Well, that was the definition of a no good, very bad week for Milwaukee. The Brewers were swept in a five-game series by the Pirates, they lost six games in a row for the first time this season, and, looking further back, they limped into the All-Star break with a 2-8 record in their last ten games, their worst ten game stretch of the season. They’re no longer in first place and the team is actually closer to missing the playoffs than it is to the division lead.
With the most frustrating stretch of the season concluded, the only point I want to dwell on from the weekend is that Sunday’s game should have been delayed before it ended. Understanding it was right before the All-Star break and everyone wanted to go home/on vacation, those were appalling conditions for baseball and it’s not a reach to believe that the final play of the game was affected by the elements. This is purely anecdotal but it certainly feels these situations have been occurring with more regularity. I don’t know if that means that some discretion in these instances should be ceded to MLB’s central office, which could be a neutral arbiter and not as willing to fret over travel schedules, but playing in a downpour entails risks to player health irrespective of game integrity issues. It’s also a problem for the people who paid to go to the game and have to make the choice between taking cover or getting soaked in their seats. Stadiums aren’t designed to provide much cover to spectators and considering that MLB is in the throes of a drop in attendance, creating these situations for fans doesn’t make for a pleasant experience which would draw one out to the park.
Ahem. Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I want to look at two recent additions to the twenty-five man roster who are primed to offer positive production over the second half of the season.
The pitching staff has been stretched as injuries pile up and the team has not had an off day since June 25. Milwaukee called up Corbin Burnes last week to bolster the bullpen. The Baseball Prospectus mothership ran an article on his call-up, anticipating a tightened pitch mix of a fastball and slider and the potential to pitch for more than an inning at a time. Lo and behold Burnes pitched twice this past week and went for two innings in each appearance!
While Burnes did prominently feature his fastball and slider, he did not ditch his curveball, which the Baseball Prospectus prospect team described as “average”. His velocity has ticked up in the bullpen role. Last season as a starter, he was throwing his fastball in the low 90s and the slider in the low 80s, but now he’s sitting around 96 for the fastball and his slider has jumped to 88.
Burnes has done a decent job keeping his fastball elevated and, in an admittedly small sample size, his spin rate on the pitch has been elite, which makes the pitch appear even higher than it is. Batters are swinging at a lot of his fastballs and while the whiffs aren’t there yet, most of the contact hasn’t been productive and there’s only been one single off the pitch.
The Brewers preseason prospect list noted that Burnes “trusts both his breaking balls a lot”, which is a concern when they don’t actually break. While hitters haven’t yet crushed any mistakes, his early pitch patterns do show that he has confidence he can throw the slider and curveball at any time. His highest usage rate of the breakers against left handed comes is when he’s behind in the count and he overwhelming has utilized his slider against righties when he’s ahead or there’s two strikes in the count. Thus far, those pitches haven’t been in the zone, but Burnes is getting swings and misses, so the approach has worked.
There is a prime opportunity to Burnes to stick with the big league club. While the Brewers still have a top three bullpen according to Deserved Run Average (DRA), they’ve been poor in the month of July, and a fresh arm which can pitch multiple quality innings in an appearance is a valuable commodity.
In an admittedly small sample size, Tyler Saladino has the fifth highest True Average (TAv) amongst Brewers position players in 2018. Since his activation from the disabled list on July 5th, he’s taken over the starting shortstop role from Brad Miller, who held it temporarily after Orlando Arcia’s demotion. Below is an abbreviated PECOTA preseason projection for Saladino, which assumed a part-time role and replacement player level production.
Saladino has exceeded his 90th percentile projection. His TAv was .295 before yesterday’s two hit game and while defensive stats are not reliable at such small sample sizes, his 1.9 FRAA compares favorably with Arcia’s 3.7 in less than half of Arcia’s games played in Milwaukee.
Patience and power have been the keys to his step forward. Saladino doubled his walk rate in 2017 to 8.2 percent, which was right around the MLB average after years of a below average rate. He’s mostly kept those gains this season as he’s walked in 6.8 percent of his at bats.
There hasn’t been a large change in Saladino’s swing rate, but where he’s back has produced the greatest results. He’s swung at about 16 percent fewer pitches out of the strike zone, which has covered up his increased whiff rate and kept his walks relatively level.
Saladino has also made a tweak in the pitches he’s swinging at. Last season he was swinging at anything that was up or away and out of the zone. This year he’s been more focused on pitches middle and in, which he can pull. The difference is even more apparent if you just look at fastballs (2017 and 2018). He’s gone to the opposite field less than ever before.
The change in approach has also been paired with an increase in launch angle. This increase actually started in 2017 as he bumped his launch angle from 7.9 to 12.9 degrees. Saladino has increased it further to 14.8 in 2018. However, in 2017 the change didn’t seem to have an effect. There was no increase in his exit velocity and his hard hit percentage and barrel percentage also fell. Saladino is currently running career high numbers in all three categories, which is fueling his improved performance at the plate.
While Saladino can’t replace the big hitters who are currently hurt, he’s providing above average production and lengthens the lineup. Whereas Arcia was an offensive blackhole and Brad Miller isn’t competent enough defensively to handle the position, Saladino, at his current level is what the team needs… unless they trade for Manny Machado.