Last year, amidst some projections that suggested the Milwaukee Brewers would struggle to beat the 70-win mark, PECOTA stuck with bullish preseason estimates in the upper-70s. The deep Brewers roster was also bolstered by high floor developing players like Domingo Santana and Zach Davies, as well as second-chancers like Travis Shaw and Chase Anderson, and the club outperformed even those rosy estimates. Now, on PECOTA 2018 day, the Brewers are stuck right back where their Run Differentials (Runs Scored / Runs Allowed) placed them all last year: 83 wins. Against an atrophied Cubs roster that has to-date remained silent on the top pitching free agents (and, really, remained silent overall), the Brewers gained significant ground, closing the double-digit 2017 preseason gap to a handful of projected wins for 2018. Should the Brewers make good on their rumored / expected starting pitching move, the club could further close the gap against the frontrunning Lakeview Nine. 83 keeps the Brewers on par with the reloading St. Louis Cardinals, who have also had a relatively active offseason, and right behind Wild Card leaders out west (this time around, it’s Colorado that is projected to fall behind, while Arizona and San Francisco contend).
Since PECOTA is a probabilistic model, which means that it is designed to reflect the most probable outcome in a distribution of projected outcomes, Brewers fans should keep in mind that “84” is not some special or magic number. As demonstrated last season, a club that was expected (at best) to flirt with .500 surged ahead and competed for the playoffs, but that surge was not even greater than one standard deviation away from the projected win total. These Brewers could indeed use their strengths to once again push the club ahead of schedule by contending for a playoff spot or winning the division in 2018, or they could indeed sputter in development patterns or role depreciation and return closer to .500. What PECOTA reflects is that the Brewers’ big offseason moves (trading for Christian Yelich, signing Lorenzo Cain) did not guarantee them a playoff spot or even playoff contention, but instead, “more probable” competition or “more probable” playoff contention.
So, what’s going to make the Brewers “tick” in 2018? Here are my favorite picks from 2018 Brewers PECOTA:
PECOTA “punts” the Yelich Trade
Standing behind the curtain during some of the PECOTA work throughout the offseason, it was very interesting to see that the trade involving Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz, and Jordan Yamamoto for Christian Yelich….did not really “move the needle” on the Brewers’ 2018 expected win total. This is surprising given the court of public opinion, but there are two specific reasons that the trade does not immediately yield an absurd advantage for the 2018 Brewers: (1) Lewis Brinson’s high floor is real, and (2) Christian Yelich could experience some role depreciation. It’s always so easy to look at the best possible outcomes or potentialities in each trade; Brinson the future superstar, Yelich the 5.0 WARP player, but it’s also worth emphasizing Brinson’s risk in reaching his peak role and Yelich’s fluctuation between varying degrees of serviceable-to-great production.
Don’t get me wrong: Christian Yelich is a very good baseball player, and his contract makes him worth every potential prospect future that the Brewers surrendered. PECOTA thinks so, too, projecting Yelich primarily as a Brewers left fielder working a .279 TAv and serviceable fielding at a corner position. That’s good for 2.7 WARP, second only to Lorenzo Cain (3.5 WARP). But, remember that floor for Brinson? Even if the center fielder fails to reach his fullest and best hit tool (and therefore, fullest and best power) in the MLB, he’s still a speedy, strong defense, strong arm player in the center of the diamond. PECOTA projects Brinson at .262 TAv and an overall plus on defense for the Marlins, which is good for a club leading 2.5 WARP. This is great for both teams: the Brewers land a quality outfielder under control for five years who has already shown his developed peak abilities at the MLB level (while rounding out the club with a left-handed bat and better plate discipline), while Marlins fans immediately landed the face of their rebuild, the best player on their team, and (at best) someone who neutralizes the toxic offseason orchestrations of Project Wolverine.
Zach Davies and Orlando Arcia Remain Quietly Competitive
As mentioned, the Brewers contended in 2017 due to the “high floor” strengths of their youngsters: players like Orlando Arcia and Zach Davies were not set up to be immediate superstars, but still maintained quality, consistent MLB seasons that propelled the team along “behind the scenes.” PECOTA projects the same for 2018, although this time Zach Davies is leading the pitching staff with a solid 4.43 DRA over 170+ innings, good for a 1.6 WARP. Arcia sits behind Cain and Yelich in terms of overall WARP, but the young shortstop is projected to continue onward with excellent defense and a serviceable bat at shortstop. One could look at these players’ projections and emphasize that PECOTA sees them declining from their absolute 2017 WARP, but I don’t think the WARP is the point here. Instead, what matters is that this duo is still viewed as a quality backbone of the club, even with some attrition, which will undoubtedly serve crucial roles for grinding through 162.
The Outfield Depth is a Problem
Projecting the Brewers’ outfield depth was a nightmare. I previously wrote about how a rotational system can make five outfield spots work for Yelich, Cain, Santana, Ryan Braun, and Brett Phillips, but it’s much more difficult to put those ideals into the mixer and dissect the potential probabilities. Probability #1, which PECOTA currently projects sans Santana trade, is that Ryan Braun plays right field, but only some first base and left field, and therefore loses all of his defensive value. Both Braun and Santana suffer in this universe, creating a total of 1.9 WARP (but 75 extra base hits!) and TAv below .280. Comparable players for Domingo Santana are Oswaldo Arcia, Jonny Gomes, and Joc Pederson, and his plate discipline regresses (98 strike outs and 36 walks in 315 plate appearances). Granted, I do think there is still a path of optimism about the current roster depth (perhaps Braun works 1B more frequently, and Santana receives more regular playing time across the outfield, interleague designated hitter, and pinch hitting roles), but I do not think that means PECOTA is categorically mistaken for the pessimistic trends for Braun or Santana. After all, the current roster mash up is designed in a way to particularly showcase flaws for both Braun and Santana, which does not mean they’re bad baseball players (in fact, their TAv are projected to contend for best overall offensive production on the club), they simply may be imperfect ballplayers for this current roster.
Chase Anderson is Chase Anderson
There are many good stories about the 2017 Brewers, but it’s tough to find one that’s better than Anderson’s arrival as an impact starting pitcher. Anderson resonated with Brewers fans not simply because he was a previous low-to-mid rotation depth option who arrived as one of the very best pitchers in the National League, but because he also vindicated the mechanical, analytical, and strategic approach of pitching coach Derek Johnson. In 2018, PECOTA projects some of 2016 Anderson to return, particularly in the shape of walks, hits, and home runs, without phenomenal gains in strike outs or ground balls. Underlying modeling views Anderson as one of the most likely pitchers on the Brewers to “collapse” in 2018, and less likely to “improve,” and it’s not hard to squint and see a scenario in which a comparable of Dustin McGowan is suitable for the righty’s age-30 campaign. Even with all of this noted, Anderson’s DRA is projected at 4.59 for the year, which should be a better than average performance if the offensive environment holds steady. There is value in that performance over 168.0 innings pitched, and this type of season still validates the contract extension that Anderson signed.
The Bullpen is Fantastic
As a group, the primary Brewers bullpen as currently constructed looks fantastic. Josh Hader and Corey Knebel are projected as the most likely relievers to improve in 2018, but Jeremy Jeffress, Boone Logan, and Matt Albers also receive relatively strong scores in the category. The current main group is projected to produce a DRA below 4.30, which should demonstrate the potential for average or better production in most offensive environments that the arms face in 2018. Some red flags float beneath the surface, however, as the walk rates are slightly worse than average for the relief group, and outside of Adrian Houser, Jeffress, Albers, and Jacob Barnes the group is projected to have relatively low ground ball rates. Yet, even outside of Knebel and Hader the relievers are projected as a strong strike out group, suggesting that some of the slider-heavy moves of the offseason should pay dividends in high leverage situations.
Prospects Begin Appearing on the Scene
One of my favorite aspects of digging into PECOTA projections is the appearance of new faces to the MLB. Caden Lemons, Keston Hiura, KJ Harrison, and Tristen Lutz are all listed as highly improbable MLB players by PECOTA, but their appearance on the radar after the 2017 draft means that the system is now generating comparable players for this group. Jacob Nottingham was added to the 40-Man Roster at the beginning of the 2017-2018 offseason, and one of the comparable names that popped up in his player line is Jonathan Lucroy, which is fascinating for many reasons (not the least of which is Lucroy’s general reputation as a defense-first catcher for the beginning of his career, and Nottinghma’s floor as a back-up catcher with pop). Mauricio Dubon appears as one of the more probable MLB prospects for the club, and his line is a very serviceable utility infielder (.250 batting average, .380 slugging percentage).
Brewers fans might be most excited to see Corbin Burnes at the bottom of the club’s starting pitcher list with three starts, as the pop-up righty prospect is given relatively favorable odds to reach the MLB and a set of comparable players that effectively grade out his reliever risk, reliever potential, and (most excitingly) his starting pitching potential. Additionally, Adrian Houser is given lower odds of reaching the MLB in 2018, but seeing the power sinker reliever in the mix leads to an exciting scenario where the entire Carlos Gomez / Mike Fiers trade return is potentially playing with the Brewers during the same season.
It’s a good reminder that even though common perception is that the Brewers system took a big hit with the Christian Yelich trade, there is still an intriguing group of prospects potentially knocking at the door for 2018. Add an asterisk to this potential 83-win season, as one that exhibits contending-ready talent and depth roles that are still developing for more future success.
Photo Credit: Ken Blaze, USAToday Sports Images
Edit: Updated at 7:15 AM to reflect updated win total, from 84 to 83.