Last Updated: 2019-03-04
Longtime readers know that I’ve been cheating on the Cleveland Indians with the Milwaukee Brewers. I even went to Miller Park last season for my first Brewers game and made a few purchases in the team shop. The older I get, the more my personal fandom wanes because I’m just interested in teams that are doing things differently. More than anything else, I’m a fan of the sport and the numbers.
Nobody makes more out of less than the Brewers. That’s not to say that the Brewers lack good players. Christian Yelich and Josh Hader are studs and there are a lot of above average players as well. What they have done with some intriguing circumstances is a testament to what this front office has been able to accomplish.
For starters, the Brewers’ Double-A affiliate is in Biloxi, Mississippi, which is basically at sea level. Up until this year, the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate was in Colorado Springs. That makes it virtually impossible to evaluate data for pitchers that go between the two levels and also to make confident projections of their MLB futures. This season, Milwaukee’s Triple-A affiliate is in San Antonio.
It is the starting rotation that has been a separator. Teams all around the league have been tripping over themselves to get as many strikeout pitchers as possible. The Brewers found an inefficiency in terms of pitch sequencing and planning and have been able to make a Michelin star kind of dish out of ingredients you can buy at a big box supermarket. They have elevated guys like Jhoulys Chacin, who, to be fair, has had a really solid career, Chase Anderson, Wade Miley, and Junior Guerra to levels that allow them to survive five innings with regularity before turning it over to an elite bullpen.
Everything came to a head last year, when the Brewers took the Dodgers to seven games in the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers finished the season with a 40-man payroll in excess of $195 million. The Brewers finished at $121 million, but fell just short of representing the Senior Circuit in the World Series.
As much as I love the Brewers and respect what they’ve done over the last two seasons to win 182 games, it’s fair to wonder if they can sustain it. This is a team that hasn’t made consecutive playoff appearances since 1981-82 and a team that many expect to regress. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t have concerns.
In many respects, last season felt like the peak for the Brewers and they needed Game 163 to guarantee five playoff games and not have to go through a Wild Card Game for their playoff lives. This division is still a real challenge and the Brewers don’t have the same margin for error that bigger payroll teams like the Cubs and Cardinals have. A lot of things need to go right for teams like the Brewers.
Will those same things go right in 2019?
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 96-67
Run Differential: +95
Pythagorean W/L: 91-72
BaseRuns Record: 92-71
BaseRuns Run Differential: +101 (4.66/4.04)
3rd Order Win% Record: 92.7-70.3
Record in One-Run Games: 33-19
Additions: Yasmani Grandal, Cory Spangenberg, Ben Gamel, Matt Albers, Alex Claudio, Tuffy Gosewisch, Adam Hill, Bobby Wahl, Jake Petricka, Burch Smith, Deolis Guerra, Angel Perdomo, Noah Zavolas, Brett Lawrie, Josh Tomlin, Jay Jackson
Losses: Jonathan Schoop, Curtis Granderson, Gio Gonzalez, Wade Miley, Xavier Cedeno, Jordan Lyles, Dan Jennings, Joakim Soria
The Brewers have become one of the most progressive organizations in baseball, which is why it is no surprise that their primary target in free agency was Yasmani Grandal. Grandal had another solid season with the bat last year, but many believe that the former Dodgers backstop is the best pitch framer in baseball and that’s where the value lies. That matters a lot with this starting rotation.
Replacing bullpen depth was essential. Dan Jennings, Joakim Soria, Xavier Cedeno, and Jordan Lyles all found new homes. They have been replaced with Matt Albers, Alex Claudio, Jake Petricka, who is my favorite grab of the group, and one of the starters that will move to the pen to accommodate the return of Jimmy Nelson.
Mike Moustakas did sign a one-year deal with the Brewers right around the first full-team workout of Spring Training, so he goes from being a loss to returning to the starting lineup.
BA: .252 (12th)
OBP: .323 (12th)
SLG: .424 (9th)
wOBA: .322 (10th)
wRC+: 99 (13th)
BABIP: .302 (8th)
K%: 23.5% (24th)
BB%: 8.6% (16th)
National League MVP Christian Yelich got away from the hurtful park factor in Miami and posted a career year with a .326/.402/.598 slash, a .422 wOBA, and a 166 wRC+. For somebody with his launch angle, 36 home runs seems like a lot, but he had a top-10 hard hit rate, with 50.8 percent of his batted balls showing an exit velocity of 95+ mph. He just makes a lot of quality contact and hits line drive home runs. I’ll still be looking for some regression in the power department, but he did get away from Marlins Park, so high numbers should be coming again.
Lorenzo Cain actually saw his power numbers drop, but a .395 OBP was more than enough to make up for that. He also played excellent outfield defense and the Brewers were one of the best defensive teams in baseball, due in large part to Cain. Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar both hit 30 bombs, as Aguilar had a breakout year and Shaw kept mauling righties.
Bringing back the same lineup plus a full season of Moustakas, who slashed .256/.326/.441 in his 218 plate appearances, should keep the Brewers about where they ranked last season. Even with some regression likely from Aguilar and Yelich, who posted a .502 wOBA and a .385 BABIP in the second half, I wouldn’t expect the offense to suddenly crater.
That being said, there are some players and areas where the Brewers could take a nosedive and that is true of the ballclub as a whole. This is a team that has perplexed a lot of sabermetricians lately. I mentioned Yelich’s home run surge with the 16th-lowest launch angle among all batted with at least 150 batted ball events. He had the highest HR/FB% in the league by 5.5 percent. Aguilar was 11th. Cain plays a tough defensive position and this is now his age-33 season.
Ryan Braun saw his OBP fall from .336 to .313 and his contact quality went down, as evidenced by his .274 BABIP. Keon Broxton, who barely played and was actually traded to the Mets, was sixth on the team in fWAR with just 89 plate appearances and a lot of activity as a defensive replacement. This was a really top-heavy offensive ballclub last season. Any drop-off from the Big Four, five if you include Braun, may be hard to overcome.
ERA: 3.73 (5th)
FIP: 4.01 (13th)
xFIP: 4.04 (12th)
K%: 23.4% (10th)
BB%: 9.0% (23rd)
LOB%: 74.4% (8th)
This is, and has been, the primary area of concern with the Brewers. One of the problems with the Brewers is that hard-line sabermetricians haven’t been willing to look past the numbers. They see a collection of starters regularly posting ERAs that are significantly better than the pitchers’ xFIPs. There is a reason for that. They’re not getting lucky. This isn’t happenstance.
Only the Mets, Cardinals, and Dodgers did a better job suppressing exit velocity than the Brewers. Milwaukee has made a concerted effort with scouting, PITCHf/x data, and whatever proprietary data they have to formulate contact management plans that keep pitchers away from the areas where hitters do the most damage. It also doesn’t hurt that the Brewers really limit the exposure of their starting pitchers.
Milwaukee’s starters had the third-biggest ERA-FIP gap at -0.40 runs and also had one of the biggest ERA-xFIP gaps as well. Typically, that would be hard to ignore. Most in the stats community don’t. They look down at the Brewers as a team getting lucky. I’m not one of them and I’ve been ahead of the curve on this team.
The thing about the Brewers now is that more starting pitching talent is coming. Brandon Woodruff looks to have a spot secured in the rotation and there are a lot of people picking Corbin Burnes to be a breakout star this season. Freddy Peralta has some work to do on his secondaries, but his fastball graded out around 10 runs above average last season. Jimmy Nelson missed all of 2018, but posted a 3.49 ERA with a 3.05 FIP and a 3.15 xFIP in 2017 over 175.1 innings with a dynamic curveball and much better fastball command.
Joakim Soria is a bummer of a loss, but the Brewers still have the best reliever in baseball in Josh Hader to go along with closer Corey Knebel and setup man Jeremy Jeffress. Jeffress ran out of gas in the playoffs and that will likely cause people to forget the 1.29 ERA he had in 76.2 innings during the regular season. He had a 2.78 FIP and a 2.86 xFIP. Hader had a 2.43/2.23/2.05 pitcher slash. Knebel started a little slow with injuries, but eventually posted a 3.58/3.03/2.40 pitcher slash. That is the foundation of one of the league’s top bullpens and that unit will continue to be a clear strength for the Brewers, especially with their philosophies on a pitcher facing the lineup a third time. Only the Angels, because of a lack of talent, and the Rays, because of the Opener, had fewer plate appearances versus a hitter the third time through the order.
Positives & Negatives
The extra workload for the Brewers last season could be detrimental for the relievers, but also, a lot of guys that didn’t really have playoff experience were able to play those high-pressure games. It isn’t quantifiable and we don’t have any data to suggest that it makes a big difference, but the Brewers did make a nice run before losing Game 7 at home in the NLCS.
This division is a beast. All five teams are competent and at least three of them should wind up being pretty good. Which three those are is a matter of conjecture, but there won’t be any easy games out of the 76 against NL Central foes this season.
Pick: Over 86.5
The Brewers are on the cutting edge. They’re building a sports science lab at their Spring Training complex. They’re always finding new inefficiencies to exploit. That leads to staying power. Every time a team like that signs a free agent, I immediately go and see what attribute(s) caused that signing. The stats are great and tell us a lot. I subscribe to them. But, I also know that some of what the Brewers do is going to allow them to break the traditional molds.
That’s one of many reasons why this team should continue to be a perennial contender. The personnel is also solid. The bullpen has enough depth and star power to sustain last season’s performances. The offense, even with some regression from Yelich and Aguilar, is still going to be average or better. Remember, we’re looking at a team that has to be essentially 10 games worse than last season to go under the total and that is with virtually the same team, but a better cast of starting pitchers.
It should be another year of contention for the Brewers and that means going over this number.
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