|Sportsbook||Win NL Central||Win NL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 83.5 (BetOnline)|
Those that have read me in the past know that I have been a big proponent of the Milwaukee Brewers. I even stood by them last season as everybody was jumping ship in search of the next trendy team.
They racked up another over last season with 89 wins to surpass the early 86.5 line. I was on the over in 2018 when they won 96 games to blow away the win total of 84.5. I was on the over in 2017 when they won 86 games to blow away the win total of 70.5! For the first time in four years, I will admit that I have been put to a decision about the Brewers.
Consistent contention as a small-market team is hard. A lot of things need to go right. In this window for the Brewers, a lot of things have gone right. Christian Yelich has emerged as a perennial MVP candidate since the trade from the Marlins. The Brewers had ridden a dominant bullpen in 2017 and 2018 anchored by Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel, and some savvy acquisitions like Drew Pomeranz and Joakim Soria.
There were some areas of weakness in 2019. Hader regressed from a home run standpoint, perhaps from the workload, perhaps from the league-wide home run increase. Knebel spent another lost season battling injury. Jeffress fell apart from overuse and was actually released during the season. The Brewers were highly fortunate that Brandon Woodruff emerged as front-line starter because very little went according to plan with the rotation.
Surely you’ve heard of recency bias in betting. It is this idea that what we’ve most recently seen either clouds our judgment or creates price adjustments in the odds. The Brewers won 89 games last season. They finished 16 games over .500. They were also 20-7 in September and entered the final month of the season at 69-66. Milwaukee never touched .500 after beating the Mets 10-2 to improve to 14-13, but they flirted with it a lot and came within two games of .500 in the final week of August.
With that in mind, we have to decide what to base the 2019 season on. Do we look at the end result at 89-73 or do we look at the fact that the Brewers were on an 82-win pace as late in the year as August 30? Not all gaps of seven games are created equal. Not only would this have completely changed the season win total bet, but it also would have kept the Brewers out of the playoffs.
And here, my friends, is the reason why it matters. The Brewers had a Pythagorean Win-Loss record of 81-81 with a +3 run differential. In fairness, they were 85-77 by BaseRuns and essentially 87-75 by 3rd Order Win %. We are being pulled in a lot of different directions by the full body of work and also the one-month outlier.
The Brewers are always one of my favorite season win total previews to write because I have the utmost respect for their organization and the way that they do things. I’m even more excited this year because I don’t have an easy position in mind like I have the last three years.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+45 (5.03/4.75)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||86.7-75.3|
|Record in One-Run Games||27-18|
|Additions: Brock Holt, Andres Blanco, David Phelps, Mike Morin, Jedd Gyorko, Logan Morrison, Justin Smoak, Eric Sogard, Jace Peterson, Ryon Healy, Avisail Garcia, Brett Anderson, Josh Lindblom, Keon Broxton, Justin Grimm, Omar Narvaez, Eric Lauer, Luis Urias, Chad Spanberger, Ronny Rodriguez, Eric Yardley|
|Losses: Jimmy Nelson, Junior Guerra, Travis Shaw, Tyler Saladino, Cory Spangenberg, Tyler Austin, Drew Pomeranz, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Lyles, Matt Albers, Hernan Perez, Eric Thames, Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal, Adam Hill, Trent Grisham, Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Deolis Guerra|
The Brewers remain on the cutting edge. They don’t do so with as much fanfare as some of the other teams out there like the Rays, Twins, and Indians, but they are looking for ways to beat opponents from within. They cannot regularly compete in the Wild, Wild West of free agency as a smaller-market team. They’ll pluck a short-term deal here and there, but the Brewers have been unwilling to commit to multi-year free agent deals, which is actually really smart on their part. Find players looking to rehab an image or looking for a bridge deal in hopes of getting a better payday with a multi-year deal. It is rather brilliant, really.
That’s how they’ve wound up with guys like Mike Moustakas or Yasmani Grandal. Those guys this season are Brett Anderson, Avisail Garcia, Justin Smoak, and Jedd Gyorko. They are also looking for their own Miles Mikolas in former KBO hurler Josh Lindblom.
A late addition to the ballclub just as Spring Training started was Brock Holt. I love this move for the Brewers. He adds depth all across the diamond and gives the team the chance to platoon more often or wait on Luis Urias until they see he is ready to come up. I can’t believe it took until February for Holt to get signed, to be totally honest.
Overall, I wouldn’t say that the Brewers are better, as Grandal is a huge loss offensively and defensively, but everything else has a net neutral feel to it.
Like I mentioned, the loss of Yasmani Grandal is huge for the Brewers. Christian Yelich led the team in fWAR with 7.8 after yet another monster offensive season. Grandal was a clear second with 5.2. Mike Moustakas was actually third with 2.8. Fourth was Keston Hiura, who did only play 84 games with 348 plate appearances as the Brewers manipulated his service time a little bit.
Outside of Yelich and Hiura, this could be a really pedestrian offensive team. Among the guys with at least 50 PA last season, Yelich, Hiura, and Ryan Braun are the only ones that posted a wRC+ that was above league average. Yelich had a ridiculous 174 wRC+ with a .329/.429/.671 slash as he hit 44 homers and even stole 30 bases for good measure. And he did it in just 130 games and 580 PA. Yelich could very well have hit 50 homers with 25-30 more games.
Yelich made a concerted effort to hit more balls in the air last season and it paid off. I still have some worries about the power with a 35% HR/FB% in 2018 and a 32.8% HR/FB% in 2019, but the fact that he followed that 2018 outlier with a similar number in 2019 eases some of my fears a little bit. That said, we’ll see how the ball plays. He also had a 37.5% HR/FB% at home and a 27.5% HR/FB% on the road and a massive GB% difference with a 37.2% at home and a 48.9% on the road.
I guess Yelich is just elite and savvy enough to pick his spots and I guess he knows how the Miller Park factor plays up. He also had remarkably elite contact quality at home and simply really, really good contact quality on the road. He’s definitely an elite offensive player. I just wonder if last season was finally a ceiling for him.
Hiura is really interesting. He’s hit well at every level in the minors and had a .303/.368/.570 slash with a .388 wOBA and a 139 wRC+. He also ran a .402 BABIP with a 30.7% K%, so I’ve got some questions here, too. Hiura was top 25 in exit velocity minimum 250 PA and also had the 24th-ranked Barrel%. The UC Irvine product was in the 90th percentile in exit velocity and 97th percentile in Hard Hit%.
All of these metrics may seem like overkill to some, but not to me. I’ve always said that analytics simply quantify what the eyes can see. We know Hiura makes elite contact, but what does that produce? We see the .402 BABIP, which I would typically call for regression with, but then we see elite contact quality. The better the contact, the more likely the batted ball goes for a hit. That is Hiura’s offensive skill set and a lower K% is going to make him one of the most productive hitters in the NL.
After that, we have a big bag of unknown for the Brewers. I would like to think last year was an offensive outlier for Lorenzo Cain. He had an 83 wRC+ for the worst season he’s had since 2013. That was after posting a 124 wRC+ in 2018. Cain played through injury most of the year and it affected him most on offense. He was still an elite defensive center fielder. Will the offense bounce back?
It should. Cain’s Hard Hit% was the best of his career in the Statcast era and his exit velocity remained consistent. After running high BABIPs throughout his career, Cain had a career low at .301. At a minimum, I think Cain returns to being a league average hitter with his elite defensive profile, but he also turns 34 on April 13 and he’s a guy that lives on his legs.
Ryan Braun had a 117 wRC+ with a .354 wOBA and fared better in the BABIP department, but I see some concerning trends. His K% went up and his BB% went down. Keep in mind that Braun is now 36. His 12.1% SwStr% was the highest of his career aside from his rookie year in 2007. He still makes a lot of hard contact with an average exit velocity in the 87th percentile and an 85th percentile Hard Hit%, but if he’s making less contact, walking less, and not adding more power with a subpar launch angle, he has a capped ceiling. Plus, he’s a bad outfielder.
Avisail Garcia is another guy that hits the ball hard. We’re seeing this trend with the small-market teams. They are taking flawed players that have really good contact quality numbers. They may swing and miss a lot or not have positions, but the correlation between offensive success, exit velocity, and barrels is very strong. Garcia doesn’t hit for a lot of power and very rarely walks, but he had a 112 wRC+ for the Rays last season. Garcia’s exit velo did come down a bit last season and so did his Hard Hit%, but he’s been a guy capable of running high BABIPs throughout his career. Back in 2017, his average exit velocity was in the top 9% of the league. He’s actually an underrated outfielder, too.
The Brewers picked up launch angle disciple Justin Smoak, who walks a ton and also makes some pretty solid contact. I actually like betting on a Smoak bounce back, but we’ll see how much playing time he gets. Milwaukee also reunited with Eric Sogard, who had a career year with 2.6 fWAR and a 115 wRC+ last season with the Blue Jays and Rays. He is actually the outlier of the group with bad contact metrics. Brock Holt fills a similar role as Sogard with the ability to play all over the place. Holt is also coming off of his best offensive season against right-handed pitchers with a .357 wOBA and a 119 wRC+ in 231 PA.
All in all, I think the composition of this offense is really fascinating. The Brewers, like most smart organizations, are looking for surplus value at the margins anywhere they can find it. It just feels to me like there are a lot of things that need to go right for this offense to improve, even if somebody like Luis Urias is a clear upgrade to Orlando Arcia.
This rotation looks a hell of a lot different. Brandon Woodruff is the lone constant. The Brewers will turn Adrian Houser back into a starter. They’ll hope and pray for the best with Brett Anderson, Josh Lindblom, and hope that the development path continues for Eric Lauer, who is a guy that I actually like quite a bit.
The Brewers had their Double-A affiliate in Huntsville, Alabama from 1999-2014 and their Triple-A affiliate in Nashville. Affiliation changes sent the Double-A team to Biloxi. The Triple-A team went to Colorado Springs. Biloxi is at sea level. Colorado Springs is at 6,000+ feet in elevation. From 2015-18, development was really difficult and obviously performance was extremely hard to gauge.
Now, the Double-A Brewers are still in Biloxi, but this will be Year 2 in San Antonio for the Triple-A team. When we evaluate the homegrown talent for the Brewers, we have to consider all of this when projecting Major League performance. That is probably one of the reasons why “nobody saw it coming” with Brandon Woodruff. Woodruff only pitched 113.2 innings in Biloxi and was very good. In two Triple-A seasons covering 146.2 innings, Woodruff had a 4.17 ERA and allowed 16 homers. Those were in elevation.
His 2017 cameo wasn’t very good, but his 2018 cameo was and his 2019 was the breakout season. Woodruff posted a 3.62 ERA with a 3.01 FIP and a 3.36 xFIP. He hung an elite K% at 29% with a strong 6.1% BB%. He was a saving grace for the Brewers, who dealt with a lot of pitching injuries and turmoil on that side last season. We’ll see if the numbers are repeatable for Woodruff. His SwStr% was a little low to carry a 29% K% long-term, but he’s got a really nice command profile and that can play up in the strikeout department.
After Woodruff, though, what are we going to get? As a starter, Adrian Houser allowed a .264/.330/.439 slash with a .327 wOBA and had a 4.57 ERA in 80.2 innings across 347 plate appearances. He was dominant as a reliever, holding the opposition to a .227 wOBA. Houser also missed most of 2017 and a good bit of 2016. I’m not sure how reliable he will be.
Speaking of guys missing time, Brett Anderson just worked 176 innings and made 31 starts for the Oakland A’s. It was the second time since 2009 that he’s worked at least 175 innings. The last was 2015 for the Dodgers. He had one of the league’s worst strikeout rates, but also one of the league’s highest concentrations of killed worms with a 54.5% GB%. He wound up with a 3.89 ERA, a 4.57 FIP, and a 4.79 xFIP.
Oakland has one of the best defensive infields in baseball. The Brewers weren’t bad defensively, but they were pretty average overall. Perhaps Hiura improves at second in his first full MLB season. Perhaps Urias is an upgrade to Arcia, who is decent in his own right. By no means do I believe that Anderson will be a dud. I just wouldn’t be surprised to see a less effective version.
Josh Lindblom is a big question mark. Lindblom worked in 110 games from 2011-14 and then four more in 2017 with the Pirates. They weren’t awful, with a 4.10 ERA and a 4.27 FIP, but he could never latch on for a full-time gig. For Doosan in the KBO, Lindblom posted a 2.88 ERA with a 2.99 RA9 in 2018 and then followed it up with a 20-3 record, a 2.50 ERA, a 2.64 RA9, and a 189/29 K/BB ratio in 2019.
Lindblom could have one of the league’s best splitters and his fastball has good spin rates, as tracked by Brew Crew Ball back in December. To me, a realistic hope for Lindblom is to be league average. Korean hitters are not Major Leaguers, obviously, so Lindblom’s margin for error will be a lot lower.
Eric Lauer is a guy I do like. I’m a little worried about how the transition from Petco to Miller goes, as he trends a little to the fly ball and line drive sides. His ERA was higher in his second season, but his FIP was lower, as he increased his K% and cut down his BB%. His command profile was also better with a drop in HR/FB%, which is a big deal in the context of last season, and his BABIP dropped 16 points, though part of that was a better Padres defense. Still, Lauer is a guy I see a league average type of bar for right now. You won’t find many 24-year-olds with over 260 MLB innings. I see why the Brewers like him.
The Corbin Burnes as a starter experiment seems over for at least the time being. That leaves the depth to guys like Trey Supak, Shelby Miller, Jake Faria, and Aaron Wilkerson. Maybe we see Zack Brown this season. The Brewers don’t have a lot of high-end pitching prospects right now.
As usual, I’ve gone long on the Brewers, as I always do, since they’re one of my favorite teams to follow. Josh Hader should be just fine at the back end of the bullpen. He had a 2.62 ERA with a 3.10 FIP and a 2.36 xFIP while carrying around that obscene 21.4% HR/FB%. Hader did allowed a .452 SLG in the second half over 32.2 innings, but he also improved his K% and cut his BB% last season. Those are good signs.
The rest of the bullpen is interesting. You’ve got some pitch-to-contact lefties like Brent Suter and Alex Claudio. You’ve got the elite fastball of Freddy Peralta. You’ve got the elite velocity of Ray Black. It’s just not a group that I love this season. It is maybe a little more top-heavy than previous years and any Hader injury would be catastrophic.
The numbers also fell off without Derek Johnson. Johnson now serves as the Reds pitching coach and Cincinnati saw similar gains from 2018 to 2019 that the Brewers saw from 2015 to 2016 and from 2016 to 2017. He proved to be a very big loss last season and that concerns me going into this one.
Positives & Negatives
The Brewers are very top-heavy. Yelich, Hiura, Woodruff, Hader. I’m always worried about teams like that. There are bounce back candidates on the offensive and pitching sides of the spectrum, but those four guys shoulder a lot of the load for the Brewers. Let’s hope that they stay healthy.
More often than not, I’ve given the Brewers the benefit of the doubt over the last few years because I respect how they do things. That front office is simply brilliant. In my estimation, you have to keep that in mind with win totals. The smartest and sharpest organizations are likely to get more out of their teams than others, even if they are flawed.
Pick: Under 83.5
I think the Brewers hit the skids in 2020. The top-tier talent on this team is very impressive, but I see too many holes across the rest of the roster and I don’t think the magic potion is there this year. The Brewers were on pace for 83 wins last season before September, when they somehow rallied together in the absence of Yelich.
That is the part that stands out to me, though. They were on an 83-win pace with Yelich going nuclear and the breakout campaign from Woodruff. How is that supposed to inspire any confidence going into the 2020 season?
As always, the Brewers made some creative and thought-provoking signings. I’ll always give them the benefit of the doubt with the guys that they get. The Grandal loss one year after losing Johnson is doubly damaging to this pitching staff. Grandal was third in Framing Runs Above Average per Baseball Prospectus. New starting catcher Omar Narvaez was 110th out of 113 catchers. Manny Pina was pretty good, so maybe he can save the staff, but the Brewers will have to decide between offense or defense because Narvaez is a much better hitter.
I’m not confident enough in this one to make it a bet, but it is the pick for the purposes of the guide. After all, I preach how numbers-savvy teams and organizations tend to surpass expectations. The Brewers are brilliant in that regard. I am just anticipating a step back from this team and it is a team that simply cannot afford an injury to Yelich, Hader, Woodruff, or Hiura. Even with those guys, the ceiling is too low for the Brewers.