Before you mock me for the following, please remember that I’m telling you this free of obligation. No one reads my blog, and I’m not sure I published my picks, anyway. I am accepting responsibility for something you wouldn’t ever know I did if I weren’t writing about it right now.
I picked the Milwaukee Brewers to win the NL Central before this season.
I apologize. I really do. I got swept up, okay? I went with the null hypothesis on bullpens, assuming that the train wreck that unit was last year would correct itself and be essentially average this time. I bought hard into their offense, which I still sort of love, although we have to talk about why they have scuffled a bit. I thought the pitching staff would be good enough to not offset the lineup, especially because they were fielding a stronger defense than they had in some time (although still a bad one).
Anyway, it’s obviously not working out. Around Memorial Day, GM Doug Melvin set some sort of record for earliest declaration of non-competition. He said the Brewers would either stand pat or sell at the trade deadline, and since the team has only continued to stink in the interim, it seems like that’s a hard sell now.
Injuries played a role. Aramis Ramirez missed a few weeks. Ryan Braun is now shelved, and has been less than 100 percent most of the year. Corey Hart, whom we all thought could be back by early May at one point not so long ago, is going to miss the whole season. The bullpen has been affected, although not as staggeringly.
In large part, though, this season has just been about bad starting pitching, and some very, very bad offense from role players. I knew the Brewers would struggle to fill first base competently in Hart’s absence; I did not count on them settling so eagerly for Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez for so long. At first base. Betancourt has 248 plate appearances despite his .236 park-adjusted wOBA. Gonzalez got 118 PA despite a .191 mark. For those who may not remember, wOBA is scaled to on-base percentage, so .236 and .191 are unacceptable for non-pitchers, let alone first basemen. I really thought they would try harder to fill that void. Instead, they’ve seen first basemen hit .186/.230/.312 over their first 305 PA. Martin Maldonado has also gotten too much playing time and posted a .224 wOBA, although backup catchers rarely get replaced no matter the offensive depths to which they dive in-season.
The stunning, frustrating thing is that the Brewers are flopping despite two dazzling breakout seasons. Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura are sudden, suspect superstars, defying usual rules of hitter evaluation with (respectively) extra-base power of every species, and an insane BABIP fueled by 28 infield hits, doing everything they can to pull this derailed train back onto the tracks. With their emergence, plus Braun’s still-solid performance, Ramirez’s steady slugging and Aoki’s spectacular contact skills, the team retains the potential for a solid offense, even a very good one.
Here’s what’s holding them back. The Brewers have no left-handed regular outside of Aoki. Through Wednesday, they had had the platoon advantage in just 42 percent of plate appearances, which is the lowest figure in MLB. They’re violently vulnerable to good bullpens. From the seventh inning on, they are a below-average offense by OPS+, the only segment of the game in which that’s true. When facing starting pitchers the first time through the order, they’re four percent better than an average offense. The second time through, they’re two percent worse than average. The third time through, they’re 23 percent better than average. But the first time Brewers batters face a reliever, they are 11 percent worse than an average batter in the same spot.
That’s where it shows up. Starting pitchers are selected for small platoon splits, and honestly, the Brewers (the useful ones) are all pretty balanced batters who don’t flail helplessly against same-handed pitching. Once they get into teams’ bullpens, though, they see arms much more able to exploit the platood advantage, and things go sour.
There’s another way the roster is stiff, offensively. It’s not just about the flexibility to pinch-hit, or alternating lefties and righties to make it harder for the opposing manager to match up. There’s also a loss of dynamism when a team rarely has the platoon advantage.
I came, fairly recently, to believe that the platoon advantage–and I’m talking here about the inherent, intrinsic portion of the advantage, the part almost all batters have–lives in strikeouts and walks. Plate discipline. Control of the game’s prime real estate is much better established by a batter who can pick the ball up sooner: one facing opposite-handed pitching.
The Brewers are right about average in terms of home-run rate, extra-base hit rate, and the percentage of all hits that go for extra bases. They strike out near the league-average rate, and they have a .302 team BABIP, seven points north of the NL norm. However, their walk rate (6.1 percent) is the worst in the league. They even trail the Marlins. Obviously, this is partially about who they have on the club. Ramirez and Segura are excellent pure hitters, but don’t take many walks. In the big picture, though, it’s impossible to ignore their talent, and once you consider the talent, you’re forced to admit that a team this talented should be walking more, should be more of a headache, should be able to beat opponents in more diverse ways than this one. It’s the missing lefty swingers that create that issue.
It’s not really the offense’s fault, though. Yovani Gallardo has been just okay. Kyle Lohse has held up his end of the last-minute deal he signed. But Wily Peralta, Marco Estrada and Hiram Burgos have started 36 games, pitched 181.2 innings, and posted a 5.62 ERA. The team as a whole has allowed 4.63 runs per game, the worst mark in the NL, 0.13 runs worse than the Mets. You can’t win that way. By sheer runs per game, they’re middle of the pack offensively, but they should have been much better. Melvin built a stiff and shallow positional roster, one without recourse in case of bad injuries. I think 40 runs are missing from the Brewers’ ledgers on the offensive side, and opponents have only outscored them by 42.
My foolish prediction chafes as I watch this team sink into oblivion, and I won’t pretend I had no way to see this coming. I made the pick based on what turned out to be a very off-base assumption, but one I still feel was justified. I assumed that Melvin, having dealt away so much and spent so much over the past few years to keep the team competitive–and then having leaped from the high dive by giving up his first-round pick for Lohse in March–would aggressively fill the holes in the roster as soon as possible. He never did. His voluntary abdication of first base is, to me, unconscionable, for a team that needed to contend in order to justify its very existence. If Melvin had been a bit more proactive, the Brewers could have had Ramirez ready to play some first, and would at least have been able to add a glove wizard to man third until Hart got back. A good trade deadline might earn Melvin the right to oversee the cleaning up of his own mess, but remember if it does that Melvin has to prove himself anew. He botched this season.
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