At what point does roster-building “theory” yield to the harsh facts of attrition that accumulate during a 162 game season? I ask this question because throughout the offseason, especially recently, Brewers fans appear upset with the depth that GM David Stearns has acquired for the 2018 season, and there are questions about whether this is an efficient use of club resources. Fan angst often centers around the outfield situation, in which Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, Domingo Santana, and Christian Yelich will make the team and (presumably) fight for playing time. Additional angst centers around the fifth spot of the rotation, where the Brewers have assembled Yovani Gallardo, Junior Guerra, and Brent Suter on the MLB roster; Jimmy Nelson on the disabled list (presumably 60-day DL); additional replacement depth on the 40-man roster (see Freddy Peralta and Jorge Lopez, among others); and Corbin Burnes, Jon Perrin, and Wade Miley (among others) off the MLB roster.
The trouble seems to be that this roster does not align with some theory about MLB roster building, in which a club simply signs the nine best position players and five best starting pitchers they can find and then gets to work. Even if fans or analysts concede that there will be injuries during a season, they do not seem to align that concession with the actual brutality of 162-game conditions. For example, those four roster spots for Braun, Cain, Santana, and Yelich sure look rough, until one views the number of teams that typically work with multiple outfielders for 100+ Games. In 2017, here’s a list of teams with three outfielders that started 100 games:
|100+ GS||OF 1||OF 2||OF 3|
|Miami||C. Yelich (155)||M. Ozuna (153)||G. Stanton (149)|
|Atlanta||E. Inciarte (154)||N. Markakis (153)||M. Kemp (102)|
|Boston||M. Betts (153)||A. Benintendi (143)||J. Bradley (131)|
|Cincinnati||A. Duvall (147)||B. Hamilton (135)||S. Schebler (128)|
|Minnesota||E. Rosario (142)||B. Buxton (131)||M. Kepler (128)|
|St. Louis||T. Pham (116)||D. Fowler (108)||R. Grichuk (100)|
That’s it: six MLB teams, six MLB teams managed to field an outfield with three outfielders that started 100 (or more) games. In fact, if you read that table carefully, you will see that any definition of a “full time outfield” that expects three outfielders to work 130 (or more) games is extremely unrealistic; only two MLB teams managed to start three outfielders in at least 130 games. Looking at the last five years, one could argue that this is an anomaly, or the beginning of a trend; here are the number of teams that have started three outfielders in 100 or more games in recent seasons: 2017 (6), 2016 (4), 2015 (6), 2014 (8), and 2013 (10).
The same analysis works with each infield position and catcher in 2017. Ten teams started one catcher for at least 100 games. If you’re worried about the second base logjam, half of the 2017 MLB teams found a starter for 100 or more games. That number increases slightly to 17 for third basemen, and increases again to 19 shortstops with at least 100 games started. Even the “easy” position of first base saw 23 teams start one player for 100 or more games.
There are two ways to view these data: first, one can argue that since regular, dependable starting players are so rare, finding a suitable starter for each position as a roster strategy is of the utmost importance. On the contrarian side, one can run with the market failure: if the evidence of a 162-game season suggests that injuries will deplete a roster and alternative strategies exist (such as heavy platooning or rotational systems), a team can focus on designing a roster that can withstand those issues. This is perhaps one reason the Brewers succeeded in 2017: they started 11 outfielders, four catchers, three first basemen, five second basemen, four third basemen, and two shortstops. Given that several of these starts belong to Hernan Perez, Nick Franklin, Jonathan Villar, and Eric Sogard, that should underscore the significance of positional flexibility for the Brewers roster: many players can be deployed across the roster at will.
This is why I have said, and will continue to say, keep all the outfielders. With options remaining for Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips, and Braun, Cain, Santana, and Yelich at the MLB level, the Brewers have a chance to field an extremely deep and talented team in 2018. Consider, for instance, that the full second outfield is Hernan Perez, Keon Broxton, and Brett Phillips left-to-right; perhaps one would not want to start that outfield for the full season, but if the Brewers are in an extreme injury bind, this is absolutely a playable group.
Moving to the pitching rotation, the same roster building trouble exists: 80 percent of the league cannot find three pitchers to start 30 or more games.
|30+ GS||SP 1||SP 2||SP 3|
|Boston||R. Porcello (33)||C. Sale (32)||D. Pomeranz (32)|
|St. Louis||L. Lynn (33)||C. Martinez (32)||M. Wacha (30)|
|Pittsburgh||G. Cole (33)||C. Kuhl (31)||I. Nova (31)|
|Kansas City||J. Hammel (32)||J. Vargas (32)||I. Kennedy (30)|
|Washington||G. Gonzalez (32)||M. Scherzer (31)||T. Roark (30)|
|Cubs||J. Lester (32)||J. Arrieta (30)||J. Lackey (30)|
Notice that this list is not exhaustive of playoff teams, either; seven of the 2017 playoff teams reached that level without three pitchers starting at least 30 games. So, yes, this Brewers rotation is what a playoff rotation can look like.
Lest you think I’m cherry-picking, if one expands the selection to teams that were able to start four pitchers for at least 25 games, well, nine MLB teams were able to do that in 2017. Interestingly enough, this second group of teams does not include each team listed in the table above, meaning that even some of these teams with three 30+ GS pitchers were searching for starts in the fourth slot.
Worse yet, it appears that fans and analysts suffer from an idealized notion of the quality of a pitching rotation. In reality, once one falls below 25 games started, the quality of these pitchers plummets, even in a league where 4.70 runs averaged per nine innings (RA/9) is acceptable or average.
|GS Range||Pitchers||Average IP||RA/9||Average DRA|
|20 to 24||34||127.5||4.77||4.82|
|10 to 19||75||81.5||5.37||5.45|
|1 to 9||145||29.6||5.70||5.93|
In case you’re also concerned about Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin, and Brandon Woodruff leading the rotation, here are the mythical “top rotation starters”:
|Top Rotation||Pitchers||Average IP||RA9||Average DRA|
|30 to 35||41||187.2||4.43||4.31|
|25 to 29||42||155.5||4.40||4.52|
These numbers work out to approximately eight runs prevented for the pitchers starting 30 (or more) games, while the 25-to-29 games started group works out to an average of five runs prevented. In this regard, even this threshold of runs prevention is quite reasonable for Davies and Anderson, and even Chacin. Woodruff remains untested, but the basic idea is that this group of “regular starting pitchers” is not terribly far ahead of the Brewers’ fourth starter (and by this point, most teams are not receiving 25-to-29 games started, anyway.
I do not know any other conclusion to this analysis than to state that there is no such thing as a pitching rotation outside of the “standard routine that a team will use for their current group of pitchers who start games.” Here is an area where Brewers manager Craig Counsell could be ahead of the game in admonishing Milwaukee beat writers about calling pitchers “starters” or “relievers”; Counsell is quite astute to observe that he needs to get 27 outs, and he needs a pitching staff that can get 27 outs and prevent runs while so doing. That could mean that the first turn of the season is Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin, Brandon Woodruff, and Wade Miley, but the second turn could substitute in Brent Suter or Junior Guerra if the match-up is right. I’d bet that even Josh Hader sees a “start” when the match-up is right (say, “neutralizing Cubs left-handed bats”).
|Potential Starting Pitchers|
|Corbin Burnes (non-roster)|
|Marcos Diplan (40-man)|
|Junior Guerra (swing)|
|Josh Hader (swing)|
|Adrian Houser (speculation)|
|Jorge Lopez (40-man)|
|Wade Miley (non-roster)|
|Jimmy Nelson (DL)|
|Luis Ortiz (non-roster)|
|Freddy Peralta (40-man)|
|Jon Perrin (non-roster)|
|Brent Suter (swing)|
|Aaron Wilkerson (40-man)|
Stop asking “Is Junior Guerra or Brent Suter good enough to beat the Cubs?” or “Is Davies / Woodruff / Anderson / Chacin / Miley / Suter / Gallardo / etc. good enough to beat the Cubs?” Stop saying, “But Brent Suter cannot make it more than a couple times through the batting order.” Start saying, “Brent Suter, as a starter, needs to be better than 5.37 to 5.45 runs allowed per nine innings,” or “Wade Miley can work April and needs to be better than 5.70 to 5.93 runs allowed per nine innings.” If the Brewers reach these thresholds, they will be as good as the teams who employed 254 low rotation or replacement starting pitchers in 2017. What is more likely, it seems, is that the Brewers front office, coaching staff, and field management have found a group of pitchers that they believe can quietly shave runs off the back end of the rotation, the replacement games, and throwaways during the grind.
Much like “pitching wins championships except for when hitting wins championships,” the Brewers have correctly gauged that one does not need to reach the playoffs by being a better team than their best possible competitor. Instead, the team needs to be better than the league’s trends, and the league averages. Injuries and roster building strategies suggest that there will not be 130 or more starts from three outfielders, or 30 or more starts from three pitchers, and so the Brewers stand in seas of depth.
The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers need to win a war of attrition, they need to win the grind of 162, they need to win the mundane days of June as well as the thrilling days of September. One way to accomplish this objective is by designing a team that is camouflaged to attrition, injuries, and the grind. In this regard, these Brewers will be hiding in plain sight.
Photo Credit: Orlando Ramirez, USAToday Sports Images