So Your Team Is Ass: A Statistical Look At Terrible Baseball
Fry: “I heard one time you single-handedly defeated a horde of rampaging somethings in the something something system”
Brannigan: “Killbots? A trifle. It was simply a matter of outsmarting them.”
Fry: “Wow, I never would’ve thought of that.”
Brannigan: “You see, killbots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them until they reached their limit and shut down. – Incompetent 25-Star General Zap Brannigan, Futurama
“In terms of finding a right-handed platoon partner for Lind, he’s gotta prove he can’t hit lefties first. He had a bad year last year against lefties, but he didn’t get a chance to face lefties. If he sees a lot of lefties and then shows he’s hapless, they need to find a right-handed stick, but I foresee Lind playing a good portion of the games over there and maybe Lucroy sprinkles in here and there at first.” – Joe Block on Effectively Wild
Oh, so you thought the Brewers were going to win a bunch of games this year, did you? Well it’s just not happening. You’ve probably heard of Occam’s Razor, the famous, pithy bit of wisdom that states that the simplest answer is often the correct one? Well, Occam’s Razor isn’t just folksy common sense, it’s actually quite mathematical.
The Cardinals are the favorites to win the division. For them to do so, basically, everything just needs to go as planned. For the Brewers to be better than the Cardinals though, you need a whole bunch of stuff to go better than expected. You need Braun’s thumb to heal. You need Kyle Lohse, who will turn 37 this year, to not decline. You need Jimmy Nelson to improve. You need Adam Lind to maintain his career best production of the past two years while playing a defensive position regularly. You need Aramis Ramirez to stave off age for one more year and buck a trend of steady decline. You need the bullpen to have a good season.The Cardinals need:
x(CardinalsGonnaCardinal) to be good.
The Brewers need:
t(thumb)+u(OldKyle)+v(Jimmy)+w(Lind)+y(Ram)+z(bullpen) > x(CardinalsGonnaCardinal).
It’s not a simple thing.
And if completely and totally rigorous math doesn’t convince you, keep in mind that this understates the challenges facing the Brewers. The Cub prospects all appear to be super awesome at baseball. The Pirates are still a force to be reckoned with. “If everything goes right” is something that fans say when their team is garbage, or about to be, and they secretly know it. This looks to be an “if everything goes right” kind of year, where everything has already gone terribly wrong.
Now let’s deal with the quotes at the top of this piece. The Brewers have two left-handed regular starters in Adam Lind and Scooter Gennett, and at various times during spring training Ron Roenicke stated that both will face left-handed pitching and that he likes for guys to “hit their way into a platoon”. Now, Scooter Gennett is still young and there’s a good argument to be made that he can still learn to hit left-handed pitching, but even if he does, the position as a whole is still going to decline. Rickie Weeks hit .256/.361/.504 against LHP last year in 155 PAs.
Adam Lind is a different story altogether. I think you can make a good argument that Lind has thrived specifically because he’s been protected from same-side pitching. Lind’s career OPS against same side pitching is .588. It’s .860 against opposite side pitching. That’s a big split over 3726 total PAs. For his career Lind has faced lefties in 24% of his PAs, but in 2013 that number was just 19%, and in 2014, just 12%. There’s really no reason to let Adam Lind hit himself into a platoon. He is one of the platooniest players out there. Don’t be Zap Brannigan. That’s no way to beat the Killbots.
K-Rod, A-Ram, Lohse, and Old People In General
K-Rod had 44 saves, a WHIP under 1, and a 3.08 ERA last year. He was also terrifying and awful. It was possible, I suppose, that K-Rod would remain effective going forward, as it’s conceivable for almost any relief pitcher. They live in a world of small sample sizes, and perhaps the most random variable of any baseball season is bullpen performance. This fact of baseball life should lead teams to not invest heavily in their pens (with rare exceptions), but Doug Melvin has never been able to resist the stench of a proven closer.
Who would have thought an expensive player no longer on steroids could blow up in your face like this?
Good pitchers will still succeed more often than they will fail, even when hit hard by small sample randomness, but for the filler in the middle of any given bullpen, AAA arms will fare as well, if not better than established veterans the vast majority of the time. Signing Neal Cotts is an annoyance, and in my humble opinion, the sign of an organization that doesn’t understand their weaknesses. Signing K-Rod is basically everything that could possibly be wrong with baseball.
Francisco Rodriguez is NOT a horrible pitcher, but he is a pitcher with substandard stuff, he is extremely homer prone, and his main draw seems to be “proven closer” status, which as we often say around here, is not a thing. He’s also a dirtball criminal, but we’ll stick to baseball. He’s a 33-year-old nibbler with a high FIP. Every day that Francisco Rodriguez pitches is likely to be worse than the previous day, and that will never change. Giving him a very expensive 2-year contract is inexcusable. You can get better production than this in a more likable package, and often for free.
And to make matters even worse, Rodriguez, despite a 4.50 FIP, despite allowing an almost comical 14 home runs, was actually pretty effective at saving games in 2014. He was one lucky SOB. In other words, even if his stuff were to stay about the same, odds are he would not be as effective at converting saves as he was last year. We’ve already seen some of this in 2015.
Aramis Ramirez is another piece likely to fall off a cliff. Ramirez took a pretty big step back last year, but it was masked somewhat by the putrid league-wide play at 3rd base. His arm can still play the hot corner, but his arm is the only thing on him that differentiates him from the best guy in beer league softball. He’s struggled mightily in the early going of this, his final year, and that lame duck status probably isn’t helping either. Ramirez was a good, and often great player, but he now exists basically because there are no 3rd basemen to speak of in the farm system.
Which brings us to Kyle Lohse. Lohse will turn 37 in October. He has been a very good pitcher throughout his career, excelling as a crafty sinkerballer who can mix in any one of four additional pitches. Lohse is a flyball pitcher, adept at keeping everything in the yard, and consistently defying his FIP. All of that said, guys like this often can’t afford to decline very much. If you’re off-speed stuff starts to close the gap on your fastball, or if your sinker doesn’t sink quite as reliably, or if those flyballs start leaving the yard just a little bit more, everything can go south in a hurry.
After struggling mightily to start the season Lohse did turn it around in his last start, but like K-Rod, he’s not going to get any better than he is right now. And with the departed Yovani Gallardo, the starting pitching depth of the team is not nearly what it was. If Lohse and Mike Fiers were to both become unplayable, things would get very dicey for the team, very quickly. Jimmy Nelson has been nothing short of brilliant, but basically everyone else has struggled. And the pitching, as bad as it has been, is nothing compared to the offense.
The Brewers are a team built around three all-star caliber talents. Carlos Gomez is coming off of a career year offensively and continues to excel on defense. Jonathan Lucroy was on the short list for best players in all of baseball last year given his framing skills and offense. And Ryan Braun is a former MVP who actually played pretty well last year until teams figured out that his thumb injury prevented him from pulling the ball.
The Brewers added Adam Lind to bolster first base, and feature the slugging Khris Davis and grindy bat-to-ball skills of Scooter Gennett to round out the lineup. In theory, a hot start by Lind should have had the offense humming. In theory, an unexpected leap in production from Jean Segura, one of the worst offensive players in MLB last year, should have elevated them to holy terrors of the National League. Instead Jonathan Lucroy struggled mightily and broke his foot, Carlo Gomez ended up on the DL with a hamstring injury, and Ryan Braun has been nothing short of awful. Reports were positive surrounding the experimental thumb surgery Braun underwent in the offseason, and his spring training performance led to even more optimism, but thus far in the young season Braun has accumulated only one extra-base hit. He’s struck out 12 times in 61 PAs while walking just twice. He looks very much like a player still being impacted by a thumb injury.
Khris Davis’s slow start and Scooter Gennett’s showering issues have compounded all of the other problems to make the Brewers the worst team in baseball. In order to realistically compete the Brewers need Lucroy, Gomez, and especially Braun to carry the team. If Braun is finished as an MVP-level talent, the Brewers realistically cannot compete. Lucroy is the youngest of the three and he will turn 29 before the end of the season, and while the Brewers have been adept at getting major league contributors out of their much-derided farm system, there aren’t any stars on the horizon to replace any of these three. To the extent the Brewers have any high-ceiling minor league talent it’s years away from being relevant. It’s in A-ball or lower. Any future home-grown Brewer star is unlikely to ever share a field with Lucroy or Gomez, and is only likely to play with Braun because his contract and level of play make him untradeable.
It saddens me to say that this is probably going to be rough for many years. It’s not just that the Brewers are bad. It’s not just that their farm system is bad. They also play in what is likely to be the best division in baseball for years. The Cardinals are always NL powers and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Cubs have done a remarkable job rebuilding. They have good, home-grown talent at basically every important position, often two or three players deep. They also have huge financial resources to fill in any gaps. They will be NL powers for at least a decade. The Pirates still have a good core, and the Reds are no slouches either. You won’t find many 4th best teams in a division this good.
It’s possible I’m just overreacting to small sample early season struggles, but I don’t think so. Not this time. It probably won’t be THIS bad all season long, but with the hole they’ve dug themselves, even if they play .500 ball the rest of the way they’ll still finish last, and I’ve seen no indication they can even pull that off. My advice is to buy some good beer and get ready for the long haul.