21: The Trap

In a much-publicized scheduling crunch, the Brewers are headed on a trek in which 21 games will be played in the 20 days leading to the All Star Break. Any baseball fan will look at their favorite team’s schedule for such an occasion and grimace. That the stretch’s extra contest comes at the cost of a five-game stint in Pittsburgh should be enough to alarm Brewers fans of a certain age. What’s worse is that sixteen of the games occur against clubs projected to have losing records both in terms of Actual Winning Percentage and Underlying Run Differential (i.e., Pythagorean W-L), including five contests against near-replacement level teams (actually, the Kansas City Royals pretty much are a replacement team in the flesh!). Worse yet, several of the “bad” teams are slightly upward trending in terms of their expected Run Differential, while the Brewers are slightly downward trending.

Baseball Prospectus: Milwaukee Brewers Team Audit

Make no mistake about it, Brewers fans and analysts, this is a trap. It’s so easy to polish off phenomenal expectations at a time like this, and rejoice that the Brewers get to play an apparently easier stretch of schedule entering the break. But the team is experiencing some injuries of attrition in the field, just as the offense has finally produced a stretch of 30 games averaging better than 2018 NL / Miller Park runs scored (more on that later). The rotation has done a fantastic job, as has the elite bullpen, which are only getting attention due to a couple of recent blow-ups and blown leads….mostly occurring in games where the batters still cannot get it together.

Opponent Games RS RA W-L / Pythag Ultimate Trend
Brewers x -25 125 95 / 91 Downward
vs. Royals 2 -137 -169 48 / 52 Upward
at Reds 4 21 -112 67 / 71 Upward
vs. Twins 3 -26 5 74 / 77 Upward
vs. Atlanta 4 121 27 94 / 96 Upward
at Marlins 3 -56 -179 64 / 57 Downward
at Pirates 5 (Sat DH) -20 -47 76 / 73 Downward

So in honor of this schedule, which is certainly a trap, let’s have some fun with 21 statistics that are neither here, there, nor anywhere for what will certainly Attrition Central for #TeamDepth. If the Brewers can escape this stretch of play with a 9-12 record, that’s probably correction enough for the run differentials and a sign that the war of attrition did not go terribly wrong.

Ryan Braun is having a somewhat tough year balancing some new fielding assignments, relatively part time play, nagging injuries once again, and hard-hit batted balls with relatively bad luck. But it’s not all bad for the face of the franchise: in 9.7 percent of his plate appearances, Braun has hit for extra bases (12 doubles, one triple, and eight home runs). By comparison, the average National League bat hits for extra bases in approximately 7.6 percent of plate appearances.

For the season, much has been made of the Brewers batters’ ten shutouts. In fact, this is quite an important number for Milwaukee batters, as the total Runs Scored “zero” has appeared more frequently than all but one run total: two runs.

Runs Scored Games Scored Percentage
2 12 15.6%
5 10 13.0%
0 10 13.0%
3 8 10.4%
1 8 10.4%
4 7 9.1%
8 6 7.8%
7 4 5.2%
12 3 3.9%
6 3 3.9%
11 2 2.6%
9 2 2.6%
17 1 1.3%
13 1 1.3%
Total Games 77 100.0%

For the 2018 campaign, the Brewers have scored two runs more frequently than any other outcome by the offense. What’s worse is that this number is not really accompanied by very good run totals, either; five runs is very nice, and it’s good to see that number tied with “0” for second place, but after that both of “3” and “1” are below average run totals.

For all the criticisms that Brewers baserunners have faced for their aggressive style over the years, it seems that the exceptional baserunning performance of Milwaukee has mostly escaped fan consciousness. Undoubtedly this is due in part to the fact that the Brewers are not scoring runs at an average clip. But, according to Baseball Prospectus Baserunning Runs, the Brewers are the third best team in the MLB in terms of baserunning production. Translating this to stolen bases, Lorenzo Cain leads the team with 16 steals in 19 attempts, ahead of Jonathan Villar (10 / 12), Christian Yelich (9 / 10) and Ryan Braun (7 / 9). In fact, Milwaukee is the second best team in the National League in terms of stolen bases (58 of 71 attempts). Run, run, run!

Only the New York Mets have attempted fewer sacrifice bunt attempts than the Brewers in 2018. Milwaukee has attempted 20 bunts thus far, with successful sacrifices 14 times; this is good for a success rate that is higher than the league average. Ironically, for the lack of runs scored, Milwaukee is not only a great base running team, but they are also posting average or better situational hitting statistics according to Baseball Reference. This occurs across categories: sacrifice bunts, productive outs, baserunners scored, and advancing baserunners (with less than two outs at third base and zero outs at second base). The problem for the Brewers is simply that they do not get enough batters on base frequently enough…

….and when the Brewers do get baserunners on, their tendency to hit ground balls results in the highest percentage of ground ball double plays in the National League (13 percent of GIDP opportunities). This is notably worse than the NL average of double plays produced in ten percent of opportunities. So much for strike outs being a bad thing!

One wonders if the defensive flexibility of the ballclub might actually explain some of the troubles the club has in terms of scoring runs…the Brewers only have four players with more than 50 starts at one position (Lorenzo Cain and Travis Shaw lead as the most regular regulars with 70 starts, followed by Villar (55) and Arcia (53) in the middle infield). Jesus Aguilar does not even have 50 starts at first base this year; Christian Yelich’s most regular position is left field…for 32 games, and catcher and right field have also been impacted in the games started department (probably due to the respective performances of Manny Pina and Domingo Santana more than strategy).

I was certainly in the camp that expected defensive flexibility to be a strength for these Brewers, and I certainly do not think it is a downright liability given the performance of the fielders. But given the performance of the offense, I think it is worth questioning whether flexible defensive roles have an impact on batting performance for these players.

Why are the Brewers pitchers so good? Their groundball percentage is fading to the middle of the pack, minimizing their ability to produce double plays as well. However, Milwaukee arms excel at limiting fly balls, and their 9.46 percent pop-up rate is the best in the MLB according to Baseball Prospectus.

For all the rumblings about the Brewers relief pitching hitting their regression to the mean, it’s worth noting that the pitchers are not terribly far above average in some stats to begin with. For instance, the Brewers rank fifth in the National League with 32 percent of their Inherited Runners Scored, despite inheriting fewer runners than the league average (100 versus 106 for the typical NL team). This is an indication of how the club is quite good with inherited runners scored, but not necessarily perched atop the league.

4.3 at 23
It’s too bad that the Brewers pitchers are not yielding more ground balls, because Orlando Arcia remains one of the best shortstops in baseball despite his lack of playing time. Arcia has the fewest games played of any SS in the Top 10 for Fielding Runs Above Average. Yet, the 23-year old glove-first fielder ranks sixth in FRAA with his 4.3 mark. Another statistic worth remembering: at 23, Arcia is tied for Carlos Correa as the youngest elite defensive shortstop, and among shortstops with at least 60 games only Ahmed Rosario of the Mets is younger (but he’s nowhere near as good defensively). If you like more straightforward statistics, according to Baseball Reference Arcia remains one of the very best MLB shortstops with 10 Defensive Runs Saved; only Freddy Galvis and Addison Russell are better in the NL.

Second Best at .336
Jesus Aguilar is having a fantastic season, boasting a .336 True Average (TAv) and 1.4 FRAA. That offensive performance is second only to Freddie Freeman among first basemen with 60 or more games played.

For their fantastic pitching staff, the Brewers only have one player in the top ten percent of all MLB, in terms of Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP). That player is lefty high leverage reliever Josh Hader, ranked as 40th (!) with 1.54 WARP. No full-time reliever ranks higher, and only one pitcher better than Hader is younger (Jack Flaherty).

Many Brewers fans are suggesting that the club needs an ace in their pitching rotation. When I host chats on BPMilwaukee Twitter (@BPMilwaukee), the most common questions since the off season typically concern the quality of the MLB rotation. Throwing out the extremely advanced stats, let’s look at games started and ERA+ (a contextual assessment of Earned Runs Average). Here we are, half way through the season, and only ten clubs have at least three starters with 10 GS and an ERA at or above league average: the Red Sox, Cubs, Cleveland, Tigers, Astros, Angels, Mets, Cardinals, Nationals, and Brewers.

Seventeen / 40 Percent
If you’re interested in an ace, though, using the colloquial definition of someone who can lead a rotation in terms of performance and starts, who would be better than Jhoulys Chacin? Sorting all MLB starting pitchers by games started and ERA+, Chacin meets the strongest definition of good performance in a heavy workload.

Of course, including advanced contextual statistics, it is worth questioning whether the club will see some course correction from the starting pitchers. Here, Junior Guerra’s 4.69 DRA is the best among Brewers starters with at least 60 innings pitched. That’s good for 71st in the MLB. Yet, once Guerra is working between the lines, his splitter remains one of the best in the game at inducing swings-and-misses; thus far Guerra is yielding nearly 40 percent whiffs-per-swing on the split (only slightly lagging his 2016 performance that put that pitch on the map).

Thirteen / Forty-Three
Overall, the Brewers pitching rotation forms quite a strong unit: the club’s starting pitchers have 13 Runs Prevented as a group. This performance helps the team maximize a phenomenal bullpen, as the Brewers can frequently keep the game close. With a bullpen that has prevented 43 runs, the starting pitchers are often handing close games to relief pitchers that are ready to help convert those games into wins.

Primary Relievers Runs Prevented
Josh Hader 14
Jeremy Jeffress 13
Jacob Barnes 6
Taylor Williams 5
Matt Albers 2
Corey Knebel 2
Dan Jennings 1

When is a better than average offense not really that good? Over the last 30 games for the Brewers, it turns out! Those big ticket runs totals against Philadelphia have gone a long way toward improving Milwaukee’s season long offensive figures….

Runs Scored Games Scored Percentage
1 6 20.0%
2 5 16.7%
3 4 13.3%
4 3 10.0%
9 2 6.7%
0 2 6.7%
8 2 6.7%
12 2 6.7%
17 1 3.3%
5 1 3.3%
13 1 3.3%
11 1 3.3%
Total Games 30 100.0%

….but for all that, over the last 30 games the most frequently Runs Scored total for the Brewers has declined from the season leading 2 RS. Twenty percent of the Brewers’ games since they returned from Minnesota have ended with 1 RS for Milwaukee. If you missed seeing 2 RS, do not worry, for that remained the second most frequent run total over that time.

Seventeenth in Right
Domingo Santana is a tough player to figure out right now. If someone had told Brewers fans that the right fielder would have -2.6 FRAA roughly halfway through the season, most would have expected that he would be in the running for one of the most valuable right fielders in the MLB. Alas, in True Average (TAv), Santana’s mark of .259 (i.e., roughly league average) ranks 17th of 24 MLB RF with 60 or more games played.

Perhaps Lorenzo Cain is able to produce so many stolen bases in part because he’s on first base so frequently: the Brewers Center Fielder is drawing walks in 13.8 percent of his plate appearances!

Nineteen (Two)
Without park adjustment, across the 2018 MLB the Brewers’ offense currently ranks 19th in terms of Runs Scored. Their pitching staff currently ranks 2nd in terms of Runs Allowed.


Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports Images

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