In the first half of the season Craig Counsell acted intelligently, especially about the use of is pitchers. This was important because the back half of the Brewer lineup was simply terrible, and to win games, they had to lock down the opponent. This is basically what happened as the Brewers surged to lead the division by acquiring two-run leads and making them stand up.
Then, near the end of the first half, they slowly started to undo all of the good they’d done earlier; it is now an open question as to whether they truly are intelligently managed, or if they just happened to luck into a winning strategy without realizing it was a winning strategy.
We have all of these great stats for baseball players because baseball is mostly a series of easily quantifiable individual acts, but there are certain interlocking parts on defense and in the bullpen. If you muck with any of those, you can drastically change your fortunes. It all started innocently enough on May 9th. May 9th was the day the Corey Knebel was activated from the disabled list, and when that happened it completely changed how Craig Counsell used his stable of relievers for the worse.
The best way to demonstrate this is in Counsell’s use of Josh Hader. Hader had been used as a multi-inning fireman through all of April and most of May. Through May 25th, Hader made 18 total appearances, and in 12 of those appearances he pitched between two and three innings. He only made an appearance of one inning or less on three occasions. On May 21st, Knebel resumed a proper “closer” role, entering in the 9th inning to finish games in his next four appearances, and finishing the job three times. After Knebel became the closer, Hader’s usage plummeted.
After May 25th, Hader would only pitch more than one and two-thirds inning once, in a 3-inning appearance against the Twins on July 3rd. Hader made 13 appearances after May 25th, and lasted one inning or less in 7 of them. It’s fine to be careful with Hader as he’s a unique weapon when healthy, but this hardly seems like being careful. The ideal use of Hader probably looks like the early season version, with multi-inning appearances followed by one or two days of rest. This run of shorter appearances with one over-long appearance, seems bad.
It might not have been quite so bad had Matt Albers stayed healthy. Albers has been quietly excellent, and having him around with Jeremy Jeffress and Hader makes the bullpen mostly idiot-proof. But Albers last pitched on June 11th, and without him, things have fallen apart. Craig Counsell’s refusal to use Hader in games where the Brewers trail, even by small margins, has severely limited his use. Worse still, Counsell’s willingness to go to the weak part of the bullpen when they trail resulted in big innings for bad pitchers. Dan Jennings is ok, but he’s just OK, and his 3.76 Earned Run Average (ERA) and 1.325 Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP) don’t warrant having been used more than the outstanding Jeffress, but that is exactly what has happened. Jacob Barnes has thrown 37 innings with a WHIP of 1.568. Mike Zagurski actually pitched innings. And, of course, Knebel’s automatic entry into save situations with a 4.53 FIP and 3.93 DRA isn’t exactly helping either.
Counsell, in many ways, has reverted to making the decisions of an average manager, except it’s almost worse as he’s put the typical constraints of a closer on his best fireman as well.
The Brewers can’t afford to run a stupid bullpen, because their starters are a powder keg of dynamite sitting on a pile of twigs and oil-soaked rags inside of a magnifying glass factory. If you read Baseball Prospectus regularly you probably already know about DRA (Deserved Run Average) but if you don’t, DRA attempts to get to the true value of a pitcher by controlling for the factors outside of a pitcher’s control. It adjusts for things like the ballpark a pitcher pitches in, the quality of the catcher, the defense, the weather, the altitude, and a host of other issues. I consider DRA to be mostly a “front office stat” in that it’s most useful if you want to take a pitcher from some other environment, and stick him into yours. If a pitcher on your favorite team is bad and DRA says he should be good, from a fan perspective, it doesn’t really matter that his DRA is good. The results were bad, and that’s what counts.
In this case, I think it actually should matter to fans. The first thing you should know is that the DRA of every Brewer starter is terrifying. Zach Davies has a 5.71 DRA. Wade Miley has a 5.43 DRA. Junior Guerra has a 5.13 DRA. Those are bad numbers, and with one exception, every Brewer starter’s ERA is drastically lower than their DRA.
Suter is close, but according to DRA, much of the success of pitchers like Chacin, Anderson, Guerra, and Miley is due to “other factors.” Unfortunately, the Brewers have removed many of those “other factors” from the team of late. One of the big other factors is the defense of Orlando Arcia.
Arcia has struggled with the bat all season, and there’s nothing wrong with sending him on a trip to Colorado Springs to get right. However, Arcia has now been effectively gone for about a month given his lack of regular playing time in late June before he was sent down on July first, and while Arcia’s bat has been awful, losing him comes with a real cost on defense. Arcia’s 3.7 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) is second only to Lorenzo Cain, and he accumulated that number in far fewer attempts. On a per play basis, Arcia is likely the best Brewer defensive player, and I suspect almost all defensive metrics understate his true value. The Brewers are on the high end in terms of teams who employ the shift, and Arcia’s greatness in the field allows the team wide latitude in positioning their lesser defenders. If Nate Orf is playing shortstop, it’s much more difficult to commit extra infielders to the right side, knowing that any hits to the left will be hopeless. Orf, Tyler Saladino, and Brad Miller aren’t in the same league as Arcia defensively, and while Saladino has had a nice offense surge lately, they are not good enough offensively to compensate for the lack of Arcia’s glove.
Simultaneously, the Brewers have attempted to get more offense into the lineup by playing Eric Thames in the outfield. When the Brewers have Cain, Christian Yelich, and Ryan Braun/Domingo Santana/anyone else, they have an outstanding defensive outfield, but with Cain missing some time lately, and Thames playing more frequently, the outfield defense has suffered at the same time the infield defense is suffering. The Brewers have taken everything that was working earlier, fundamentally misunderstood why it was working, and turned it on its head. The smidgen of extra offense they may have created simply isn’t worth it.
What Should They Do?
If the Brewers plan to roll with this pitching staff, the first thing they should do is call up Arcia, and commit to living with whatever issues he may have offensively. More than anything, they need to go back to leaning on their strengths. During the All-Star game it was discovered that Josh Hader wrote several racist, homophobic, and misogynistic tweets when he was in high school seven years ago. He has apologized, will undergo sensitivity training for whatever that’s worth, and will not be suspended, but from a baseball perspective, it will be interesting to see if the constant boos and heckling he is likely to encounter for the foreseeable future will render him less effective. He was already showing some signs of mortality before the incident, and if this compounds whatever physical issues he may have been experiencing, it could destroy the team’s chances.
If Hader can no longer be relied on, it’s imperative that they do the next best thing and use Jeremy Jeffress as they did early season Hader, and if Corbin Burnes can help fill the gap, so much the better.
Monkeying with internal personnel has hurt the team more than it has helped, and Milwaukee could stand to acquire at least one more bat, and if possible, a high-strikeout starter. Having an actual good pitcher who can go deep into games and limit balls in play would have a cascade effect on the bullpen by allowing them more rest, while also boosting the offense. If the pitcher is not as reliant on the defense, the team can afford to sacrifice some defense with moves like having Thames in the outfield.
The Brewers could also address the offense more directly by acquiring a bat, preferably at the catcher position. With Manny Machado off the market, improving on offense at shortstop is likely a fools’ game at this point, but the catchers are still awful, and an upgrade would do a world of good. They could also potentially upgrade at 2nd base as Jonathan Villar has been a disappointment, and it would not be surprising to see the team acquire Brian Dozier from the Twins. Whatever moves they make, they need to bolster their strengths, not replace a major strength in one area with a comparatively minor upgrade in another.
When Knebel was out, the baseball universe taught the Brewers several good lessons about how baseball could, and should be played. As soon as their closer came back they reverted to every old bad habit that they could, and while they clearly understand their own weaknesses on offense, they don’t seem to grasp the trade-offs that can accompany fixing those issues. Hopefully the return of Albers takes care of the bullpen. Hopefully Arcia’s recent success at AAA gets him back to the big leagues in short order. Hopefully the players play their way into their proper roles. I had all of the confidence in the world in Counsell to make this all happen earlier, but that confidence has mostly eroded. Here’s to hope and dumb, stupid luck.