One of the frequent concerns Brewers fans state about their beloved Milwaukee club is that the roster lacks a “Playoffs Rotation.” This was a common complaint throughout the off season, and it was only amplified during a trade deadline that passed with the Pirates landing Rays ace Chris Archer while GM David Stearns spat on all available starters. On the surface, the complaint has merit, as one would expect that a pitcher with excellent stuff and a track record of success would be desirable for a team seeking to contend. In practice, however, three factors derail this logical roster desire, especially in a market like Milwaukee: (1) “aces” (in terms of true scouting stuff profile and elite success) are extremely rare (think Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer here); (2) aces are expensive; and (3) pitchers are extremely volatile, both in terms of injury and year-over-year performance. Given that a club’s sole need is to prevent enough runs to support the offense’s scoring output, the alchemy necessary to balance these three claims favors multiple pitching strategies.
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With this in mind, it is worth previewing the Brewers and Cubs series by highlighting Chicago’s superior playoff rotation. One of the most common questions that appeared throughout the offseason, and sometimes during regular season chats on @bpmilwaukee Twitter, is whether the Brewers have a rotation that matches the Cubs. After nearly 75 percent of the season, there is a definitive answer to this question:
|Cubs||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented||Brewers||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented|
|Mike Montgomery||7.50||1.31||Junior Guerra||8.86||-4.23|
|Kyle Hendricks||4.41||24.94||Wade Miley||8.49||-3.01|
|Cole Hamels||3.45||1.72||Chase Anderson||5.48||-12.57|
|Jon Lester||2.07||-1.07||Jhoulys Chacin||1.61||-6.94|
|Duane Underwood||0.99||-1.38||Freddy Peralta||-0.66||-4.65|
|Jose Quintana||-0.19||-5.09||Brandon Woodruff||-2.37||3.02|
|Jen-Ho Tseng||-1.99||0.56||Zach Davies||-5.29||-5.94|
|Yu Darvish||-3.98||-0.50||Aaron Wilkerson||-5.64||-1.54|
|Luke Farrell||-6.43||1.04||Brent Suter||-6.01||-4.87|
And I’m not being disingenuous about this: I understand how one can scout the set of Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, and now Cole Hamels, in terms of stuff and experience, and label them an exceptional rotation that is set to demolish the upstart Brewers. I understand that completely. These are proven guys, too, as Jon Lester has a 1.77 ERA in six World Series games, Cole Hamels has a 3.48 ERA in 16 (!) career playoff games, and the unsung hero Kyle Hendricks has a 2.88 ERA across the Cubs’ recent playoff runs. In fan consciousness, these are the types of pitchers that teams need in order to succeed.
So, the Brewers’ excellent team defense (.722 defensive efficiency according to Baseball Prospectus) leading a lovable, motley crew of rotational ragtaggers hardly seems fun when you could string together a rotation that cost around $100 million annually plus prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease. This price was underscored at the deadline, when Stearns presumably refused to send talent like Corbin Burnes and Keston Hiura to Tampa for a pitcher like Chris Archer, or a pitcher like Josh Hader to New York for one of the Mets aces. It’s rarely stated out loud, but one has to guess that the Cubs’ ability to afford a legitimate sticker shock rotation informs at least part of the jealousy in the hearts of Brewers fans.
Yet here we are: the Cubs have the worst rotation among NL division leaders, and the only contending club with a rotation in worse shape is in Pittsburgh.
One of the common complaints I see in debates about the pitching staff is that the Brewers solely have a great rotation for weathering the regular season. This is typically meant to be an indictment of their lack of playoff talent, while still recognizing that indeed the Brewers prevent runs. But, I do not think that the general paucity of quality MLB starting pitching is understood.
For example, take a look at how MLB starting pitching categories rank by Games Started:
|MLB Rotation by GS||PrvAvg||PrvMax||PrvMin||GS||IP|
If MLB pitchers were evenly distributed and then ranked solely by games started workload (which is essentially “times through the rotation”), by SP #91 the average workload is approximately 70 percent of the size of the first starter; by SP #121 the average workload is just about half the workload of the first starter; and so on. This table should explain the need to design a pitching rotation with more than five spots, which to my mind vindicates the manner in which David Stearns constructed his rotation (see Zach Davies, Brent Suter, and of course, Jimmy Nelson, alongside other in-season injuries suffered).
|Runs Prevented SP||PrvAvg||PrvMax||PrvMin||GS||IP|
Ranked by Runs Prevented, it should be striking how quickly the #2 spot falls off from the top slot, and the sheer volume of innings pitched worked by replacement types. This table should demonstrate the baffling inefficiencies in assembling an MLB rotation (evident prior to 162 games, even!), and the extent to which an uneven distribution of talent can be assumed and exploited by front offices. This should help to underscore the strength of Stearns’s rotation building strategy in 2018.
What you will undoubtedly notice is just how good the top of the Brewers rotation has been, relative to the remaining MLB teams, in terms of Runs Prevented: they do not have a #1 starter, but did feature three #2 starters entering Sunday (Junior Guerra, Wade Miley, and Chase Anderson). This sounds like the beginning of a riddle: would you rather have a rotation with a true #1 and a true #9 or #10? Or a rotation with a bunch of #2s and #4s?
Are there other “Playoffs Rotations”? Let’s have a look across the National League, and also survey three phenomenal AL clubs. How many clubs actually have top rotations suitable for the playoffs?
(1) Cardinals and Pirates: Lately, the Cardinals and Pirates have come on strong in the Wild Card race, and both clubs have rotations that would have to stretch to fit a “Playoffs Ace” mold. Miles Mikolas had not even pitched stateside over the last three seasons, and the righty is leading the Cardinals rotation along with rookie Jack Flaherty; Jameson Taillon is almost certainly an “ace” by the definition of some, but Joe Musgrove arguably was not viewed as a potential improvement upon Gerrit Cole when he was acquired (surprise!).
|Cardinals||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented||Pirates||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented|
|Miles Mikolas||19.88||15.37||Jameson Taillon||9.01||14.13|
|Jack Flaherty||8.70||17.89||Joe Musgrove||4.57||0.65|
|Daniel Poncedeleon||4.96||0.55||Trevor Williams||3.76||-9.72|
|Michael Wacha||3.58||4.11||Chris Archer||-2.47||-2.08|
|Carlos Martinez||2.09||-6.14||Clay Holmes||-4.85||-3.14|
|Alex Reyes||1.88||-1.48||Steven Brault||-5.89||-8.17|
|Austin Gomber||0.76||-4.11||Chad Kuhl||-6.56||0.08|
|Adam Wainwright||-0.50||-3.58||Ivan Nova||-7.74||-6.09|
|John Gant||-4.40||5.84||Nick Kingham||-9.92||0.13|
(2) National League East Leaders: In the National League East, the race between the Phillies and Atlanta is fun because both rotations are lead by young or up-and-coming starters. Plus Anibal Sanchez, which has to be one of the best acquisitions for 2018.
|Atlanta||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented||Phillies||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented|
|Sean Newcomb||12.34||9.01||Aaron Nola||35.45||34.18|
|Mike Foltynewicz||11.42||15.50||Zach Eflin||5.02||-0.83|
|Anibal Sanchez||10.77||12.09||Vincent Velasquez||1.02||11.08|
|Max Fried||2.44||1.07||Jake Arrieta||0.67||6.47|
|Kevin Gausman||2.04||1.41||Drew Anderson||-1.08||-0.42|
|Mike Soroka||-1.99||-1.18||Ranger Suarez||-1.54||-1.92|
|Matt Wisler||-3.42||-0.01||Enyel De Los Santos||-2.30||-1.35|
|Julio Teheran||-3.43||-4.71||Nick Pivetta||-5.67||19.65|
|Luiz Gohara||-3.72||1.72||Ben Lively||-6.61||-1.74|
(3) National League West is the Ace Race!: The Diamondbacks and Dodgers get us into “Playoffs Ace” territory, with both Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw serving key rotational roles. But even here, one should notice the bizarre assemblages of rookies, upstarts, and comeback candidates gracing both rotations. Two of the best rotations in the MLB certainly have their top rotation types, but after that, it drops off quickly.
Can we appreciate that Clayton Kershaw is having his worst season in a decade, and has prevented 16 runs?
|Diamondbacks||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented||Dodgers||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented|
|Zack Greinke||25.07||35.03||Ross Stripling||19.73||19.30|
|Patrick Corbin||21.86||31.82||Clayton Kershaw||16.27||11.13|
|Clay Buchholz||10.73||3.03||Walker Buehler||7.97||7.85|
|Taijuan Walker||1.41||-0.09||Hyun-jin Ryu||7.21||5.74|
|Troy Scribner||-0.16||-0.89||Scott Alexander||5.21||-8.44|
|Matthew Koch||-1.39||-7.49||Rich Hill||3.90||-4.88|
|Robbie Ray||-4.10||9.71||Alex Wood||2.75||14.10|
|Kris Medlen||-5.01||0.09||Caleb Ferguson||2.34||3.85|
|Zack Godley||-5.41||1.10||Kenta Maeda||2.15||19.00|
|Shelby Miller||-13.58||0.81||Daniel Hudson||-2.14||-2.38|
(4) The Rockies and Nationals are contending, too: Of course, the rotation most fans have in mind when they think of a playoffs rotation is the Nationals, who feature Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez. Additionally, the Rockies are playing at the edges of the Wild Card race with Washington, and they may have the closest thing to a true five-man rotation on the Senior Circuit.
|Rockies||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented||Nationals||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented|
|Kyle Freeland||29.54||15.50||Max Scherzer||35.76||41.66|
|Tyler Anderson||9.84||13.33||Gio Gonzalez||5.43||8.45|
|Antonio Senzatela||0.31||2.34||Jeremy Hellickson||4.71||2.51|
|German Marquez||-3.01||17.95||Tanner Roark||3.93||-2.43|
|Jon Gray||-3.27||26.10||Stephen Strasburg||1.69||17.33|
|Jeff Hoffman||-4.24||-1.70||Tommy Milone||-2.04||3.12|
|Chad Bettis||-9.30||0.17||Jefry Rodriguez||-3.66||-3.82|
(5) Divergent Top Rotation Fates: Mets and Cleveland:It may be kicking someone while they are down, but prior to looking at the rotations of Cleveland, Boston, and Houston, it is worth looking at the Mets rotation to emphasize that top rotation talent does not always materialize in playoff contending teams, or even elite runs prevention. Noah Syndergaard has struggled with injuries, lagging behind his much-praised teammate Jacob deGrom; both are cited as aces that the Brewers would do well to acquire, even given the steep price.
|Mets||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented||Cleveland||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented|
|Jacob deGrom||34.06||30.64||Trevor Bauer||39.22||43.28|
|Noah Syndergaard||5.32||16.82||Corey Kluber||30.40||36.61|
|Seth Lugo||5.19||-7.40||Mike Clevinger||20.96||17.55|
|Zack Wheeler||1.01||15.82||Carlos Carrasco||12.72||15.90|
|Jerry Blevins||0.30||-11.35||Shane Bieber||2.79||10.52|
|P.J. Conlon||-3.52||-3.36||Adam Plutko||0.12||-9.93|
|Drew Gagnon||-3.93||-2.06||Josh Tomlin||-15.96||-11.94|
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s rotation may better suit the “cost” at which the Brewers can comfortably acquire elite pitching. Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber were both acquired in three-team trades, in which Cleveland surrendered Shin-Soo Choo and Jake Westbrook (respectively). Meanwhile, Carlos Carrasco was part of a relatively large rebuilding move (Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco), and Mike Clevinger was acquired in a depth move. This quartet of trade acquisitions and long development cycles is now worth 100 runs to Cleveland, without always having accompanying prospect hype associated with that type of runs prevention.
(6) The True Playoff Rotations?: Boston and Houston demonstrate two extreme ends of the spectrum of rotation building. The Red Sox feature high-cost aces (Chris Sale and David Price), as well as a couple of pitchers acquired in rebuilding or counterbuilding moves (Andrew Miller and Yoenis Cespedes trades, respectively). On the other hand, the Astros rotation demonstrates the acquisition of three varieties of stalled veterans (Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander, and Gerrit Cole) who fit profiles the Astros front office and coaching staff could work with, as well as a supplemental first round pick (Lance McCullers) and seventh round pick (Dallas Keuchel). If any team has a model for acquiring pitchers that fits Milwaukee’s budget, it’s the former team of GM Stearns.
|Red Sox||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented||Astros||Runs Prevented||DRA Runs Prevented|
|Chris Sale||39.13||39.02||Justin Verlander||29.60||33.29|
|Eduardo Rodriguez||13.62||13.15||Gerrit Cole||24.53||30.96|
|Hector Velazquez||12.54||-5.19||Charlie Morton||19.44||12.55|
|David Price||10.52||3.59||Dallas Keuchel||8.92||12.05|
|Steven Wright||5.75||9.34||Lance McCullers||0.85||14.60|
While the tables above should demonstrate the wide ranging backgrounds, scouting pedigrees, and production demonstrated in contending rotations, I am presenting the following table as basic summary of the last three years of performance among the top Runs Prevented pitchers for current NL contenders (sticking with #1 and #2 starters). Once again, the point is to emphasize the relative variance in performance among these pitchers, as well as the number of newcomers leading these clubs.
|Top Wild Card Pitchers||2017 IP||2017 DRA||2017 ERA||2016 IP||2016 DRA||2016 ERA||2015 IP||2015 DRA||2015 ERA||Median IP||Median DRA||Median ERA|
Basically, the player development profile of the 2018 NL vindicates Stearns’s rotational vision: in a league run by newcomers, comeback players, and depth acquisitions, a league that requires nearly 10 starting pitchers per team to complete a season, building #TeamDepth was a viable playoff strategy. Stearns has constructed a rotation that compares well to the rookies and comeback kids leading many of the playoff clubs, while also giving fans the fun of rooting for the underdog when Milwaukee faces the few remaining aces in the league.