The Brewers exited their month of May with a much deserved day off, winning 19 of 27 games on the strength of a 134 Runs Scored (RS) / 104 Runs Allowed (RA) run differential for the month. By allowing 3.85 runs per game, the pitchers remained significantly better than average (+14 RA), but the story of the month probably belongs to the bats. Before the Cardinals pitching staff slowed down the Milwaukee bats during the last two games of the month, the Brewers bats thawed from their frigid 2018 start. In fact, the Brewers offense improved to such an extent that their RS performance against the National League / Miller Park environment was just as good as the May pitching staff (+13 RS). Thus the elite performance in May seems sweeter not simply because the club won 70 percent of their games, but because they did so with a perfectly balanced ball club.
Related: MLB Runs Prevented Spreadsheet (May 31), by Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee
For the season, however, a few nearly inexplicable inefficiencies exist among Brewers batting splits. Overall, the offense remains moderately below average, but the batting performances by position are worse than those assessed by spot in the order. This, on the whole, is a good thing, as it suggests that even though the club is not hitting well, Manager Craig Counsell is using the batting order to create efficient production.
Yet, the production does not occur at the positions in the order one would expect. The following table uses “RRBI,” my favorite “quick and dirty” at-a-glance statistic that assesses the harmonic mean between Runs Scored and Runs Batted In (to very quickly assess team run distribution within their specific environment), and simple OPS. Both statistics are corrected for 2018 National League and multi-year park factor (Baseball Reference). While RBI is not necessarily a valuable stat in terms of predictive function, or even a descriptive metric of actual value, taking the harmonic mean between R and RBI allows one to understand the development of run production throughout a batting order in terms that are scaled to the team. Think of “RRBI” as a statistic for “uneven development” translated into baseball terms: uneven terrain between expected value, peripheral and predictive metrics, and actual run distribution matters in the context of attempting to win baseball games by scoring runs.
|Brewers Positions||RRBI/PA||vs NL/Park||NL/Park OPS||OPS|
|Brewers Order||RRBI/PA||vs. NL/Park||NL/Park OPS||OPS|
By isolating individual players, instead of looking at each position and batting order on a teamwide scale, two key inefficiencies emerge: First, the time-share in the outfield between Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, Domingo Santana, and Christian Yelich appears to be yielding inefficient results; Second, the frigid starts for many Brewers depth players created a wider chasm between “starting” and “bench” players than would have been expected. One might raise a third issue with batting Lorenzo Cain in the lead-off position, as although the center fielder’s performance is fantastic, the lead-off spot typically saps RBI opportunities and therefore may unduly discredit Cain for aspects of his run performance.
|Eric Thames* (10-day dl)||8.35||11.92||3.57|
|Tyler Saladino (10-day dl)||4.40||6.86||2.46|
|Nick Franklin# (10-day dl)||0.23||0.00||-0.23|
|Ji-Man Choi* (40-man)||1.92||1.50||-0.42|
|Jacob Nottingham (40-man)||0.79||0.00||-0.79|
|Brett Phillips* (40-man)||1.58||0.00||-1.58|
|Jett Bandy (DFA)||8.01||1.67||-6.34|
What is interesting to note here is that some of the coldest bats in the order are not hurting the team as much as fans might typically expect. For example, the slow start by Santana and the veritable black hole that is the sixth batting order spot have hurt the Brewers production much more so than Orlando Arcia (who actually gains “efficiency” by batting eighth; by position, his bat is second worst, but the club gained almost two runs by batting Arcia, Saladino, and Sogard eighth). Blending position and batting order strength against the National League expectations, however, a sample “maximum efficiency” batting order does not appear feasible whatsoever:
|Prime Brewers Batting Order|
|4||Thames / Aguilar|
The Inevitable Pitching Correction?
In terms of pitching, the staff is much less puzzling than the bats, which seem to be a group prone to wild variations of extreme production. Available for sharing above, the “Runs Prevented” spreadsheet showcases that the Brewers bullpen is so elite that Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader rank in the Top 25 for average runs prevented among all pitchers (not simply relief pitchers). As mentioned in my first Runs Prevented Ranking post, however, the direction of change expected for Brewers pitchers suggests that this performance may not continue overall.
|Brewers Runs Prevented||Prv_Avg||DRA_Prv||Direction|
What is intriguing is that when one aggregates DRA Runs Prevented by team, the major contenders in the NL Central are each due rather large corrections. The Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs are each “off course” by more than 30 Runs Prevented, according to DRA metrics, which raises an interesting question about pitching staff construction.
|Jon Lester||3.8||Jhoulys Chacin||-10.4||Trevor Williams||-9.1||Michael Wacha||2.0|
|Kyle Hendricks||9.7||Junior Guerra||-1.0||Chad Kuhl||-1.3||Luke Weaver||1.3|
|Tyler Chatwood||-22.4||Chase Anderson||-10.2||Jameson Taillon||5.5||Miles Mikolas||6.1|
|Jose Quintana||-0.8||Brent Suter||-6.1||Ivan Nova||1.4||Jack Flaherty||1.6|
|Yu Darvish||-2.3||Zach Davies||-10.1||Steven Brault||1.1||Adam Wainwright||-3.9|
|Mike Montgomery||2.0||Brandon Woodruff||1.8||Nick Kingham||2.6||John Gant||4.0|
|Jen-Ho Tseng||0.6||Wade Miley||-1.8||n.a||n.a||Alex Reyes||-1.1|
While the Brewers’ main concerns are in the starting rotation, any course correction for the Cardinals suggests that the bullpen is of concern. For the Cubs, the rotation is due a course correction, but the bullpen is also the major concern for the Lakeview Nine.
The Brewers’ pitching situation is complicated by the club’s elite fielding performance. According to Baseball Prospectus Defensive Efficiency metrics, the Brewers’ flyball defense is third best in the MLB, while their groundball defense is seventh best. Perhaps most importantly, the Brewers have the most efficient defense in terms of converting line drives into outs, as well. So while DRA suggests that the Brewers starting pitchers might not be expected to be as good as their runs prevented numbers, it is worth questioning whether the strength of the staff lies in their relationship to the fielding performance of the club. In this regard, the Brewers must carefully weigh their midseason moves: while the club may like to upgrade certain positions in terms of offensive performance, an offensive upgrade at the expense of defensive performance could be devastating to the pitching staff. One must also consider the extent to which Chase Anderson and Zach Davies can adjust, or Corbin Burnes, Alec Asher, and Brandon Woodruff could contribute quality innings.
GM David Stearns has his midseason work cut out for him. The GM has already proven his ability to design and construct a systemic ballclub that works almost as an ecosystem might, translated into baseball performance. This systemic design for the club should impact midseason moves. Perhaps this Brewers squad is not one that requires an elite, impact trade, but rather more marginal moves to continually improve the margins of the club. After all, with a club that is driven by defensive efficiency and bullpen, the Brewers are already a sufficiently marginal club to begin with: what would the 2018 Brewers look like if they lose their balance at the margins of the roster?
Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USA Today Sports Images