Series Preview: Brewers at Cubs

Just in time to test an eight game winning streak, our beloved Milwaukee Nine head south to take on the Lakeview Baseball Club, the new Evil Empire, the undisputed dynasty of the National League Central who will win the division without question. (We have the spreadsheets to prove it, why are we even playing the games?) Anyway, the Cubs pitching staff is scuffling, but the bats are just where many expected, and so Chicago is currently underperforming their run differential (Runs Scored / Runs Allowed) by two wins. Fittingly, the Brewers are overperforming their run differential by two wins, so in many ways this series could serve as a fun early season course correction: will the defending World Series Champions beat the lowly Brewers? Stay tuned.

Run Differential RS RA Park Environment Expected Wins
Brewers -46 +119 81-81 88
Cubs +185 +5 83-79 102

The first Deserved Run Average (DRA) statistics are available for the 2018 season, although they should be published with a grain of salt because the corresponding Run Elements are not yet posted on Baseball Prospectus. As always, the statistic was improved over the offseason, and a new article about the improvements is forthcoming at Baseball Prospectus (keep your eyes out for it, probably next week). In the mean time, as the U.S. Census says, let’s Compare With Caution!

So, obviously since DRA are available, it’s time to cue the time honored #WhyDoesDRAHateMyTeam? twice over, as both the Brewers and Cubs probable starters for this series have….suspect underlying performances thus far:

MLB Game Notes Brewers (DRA) Cubs (DRA)
Thursday April 26 Chase Anderson (4.78) Kyle Hendricks (5.21)
Friday April 27 Brent Suter (6.40) Yu Darvish (7.28)
Saturday April 28 Junior Guerra (3.67) Jose Quintana (4.37)
Sunday April 29 Zach Davies (5.73) Tyler Chatwood (6.45)

In the full extent of the Brewers pitching staff, the recent pitching surge that is basically keeping the club on a Playoff Contending pace can be called into question by both DRA and contextual Fielding Independent Pitching (cFIP) statistics. Below is a table of Runs Prevented estimates, using (1) Baseball Reference three-year park factors for Miller Park, (2) Deserved Run Average, and (3) cFIP averages scaled to the aforementioned park environment. For more on Runs Prevented, read this.

Brewers Runs Prevented IP R RnsPrv DRA DRA_RnsPrv cFIP cFIP_RnsPrv
Jhoulys Chacin 29.1 16 -1.6 4.67 -0.7 107 -1.0
Zach Davies 28.1 15 -1.1 5.73 -4.0 107 -1.0
Chase Anderson 27.2 10 3.5 4.78 -1.0 105 -0.7
Brent Suter* 25.1 17 -4.6 6.4 -5.4 113 -1.6
Junior Guerra 16 2 5.9 3.67 1.4 101 -0.1
Josh Hader* 15.1 3 4.5 0.94 5.9 59 3.1
Jacob Barnes 14.1 4 3.0 1.3 5.0 70 2.1
Jeremy Jeffress 13.1 1 5.5 4.92 -0.7 97 0.2
Matt Albers 12.2 2 4.0 5.41 -1.3 106 -0.4
Dan Jennings* 12 2 3.9 5.17 -0.9 105 -0.3
Oliver Drake 10.2 7 -1.9 2.48 2.2 86 0.7
Taylor Williams 7.1 3 0.5 0.83 2.9 66 1.2
Brandon Woodruff 7 4 -0.5 4.09 0.3 99 0.0
Jorge Lopez 3 1 0.5 9.98 -1.8 119 -0.3
Corey Knebel 2.2 3 -1.9 2.43 0.5 84 0.2
Adrian Houser 2 0 1.0 1.33 0.7 73 0.3
J.J. Hoover 1.1 3 -2.5 10.85 -0.8 116 -0.1
Hernan Perez 0.1 0 0.0 0.67 0.0 100 0.0
Pitching Staff 228.7 93 20.3 4.36 2.5 98 2.3
NL / Miller Park 4.46

Milwaukee’s pitching staff is still expected to prevent runs at an above average rate for the season (probably a +14 RA season), but that’s quite a long distance from their current exceptional performance. What’s going on? Well, the early inefficiencies in the field have been nicely wrapped up, and now the Brewers couple one of the top ground ball pitching staffs in the MLB with one of the most efficient ground ball defenses in the MLB. In fact, only Cleveland is better thus far. In many ways, this should not be surprising, as one could have surmised that the offseason pitching acquisitions were largely designed to feed ground balls to an excellent ground ball defense. So here we are: Milwaukee is in an odd place for underlying run elements, as the pitching staff on the whole is not expected to be a strike out machine, and Miller Park will likely encourage walks and home runs from opposing bats. Given these elements, one might expect that the Brewers outperforming their peripheral numbers will be a story all year.

Entering Chicago, what is especially exciting is that the Brewers bats are heating up. One might readily attribute that performance to the return of Christian Yelich to the Brewers batting order, in order to form a killer 1-2 punch with Lorenzo Cain. Indeed, according to Baseball Reference the Brewers boast average lead off production (including the all-important .333 On Base Percentage [OBP]), and notably better than average production from the second spot (118 OPS+, including .342 OBP). But, the remainder of the Brewers order is starting to thaw out, which is allowing the club to produce runs throughout the batting order. These production types range from singles machine Jonathan Villar to mashers like Travis Shaw and Eric Thames.

Since April 18 (Min. 10 PA) PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Travis Shaw 31 0.350 0.567 0.900 1.467
Ryan Braun 24 0.429 0.458 0.810 1.268
Jonathan Villar 20 0.368 0.400 0.368 0.768
Eric Thames 19 0.333 0.474 0.600 1.074
Domingo Santana 19 0.143 0.316 0.143 0.459
Orlando Arcia 18 0.167 0.167 0.333 0.500
Jett Bandy 16 0.200 0.250 0.267 0.517
Jesus Aguilar 15 0.500 0.467 0.857 1.324
Eric Sogard 13 0.000 0.077 0.000 0.077
Hernan Perez 12 0.333 0.333 0.333 0.666

Thus far, a few question marks remain across the diamond, specifically regarding right fielder Domingo Santana. Despite concerns about a lack of playing time for Santana after the Brewers acquired Cain and Yelich, the right fielder has played in 23 of the club’s 25 games thus far, essentially working as a starter (Santana has the third most PA among position players). But, Santana has yet to get going, basically producing at the same level as Orlando Arcia without the prime defensive position and production (Arcia at least has 2.3 Fielding Runs Above Average to his name, and serves a crucial function as one of the ground ball efficiency fielders for the Brewers infield). Arcia can be hidden at the bottom of the batting order for time immemorial so long as the glove continues to stick; to that end, Baseball Prospectus ranks Arcia as the third best fielding short stop in the MLB thus far in 2018 (after ranking fourth best in 2017). Santana remains one of the worst right fielders in baseball, which is fine when the bat carries the profile; one wonders with Jesus Aguilar smoking the ball around the ballpark whether the Brewers will continue to employ Braun / Cain / Yelich outfielders for the time being.

Entering Wrigley Field, the Brewers have their work cut out for them. The club is playing great baseball, even with the caveat that they’re playing poor teams. But that’s always a catch-22 for MLB clubs: if good teams fail to beat the bad teams, fans rail against them (“The Brewers play down to their competition!”), but if good teams whip bad teams, fans move to some other narrative (“The Brewers can beat bad teams but can they beat good teams?”). So, the excellent Brewers pitching staff squares off against the phenomenal Cubs bats, a true strength-versus-strength match-up. Milwaukee arms will attempt to coax Cubs bats to keep the ball on the ground and hopefully get some help from a Chicago that has yet to thaw out in 2018. Meanwhile, the scuffling Cubs arms are nowhere as good as many expected thus far, and they face a Brewers offense that is finally participating throughout the batting order. It’s never to early to begin testing assumptions, but it’s worth remembering that very little hangs on this series, save for the underrated good guys taking on the Evil Empire.


Photo Credit: Denny Medley, USA Today Sports Images

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