Friday, September 28, 2012

Brewers lose Peralta and game, season dwindling

The Brewers played an odd game yesterday, losing 2-1 to the Reds in what can best be described as a stomach-punch of a game. Until the 9th inning, it was the Carlos Gomez show, as he showed that he can take over a game on both sides of the ball by homering for the Brewers only run, making some outstanding catches in center field, and stealing a base after a single because that's a Carlos Gomez thing. Brewers starting pitcher Wily Peralta was dominant for 5 1/3 innings but left early with what is being called bicep tendinitis, which fortunately for the Brewers is a fairly minor injury but unfortunately is one that will likely keep him from starting again this season (Tyler Thornburg time).

The bullpen successfully bridged the gap to end-of-game reliever John Axford, who blew away Zack Cozart and Joey Votto (!) before serving up a first-pitch tater to Todd Frazier, and then followed that up by giving up a base hit to Jay Bruce and a walk-off triple to Dioner Navarro. Dioner Navarro should not hit triples off of John Axford. An ugly yet fitting end to the game for Axford, who has been better the last couple months but no one will remember that thanks to this game.

To me, the strangest part of this game was the performance of Reds starter Matt Latos. For those unfamiliar with Latos, he's essentially the Reds' version of Yovani Gallardo, a solid #2 starter the Reds gave up too much for who will look unhittable in some games but very hittable in others. Latos usually sits 92-93 mph on his fastball, but in this game was sitting around 90 mph and threw pitch after pitch right over the heart of the plate. Latos had no problem throwing strikes, but left a lot of pitches up and drew only seven swings-and-misses total (just three strikeouts), none on fastballs.

The Brewers responded by hitting a majority said meatballs right to the Reds' fielders with the exception of Gomez, who hit a ball to a place where it's impossible to put a fielder. By looking at the box score, it looks like Latos was fairly dominant, but watching the game it was pretty clear something was off. It means little to the Brewers now but it's something to keep an eye on for the Reds heading into the postseason.

And speaking of the postseason, this loss puts the Brewers four games back with six to play, and while the current 2nd wild card incumbent Cardinals have two tough matchups against the Reds and Nationals, they would have to go 2-4 at best for the Brewers to even tie them, and the Dodgers have moved ahead of the Brewers to boot. The season is likely over, but the team gave it a great run over the last month. There's still plenty to watch for on the Brewers (Aramis chasing the team's doubles record, Braun kicking ass, a likely Thornburg start, quest to finish above .500), even if the season didn't end the way we wanted.

Thanks to for the PITCH/fx data!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Who is the real Mike Fiers?

Mike Fiers pitches for the Brewers today, so it seems that now is as good a time as any to point out that he hasn't been very good lately. That's not exactly a news flash, but his overall numbers kind of cover up how awful he's been. No one thought Fiers would be as outstanding as he was in June and July, but the last month and a half have been really rough for the 27 year old righty. Here are his numbers from his call-up in late May to August 7th.

13 games pitched (12 starts), 80 innings pitched, 65 hits, 16 walks, 17 runs (16 earned), 3 home runs, 80 strikeouts, 1.80 ERA, 1.01 WHIP

Not bad numbers. Actually, that's a lie. Those numbers are outstanding, and Fiers' first couple of months thrust him into the Rookie of the Year conversation and gave Brewers fans visions of lollipops and unicorns for the team's future. But then came a nightmare start on August 13th start in Coors Field. Prior to that start, I wrote that Fiers may struggle in Coors due to his flyball ways, and while Fiers was terrible in that game, he did not give up a single walk or home run. Rather, he was line-drived to death (yes, line-drived is now a verb). While liners haven't been a problem for him since then, other problems have surfaced. Here are his numbers from August 13th until now.

8 games pitched, 37 1/3 innings pitched, 45 hits, 17 walks, 30 runs (28 earned), 5 home runs, 37 strikeouts, 6.75 ERA, 1.66 WHIP

Those are alarming numbers. While the K/9 rate seems fine, his K% has dropped slightly from 25% to 22% while his walk rate skyrocketed from 5% to 10%. And you don't have to be a mathematician to notice that five homers in 37+ innings is worse than three homers in 80 innings.

So what's to blame? Has the league figured Fiers out? Is it bad luck? Is he tiring having thrown a career-high 172 1/3 innings between AAA and the majors? Does he not mesh with starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy the way he did with Martin Maldonado while Lucroy was injured? Or was he just not that good in the first place, and succeeded due to randomness and a lack of a scouting report on him? My boring guess is that it's some combination of all of the above, with the workload factor being the biggest probable cause.

During his epic summer run, fans and analysts alike surmised that Fiers might be the next coming of Jered Weaver or James Shields, a righty whose excellent control and above-average off-speed stuff made up for a seemingly unimpressive fastball. But over the last eight starts he's looked more like Dave Bush or Jair Jurrjens, guys with mediocre stuff who found success immediately but eventually got figured out, rendered unable to get major league hitters out despite the desire to pound the strike zone. So while we may not know who exactly Fiers is going forward, the Brewers' depth at starting pitcher may soften the blow should the worst happen. And if he's just tired, and the June-July Fiers is for real? Well, that's awesome. Though if I'm the Brewers, I wouldn't count on it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Handicapping the NL MVP

While the race for the American League MVP has heated up a little bit between the amazing Mike Trout and the Triple-Crownin' Miguel Cabrera, the NL version of the award has gotten more boring. Andrew McCutchen was the primary candidate for most of the season, but his team has fallen off the map and his poor play in August contributed to the Pirates' downfall. David Wright has had a terrific season for the Mets, but the Mets are horrible, and he won't get many votes as a result. Buster Posey wasn't even the best candidate on his own team for most of the year, but he's been on fire the last couple months and has a boatload of narratives that essentially guarantee him the award. Posey is also likable and has a cute name. Meanwhile, Ryan Braun is the elephant in the room, the player that won the award in 2011 and has been consistently awesome all season. Like Posey, he should have a little boost due to his team being relevant, but he won't win the award, and we all know why. But the most annoying part is that people will claim Posey is the clear winner based on his contributions, which is silly. I'll go into why in a bit, but first, here is a handy graph I've created which I like to call the Chances of Winning MVP Probability Graph (or COWMVPPG) for short.

Don't worry about the math behind this, it checks out. As you can see, Braun has no chance. The issue is Posey has so many things going for him that have nothing to do with real baseball things, it's almost stupid. In fact, it is stupid. We cannot measure how much Posey is "carrying the team on his back" or "came through when his team needed him". He's been great in the second half, but assigning other narratives that we can't actually prove with actual numbers or evidence is a faulty basis for determining value. And yes, Posey came back from a horrible injury. That has nothing to do with his current value, it's just a nice story.

Let's look at their numbers side-by-side.

You'll notice Posey is a pretty clear third here, and I'm not just talking about WAR (you'll notice it's called the MVP, not "Best WAR" award). Braun and McCutchen have a clear advantage in hits, home runs, runs, stolen bases, isolated power, slugging, weighted on-base, weighted runs created, baserunning, and yes, WAR. Posey has the edge in.....batting average. Which is the category with the greatest amount of randomness to it. And while runs batted in is a poor stat for evaluating a single player, voters still like it, and Posey is also losing that category to Braun.

"But he's a catcher!", you'll say. Why, yes, he is. He's also played 25 games at first base, which helps him play most every day, but slightly minimizes the value of his offense when he plays there. While WAR isn't the be-all, end-all of player evaluation, Posey is still third behind Braun and McCutchen. And you can't make the argument for Posey due to his position while also making the case for Cabrera (lousy defensive 3B) over Trout (elite CF) in the AL. You either value position or you don't. As a catcher, Posey also has played in less games than any of the other candidates, and while it's a small difference, it still matters. We knock relievers out of Cy Young discussions due to pitching less than starters, and that should also apply here, even if it's ever so slightly a smaller difference.

So what it comes down to is whether or not you think Posey's production as a catcher outweighs the significant gap in the offensive production of the other candidates, Braun and McCutchen in particular. I don't think it does. As far as defense goes, all four guys range from solid to very good, depending on whether you believe the lunacy that is McCutchen's fielding metrics (said metrics seem to have serious trouble with PNC Park). So Posey has no real edge there, either.

Does Posey deserve to be in the conversation? Absolutely, but he's not in the class of Braun or McCutchen (and I'd say it's a coin flip for those two as to who's better), and I might even put him behind Wright. But because he plays for a winner and has no allegations in his past, I have no doubt he'll win it.

In the eyes of this baseball fan, he doesn't quite deserve it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Marco Estrada's quality pitches

Starting pitcher Marco Estrada has been quite a find for the Brewers organization. The Sufjan Stevens lookalike was once a midlevel prospect that was claimed off waivers from the Nationals and was even dropped off the Brewers roster once upon a time. He fought for and won a spot on the team entering the 2011 season and hasn't looked back. At first, it looked like Estrada would be a solid swingman type, a guy who could pitch long relief in the bullpen and fill in as a starter when needed. But this year, he's become so much more than that. He whiffs 9.43 batters per nine coupled with a walk rate of 1.89, translating to a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, good enough for third in the majors behind Cliff Lee and Colby Lewis (minimum 100 IP). And he's not exactly hittable either, giving up less than a hit per inning. While Estrada still has trouble with the long ball, his ability to limit baserunners keeps the damage fairly minimal. So how is a guy with a fairly average fastball dominating major league hitters?

Prior to this season, Estrada has been something of a changeup specialist, using his fastball to set up his changeup and using his curveball to keep hitters off-balance. But this year, he's not just using the fastball as a means to an end, but as an actual weapon to get hitters out. Even though his fastball sits at 90 mph, his impeccable control assists him in putting said pitch in places where hitters have trouble doing anything with it. His heat maps tell a pretty convincing story; he's attacking left-handed hitters up and away with his fastball, and throwing down and away to righties.

Pitching primarily with an ordinary fastball is risky business, and when Marco misses it leads to hard contact. But he's missing less this year than in the past, and whether the improved control is due to him figuring it out or just settling in with more consistent usage is anyone's guess. Either way, he's not just throwing strikes, he's throwing quality strikes. And being able to get ahead in the count has made his secondary pitches more dangerous.

The changeup has always been a putaway pitch for Estrada during his time as a Brewer, but this year he's cut back on his usage of it. But that doesn't mean he's lost faith in the pitch or that the pitch isn't effective, he's just using it better. PITCHf/x pitch values claims his change is a little below average, and while I don't necessarily buy that, either way the pitch is still valued higher than in previous years. From watching his starts this year, it appears that he's cut back on using it early in the count, instead saving it to get a needed whiff. This at-bat against Brian McCann is a textbook example 

The first two pitches of the at-bat were fastballs up in the zone that McCann fouled off. With McCann down 0-2 and in survival mode, Estrada threw a filthy changeup with arm-side run the McCann dove for and foul tipped for strike three. Estrada put the pitch right where he wanted it, and it drew an awkward looking swing. It's a credit to McCann as a hitter that he even foul tipped it (whiff 19 seconds into this video).

This is probably his most underrated pitch. He has two slightly different versions of it, a sharp 12-6 curve that he gets a lot of sneaky called strikes on, and a slurvy-looking thing that he doesn't use often and seems to still be working on (PITCHf/x does not differentiate between the two). He commands his primary curve well, and will use it in just about any count to keep hitters off of his fastball. Like his changeup, when hitters aren't expecting it it can lead to some ugly swings, like this one from a surprised Michael Bourn (about 30 seconds into the same video).

                                             Do you see the ball? Neither does Michael Bourn.

All told, Estrada has been a bright spot for the team in 2012 and is almost certain to have a rotation spot in 2013 and beyond. Not bad for a scrap heap pickup. And there's still room for growth. The Brewers organization has done a good job in helping pitchers develop cut fastballs, and if at some point Estrada can add a reliable cutter or perhaps a two-seamer, maybe he can become more than the #4 or #5 starter he's perceived to be. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Brewers will not stop winning

My readers will notice that I haven't posted anything for awhile, and the reason for that is I've been busy. Work, family, and fantasy football prep have been very time-consuming, and despite the Brewers playing better, nothing really stood out to me about the team that was least not enough to pull me away from my other commitments. I have been planning a Marco Estrada piece, something that I'll probably have up this weekend. But this can no longer be ignored. Tonight's win and subsequent sweep over the Braves brings them over .500 for the first time since the second week of the 2012 season. The team has won 18 of it's last 23 games, including 17 of 19 at home. They are leaving skid marks on their opponents, and despite everything that's happened to this team, they are now in the thick of the NL wild-card race. I'll repeat that - THE MILWAUKEE BREWERS ARE IN A PLAYOFF RACE.

Setting aside the likelihood they'll win a wild card spot (more on that later), the fact that they've been playing well at all is remarkable. They lost both their starting shortstop and first baseman for the season. The starting catcher missed two months. Their pitching rotation has been demolished by injuries (Shaun Marcum, Chris Narveson - remember him?), a trade (team ace Zack Greinke), and horrific terribleness (now-jettisoned Randy Wolf), yet has been better since the start of the year with out-of-nowhere strike-throwers in Marco Estrada and Mike Fiers and nearly-forgotten prospects in Mark Rogers (who was just shut down for the year) and Wily Peralta (Rogers' replacement). The last three of that group have defied logic by putting up better numbers in the majors than they did in the minors, and paired with the bullpen bouncing back, have made run-scoring difficult for opponents. The offense has also been awesome, but considering the talent in the lineup, that's nowhere near as surprising as the effectiveness of the pitching staff. And while the bullpen's turnaround has been dramatic, like the offense there is a lot of talent there, and I don't think there are many people who honestly thought they would be horrible all year long.

But despite how well they've played, I'm still skeptical of their playoff chances. Besides the fact they remain three games behind the Cardinals for the second wild-card spot, they're also behind the Pirates and Dodgers while having the same record as the also-streaking Phillies (and are also only a game up on the Diamondbacks). And while all three teams in from of the Brewers have played poorly recently, all it takes is one of those teams getting hot to end the Brewers' chances. Time is running out; there are only 19 games left for the Brewers, including a daunting 10-game road trip that is more likely to break than make their wild-card bid.

So do I think they'll make it? No. But they're playing extremely well and have made things interesting again, which considering how things looked after the trade deadline, is more than anyone could have asked for. It's no longer a chore to watch them, and any lead they gain once again feels safe (kind of). And while I may not think they've got much of a chance to make the playoffs, they're fun as hell to watch right now and I wouldn't mind a bit if they prove me wrong.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

When good process goes bad

Those of you who have watched "The Chappelle Show" may remember a segment called "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong". The concept was, people are put in situations where they can do one of two things; take the easy, conventional way out, or do the right thing and stand up for themselves. Sometimes, doing the right thing doesn't turn out the way it should. Baseball is full of those moments, moments I like to call, "when good process goes bad". Last night's Brewers-Pirates game included two such moments.

In the 8th inning, the Brewers were put in a situation where Pirates superhero Andrew McCutchen was at the plate with two outs and a runner on second. Manager Ron Roenicke allowed reliever Jim Henderson to pitch to McCutchen rather than intentionally walk him, the "conventional" strategy. Henderson's second pitch (a fastball well outside the zone) broke McCutchen's bat, but the ball still fell into center field for a game-tying single. Fans cried out, "if only they had intentionally walked him!", and mourned what they felt was an inevitable loss.

But the Brewers did the right thing (free baserunners are bad, mmmkay). It'd be one thing if McCutchen had an automatic out behind him, but the Pirates #4 hitter is Garrett Jones. Ignore what your preconceived notions of Jones are and look at his numbers. He's having a fine year, and had the platoon advantage over Henderson. McCutchen is also in one of the worst slumps of his career, and has been dealing with an assortment of nagging injuries. Is Jones as good as McCutchen? Absolutely not, but neither is McCutchen at this point. McCutchen got a lucky bloop and Jones ended up striking out, so confirmation bias (as well as the Pirates getting away with intentionally walking Braun in the bottom of the 8th) taints our view of what should have happened. Fortunately for the Brewers, the baseball gods simply chose to reward them at a later time.

Now, Clint Hurdle has been mocked plenty both on this blog and by people with functioning gray matter. Casual fans look at the Pirates and thing, "they're overachieving, Hurdle for Manager of the Year!" But anyone who watches Pirates games know this isn't true. Hurdle does just about everything poorly, and has put on a clinic of how not to manage a baseball team in games against the Brewers this season. Bullpen management is a thankless job, and managers are often subject to unfair criticism in that regard (confirmation bias again). But Hurdle's bullpen management is often particularly bad, mostly because he pitches poor relievers in high-pressure situations when far better pitchers are available.

Maybe Hurdle is turning over a new leaf, or maybe Closer Joel Hanrahan needed work, but Hurdle brought Hanrahan Gandalf in to a tie game in the bottom of the 9th, save situation be damned. This was the right move. A future save situation means nothing if you can't even get to it, and you can't lose a close game with your best reliever chewing sunflower seeds and braiding his goatee in the dugout. Sadly for the Pirates, Hanrahan threw a beach ball to the first hitter he faced, and Corey Hart hit the ball to the moon.

Alas, when good process goes bad.

                                                              "YOU SHALL NOT INTENTIONALLY PASS"

Saturday, September 1, 2012

News and notes: Rogers shut down, Ransom goes away, Bob Uecker is awesome

Mark Rogers succeeds, gets shut down
Mark Rogers pitched 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball last night in a 9-3 Brewers win, and during the telecast team owner Mark Attanasio strongly hinted it would be Rogers' last start of the season. Rogers has struggled with injuries in a big way during his career and has pitched a career-high 134 1/3 innings between AAA and the majors this season, so the move to rest him for the remainder of the year was expected and makes sense. No word yet on who will take his rotation spot, but with September's roster expansion all up ons, there are plenty of young options to choose from.

Rogers has pitched well during his seven-start stint and has made a compelling case to be a part of the 2013 starting rotation. He wasn't very efficient last night (something of a theme for him), but his modest five strikeouts are deceiving as he induced a lot of swinging strikes from the Pirates hitters. A Mark Rogers shirsey may find it's way onto my back before the start of next season.

Brewers hold Cody ransom from the D-Backs
Utility infielder/strikeout whisperer Cody Ransom was hilariously claimed on waivers by the Diamondbacks, the team the Brewers claimed him from in May. Ransom annoyed Brewers fans by striking out at a truly epic clip, but contributed good defense, power, and could take a walk. If nothing else, he provided this awesome moment as well as the pun in the above headline. 2B/SS Eric Farris was called up to replace him.

Bob Uecker the best
Regardless of what you may think of Governor Scott Walker, it was pretty badass of him to declare yesterday Bob Uecker Day in Wisconsin. Uecker had his statue unveiled outside of Miller Park on Friday, and a cast a characters including Bob Costas, Bud Selig, and Dick Ebersol were at the game to celebrate Uecker's glorious awesomeness and fellow baseball voices Vin Scully and Marty Brennaman wished him well through video feeds.

I encourage anyone who has not watched Friday's game to do so, as it was filled with many heartwarming moments as well as plenty of humorous ones. Also, the Brewers wore their retro jerseys and won, so that's a bonus. And of course, everyone should go see the statue when they have a chance.

                                                                 Picture unrelated