The Undeniable Average

A common line regarding the 2017 Brewers is that the pitching staff is the weakness of the club. It’s easy to see this: eight of the club’s 19 losses have occurred when the club scored five or more runs, which of course means that the pitching staff was either bad or horrible in those games. Moreover, the struggles of a few pitchers have been quite loud; Neftali Feliz is the club’s second worst pitcher (behind Wily Peralta), and his blowups have cost the Brewers chances to win several late tie games. Peralta himself was the subject of relatively intense preseason debate about his rotation role, and the microscope was firmly focused on his right arm. Interestingly enough, the “horrible” Brewers pitching performances stop here, as Tommy Milone and Jhan Marinez are no longer with the club, and a host of other arms are outplaying some of their peripheral performances (see Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Jimmy Nelson, and even the suddenly unstoppable Matt Garza).

For all this, the club is not a bad pitching squad. On the most recent road trip, the 162-game projections reached a pace that could potentially be 50 runs better than average (meaning that an 81-win club might be expected to win 86 games should they swap their staff with Milwaukee’s). This is largely thanks to an excellent bullpen. Even after Sunday’s harsh 13-run correction, Milwaukee remains approximately nine runs better than average.

Thus far, in terms of overall performance, the team is tempting fate at the wicked hitter’s paradise that is Miller Park. According to Baseball Reference, the club’s three-year park factor for pitchers reached 1.03 (where 1.00 is average), which is quite an inflation over the league (in a 4.74 RA/G environment, a league average club would balloon from 768 runs allowed to approximately 791 runs allowed just by virtue of playing at Miller Park). The club is allowing a high number of line drives and relatively low number of ground balls, but are making things work by limiting fly balls and inducing a strong number of pop-ups. Of course, any discussion of the pitching must emphasize that the fielding is anywhere from mediocre to terrible depending on which efficiency factors one chooses.

Team Pitching Percentage (%) NL Rank
Groundball % 45.7 6th Worst (High)
Line Drive % 26.5 2nd Worst (High)
Flyball % 20.2 3rd Best (Low)
Popup % 7.6 4th Best (High)
[BP Defensive Efficiency .682 8th (High)]
[B-R Defensive Efficiency .665 15th (High)]

These performances are not necessarily evenly distributed, however, as the starting pitching staff has been the source of most issues thus far in 2017. In order to assess performance, I used three statistics:

  • Basic runs prevented, which assesses a pitcher’s actual runs allowed against what is expected based on their league and park.
  • A DRA-based runs prevented, which prorates the Deserved Runs Allowed statistic over a pitcher’s workload.
  • A cFIP-based runs prevented, which prorates a contextualized Fielding Independent Pitching metric over a pitcher’s workload based on their park and league factor.
  • If one is concerned about the truths of these statistics, “Runs Prevented” means “this is what happened,” while DRA and cFIP are variations of “what might we have expected to happen?” (Or, after metric adjustments for 2017, “might we expect a pitcher to improve, stand pat, or decline?”).
Brewers GS IP R RnPrv DRA DRA_RnPrv cFIP cFIP_RnPrv
C. Anderson 9 48.7 25 1.41 6.08 -6.49 1.02 -0.53
Z. Davies 9 46.3 28 -2.90 7.08 -11.32 1.13 -3.26
J. Nelson 8 44.3 21 3.02 5.44 -2.76 0.97 0.72
W. Peralta 8 42 28 -5.23 4.96 -0.37 0.97 0.68
M. Garza 5 29.7 11 5.10 4.34 1.78 0.99 0.16
T. Milone 3 21 15 -3.61 6.28 -3.27 1.08 -0.91
P. Espino 1 4 3 -0.83 6.68 -0.80 1.09 -0.20
J. Guerra 1 3 2 -0.37 2.64 0.75 0.8 0.33
Park Factor 4.88 -3.41 -22.48 -3.01

The biggest outliers thus far are Chase Anderson and Zach Davies, who have clearly the most to lose from DRA but much less so from cFIP. Below, a further look at DRA will demonstrate why this is so.

Here is the same statistical cocktail applied to the bullpen:

Brewers G IP R RnPrv DRA DRA_RnPrv cFIP cFIP_RnPrv
C. Torres 23 24.7 9 4.39 4.89 -0.03 1.03 -0.40
C. Knebel 23 22 2 9.93 1.51 8.24 0.63 4.41
J. Barnes 23 21.7 9 2.77 2.17 6.53 0.8 2.35
N. Feliz 20 18 14 -4.24 4.51 0.74 0.97 0.29
J. Hughes 18 17 9 0.22 5.51 -1.19 0.96 0.37
J. Marinez 15 16.7 12 -2.94 5.71 -1.54 1.02 -0.18
O. Drake 17 15.7 7 1.51 2.52 4.12 0.87 1.11
R. Scahill 6 10.3 6 -0.42 5.67 -0.90 1.06 -0.34
B. Suter 5 7.3 4 -0.04 10.3 -4.40 1.24 -0.95
D. Goforth 1 1 0 0.54 1.83 0.34 0.65 0.19
T. Jungmann 1 0.7 1 -0.62 13.3 -0.65 1.05 -0.02
Park Factor 4.88 11.10 11.25 6.84

It’s quite interesting to see that compared to the starting pitchers, the Brewers bullpen is “what you see is what you get.” Granted, there are some fluctuations among Jacob Barnes, Corey Knebel, and Oliver Drake (to take three of the best relievers), but on the whole the bullpen is good nearly anyway one slices it. The major fluctuations come from Carlos Torres and Neftali Feliz, with both pitchers basically evening out to average however one looks at their lines.

Looking ahead, one can use individual DRA run metrics in order to understand where particular pitchers are falling short. These statistics measure the run value when a pitcher does not allow a ball in play, the run value on hits, and the run value on preventing hits on batted balls in play. In terms of the last two categories, the defense may weigh more heavily than the first.

Here a “negative” number means a pitcher has “prevented” runs, while a “positive” number means that they have not.

DRA Values NotInPlay HitRuns OutRuns
C. Knebel -3.1 -3.3 -10
J. Barnes -0.6 -3.3 -8.2
O. Drake -0.6 -2.2 -6.1
M. Garza 0.4 -0.6 -2.5
N. Feliz 0.3 -0.6 -2.3
J. Hughes 1 0.3 2.6
J. Nelson 0.3 1.9 4.4
B. Suter 0.3 1.1 0.1
C. Anderson 0.7 2.4 1.3
Z. Davies 2.1 4.2 5.2

If one is looking for a silver lining of sorts, it is worth noting that Zach Davies and Jimmy Nelson are struggling most on converting outs on batted balls in play. This deserves a further look into their individual game logs and pitch records. Chase Anderson and Zach Davies are getting whipped on hits, as well. Meanwhile, the bullpen is excelling in terms of preventing runs on batted balls, which raises the question of whether the Brewers front office and field management staff are using different defensive strategies at different points in the game (this can be assessed both quantitatively and through qualitative methods).

Overall, it is difficult to be upset with this pitching staff.

  • In terms of actual runs prevented, the club is currently on pace to mightily improve their mark of 7 runs prevented in 2016. Here, an 81-win club might be expected to improve to 84-wins simply by virtue of hiring the Brewers pitching staff. (When you’re ready to scoff at this, remember that the club is playing in 4.88 RA/G environment thus far).
  • In terms of the most negative outlook (DRA), the team might be expected to correct to a -30 runs prevented pace over 118 games. This pace would basically take an 81-win club and turn them into a 78-win club; should the Brewers’ offense keep up their pace, the club might be expected to win approximately 85 games. This does not look great, but it is also not the end-of-the-world disaster some fans proclaim about these arms.
  • Of course, cFIP almost perfectly splits the difference, basically seeing the Brewers on pace to match their 2016 runs prevented performance at hitting 81-wins.
  • Taking the strongest pitching and batting outlook, there is real shot at a competitive season kicking around this roster. Depending on how one weighs the defense and line drive / groundball outlook, however, there is some reason to expect the bats to do the heavy lifting (but, that’s okay, because as they say, “Pitching wins championships except for when hitting does”).

Each of these outlooks provides interesting fodder for the trade deadline. In one sense, if one follows the actual runs prevented performance, it may be worth pitching Anderson, Nelson, and Davies as much as possible, since the bullpen is boosting the rotation and it is worth seeing whether this trio can improve. In another sense, if one follows the negative outlook, the pitching staff is almost certainly an area that could be bolstered either by high-cost or low-cost trades. Like cFIP, David Stearns would do well to split the difference, both by promoting key prospects as they are ready to serve in the bullpen or rotation, and trading prospects as they return arms that can help the club now or in the next year.

Related Articles

Leave a comment