The Brewers pitching staff is in shambles. Between role regression among key pitchers, injuries to a group of key early-season pitchers as well as crucial trade deadline acquisitions, and an essential end to the rotating “shuttle team” to Triple-A Colorado Springs, the Brewers have lost their ability to prevent runs. Based on Baseball Reference Three Year Park Factors, the Brewers are already 27 runs below average for the unofficial second half (which just began on July 20 and comprises 23 games); using the average Baseball Prospectus Pitcher Park Factor (PPF) for Brewers arms creates an even worse picture, as Milwaukee’s staff is approximately 34 runs below average for the second half by PPF.
New Runs Prevented Workbook || Runs Prevented Primer
This is not even some “to-be-expected” regression, as even if one wishes to look at Deserved Runs Average (DRA) throughout the season as a “true” measure of the Brewers talent (which should be cautioned), the Brewers would have been expected to allow anywhere between 23 and 30 fewer second half runs than they actually have allowed.
|Runs Allowed Per 23 Games||Runs Allowed (RA)|
|Actual Performance Since Break||130 RA|
|Average Team||100 RA (Between 96 and 103 RA)|
|May 31 DRA Pace||102 RA|
|July 1 DRA Pace||96 RA|
|July 22 DRA Pace||97 RA|
This is unforeseen and catastrophic.
The blame can be spread around to everyone, from the post-forearm injury Junior Guerra (10 IP, 9 runs on July 24 & 29), injured reliever Matt Albers (1.7 IP, 10 R), former? closer Corey Knebel (9.3 IP, 8 R entering Sunday), and even rookie rotation depth Freddy Peralta (19 IP, 17 R since the break). Worse yet, there is a sense of adding insult to injury, as newly acquired Joakim Soria hit the disabled list promptly after surrendering a grand slam home run in a devastating loss to San Diego, and quietly effective Taylor Williams hit the disabled list with an elbow injury. While fans will feel less sympathy for Matt Albers, who had a couple of different bouts of ineffectiveness surrounded by separate disabled list stints, the veteran righty was crucial to early season success (25 IP, 4 R through the end of May) and each day his injury status and effectiveness is not answered is a day that manager Craig Counsell must carefully ration Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader with little back-up. The same goes for Williams, and now Soria; while Jacob Barnes was previously an impact reliever and boasts solid peripherals and a 2.99 Deserved Run Average (DRA), his runs prevention performance in 2018 has not been to the level of that injured trio, and now it’s Barnes, Corbin Burnes, and Jordan Lyles trying to nail down the quietly effective support roles.
It’s as simple as this: the Brewers’ bullpen has two truly fantastic options in Jeffress and Hader, and those options will be great regardless of their surrounding cast. For the purposes of contending, however, this duo is amplified when Stearns’s excellent depth picks (Albers, Williams, even Corbin Burnes), closer (Knebel), and additional acquisitions (Soria) are performing well. Jeffress and Hader cannot do it themselves.
Injuries have also trimmed the rotation, as Brent Suter’s torn elbow ligament and Zach Davies’s back ailments have limited the Brewers’ effective rotational depth. Using Baseball Reference Three Year Park factors, both Suter and Davies combined for 18 Runs Prevented over 273 innings in 2017, offering excellent middle and replacement rotation depth. That level of impact depth performance will not be matched by the duo in 2018. Additionally, even if one could have argued that the club might not have expected Jimmy Nelson to return from his shoulder injury in 2018, having that materialize as a likely injury-scenario reality in 2018 is quite another ballgame. Consider this as Freddy Peralta meets a likely innings limit, Chase Anderson continues an uneven season, and Brandon Woodruff finds himself without a rotational role: #TeamDepth is now basically #TeamNecessity in terms of rotation building.
|Disabled List||May 31 Runs Prevented||Current|
|RHP Matt Albers||8.07||-7.29|
|RHP Zach Davies||-5.33||-5.29|
|RHP Joakim Soria||-1.54||0.75|
|LHP Brent Suter||-2.86||-6.01|
|RHP Taylor Williams||2.65||-2.35|
|RHP Junior Guerra (return 7/24)||9.21||8.86|
|RHP Jimmy Nelson||-||-|
There’s no need to state it any other way: as much as one would like to criticize the Brewers pitching staff, and GM David Stearns for his failure to build a staff, the club is now to the point where injuries are diminishing even his strongest moves. The Soria trade looms loudest here, as the Brewers grabbed a legitimate high leverage, veteran reliever at the trade deadline and did not get six innings from his right arm before he hit the DL with a groin injury; Albers and Williams could be fan whipping posts when they were ineffective, but the Albers free agency deal looked like a brilliant low-cost gamble early in the season while Williams seemed poised to catapult himself into the high leverage workload discussion (Williams worked a 17.3 IP, 5 R stretch, Holding three leads, from June until the All Star Break).
Citing injuries to the pitching staff is not an “excuse” for the poor performance.
It would have been enough to deal with this group of recent injuries and setbacks, but the Brewers also simultaneously were gifted with a set of role reversions on the pitching staff. Corey Knebel’s descent from excellent closer in 2017 cost the Brewers a chance at a truly elite relief corps; according to Baseball Reference Three Year Park Factors, Knebel prevented nearly 25 runs in 2017. Even a 50 percent regression from that performance level would fit nicely with Jeffress and Hader, who have both been consistent Top 25 pitchers in the 2018 MLB. Add in the aforementioned struggles of Peralta, Barnes, and a bit of stalled usage from the shuttled Houser (he’s only worked two MLB appearances from July onward), and Counsell’s strategic options are looking much more thin while they are also being exasperated by some ineffective starts.
|Role Regression||Runs Prevented||Trend since July 22||Role|
|Freddy Peralta||-0.66||-15||Rotation Replacement|
|Matt Albers||-7.29||-9||Set-Up / Injury|
|Taylor Williams||-2.35||-8||Key Depth / Injury|
|Junior Guerra||8.86||-7||Rotation Leader / Injury Recovery|
|Jacob Barnes||-1.87||-6||Key Depth / Set-Up|
|Corey Knebel||-1.73||-6||Closer / High Leverage Relief|
|Brent Suter||-6.01||-6||Key Depth / Injury|
|Hernan Perez||-3.41||-4||Position Player Pitcher|
|Jhoulys Chacin||1.61||-4||Rotation Leader|
|Adrian Houser||1.59||-3||Key Depth / “Shuttle Team”|
Beyond these role question marks, it is worth questioning the timing of the inclusion of Jorge Lopez in the Mike Moustakas trade. Since Lopez has served the season as an up-and-down member of the Triple-A / MLB “shuttle team” relief squad, discussions of the quality of Lopez’s performance were largely nonexistent at the trade deadline (I’m also guilty of this charge). But, it is worth emphasizing that as a back-roster depth strategy, the “shuttle team” prevented runs at a solid clip, especially when one considers the nature of this replacement role and the likely quality of other replacement pitchers to be acquired in their place.
|“Shuttle Team”||Runs Prevented||Trend||Note|
|Aaron Wilkerson||-5.64||5||Recalled August 11|
|Jorge Lopez||3.45||2||Traded to Kansas City|
|Brandon Woodruff||-2.37||1||Now AAA Starter|
|Adrian Houser||1.59||-3||Optioned out August 11|
In fact, these shuttle relievers combined to produce near-average aggregate performance for the Brewers, which leads one to question why Stearns traded Lopez and simultaneously decided to keep Brandon Woodruff at the Triple-A level to serve as replacement starting pitching depth. With Lopez in the Royals system and Woodruff now serving as starting pitching depth, the revolving door relief strategy is effectively dead at what could be the worst time of the season. Given that Woodruff boats a 3.55 DRA at the MLB level to accompany a 52 percent ground ball rate, while also demonstrating an average DRA at Colorado Springs with a consistent ground ball rate there, it is worth questioning why Stearns has not simply replaced Peralta with Woodruff (on the one hand) or simply promoted Woodruff to a steady MLB relief role (on the other hand). According to Brooks Baseball, the relief role is agreeing with Woodruff, who is throwing a sizzling 95-to-96 MPH fastball with more armside run than his 2017 variation, complete with steady change up and slider usage (both with more whiffs than in 2017, too).
This is not a bottomless pit (yet). That the Brewers remain the 12th best pitching staff in the MLB, within one standard deviation of the 10th spot, and sixth best pitching staff in the National League, should demonstrate just how good the club has been for most of the year. Indeed, this pitching staff has fallen off, and it’s important to underscore that it’s not simply “regression,” but a bad combination of regression, injuries, and strategic missteps at the worst possible time. But there could be a quick way out of this issue for the club:
- Get Zach Davies healthy, without any further setbacks, and use him to replace Freddy Peralta in the rotation.
- Develop an MLB role for Brandon Woodruff; preferably this would be a rotational role to spell another ineffective starter down the stretch (or add a sixth man for September), but even a well-defined one-inning bullpen role could be extremely helpful at the moment.
- Re-evaluate depth roles for Ariel Hernandez, Jordan Lyles, Alec Asher, and Aaron Wilkerson, and make any necessary waiver trades to boost the pitching staff. E.g., is Jordan Lyles the right arm to work in the shadow of the successful Triple-A shuttle crew? Is now the best time to make a potential long-term development play for Ariel Hernandez?
- Reconsider Adrian Houser’s shuttle role in favor of a regular one-inning role.
With the assumption that some combination of Soria, Albers, and Williams can get healthy for the stretch run, and that some of the “role regression” pitchers can make adjustments at the MLB level once again, this is a pitching staff that can improve quickly and regain its flexible frontier of roles and runs prevention that were celebrated in April and May. With Zach Davies healthy, a waiver trade acquisition (or two), and potentially prominent roles for two righties that can rush it up there (Woodruff and Houser), this pitching staff can rebound. Now we wait and watch.