Throughout the MLB playoffs, coverage of our Beloved Brewers completely missed the point of the club’s roster construction. While national analysts consistently stated that the club could not sustain the type of pitching strategies demonstrated in the playoffs for an entire season, in fact the club was designed to withstand precisely that type of strategy. Reconstructing the 2018 rotation with Baseball Reference CSV data, the 2018 Brewers used approximately six different four-man rotations (Chase Anderson / Jhoulys Chacin / Brent Suter / Junior Guerra and Chacin / Anderson / Wade Miley / Guerra each the most popular at two turns, respectively); the 2018 Brewers used twelve distinct five-man rotations (Anderson / Chacin / Guerra / Freddy Peralta / Miley the most popular; Anderson / Chacin / Suter / Guerra / Zach Davies was second-most popular); and the Brewers even took two turns with six starting pitching spots, if you include the now infamous Dan Jennings LOOGY, one-out “opener” start in St. Louis.
|Brewers Popular Rotations||Four Spot||Four Spot||Five Spot||Five Spot||Five Spot||Six Spot|
Of course, the rotation was not that unstable, as there were “sub-rotational cores” beneath those aforementioned four- , five- , and six-man turns, which basically means that manager Craig Counsell would frequently stick with three starters and then rotate out two other arms. Yet even here the manager would change the order of the three main starters as necessary. The 2018 Brewers rotation could afford such flexibility because the club aggressively used minor league assignments for pitchers with contractual option years; they signed guaranteed MLB contracts (like Chacin) and minor league deals (like Miley), spatially staggering their production across organization levels; they made additional acquisitions (Gio Gonzalez); and, perhaps most importantly, there really was no pitcher “set” in the rotation as a true, standalone ace (in the sense that most fans and analysts use the term “ace”; in fact, Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin each produced excellent seasons).
This is a pitching staff designed for attrition, and the club was forced to deal with contingencies throughout the entire season. One suspects that Jimmy Nelson was out longer than expected for the front office, even if they publicly noted that the righty would miss a “chunk” of 2018; Nelson missed the entire season. This opened up spots, at varying points, for Zach Davies and Brent Suter, who both suffered injuries throughout 2018. Wade Miley was also on-and-off the disabled list early on, which offered additional room for the Brewers to “prove” their organizational depth. And so they did: the pitching rotation was fantastic, all things considered, precisely because the organization did not keep ineffective pitchers on the mound for long, and they were able to shuffle competent depth up-and-down between Triple-A Colorado Springs and the big club.
|Brewers Rotation||Average Runs Prevented||GS||IP|
|Top 20% all MLB SP / Top 30% all MLB SP|
Keep this in mind for the offseason: this is a pitching rotation that could look much more “traditional” in 2019 if Jimmy Nelson returns, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are returned to formal roles, and Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and the gang are afforded roles in some capacity. Yet this is also a team, should Jordan Lyles and Jake Thompson stick around, that could produce the same revolving door results. It all depends on how the season goes, and the Brewers proved in 2018 (even where it may not have been their preferred plan) that a club can succeed simply by building a roster prepared to withstand the full extent of the season.
In March, responding to the (exhausting) constant calls for the Brewers to trade excess outfield depth for starting pitching, I presented the Brewers roster as a true-depth marvel ready for wear-and-tear. I found it important to demonstrate that, across the MLB, teams were not finding regular starters in the field, be it in the outfield or at specific infield positions. It may not be the case that MLB teams prefer to operate this way, but due to player development cycles, injuries, and other transactions, teams operate with revolving door player rosters much more than fan imaginations allow.
In 2018, attrition was the name of MLB once more.
Like 2017, only six outfields in the MLB featured three 100 game starters, including two repeat teams (but only five repeat players) from 2017. This demonstrates that even where teams had consistent, regular starting outfields last season, those outfields were not sustained into 2018. Regular starting groups come and go quickly in the MLB.
|100+ GS||OF 1||OF 2||OF 3|
|Atlanta*||Nick Markakis* (160)||Ender Inciarte* (151)||Ronald Acuna (107)|
|Red Sox*||Andrew Benintendi* (142)||Jackie Bradley Jr* (137)||Mookie Betts* (128)|
|Angels||Justin Upton (140)||Kole Calhoun (129)||Mike Trout (124)|
|Phillies||Odubel Herrera (140)||Rhys Hopkins (133)||Nick Williams (101)|
|Pirates||Starling Marte (136)||Corey Dickerson (122)||Gregory Polanco (122)|
|Blue Jays||Kevin Pillar (132)||Tesocar Hernandez (111)||Randal Grichuk (110)|
|*Repeat of 2017|
The 2018 Brewers are a fantastic example of why this type of roster shuffle occurs. At the beginning of the season, fans may have been most upset about the outfield depth because they would either have liked to pencil in Ryan Braun / Lorenzo Cain / Christian Yelich or Yelich / Cain / Domingo Santana, but not both. I suspect give Santana’s exceptional 2017 campaign and quick ascent into fan-favorite territory, fans would have preferred to see the Yelich / Cain / Santana outfield penned into the list above. Yet it simply was not meant to be; Santana could not cut it throughout the first two months of the season, and needed another stint at Triple-A to redevelop his bat; Ryan Braun was not a regular outfielder due to injuries and (thanks to Santana) early season stints at first base. But it all worked out: Keon Broxton provided phenomenal defense during call-up stints, Hernan Perez did what Hernan does, and even Eric Thames started 31 games in the outfield (!!!). Counsell did whatever was necessary to put the best team on the field, and once again, even if this was not the ideal team in the minds of the front office or field management staff, this squad was the ideal of weathering the storm.
The same story goes for the infield in 2018, where the Brewers were perhaps the most radical team in MLB, both with their Hernan Perez usage and their Travis Shaw / Jonathan Schoop experiment. But even here, the less-than-ideal scenario played out, as Orlando Arcia required additional minor league seasoning, and a group of second basemen could never really get it figured out for a sizable chunk of the season.
|100+ GS||Number of Teams||2017|
Keep these lessons in mind when you’re designing your ideal 2019 Brewers squad. Simply stated, the expectations that MLB teams would not find regular starters across the diamond held throughout the season, and the Brewers showed exactly how clubs can take advantage of that. Furthermore, it’s already possible to imagine how the club will elude 100-game starters at many positions, even without injury; for instance, second base could easily be a turnstile between Perez, (hopefully) Shaw, arbitration-eligible Jonathan Schoop, Mauricio Dubon, and Keston Hiura; if Mike Moustakas sticks around, Shaw will take time away from second base and first base “regulars”; and one might expect the Brewers to design more quality depth after some of their left-handed pitching match up weaknesses were regularly exposed.
A roster without regularity could present another fantastic endeavor for both David Stearns and Craig Counsell in 2019, because the next step in their puzzle requires them to develop their top prospects at the MLB level (if they are not traded) while defending a National League Central Championship bid. The club cannot punt the latter effort in order to accomplish the former, so the Brewers will need to be creative in shuffling their roster around to create time for prospects and contending players alike. In this regard, the lucky outcome of 2018 was that it was simply a practice run that went sideways and turned into a League Championship Series run. May 2019 be another practice run.
Alternately, things are not going to work out as you expect in 2019. But that’s not categorically a bad thing. Let’s use this offseason to think through roster building and understand how the Brewers can place their best foot forward using all 40-man roster spots.