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The No Good, Very Bad,… .500

A month ago, had someone told Brewers fans and analysts that the club would be .500 after their first dozen games, I gather no one would have even shrugged. First things first, there is this essential feeling that even though *every game matters*, early in the season is the time to iron things out and figure out what a club might actually be able to do. Pitchers and batters alike are solidifying their in-game approaches after Spring Training, and maybe even working on their first approach adjustments. Second, there is this sense that a .500 record is essentially meaningless this early in this season, an indication that, on balance, a club is grinding along to endure 162 games. A 6-6 record after 12 games hardly matters.

Brewers Unit Key Stat Overall Contribution (Source)
Team -16 RS / RA (58 win pace) 80 wins if team is average RS / RA over 152 games
Batters -11 RS / G Increased Groundballs & Pop-Ups (Baseball Prospectus)
Starting Pitchers -11 Runs Prevented Three Starters without 6.0 IP (Baseball Reference)
Relief Pitchers 6 Runs Prevented Most High Leverage Appearances in MLB (Baseball Reference)
Fielding .699 BP Defensive Efficiency -3 Runs Allowed versus Fielding Independent Pitching

Of course, these Brewers look very, very bad in some areas of the game. One can use Pythagorean W-L, or Run Differential (Runs Scored / Runs Allowed), to estimate a club’s expected record based on their underlying elements. In this case, the results are much uglier than .500. If one had told Brewers fans and analysts that their favorite club would be 4-8 after the first dozen games, that would probably cause a bit more pause than a .500 record. How did we get here?

 

  • The starting pitching has been worse than many people expected, even worse than many naysayers could have imagined.
  • Much of the bad starting pitching performance is due to poor fielding. While the Brewers starting pitchers are 11 runs below average thus far (!!!), these arms have also allowed four more runs than expected based on Fielding Independent Pitching (which is awful this early in the season). A 41 RS / 53 RA club might have been able to eat more innings, or given a few close games more breathing room.
  • More importantly, the starting pitching’s poor performance has occurred early in games. Only Chase Anderson and Zach Davies have completed six innings of work thus far in the season, which means that in three additional turns through the rotation the bullpen has required (at least) another inning of work.
  • Innings pitched workloads over nine inning games are one thing, but since the Brewers have played in so many close games, the workload has been compounded by extra innings games. Milwaukee has already played three extra innings games thus far in 2018; to put that in perspective, seventeen MLB teams have yet to play two extra innings games in this young season.
  • The fielding really is bad. According to Baseball Prospectus Defensive Efficiency and Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency statistics, the Brewers fielding unit is easily in the bottom third of the MLB. This is somewhat surprising given that (a) the Brewers had a relatively middle-of-the-road fielding unit in 2017 and (b) the Brewers’ offseason moves largely were meant to improve the defense (see Eric Sogard, Lorenzo Cain, and Christian Yelich transactions as examples).
  • Of course, the batting performances thus far have been terrible. In fact, based on the 2018 National League and three-year Miller Park factor, the Brewers have average nearly one run below average per game. The bats have scored five or more runs in 5 games thus far; the trouble is, when they are not scoring runs, they are not scoring runs. In this department, the Brewers have also scored two-or-fewer runs in 5 games thus far. You can say what you want about the pitching, but you’re not going to win many 0 run support games.
  • Beyond the performances, the poor play on the field has been compounded by injuries. Currently, Christian Yelich and Corey Knebel have joined Jimmy Nelson, Boone Logan, and Stepgen Vogt on the disabled list. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Cain is also nursing a day-to-day injury, which produced the club’s listless batting order that appeared in last night’s loss in St. Louis. There’s no other way to say it: the Brewers have a pretty good team on the DL right now, which is certainly not an excuse for poor play (especially for a team that was supposed to call depth its strength), but is one explanation for the gloomy attitude among Brewers fans.
  • Ultimately, there also seems to be this attitude among Brewers fans that since success was unexpected in 2017, every game in 2018 would be a referendum on those expectations. It is as though Brewers fans are simultaneously terrified and angry about the mounting poor play, while also angrily pounding their fists in vindication: “See, I told you the rotation was bad! See, I told you this wasn’t a good team! The front office was fooled by their 2017 team!” That sort of attitude does not help anyone, but in an era where fans identify more with roster-building and playing along as General Manager, rather than imagining themselves as ball players and aligning themselves with labor, this produces fan sentiments that are sensitive and easily bitter towards shortcomings on the field.

 


 

So what’s going right? According to Baseball Prospectus, first and foremost, the Brewers pitchers are yielding relatively high percentages of ground balls and pop-ups. This essentially means that the pitchers are doing their job of limiting hard contact and keeping the ball on the ground. Given the general career fielding profiles of the Brewers defense, one might expect the Brewers’ Runs Allowed profile to self-correct should Milwaukee arms continue to allow solid groundball and pop-up percentages. Additionally, although the Brewers rotation has not been designed to strike batters out (48 of 269 batters struck out thus far), they are limiting the walks (22 of 269 batters). While the home run total must come down, thus far the strikeout-to-walk ratio is a sign of success.

Of course, it is more difficult to see the silver linings with the Brewers offense. In fact, the Brewers bats have batted-ball statistics that their pitching staff would like to see: Milwaukee batters are thus far keeping the ball on the ground and popping up at strong percentages, which is not a good trend to see for an offense. Despite all this, it is worth noting that the Brewers True Average of .246 is basically around the league median; currently, a .258 TAv is a Top 10 performance among MLB teams, and six teams have TAv between .245 and .249. It is worth noting that, thus far, the Brewers batters have ended significantly more plate appearances after the first pitch in 2018 than 2017, but they are not succeeding in those plate appearances: their .305 / .317 / .441 batting average / on-base percentage / slugging percentage slash line is notably below average for first pitch plate appearances.

One key silver lining statistic that the “home run or nothing” vultures┬ámay┬ábe thrilled to see: the Brewers are significantly limiting their strike outs thus far (near 10 percent improvement), knocking the ball into play more frequently. Their home run rate has plummeted from 3.7 percent in 2017 to 2.1 percent in 2018 thus far, which is certainly something to continue watching. As Milwaukee continues to knock the ball into play more frequently, they must change their orientation away from a groundball and pop-up team. “Home run or nothing” is not a bad offense if the home runs mean a club is not grounding out and popping up.

As the season progresses, it is worth tracking home runs, fly balls, and runs scored per game across the MLB. Thus far, the run environment has deflated, which is another interesting element to consider regarding the Brewers’ roster construction. Compared to the run environment of 2016-2017, the Brewers pitching staff is even better than its current performance, but the deflation in runs scoring amplifies every shortcoming on the mound. Alternately, it is worth questioning whether a shift in the ball is affecting batter across the league. Given MLB efforts to speed up the pace of the game, as well as their ambivalent responses to the “bad press” of various (independent) corroborations of juiced baseballs during 2016-2017, it is plausible that MLB could have put the lid on the juiced ball.


 

Ultimately, this is not “small sample size” warning to throw out the analysis above: the Brewers have several shortcomings that cannot continue. The bats cannot continue to walk at low rates, or hit the ball on the ground, or pop up. Somehow, adjustments at the plate must center around maximizing patience and discipline to drive the ball around the ballpark. The fielding cannot continue their inefficient play, and this has nothing to do with errors; errors are one thing, but inefficiencies around the diamond are hurting a Brewers pitching staff that is meant simply to feed a defensive unit. In fact, the arms must continue to feed ground balls and pop-ups to their fielders…that’s one trend that should be maintained.

Yet, so long as Christian Yelich is injured, so long as Jimmy Nelson is injured, so long as Corey Knebel is injured, so long as Stephen Vogt and Boone Logan are injured, it is worth seeing a club scraping by at .500 as an extreme strength. #TeamDepth has already been tested, and the club is doing what many of us expected they would do anyway: they are playing in close games, night after night, and must use their strong bullpen and fielding to make that equation work. Now the equation of players executing that strategy have changed, which is not an excuse; indeed, that’s the whole point of #TeamDepth. It’s worth punting this 6-6 start, considering each .500 point as a 0-0 event from which the team can be newly evaluated. Put aside the 4-8 run differential, even: we know what adjustments the Brewers need to make, and we know they have one of the deepest clubs in the game to attempt to execute those adjustments. Now it’s time to see if it works.


 

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry, USA Today Sports Images.

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