The last eight days for the Brewers have seen the team’s playoff odds increase as they’ve overtaken St. Louis for the first Wild Card spot. Milwaukee took care of business against the Reds and Nationals, taking four out of six games which featured some great hitting and pitching performances. Perhaps most importantly, Milwaukee took the series opener against the Cubs on Labor Day. The teams still have five head to head games over the next ten days, which will be key if the Brewers hope to make a push for the division.
LHP Gio González was the most buzzworthy name acquired by the Brewers prior to the August 31 waiver trade deadline. The aftermath of the trade surprised some because out of his 308 career MLB appearances, only six have been in relief, yet the Brewers did not commit a rotation spot to the new acquisition. Before looking into his potential role in September and potentially beyond, I want to review his season to see what the team can expect.
Throughout his career, González has been a four pitch pitcher. At the time of his debut, the fourseam fastball was his primary pitch and he threw that pitch as well as his curveball on three-fourths of his selections. He rounded out his arsenal with a sinker and a changeup. As his career has progressed, that specific mix has changed, in particular as his average fourseam fastball velocity dipped from a high of 94.2 mph in 2012 to 90.8 in 2018. Now González throws the sinker most frequently, but his usage of all of his pitches has converged between twenty and thirty percent, as this year he is throwing a career low percentage for fourseam fastballs and a career high for changeups.
However, González’s new pitch mix has not produced good results. This season he has a 4.48 Deserved Run Average (DRA), which is his highest number since his late season debut in 2008. National League pitchers are striking out 8.5 batters per nine innings in 2018, up from 8.2 in 2017, yet González’s strikeouts per nine innings have dropped from the league average in 2017 to 7.8 this season. Among all MLB pitchers with at least 140 innings, González ranks forty-third out of sixty-eight pitchers in this ratio.
Naturally, whiffs are the first place to look to see if the veteran is not fooling batters anymore, but González’s swinging strike rate this season is 23.2 percent, slightly up from 2017 and only .6 percent off his career average. The lefty is getting a career low whiff rate on his curveball and his changeup whiff rate has declined for the fourth straight season, but his fastballs are in line with his career numbers. Maybe he should be throwing a few less curveballs when he has two strikes, but nothing in this pitch mix looks like it needs to be immediately corrected.
The usual indicators don’t show anything terribly off with González, yet batters are hitting him harder than before. Compared with 2017, his Statcast numbers have exponentially jumped. He was a top eight percent pitcher according to exit velocity and hard hit percentage last year. In 2018 he’s barely in the top seventy percent in both metrics.
His True Average (TAv)-against is .277, well above his career average of .253 and the highest full season number of his career. His Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is .319, which is twenty-four points above his career average but not a career high and he’s run much better DRAs in his other season above .300. He’s also right around his career average home run rate, so he isn’t encountering bad luck.
This is not the portrait of a savior for the pitching staff that is in desperate need of a course correction from a terrible August. However, there’s been some speculation that the plan is to use González as more of a long man, turning over a lineup once as a bridge between the brigade of five inning starters and the back end of the bullpen. This season, González has consistently allowed a lower batting average against and isolated slugging earlier in his appearances when compared with hitters’ second and third looks at him, and he gets more swings and misses.
|First Time through the Order||.180||.325||.313||.130|
|Second Time through the Order||.157||.268||.298||.286|
|Three + Times through the Order||.242||.350||.273||.333|
|First Time through the Order||.080||.113||.083||.174|
|Second Time through the Order||.039||.286||.246||.171|
|Three + Times through the Order||.121||.125||.136||.083|
|First Time through the Order||10.62||4.85||16.11||10.67|
|Second Time through the Order||15.13||3.48||12.84||9.41|
|Three + Times through the Order||10.27||6.02||13.14||6.99|
González doesn’t vary his pitch mix throughout his starts, which may hurt him as the outing goes on because he isn’t holding any pitch back and hitters are getting looks at everything the first time through the order. If he’s going to pitch this way, the numbers show that he is outperforming his seasonal stats in that first look at the order. González has not relieved since 2009, so asking him to come out of the bullpen is uncharted territory. However, he could be deployed effectively as an opener or as the first option out of the bullpen who can go for two plus innings, depending on where the batting order sits when he enters the game. This usage would make him a non-traditional acquisition, but it fits within the team’s overall strategy and pattern in looking outside the organization for help. The team needed innings, and there’s no reason why González can’t give them four to six effective innings a week, which would be better than ten mediocre innings in a traditional starter’s role.
Curtis Granderson was the lone bat acquired by the team last week, and he fills a narrow niche for the roster as well: lefty masher off the bench who can also spot start in each corner outfield position. As a team, the Brewers are slashing .253/.320/.425 against right handed pitchers, which is slightly above MLB-wide numbers against righties. Granderson’s unimpressive slash line of .245/.342/.430 improves around ten percentage points in each category when his twenty six plate appearances against left handed hitters are removed from his numbers.
Right handed pitchers are looking to locate low and away against Granderson, and a good amount of his five season high swing and miss rate of 27.6 percent is coming on low pitches out of the strike zone. Throughout his career, he’s generated the most power when he’s hitting higher pitches, and that pattern has continued in 2018.
The veteran is showing some age related decline as it appears his bat has gotten a little slower. Granderson has always performed well against fastballs, posting career Isolated Slugging Percentage (ISO) of .313, .250 and .282 against four seamers, sinkers and cutters from right handers, which are his best numbers against all pitches. Those numbers have fallen off this season, and his production has been buoyed by an uncharacteristic performance against split finger fastballs. In addition to catching up to fewer fastballs, Granderson is also whiffing more on breaking balls and offspeed pitches, which could be a sign that he’s cheating to try and catch up to velocity.
In Granderson’s limited role, the Brewers can hide his weaknesses and hopefully coax out a performance even higher than his current numbers against right handed hitters. He’s appeared in three games so far as a Brewer, with one start in between two pinch hitting appearances. That one start was against a pitcher who throws hard and mainly uses fastballs. He has one single and three walks in his six plate appearances. Hopefully his batting eye can be supplemented with some pop over the next month as he provides a breather for the outfield regulars.
The three-game series against the Cubs continues today, then the Brewers will host the San Francisco Giants over the weekend. Before yesterday’s game, the Cubs still had a ninety percent chance of winning the division, with the Brewers taking the crown in two thirds of the other scenarios. The two series against the Cubs and one against the Cardinals are the only head-to-head chances for Milwaukee to increase their odds the rest of the season. The Brewers have the best projected rest of the season performance out of Central division teams, but right now that’s not projected to overtake Chicago. San Francisco has had a disappointing season, which has seen them overperform their Pythagorean Record (estimated from Runs Scored and Runs Allowed) by 5.9 games, which is first in the National League and third in MLB. However, the team will play out September without two of their top three regular position players by TAv as Andrew McCutchen has been traded and Buster Posey is now on the sixty-day disabled list.
|Tuesday September 4||Mike Montgomery (4.49 DRA)||Wade Miley (4.26 DRA)|
|Wednesday September 5||Carlos Quintana (5.06 DRA)||Jhoulys Chacin (4.65 DRA)|