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Strategic Failure

The narrative of the 2017-2018 offseason for the Milwaukee Brewers will be one of success; to the vast majority of observers, the Brewers had an unexpected successful season, winning 86 games with a low-payroll, prospect developing, minor league veteran, emerging star team. That no one expected the Brewers to reach the playoffs will be used as ad hoc justification of the club’s strategies to reach this point in their supposed “building cycle.” Yet, even conceding the fact that the Brewers had quite a good season and will be deserving of much praise, it is difficult to look at the strategies employed by the front office and field management staff and call the season an unquestionable success:

The Milwaukee Brewers failed to spend approximately half of their typical payroll, estimated by inflation-adjusted payrolls of $107.7M (opening day 2015) and $113.9M (season close 2014; both expressed in 2017 U.S. Dollars), and did not touch anything close to a Top 15 prospect to bolster their roster via trade or spending throughout the season. That the club finished one game from the playoffs means that these facts ought to be scrutinized, as does each decision in the process.

Assessed by revenue, the Brewers 2017 payroll likely represented 25-to-26 percent of the franchise’s overall revenue, if industry trends reported by Forbes remained similar; this should lead to yet another season of solid income for the ownership group, following 2016’s $58.2M mark (which doubled income from 2015).

The Brewers subsequently missed the playoffs by one game, but at least they have their prospects and another stunning round of income due to the ownership group following the amazing austerity performance in 2016.


Related Reading:
Milwaukee Brewers: Looking Back on Tomorrow
Organizational Logic and Playoff Trades
Austerity and Collusion

Beyond questioning the front office’s risk aversion to dealing prospects (in the hopes of achieving either immediate MLB gains, or sustained MLB roster value in the case of a Jose Quintana or Sonny Gray type player), or the ownership group’s motivations (whether the group is more concerned about increasing income in order to expand capital expenditures at the expense of labor, or reaching the playoffs), Brewers fans and analysts can also spend the offseason assessing the field management and front office’s “bullpen starter day” strategy. One of the common arguments in favor of keeping prospects, instead of trading for Gray or Quintana, was that the Brewers’ starting pitching was not the club’s problem; instead, the club needed help in the batting order, or perhaps even the bullpen, before even considering an additional rotational option.

This argument was promulgated as though MLB pitchers never get injured, or that ineffectiveness may not riddle newly developed rookie starters down the stretch; no, the Brewers were to enter the stretch with some combination of Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Matt Garza, Brent Suter, and Brandon Woodruff. That’s at least how the common narrative went, nevermind that Garza’s Deserved Runs Average (DRA) suggested that his performance was not as it appeared on the surface, or that Woodruff was a middle-to-back rotation prospect facing a pennant run for his first stretch of MLB starts, or that even the admirable swingman Suter….well, there’s not much bad that anyone can say about Suter!

Late Season Back-End Date IP R Note
Michael Blazek 27-Jul 2.3 8 2-15 Loss / 1.5 GB / 84 win pace
Junior Guerra 29-Jul 3.0 0 1-2 Loss
Brent Suter 2-Aug 5.3 5 4-5 Loss
Matt Garza 3-Aug 5.7 1 2-1 Win
Brandon Woodruff 4-Aug 6.3 0 2-0 Win
Brent Suter 7-Aug 4.0 3 4-5 Loss
Matt Garza 8-Aug 3.3 8 4-11 Loss
Brandon Woodruff 9-Aug 5.7 2 0-4 Loss
Brent Suter 12-Aug 5.0 5 6-5 Win
Matt Garza 13-Aug 5.3 4 7-4 Win
Matt Garza 18-Aug 4.3 8 4-8 Loss
Brandon Woodruff 19-Aug 4.3 1 6-3 Win
Matt Garza 23-Aug 5.0 1 2-4 Loss
Matt Garza 29-Aug 3.3 6 2-10 Loss / 3.5 GB / 83 win pace
Brandon Woodruff 2-Sep 7.0 1 2-3 Loss
Brent Suter 3-Sep 3.0 0 7-2 Win
Matt Garza 6-Sep 2.7 5 1-7 Loss
Brandon Woodruff 11-Sep 5.0 6 0-7 Loss / 2.5 GB / 84 win pace
Brent Suter 12-Sep 3.0 2 5-2 Win
Jeremy Jeffress 15-Sep 2.0 2 10-2 Win
Brandon Woodruff 17-Sep 7.0 3 10-3 Win
Brent Suter 18-Sep 5.0 0 3-0 Win
Aaron Wilkerson 20-Sep 2.3 3 4-6 Loss
Brandon Woodruff 22-Sep 5.0 4 4-5 Loss
Brent Suter 23-Sep 5.3 1 4-3 Win / 1.0 Game back of Wild Card / 85-86 win pace
Brandon Woodruff 27-Sep 2.3 6 0-6 Loss
Brent Suter 28-Sep 5.0 3 4-3 Win
Junior Guerra 30-Sep 2.3 3 6-7 Loss / Eliminated from Playoff Eligibility
120.3 91 12-16 / 6.81 runs average (-28 runs prevented)

It is as though the Brewers front office could not have possibly found a long-term or short-term benefit, even in dealing top prospect Lewis Brinson, not through reaching the playoffs in 2017 (either through a division title or a Wild Card spot), not through additional revenue returned from the playoffs, and not through several years of club control for either of the top trade returns of the deadline, let alone a rotation spot for Gray or Quintana or anybody else for that matter. The club was destined to move into the stretch run of the season with a gang of pitchers that easily could have been expected to regress, or a fifth rotation spot that posted a median-at-best 5.88 runs average (RA9), and that was before any potential consideration of injury or ineffectiveness. When Jimmy Nelson went down in Chicago, ultimately requiring shoulder surgery that will probably result in lengthy absence during 2018 for the righty, the Brewers front office received the kiss of death for their fateful trade deadline decision.

What is troubling is that the spectre of the future is cited in favor of 2017’s risk averse strategy, as though the Brewers front office will not need to make this type of tactical move over and over again, from the 2017-2018 offseason to July 2018, from the 2018-2019 offseason to July 2019, and so on and so forth. At some point, reserved contracts, cash, and future value must be cashed into MLB wins. Thus far the club has failed to effectively use their resources.


 

Manager Craig Counsell, hands tied by the front office, administered a valiant “bullpen day” strategy to fill Nelson’s spot the remainder of the way. The Brewers were already a club that would require significant innings from Suter and Woodruff in the final month of the season, as Matt Garza (predictably) fell off his 3.68 ERA pace with a disastrous six start, 24.0 IP, 32 run month. Say what you like about Suter and Woodruff, both of whom arguably did their respective jobs to the very best of their abilities, not even Milwaukee’s veteran pitcher, a pitcher with a 3.48 ERA in 31.0 playoff innings, could answer the bell for the stretch call and one last chance at leading playoff glory. Suter, of course, was limited at the beginning of September due to a strained left rotator cuff injury that lost quality back rotation innings for the Brewers. I attended his glorious bullpen day against the Washington Nationals, and at the beginning of the month the strategy seemed so simple: string together a few Johnny Wholestaffs, and drive this club into the playoffs.

The strategy went south: Matt Garza was lit up one final time, the rookie Woodruff faded late, and that rough-and-tough gang of Johnny Wholestaffs expanded as both stamina-shortened Suter starts and “bullpen days” were frequently occurring within three days of one another. Along with Suter’s first bullpen day, Suter, Jeremy Jeffress, Aaron Wilkerson, and Junior Guerra worked 28.0 innings in eight starts. These short starts (3.5 IP/GS) were amplified by Woodruff’s last two efforts, ensuring that in half of the club’s last 16 games the Brewers bullpen would need to cover at least four innings, with four of those extended bullpen outings requiring at least six innings of work after the starter exited.

Thankfully, the offense picked up in the last month of the season. While the bats remained below average, producing approximately 4.35 runs scored per game, that mark represented significant improvement over August’s 3.81 RS/G mark. That the offense helped bail out the pitching in September explains why the Brewers fifth starters, replacements, and “bullpen days” were able to post a 7-7 mark in September. In fact, that September mark of 7-7 in back-end days was an improvement over late July short starts (Michael Blazek and Guerra) and August’s back rotation work (largely featuring Garza’s descent). One might be able to view this number as a success, and call into question the necessity of the club to seek additional starting pitching help at the July trade deadline (or even the waiver trade deadline at the end of August).

Starter Time Frame (W-L) IP R Approximate Runs Prevented
Zach Davies July 25 – Sept 26 (7-6) 81.7 29 13
Chase Anderson Aug 20 – Sept 29 (6-3) 51 16 11
Jimmy Nelson July 26 – Sept 8 (6-3) 54.7 IP 25 3
Brewers 19-12 (.613) 187.3 70 27

The Brewers spat on the market in July and August, instead resting their playoff fates on Junior Guerra (2 GS), Michael Blazek (1 GS), Matt Garza (6 GS), Brent Suter (8 GS), Brandon Woodruff (8 GS), Jeremy Jeffress (1 GS), and Aaron Wilkerson (2 GS, including his season closing gem in St. Louis, which was not a “bullpen day” as it turns out). The most unfortunate aspect of this series of roster making and game decisions is that the remaining Brewers rotation was phenomenal, helping to cover significant ground by picking up the entire squad, even through injury (Chase Anderson and Zach Davies after Jimmy Nelson’s injury, and Nelson and Davies during Anderson’s injury).


 

So the Brewers front office and ownership group determined that the best position for a talented club hanging in the playoff race was to gamble on the in-house talent, and then produce a game strategy that resulted in 120.3 innings over 28 starts, with 91 runs allowed (a performance that was approximately 28 runs below average). These figures do not include an attempt to assess the cumulative impact of adjacent “bullpen days” on Brewers relievers during a wicked stretch of close games, which resulted in a series of crushing bullpen losses on September 20, 21, and 22 (who can blame them, having worked more than a dozen innings leading into Knebel’s loss on September 20?); the crushing season-ending loss on September 30 was again preceded by nearly a dozen additional relief innings entering into Junior Guerra’s short start. Given that the same general gang of pitchers faced nine games within 2-runs, and another two within 3-runs, in the fifteen games leading into the playoff-ending loss, the bullpen workload was doubly compounded.

The Milwaukee Brewers front office put the field management staff in a position to run the arms into the ground, and start a less-than-stellar set of options for eating innings while producing quality innings, during a playoff run. It is a wonder that the club lasted this long, and that fact alone is attributable to the resilience of the team and generally exceptional performances by the relievers down the stretch.

What is stunning about the Brewers front office decision making process is that club faced injuries for both trade deadlines. The club was already piecing together starts for the injured Chase Anderson when the July deadline passed, and the August deadline passed after the club worked with injuries to Brandon Woodruff and Brent Suter (not to mention Matt Garza’s ineffectiveness). It is unconscionable that the front office lacks a scenario planning model robust enough to expect pitching injuries, or to expect a need for quality pitching depth, during a stretch run. Instead, the club stubbornly and unnecessarily charged into the playoff race undermanned and with a piecemeal strategy destined to shred the quality relievers that the front office worked to put in place in the bullpen. Needless to say, the front office has their work cut out after 2017, both in terms of expanding their imagination (as to what a contending club looks like) and improving their planning (in terms of assessing exogenous factors and risk pricing to build a contending roster).

If one can say that this unexpected gang of Brewers developing stars, prospects, minor league veterans, and other never-building nobodies stuck in the pennant race until the very end and will hopefully emerge from its lessons improved, one can say the exact same thing for the inexperienced front office staff for the Brewers: the lovingly-christened Slingin’ Stearns went cold when it mattered, went risk averse when the prices were right for winning now and in the future (from 2018-2020 in some cases), and managed to cover his transactional miscalculations by diving into a strategy doomed to overwork his entire pitching staff during the most important games of the season. If Mark Attanasio and the ownership group will likely have at least $50 million reasons to feel great about 2017, David Stearns will hopefully have as many opportunities to repeat and replay these decisions, step for step, until his risk aversion and scenario planning improve in time to appear a battle-tested veteran in 2018. The GM owes as much to his ownership group, regardless of their views of profiting versus winning, and most importantly to his players, which he allegedly so carefully procured without any forethought about finishing the deal.


Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas, USAToday Sports Images

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Price Index: All Urban Consumers (Current Series), 1947-2017. CUSR0000SA0. Retrieved September 23, 2017, from Bureau of Labor Statistics [Data Tool].

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3 comments on “Strategic Failure”

Spahnnie

Great in depth analysis. Trading Hader for Quintana and Brinson for Gray would seem to solidify now and the future. Acquiring Vogt, Walker and Swarzak were invaluable moves and almost got us there, and maybe the Cubs would have gotten us in the 9th and 10th as they seem to do to everyone, but to compete with the big boys you need stud starting pitching.

tileking

They couldn’t have gotten either Gray or Quintana for BOTH Hader and Brinson. So it’s a non-starter.

Nick

Nice work.

I was not in favor of trading Hader or Brinson or any of the top guys, but they could have picked up someone to help avoid those increasingly worrisome “bullpen days.”

Even giving Guerra, Wilkerson or someone else from the minors more of a true opportunity to start games and eat innings would have made more sense.

A lot of lessons here for the manager and front office.

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