this 2017 club is delivering an entertaining exclamation point to that argument: this club could indeed have a chance to win more MLB games than the 2018, 2019, or 2020 Brewers, for this set of contingencies are perhaps more favorable and most pressure free. This instantiation of the Milwaukee Nine are your perfect club precisely through their imperfections, their agglomeration of “this shouldn’t be happening” at every molecular level. In economic development, a common teaching is that governments can’t pick winners, they can at best provide favorable circumstances to produce economic success. So too with MLB front offices: this is the winner that the Brewers are presented with, so now it is time to maximize the odds of winning. The beauty of the 2015-2016 rebuilding campaign is that the right moves during the 2017 season could further bolster this club’s competitive stature for the coming years; if time is not linear, the right moves could bend the probabilities slightly closer to Milwaukee’s favor.

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