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Out West

It is August 18, 2017. The Milwaukee Brewers are one game out of first place in the National League Central, and four and a half games back of the Colorado Rockies in the Wild Card. So this west coast trip will not be inconsequential for the Brewers, a mere extended trip while playing out the string to develop players and allow the youngsters to take their knocks at the MLB level. Milwaukee is returning one of their best pitchers (Chase Anderson), realigning their starting rotation due to their recent (and upcoming) off days, and reigniting their offense. To the last point, the bats scored 35 runs over a seven game homestand; according to Baseball Reference it last took the club 13 games to score 35 runs prior to that homestand.

Team RS vs. NL/Park RA vs. NL/Park 162 RS / RA (W)
Brewers +3 +18 +4 / +24 (83)
Rockies -8 +66 -11 / +88 (88)

Milwaukee enters the hitting paradise of Coors Field as a pitching-first ballclub, which is quite a paradox given recent seasons’ strengths and the general adage that the Brewers are a bat-first organization. What’s fascinating is that adjusted for park factor, the Rockies have a below average offense within the National League, and they too are having a successful 2017 on the strength of pitching. So, the clubs are both playing to their strengths for this series, as the Brewers arms have a chance to retire a below average offensive club, but the Rockies arms are several stages ahead of those in Milwaukee and therefore will be assumed to have more firepower to hold the Brewers in check.

The full series will be driven by pitchers that are ostensibly due for corrections between their Earned Runs Average (ERA; which gauges earned runs per nine IP) and Deserved Runs Average (DRA; which scales a pitcher’s expected performance according to park, batted ball type, weather, fielding, and other factors). For a series at Coors Field, this could lead one to draw hasty conclusions, as the wicked park dimensions and altitude could alter mechanics, stamina, and stuff to an extent that is not necessarily representative of a pitcher’s overall performance level.

Brewers Probable IP DRA ERA / FIP Rockies Probable IP DRA ERA / FIP
M. Garza 96.7 4.85 4.38 / 4.76 G. Marquez 113.7 4.96 4.13 / 3.79
B. Woodruff 12.0 3.87 1.50 / 4.38 C. Bettis 7.0 2.14 0.00 / 2.56
C. Anderson 90.3 4.24 2.89 / 3.43 K. Freeland (LHP) 127.7 4.91 3.74 / 4.75

In this series, it is worth questioning whether rookie Brandon Woodruff and breakout Chase Anderson will thrive due to their lack of curveballs. Anderson’s arsenal does feature a curve, but he also has had solid success with his change up in 2017, which he throws slightly more frequently than the hook and nearly as effectively (.171 Batting Average against (AVG), .293 Slugging Percentage against (SLG) for the change, as opposed to .159 AVG, .254 SLG for the curve in 2017). The righty also features a gang of fastballs and a hard slider/cutter that can walk a tightrope between limiting hits on batted balls in play (slider/cutter), drawing groundballs (“sinker” / hard running fastball), and generating whiffs (“four seamer” / true rising fastball). Woodruff has become a fan favorite due to his minor league stats and prospect status built on the sturdy foundation of a middle rotation fastball / slider / change set, and the slider is basically a sharp nickel curve that could conceivably weather the altitude more effectively than a big breaker.

Highlighting team offenses, it is striking how much the Brewers are built on depth, and a direct comparison with the Rockies demonstrates that what Milwaukee lacks in star power they more than reclaim in quality and cross-roster parity. Take a look at each club’s bats with 0.9 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) or more. I also added Total Average (TAv) to help discern which players might be bat-first and which might be glove-first:

Top Brewers Bats TAv WARP Top Rockies Bats TAv WARP
T. Shaw .305 4.1 C. Blackmon .328 5.6
O. Arcia .264 2.9 N. Arenado .308 4.4
R. Braun .309 2.2 DJ LeMahieu .262 3.3
E. Thames .303 1.9 T. Story .254 1.9
M. Pina .269 1.5 G. Parra .294 1.6
D. Santana .289 1.4 P. Valaika .281 1.1
K. Broxton .267 1.0
H. Perez .251 0.9
E. Sogard .295 0.9
J. Aguilar .277 0.9

The Brewers’ biggest stars of Travis Shaw, Orlando Arcia, and Ryan Braun (the only 2.0 WARP [or better] players) lack the punch of Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and DJ LeMahieu. Outside of that trio for the Rockies, however, the Brewers have a much stronger roster on the merits of simply not “falling off a cliff” in terms of useful roles and potential production outside of the stars. Milwaukee actually appears to be exploiting the concept of replacement depth somewhat, by riding superutility Hernan Perez through an absurdly flexible role, rotating Eric Thames between 1B and the OF in order to land Jesus Aguilar additional PA, and also adroitly using the waiver wire to add Eric Sogard (Stephen Vogt is not far behind at 0.7 WARP, and the lefty catcher bat will add more versatility to the club by returning to the roster in Colorado).


 

What’s most fun about this series is that not only are the Brewers in the playoff hunt deep into August, they’re fighting for their contention shot against another Senior Circuit upstart in the Rockies. While many expected the Rockies to be a good club entering 2017, certainly more than those expecting the same for the Brewers, Colorado is also experiencing their first contending shot in seven years (they remained within a few games of first place deep into September in 2010). Between 2011 and 2016, the Rockies received a reputation as a type of neverbuilding limbo team, and their emergence after hiring GM Jeff Bridich in October of 2014 firmly plants the Rockies in playoff arrival mode within three years of his hire. This is ahead of both the much venerated Cubs (2012-2015 from hire to playoffs under new front office) and Astros (also 2012-2015), which raises questions about whether the scorched earth version of the rebuild under a new management team is as effective an MLB franchise building strategy as fans make it out to believe. Or as necessary a strategy as some believe.

David Stearns also has his Brewers arriving early thus far, but 2017 is simply a test run for 2018 at this point, which will be his third year in Milwaukee. Stearns has an opportunity to challenge the Cubs and Astros as well, reaching the playoffs three years from his hire date, which is particularly satisfying given his direct pedigree (his previous stint coming in Houston) and the divisional competition and geographical proximity with the vaunted Hall of Fame Cubs. In this regard, the Rockies are as much a building model as the oft-cited Cubs and Astros, for they are revising a clear industry standard (rebuild-to-playoffs in four seasons) without the hype or branding of the more “popular” rebuilding efforts in the league. Stearns will already have time to prove he can follow suit by accomplishing a playoff run in 2018, but this west coast trip will have a substantial say in whether he is successful in fully bucking that industry trend.


Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USAToday Sports Images

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