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Chasing 1988

I’ve dreaded writing this post for some time, the ultimate jinx post for the phenomenal 2018 Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff. In fact, they surrendered eight runs today while I researched this feature. Yet, as the games played total strolls over 100, it is worth broaching the topic of the place of the 2018 Brewers pitching staff within the context of franchise history. It is an understatement to note that Milwaukee’s franchise is hardly known for pitching; in fact, averaging Baseball Prospectus Pitcher Park Factors and Baseball Reference park factors, the Brewers have managed only 17 average or better pitching staffs in the course of 50 active seasons (including their year as the Seattle Pilots). The Brewers have been a bad pitching franchise, but that changed somewhat in 2017, when GM David Stearns demonstrated his acumen to assemble a strong Runs Prevention unit, foreshadowing 2018.

Best Brewers Pitching Avg. Runs Prevented
1988 89.1
1992 68.5
2018 53.2
2008 52.0
2017 47.5
2011 47.3
1997 41.6
1994 29.8
1978 26.8
2005 26.4
1979 19.8
1980 18.3
1986 11.3
1974 3.8
1995 3.6
2007 3.5
1971 0.9

Now the 2018 Brewers are on pace to challenge the 1988 Brewers for the best pitching staff in franchise history. As it stands, the Brewers could basically pitch average baseball for the remainder of the season and finish with the third best staff in franchise history; as the table above shows, Milwaukee has already surpassed their 2017 Runs Prevented total this season.

The purpose of this post is not to present a normative argument about whether or not the Brewers should be expected to produce the best pitching season in franchise history. Evidence abounds in all directions. First and foremost, at the time of this writing, the trade deadline has yet to pass, which means that the Brewers could further improve their pitching; second, the latest average Runs Prevented table demonstrates that the Milwaukee hurlers are already approximately 12 runs from their May 31 pace, meaning that the club has slowed slightly in their elite Runs Prevention; additionally, key injuries and subsequent ineffectiveness (ranging from Brent Suter and Zach Davies to Matt Albers and, of course, Jimmy Nelson) also impact projections of runs prevention. Alternately, Chase Anderson has prevented approximately seven runs since the beginning of June, and is beginning to look like a rotation leader at the same time the club traded for Joakim Soria and recalled Corbin Burnes to bolster the bullpen. If anything, this swirling set of evidence might allow one to believe that the pitching staff will at least remain steady.

Rather, I am going to investigate the pitching staff structure for a few of the best franchise pitching staffs listed in the table above. The purpose here will be fun, first and foremost, as almost everyone can name the key Brewers batters and supporting casts of the club’s great offensive performances (ten of the top 13 runs production seasons come from the 1978-1983 and 2009-2012 roster cores), but the great pitching staffs beyond Teddy Higuera, Ben Sheets, and CC Sabathia remain underappreciated or perhaps even unknown. Furthermore, by comparing the structures of these great staffs, one can get an idea of how pitching roster construction has evolved over time. For example, the 2018 Brewers may very well end up producing the greatest bullpen in franchise history, but how does their rotation compare? On the other hand, one might expect the classic 1980s clubs to be rotation-first, in terms of value.

Defensive Efficiency
Prior to investigating Baseball Prospectus pitching profiles of these classic Brewers pitching clubs, it is worth emphasizing that most of the top Brewers pitching teams were also typically very good fielding teams relative to their respective leagues.

Defensive Efficiency Efficiency Rank (League)
1992 Brewers .738 1st of 14
2018 Brewers .724 1st of 15
2008 Brewers .715 2nd of 16
1988 Brewers .733 2nd of 14
1997 Brewers .713 2nd of 14
1994 Brewers .717 3rd of 14
1978 Brewers .730 4th of 14
2005 Brewers .715 7th of 16
2017 Brewers .702 7th of 15
2011 Brewers .712 8th of 16

Indeed, the table above demonstrates that the 2018 Brewers shares the top of these fielding profiles with the 1992 club, which were the most efficient fielding unit on the Junior Circuit. Here, I am using defensive efficiency to assess fielding because it is a basic number that calculates the extent to which a fielding unit converts outs. The outliers here are the 2005, 2011, and 2017 Brewers clubs, which prevented runs despite mediocre fielding performances (they prevented approximately 26, 47, and 47 runs, respectively, despite their middle of the road fielding).

Roster Construction
Teddy Higuera had quite a career for the Milwaukee Brewers, posting single season WARP totals above 4.0 in three of nine seasons. Higuera’s best year in Milwaukee occurred during the 1988 season, in which the southpaw worked nearly 230 innings while striking out 192 batters to only 59 walks. Using Deserved Run Average (DRA), a statistic that scales pitching performance to numerous contextual components, Higuera was better in 1988 than in any other season in Milwaukee, and those results total nearly 7.0 WARP.

1988 Brewers Leaders WARP G (GS) Age DRA
Teddy Higuera 6.9 31 (31) 30 2.48
Chris Bosio 2.7 38 (22) 25 3.71
Chuck Crim (!!!) 1.9 70 (0) 26 3.30
Mike Birkbeck 1.3 23 (23) 27 4.10
Tom Filer 1.2 19 (16) 31 4.02
Don August 1.15 24 (22) 24 4.33

Yet the 1988 club was also a crossing of two eras in Milwaukee, where the fading glory of Harvey’s Wallbangers (who never got the consistent ace they deserved in Higuera) would congeal into a roster core that could never quite get Robin Yount and Paul Molitor into the playoffs with a second generation of talent. Behind Higuera, the 1988 squad featured four prominent contributors age-25 or younger in Juan Nieves (23), Don August (24), Chris Bosio (25), and Bill Wegman (25), ostensibly giving the Brewers a stable pitching rotation around which their next contending seasons could follow. Yet injuries, ineffectiveness, and inconsistencies derailed this group, leaving 1988 their best performance. Of these youngsters, Bosio was en route to beginning a stretch of several quality pitching seasons, and in fact the righty was more valuable each of 1989, 1991, and 1992 (compared to 1988).

Chuck Crim deserves mention, of course, because the 26-year old rubber arm worked more than 100 innings over 70 appearances. Not only did the righty work 42 multiple inning appearances according to Baseball Reference, but he also inherited 68 runners. In terms of percentage points, Crim’s strand rate was eight points better than the league average, meaning that aside from his own exceptional runs allowed total, Crim added several┬áRuns Prevented simply by stranding runners that occupied bases when he entered ballgames; this performance foreshadowed Brian Shouse’s efforts for the excellent 2008 pitching staff (60 IR / 20 scored), as well as Jeremy Jeffress and Dan Jennings (62 IR / 14 scored (!!!) entering Sunday) in 2018. This excellent performance is reflected in Crim’s leads converted statistics, as the righty successfully produced nine saves and 13 holds, against only two blown save or hold opportunities.

2017 Brewers Leaders WARP G (GS) Age DRA
Jimmy Nelson 4.7 29 (29) 28 3.16
Chase Anderson 2.7 25 (25) 29 3.85
Corey Knebel 1.9 76 (0) 25 2.9
Josh Hader 1.2 35 (0) 23 3.01
Jacob Barnes 1.0 73 (0) 27 3.92

The Crim mention is a perfect transition to the 2017 pitching staff, which featured a few excellent starting pitching performances boosted by an even better bullpen. Thus appears Jacob Barnes in the club’s top performers for 2017, as the hard near-cutter / slider reliever is not only a throwback to the bread-and-butter 1980s reliever (enter Crim, a favorite media comp for Barnes, too), but also one of the only 2017 Brewers pitchers to accumulate more than 1.0 WARP. What is interesting about the 2017 pitching staff also foreshadowing the strengths of the 2018 staff, and that is the sheer depth of the pitching operations. Eventually, the pitching-by-depth gamble unraveled as the club faced injuries and a rotating cast of fifth starter ineffectiveness down the stretch. But along with the more popular impact relievers of Corey Knebel and Josh Hader, Barnes was one of the key reasons for the club’s success in 2017 and, like Crim and Hader, another deep round MLB draft success story.

By the way, let it be said that for any other critiques of the Brewers current GM, David Stearns sure can build a runs prevention unit. Despite being in his third season as GM, and ostensibly leading the club through a rebuilding phase, Stearns already boasts two of the 17 average or better pitching staffs in franchise history. Interestingly enough, for all the grief President Doug Melvin gets about his apparent inability to assemble a pitching staff, the highly regarded Harry Dalton also had the same issue. While Sal Bando is not highly regarded by most Brewers fans, the GM sure could build a pitching staff, and Bando (more than Melvin or Dalton) is Stearns’s target for building quality pitching; Dalton and Melvin are obviously the targets for beating postseason appearances.

Brewers GM Average (or Better) Pitching Years
Dalton 5
Bando 4
Stearns 2
Melvin 4
Baumer 1
Lane 1

Comparing Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, and Zach Davies, who was an excellent Runs Prevented starter in 2017 even if his WARP did not look great, to the 1988 squad should underscore the difficulty of building a consistent rotation. Producing a great starting rotation certainly does not come close to guaranteeing pitching success in the following season, when injuries, mechanical adjustments, and inconsistencies that were absent in the “great year” can creep up in the following campaign. Once again, though, the Brewers have a group of truly controllable, quality starting pitching arms (as they did in the late-1980s), but it is worth raising questions about the scouting profiles and future prospects of these arms following the mechanical adjustments and injuries that have plagued 2018. The book is not closed, however, as Chase Anderson has shown over his last ten starts (59.7 IP, 3.02 ERA, four quality starts); if all goes well, Anderson’s contract extension would be well-justified if he comes anywhere near Chris Bosio’s best four years in Milwaukee.

2008 needs no introduction, as the Brewers media and Twitter recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the CC Sabathia trade. Of course, as Sabathia rightfully carries the reputation as the arm that saved that season, it is always worth emphasizing that Ben Sheets was phenomenal in 2008 as well. Sheets managed a 3.13 DRA and 5.3 WARP across 31 starts, including an electrifying 1-0 complete game effort over the Padres while pitching through a torn elbow ligament. In terms of pitchers putting their careers on the line for Milwaukee, it’s tough to top Sabathia and Sheets, as both pitchers risked millions of dollars on the 2008-2009 free agency market to will the Brewers to their first playoff appearance in a generation; Sheets lost the bet for future millions, while Sabathia cashed on an uncanny performance.

2008 Brewers Leaders WARP G (GS) Age DRA
Ben Sheets 5.3 31 (31) 29 3.13
CC Sabathia 4.7 17 (17) 27 2.34
Dave Bush 2.7 31 (29) 28 4.22
Carlos Villanueva 2.7 47 (9) 24 3.21
Manny Parra 2.7 32 (29) 25 4.09

But oh, ode to Manny Parra, Dave Bush, and Carlos Villanueva, the sometimes frustrating but often dependable low rotation and swingman crew for the mid-00s Milwaukee teams. Bush was worth approximately 10 WARP to the Brewers over his 2006-2008 seasons, with 2006 being the high mark; Villanueva and Parra each had their best Milwaukee years in 2008, which is not a bad thing to occur during a playoff race. This trio of pitchers seems quite comparable to many of the 2018 Brewers group, for this trio either had unassuming stuff, or serious profile questions or command concerns when the stuff was there. While one will be quick to point out that the 2018 Brewers do not (yet) have their Sabathia, nor do they have their Sheets, one can find semblances of the Bush, Parra, and Villanueva trio in profiles such as Junior Guerra, Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley, and/or Freddy Peralta. This is not an insult: the 2008 trio have never truly received enough credit for their respective roles in carrying the rotation early in the season, nor for their overall value.

1992 Brewers Leaders WARP G (GS) Age DRA
Bill Wegman 6.1 35 (35) 29 3.04
Chris Bosio 3.4 33 (33) 29 3.77
Jamie Navarro 2.2 34 (34) 25 4.22
Cal Eldred 1.7 14 (14) 24 3.58
Mike Fetters 1.29 50 (0) 27 3.07
Darren Holmes 1.03 41 (0) 26 2.75
Jesse Orosco 1.01 59 (0) 35 2.62

Finally, if 1988 was the best franchise pitching season, 1992 exemplified the turn of generations once more, as Jamie Navarro and Cal Eldred were set to join Bosio and Wegman atop the pitching staff. This time, Wegman bested Bosio in terms of value, but both pitchers were quite strong, producing nearly 10 WARP for those 1992 Brewers. Eldred and Navarro also acquitted themselves well, although they would reprise the injuries, inconsistencies, and ineffectiveness that has served as a theme throughout these pitching profiles.

In 1992, one can suddenly see the eras shift, as baseball’s strategic tides moved toward relief pitching prominence, and these Brewers had a deep and fantastic bullpen. Fetters, Holmes, and Orosco were not even the most prominent relievers on the staff (see Plesac, Dan; Henry, Doug; and Austin, Jim). What is stunning about this group is that despite their excellent and deep composition, the Brewers were near the bottom in the American League in both Saves and Holds, and their relievers mostly faced low leverage innings according to Baseball Reference. In 1992, 42 percent of Brewers relief appearances qualified as low leverage; to get a sense of what that might look like, consider than the 2018 Brewers are nearly the exact opposite, with 36 percent of relief appearances qualified as high leverage. It is interesting to think about this strategic snafu of 1992 during a current season in which managers are reaching for their bullpens early and often in order to gain every advantage possible.

Yet is a bullpen ever a vehicle for anything other than strategic failure? Is there a proper way to manage the pen over an extended period of time? If the 2018 Brewers are going to catch the 1988 squad to produce the best pitching season in franchise history, hopefully manager Craig Counsell effectively dispatches those Runs Prevented in the most strategic manner possible.


 

Baseball Prospectus. Milwaukee Brewers Individual Statistics by Team [CSV]. Retrieved July 29, 2018.

Baseball Reference. Milwaukee Brewers Franchise [CSV]. Retrieved July 29, 2018.

Baseball Reference. Park Factors and League Encyclopedia [CSV]. Retrieved July 29, 2018.

 

Runs Prevented were calculated using the average of park factors between Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference sources, with the addition of a basic league environment runs prevented stat as well. Each Brewers team was assessed by average runs prevented and standard deviation.

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