The Brewers season took an odd turn around the All-Star break. The big talk leading up to the trade deadline was all about adding a starter, or at least some bullpen help (which they did in Anthony Swarzak). But a funny thing happened as it so often does in baseball, and the offense that had carried the team decided to go completely in the tank while the pitching slightly improved on it’s own. Eric Thames has been a shell of himself, the Eric Sogard magic wore off, and Ryan Braun has only been sporadically available. Trading for a starter, in all likelihood, would have made no difference at all.
The deadline came and went for the Brewers without much action after rumors of Quintana and Gray fizzled, and the offense continued to slump. Post-deadline moves tend not to be that excited, but David Stears pulled off a pretty nifty move by landing Neil Walker for a song from the struggling Mets.
Jonathan Villar, his .246 TAV, and constant bobbling of easy double play balls is easily the most frustrating Brewer of the season, and while his 0.5 WARP doesn’t sound THAT bad, his FRAA strikes me as just a tad on the high side for how he’s actually played. In any case, the Brewers’ problem isn’t defense, it’s offense, and Villar has been the Yuniesky Betancourt-sized hole in the offense all year. Villar is still a promising player and I’m not ready to punt on him completely, but I am perfectly willing to punt on him for the balance of this season.
Walker’s .326 TAV is a huge upgrade, and while a lackluster FRAA has his WARP as barely above Villar, sometimes the way you create value is just as important as the value itself. Walker is a remarkably consistent player, and the entire NL Central has been tortured by him at some point. He’s taken a small step back this year, but more than anything else, he’s destroying right-handed pitching, posting a Scooter Gennett-esque .293/.366/.498 slash line, and adding some much-needed pop to the lineup.
With so few games left in a tight race, small moves like this one can have exceptionally large impacts, and Walker has been instrumental in righting the Brewers’ ship. He’s not only recorded at least one hit in every game as a Brewer, he’s posted a positive Win Probability Added in four of six games, with a swing greater than a tenth of a win on two occasions. Walker was particularly instrumental in a late 7-6 win over the Pirates last week, and it is very likely they lose at least that game with a lesser hitter. He obviously will not continue to slash .435/.519/.565 for Milwaukee, but getting a week-long stretch of such production is exactly what you’re looking for with a move like this.
Walker is also only 31, still good with the bat, and potentially sign-able on a short term contract in the offseason. I suspect the Brewers believe in Villar (and their farm system) enough to avoid becoming desperate, but a switch hitting bat who can slide over to third in a pinch, and provide Villar insurance could be quite valuable on a short term deal. I always remember Walker as a Brewers killer, but in checking the stats that really isn’t the case, as he’s beaten up the Reds far more than anyone else in the National League Central, posting an .849 OPS against a .770 OPS versus the Brewers. In fact, in his career he has played better against everyone else in the division (including the Pirates), than he has against Milwaukee. Such statistics are fraught with small sample size problems, and this year’s Cubs are obviously not the Cubs of five years ago. Like everything else about Walker so far, it’s a fun tidbit that he’s a non-Brewers killer, and is in fact an “everyone else killer”. If the Brewers are going to rally back and make the postseason, he will likely be one of the big reasons. In some ways he already has been.
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