Monday, April 29, 2013

Brewers-Padres/Dodgers series review: "ROAD TRIP"


Monday, 4/22 Brewers 7, Padres 1
Tuesday, 4/23 Brewers 6, Padres 3
Wednesday, 4/24 Padres 2, Brewers 1

Friday, 4/26 Dodgers 7, Brewers 5
Saturday 4/27 Brewers 6, Dodgers 4
Sunday 4/28 Dodgers 2, Brewers 0

Win Probability Stars: 
 4/27, Carlos Gomez homered, Norichika Aoki scored (+.440 WPA)
4/22, Ryan Braun homered to left, Rickie Weeks scored (+.187 WPA)
4/24, Jedd Gyorko lined out to shortstop, Yonder Alonso out at third (Marco Estrada pitching). (-.174 WPA)

Good day, Brewers fans. Have we all accepted Yuniesky Betancourt as our lord and savior, yet?

Worship him, peons. WORSHIP HIM.

It's been quite a month for your hometown team, capped off by a rather entertaining journey out west to Southern California. The Crew unfortunately saw their winning streak end at 9 games with a loss in San Diego last Wednesday (those free burgers may be just a pipe dream at this point), but still are in a stretch where they've won 12 of their last 15 games since starting the season with a 2-8 record.

The series against the Padres was certainly not without its moments, from Kyle Lohse and his Picasso-like finger to some rather suspect umpiring, which some of you may have had the pleasure of reading my glowing analysis of. I understand that some of those calls we're deemed correct in retrospect, but that doesn't detract from the point that the umpires made themselves front and center throughout each of those games. Either way, a strong showing from the Brewers starting pitching and offense helped them win 2 out of 3, just coming a couple hits short of a sweep in the final game of the series.

The Dodgers series, on the other hand, was not as pretty for the Brewers. The pitching wasn't as strong, which wasted a good offensive performance in game one before running into the buzzsaw commonly known as Clayton Kershaw. It's okay, though, many offenses struggle to score runs against Kershaw. Going .500 on a road trip is nothing to cry about. An old adage goes that in order to be successful, you want to win half your games on the road and have a winning record at home. Do that, and you'll likely end in a good place.

MVP: Carlos Gomez

For almost two weeks now, Carlos Gomez has been doing nothing but perform at a high level. He went 9-20 with 3 2B, a HR, a SB and took an alarmingly high (for Gomez) 3 BB during this last road trip, raising his season line to .338/.376/.538. He's been one part of what feels like a three-man wrecking crew with Yuniesky Betancourt and Jean Segura over the past 10+ games, with the occasional case of Ryan Braun doing Ryan Braun things.

As discussed before, the Brewers invested a lot in Gomez after a breakout season in 2012, and this sort of performance to date has to have Melvin and his pals in the FO smiling brightly.

LVP: Rickie Weeks
It just can't be ignored any longer. For the second April in a row, Weeks is just not getting the job done. His struggles can be pinpointed to a couple factors in the way pitchers are approaching him. He's seeing a ton of first pitch fastballs, watching almost half of them go by and not punishing the other half. Then when he's chasing the count, pitchers are consistently working him low and away, inducing his usual strikeouts and a number of weak grounders.

The most confusing part of all this is Roenicke's refusal to give Weeks a day off. Plenty of fans are  already firmly aboard the Scooter wagon and have been calling for this as a permanent move, but even those who aren't can't understand what benefit it is to have Weeks press day in and day out. It's not to say riding pine is some miracle cure, but it can certainly help a player slow things down, as we've witnessed since Gomez got his day off a couple weeks ago. Hopefully one way or another, Rickie gets his act together. If the Brewers are going anywhere this year, it's very likely not without his help.

Play of the Series:

The real play of this road trip was probably that Maldonado weirdness that ended the win streak, but who wants to analyze that? Instead, here's some great defensive plays from Jean Segura who seemed to have 50 every game.

What's Next: 
Marco Estrada vs. James McDonald
Hiram Burgos vs. Jeanmar Gomez

At the time I'm writing this, the Brewers have already wiped the floor with Wandy Rodriguez and destroyed his sparkling early season numbers, so 1-0 so far (woo)!

McDonald was the Pirates breakout pitcher last year, but like any other Pirates pitcher at Miller Park, doom will await him as soon as the umpire yells "play ball."

I honestly know nothing about the other pitcher, other than his name sounds like he made it up in an effort to steal the current magic surrounding Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez. The Pirates might win, but not both, because this is Miller Park and they just can't.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Welcome to the Ump Show!

I was ready to write a completely different post today, but that will have to wait. Instead, I’d like to discuss the officiating we just witnessed this series. A bit asinine to be complaining about umpires after your team just won 2 of 3 on the road, but sometimes you can’t avoid the elephant in the room.

And boy, did we have a doozy of a crew on our hands these past three days. Gary Darling and company were well on display from game, starting with refusing to review a foul ball hit off the pole here:

Notice anything different about this photo? Let's have a closer look:

The left side of the Western Metal Supply building doesn't have an off color yellow stripe, does it? That's because this photo was taken in 2008. That means that the Padres decided they needed to paint a pointless stripe on the foul side of the building AFTER home run replay was instilled.

Even still, the flat out refusal by the home plate umpire to use a tool developed to make his job easier  was borderline juvenile.

Then the next night, Darling blows a strike call behind the plate, then appeals down to his third base umpire who also misses call. Oh, and then Roenicke gets ejected for arguing without stepping a foot out of the dugout.

Yes, the third base umpire thought he held up here.

And finally in game 3, the boys in black added a cherry on top by squashing the Brewers rally with this whopper:

I do get unnerved now and again by officiating, and there are times when I’m wrong. I’ll openly admit that. But this time? I think I speak for both the Brewers and Padres fan bases when I say that the all around umpiring was nothing short of abysmal.

Behold the strike zone from last night for Marco Estrada:

The right corner of the plate was closed for construction, apparently.

I understand each umpire dictates a ball and a strike in their own way, but good lord, Estrada couldn’t get the right side of the plate if he tried. It’s a minor argument that happens almost every game, but it's still ridiculous how badly the zone can fluctuate to this degree. And all of this doesn't even include the calls at first base, where any Padre or Brewers who wasn't clearly safe stood no chance of being called so. And actually, it was the Padres who got more of the raw end on these calls.

Look, I’ve never umpired in my life. I imagine it’s a bit of a stressful job, and it’s a national pastime to give grief to the guys who actually do it. But man, there’s making questionable calls, and straight up refusing do your job correctly. We unfortunately had to witness the latter the past few days.

The Curious Case of John Axford

Brewers reliever/former closer John Axford was something of a lightening rod during the first week of the season, and rightfully so. He was awful. He was rightfully removed from the closer role, and then rightfully removed from a leverage role. Most fans and analysts thought he was done. Then something strange happened - he stopped sucking instantly. From the Cardinals series on, he hasn't given up a run. While 5 1/3 innings is admittedly a tiny sample, he has given up two baserunners in those 5+ innings (with six strikeouts) after giving up 11 baserunners in his first 3 1/3 innings. That's an alarming difference.

Of course, Axford has dealt in alarming differences before, being a dominant reliever in 2010-2011 before being mostly awful in 2012. Digging into the stats, there were some changes from '10/'11 to 2012. His fastball velocity and strikeouts went up, but so did his home run and walk rates. His left-on-base % went down, which signifies some bad luck, but his BABIP wasn't abnormally high. He actually gave up less fly balls than in years prior, but more of them went over the fence, and he gave up way more line drives. That's a lot to process, but in the end it's all a lot of noise. Ultimately, his core numbers weren't all that different, and Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote an excellent piece detailing it. Sullivan ultimately suggests that Axford had a tremendous run of good luck followed by smaller run of bad luck. That's certainly possible, but I don't see much in the numbers that suggest he was a victim of outright bad luck; the next step is to look at his stuff.

For most of his career, he has been a fastball-curveball guy who's occasionally fiddled with a slider. During his first full season in 2010, he threw the slider nearly as much as his curve (16.2% to 18.8%), but in 2011-12 he cut down on the slider usage, throwing it less than 10% of the time while increasing his fastball usage and using the curve as his primary breaking ball. 2011 was undoubtedly his best season, and the curve was a huge weapon for him. He threw it for a strike, and it drew it's share of whiffs.

With his curve working so well, hitters couldn't sit on his fastball. Which is important, because Major League hitters can hit fastballs pretty well, even really fast ones. Now let's look at 2012.

You'll notice that his curve was far less effective. He couldn't throw it for strikes as often as he did the year prior, as it's strike percentage went from 55.36% to 45.88%. Hitters were more likely to lay off his curve and sit fastball, which means harder contact and more balls flying over walls. It is at this point that I will mention that he's more or less pushed his lonely slider aside.

 "Grandpa, I'm cold." 

It's not like he never threw it, but he didn't use the slider often enough to make much of an impact. The start to 2013 was more of the same. By digging through his game logs, I determined that he used his frisbee once in his first three appearances, all three of them being nightmare outings.. In those same outings, his fastball and curveball were consistently up in the zone, where the hitters feast. I don't know if he was overcompensating to make sure his curveball was a strike, but the results weren't good. 

Starting with his fourth appearance, Axford had made a noticeable change; more sliders. The results in that particular outing weren't good, but the next six outings were.

After using the slider once in his first 52 pitches, he's used it over 20% of the time since. What's important about this isn't so much the quality of the pitch, but the fact that it's another pitch to show hitters to keep them guessing. As you can see from the plot above, his slider isn't a strike all that often, yet it draws whiffs over 29% of the time it's thrown. To give you some perspective, the average swinging strike rate in all of baseball so far in 2013 is 9.3%.

This all comes with an enormous disclaimer of small sample size and whatnot, but I think this still paints something of a picture as to the adjustments Axford has made in the first few weeks of the season. Eventually hitters will probably stop chasing the slider, but by then it's possible he will have fixed his curveball or made other adjustments. If nothing else, he's at least focused on a third pitch to keep hitters off-balance, making our proclamation of his death maybe a little premature.

PITCH f/x data courtesy of Brooks Baseball and Texas Leaguers 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Brewers/Cubs series review - Taking advantage of mistakes

Friday, 4/19 Brewers 5, Cubs 4
Saturday, 4/20 Brewers 5, Cubs 1
Sunday, 4/21 Brewers 4, Cubs 2

Win Probability Stars:
4/21, Ryan Braun homered to left, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jean Segura scored (+.350 WPA)
4/19, Ryan Braun homered to left, Norichika Aoki and Jean Segura scored (+.131 WPA)
4/21, Alfonso Soriano grounded into a double play, Anthony Rizzo out at second (Wily Peralta pitching) (-.108 WPA)

Despite the sweep, the Brewers didn't necessarily dominate the series. Every game was close, but the Brewers won by taking advantage of mistakes made by the Cubs both in the field and on the mound. Chicago committed six errors (at least one in each game) and every one would eventually result in runs for the Brewers. Errors are subjective and kind of a silly statistic to evaluate defense, but every one of the Cubs' mistakes were worthy of the title. Of course, the Brewers made one incredible blunder of their own (more on that later), but were able to overcome it.

The other story of the series was the Brewers' pitching. They got quality starts out of Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta, and an excellent debut (5 IP, 1 ER) out of fresh call-up Hiram Burgos. The bullpen contributed 9 1/3 innings giving up only one run. The offense was merely okay despite the run totals, mostly having a couple big innings surrounded by stretches of nothingness.

All told, it was a pretty bland series for the Brewers, which is odd considering it was a sweep. But beating the #Cubes is always pretty sweet.

MVP: Ryan Braun

Braun hit big home runs in two of the games, so this was a pretty easy choice. Overall, Braun's had an odd start to the season, basically amounting to a three-true-outcomes player (14 hits, 5 HR, 10 BB, 20 K in 60 plate appearances). He also sports an incredibly low 3.3 line drive %, which is bizarre. I'm sure it's small-sample weirdness, but it's still strange to see on his stat sheet.

LVP: Alex Gonzalez

Rickie Weeks was under consideration, but he still worked some deep counts and drew his walks. Gonzalez went 0-for-the series, his only bright spot being an RBI groundout. It's been a commonly held belief that Yuniesky Betancourt will be the odd man out when Aramis Ramirez or Jeff Bianchi return from the DL, but Gonzalez has played the worst of the bench players by far, and hasn't been as good with the glove as expected.

Play of the Series: Jean Segura's baserunning decision

This is the blunder I was referring to earlier. It seems weird to pick a bad play for this award, but it stands out more than anything else. Braun's game-winner on Sunday will probably be forgotten in a few days, but Segura's retreat back to first after being picked off trying to steal third is without a doubt the strangest thing I've ever seen in a baseball game. And I've seen this (hey, Kyle Lohse was involved).

What's Next:

The Brewers head to glorious Petco Park in San Diego, looking to add to their 7-game winning streak. Petco hasn't been kind to the Brewers lately but Braun did hit three bombs and a triple in one game there last year, so there's that.

Probable starters
4/22 Lohse vs. Marquis
4/23 Gallardo vs. Richard
4/24 Estrada vs. Volquez

Friday, April 19, 2013

Brewers/Giants Series Review - "They Might Be Giants..."

Tuesday, 4/16 Brewers 10, Giants 8
Wednesday, 4/17 Brewers 4, Giants 3
Thursday, 4/18 Brewers 7, Giants 2

Win Probability Added stars
April 16th, Rickie Weeks (+.143 WPA)
April 17th, Carlos Gomez (+.342 WPA)
April 18th, Yovani Gallardo (+.164 WPA)

(Apologies on the delay, faithful followers; had a hard time focusing on baseball last night, as many of you were, I'm sure.)

6 days ago, the Brewers were 2-8 and in the midst of a humiliating offensive futility streak. Things at the time looked like they would never be good again.

Today, the Brewers are 6-8 after completing a sweep against the reigning World Series champs, and are riding a 4-game winning streak. Amazing what kind of difference a week can make, right?

Things finally started to click for the Crew this series, and it's possible that the Giants still don't know what hit them, although I imagine that they really just wanted to get back to Constantinople by the end of game 3. Their pitching, a normally stout rotation backed by a nasty bullpen, took an absolute beating at the hands of the Brewers bats (thanks largely in part to the bottom part of the order). When you're getting bludgeoned by two players with a combined .292 career OBP, you know it's not your week.

Yes, Carlos Gomez and Yuniesky Betancourt took it upon themselves to pick up the Brewers at seemingly every turn this past series. Roenicke's benching of Gomez last Saturday may have just done the trick for speedy center fielder, because since then he has gone 10-15 at the plate with 6 runs and 2 extra-base hits. It certainly is a promising turn for him to start producing this way after signing a 3-year extension this past offseason worth $24 million. The Brewers will be the first to tell you that they're not paying Gomez to be a world beater offensively, but they certainly expect him to stick close to the 105 wRC+ he posted with the club last season, which in unison with his good defense in center field valued him as a 3-win player. It also helps when you're getting the benefit of calls like this.

Foul ball? Probably. But hey, long live the "human error"!

Gomez isn't the only Brewer to put an early slump behind him after recently signing a contract extension. Also dating back to the game against the Cardinals last Sunday, Jonathan Lucroy's bat has  come back to life a bit, with his most recent stretch having him go 7-17 with 2 HRs. Luc signed his 5-year extension before the beginning of the 2012 season, but after missing a good amount of time with a fractured hand last year, there's a little bit of an expectation for him to meet in order to feel like he's earned his contract. The reason for Lucroy's early struggles? His line drive % has been down just a wee bit from his career average.

A concern? Not really. His fly ball % has actually been up just a tick, and as one would expect, the cold weather has not been allowing those fly balls to carry much of anywhere so far...unless you're Justin Upton.

The object about to enter this image is now in orbit.
Kyle Lohse Watch: After another nice outing by the Brewers recently acquired pitcher, it is in this blogger's opinion that this Lohse thing might just work out. It's still rather unlikely he'll finish the year with an ERA under 3, but perhaps we all underestimated just how effective he could be. I recalled reading a couple pieces on how Lohse has reinvented himself into a groundball pitcher, utilizing a nice sinker/slider/changeup combo that have been giving opponents fits. His ability to throw his breaking pitches for strikes, though, has definitely been as big of a factor in his success, as this graph will better illustrate from his past three starts.

Mmmmm that's good offspeed.
We'll see just how long Lohse keeps this kind of success going, but continuing to pound the zone is a good way to maintain it, especially if he wants to be a real leader.

MVP: Yuniesky Betancourt

I feel so dirty for typing that. Each letter burned more than the one previous to it.

However, it's hard to argue he didn't play a big role this past series. He did. Whenever there was a big hit, Yuni had it. He put the Giants in a hole each game, whether it was scoring the first run of game two, or tacking on to an already established lead.

Whether I or anyone else would like to admit it, Yuni has been effective as a replacement at first base, and is currently carrying an .805 OPS in this very early season. Will he sustain that number? Definitely not. This is still Betancourt we're talking about. But if the Brewers needed someone to step up in the absence of their two All-Star corner infielder, Yuni has answered that call.

LVP: Alex Gonzalez

Things are definitely going well when it's tough to pick someone for this category. It's really a silly category, actually, since there usually is never one sole hero or goat in a baseball game. You win as a team and lose as a team.

However, I'm not here to talk semantics. I'm here to talk about who has been cold as ice. You might want to put Rickie Weeks here, but I've actually seen promising signs out of Weeks recently, who I'd be so willing to predict is going to break out of his slump as soon as tonight. Gonzalez, on the other hand, looks like a 36-year old utility player trying to keep his head above water. His plate approach is resulting in him making some weak outs, his defense in the field has been surprisingly shaky, and all in all, he just hasn't been very good.

That's not to say he couldn't turn things around, but it wouldn't be too surprising to find that Father Time has finally caught up with old Seabass, and he may not have much left to give even once he does "get it going." The Brewers are certainly fortunate that Jean Segura is playing well early, because if not, the shortstop situation could have been pretty sticky going forward.

Play of the Series

Yuni hit a grand slam, Gallardo hit a home run and Segura played some great defense. My play of the series though? Lalli's game-winning hit on Wednesday.

Talk about a cool moment. A minor league journeyman who fights for a roster spot year in and year out gets a big chance, and delivers. Oh, and it was his first hit for the Brewers, to boot. Good for him. We can talk all we want about his value to the club and what not, but it's hard not to root for somebody who's really just willing to do anything it takes to help a major league club succeed.

Hats off to you, Mr. Lalli. Hopefully that's just one of many big hits for you this season.

What's Next:
The Brewers continue their homestand tonight against the lovable losers from the northside of Chicago. The Cubs come in at 5-9 after winning just 2 of their last 6 games. Their best story this season, so far, has been the success of their de facto ace, Jeff Samazaazazaajjazjjsqaza. The Brewers will send Marco Estrada to the mound to face off against him this evening as they search for their 5th straight win.

4/19 - Estrada vs. Samardzija
4/20 - Burgos vs. Jackson
4/21 - Peralta vs. Feldman

Burgos up, Fiers down (below)

The Brewers made a roster move Thursday night, sending struggling right-hander Mike Fiers down to AAA Nashville and replacing him with another right-hander in Hiram Burgos. Fiers had only made one start this year, but it was a remarkably awful one, surrendering six runs (with two homers) in five innings and striking out only one of the 25 batters he faced against the Diamondbacks. He also made two relief appearances, one clean and one poor, neither featuring a strikeout. His command has been off and he's been unable to find the corners of the zone, resulting in either a pitch outside the zone that hitters won't chase or pitch in the meaty part of the zone that batters hit hard. The lack of whiffs is particularly troubling for a pitcher whose success is largely dependent on strikeouts and doesn't have the stuff to generate loads of weak contact in the form of grounders or pop-ups. Fiers has struggled mightily since last August, and just barely won a rotation spot this season despite a rough Spring. Fiers started slow early in 2012 before catching fire after his late-May call-up, so there's still plenty of hope he can fix his issues and turn it around.

As for Burgos, he's something of a late bloomer in the Brewers' system who's cut from the same cloth as fellow starter Marco Estrada. Hiram is coming off a tremendous year where he had a 3.12/1 K/BB ratio to go with a 1.95 ERA in 171 innings spread across three levels of the minors. He has a four-pitch mix which features a fastball, changeup, curveball, and slider. His fastball velocity is nothing special, sitting 88-92, but his bread-and-butter is his changeup, which he can throw to hitters on both sides of the plate. He has good command of all his pitches and keeps the walks in check, but might be homer prone in the majors due to his flyball tendencies. With Tyler Thornburg and Johnny Hellweg waiting in the minors along with Fiers and Mark Rogers likely coming back at some point, Burgos' stay in the majors is directly correlated with how well he pitches. So, good luck Hiram.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Brewers/Cardinals series review - Well at least the bullpen was better

Friday, 4/12 Cardinals 2, Brewers 0
Saturday, 4/13 Cardinals 8, Brewers 0
Sunday, 4/14 Brewers 4, Cardinals 3

Win Probability Added stars (WPA explanation here)
April 14th, Yuniesky Betancourt doubled to right, Carlos Gomez scores (+.401 WPA)
April 14th, Jonathan Lucroy homered to left (+.385 WPA
April 14th, Carlos Beltran grounded out to shortstop (Burke Badenhop pitching) (-.166 WPA)

As you can see, all of the big plays for the Brewers happened on Sunday. That's because that's the only game they scored runs. If math is to be believed, it also bears reasoning that Sunday's game is the only game they won. The Cards clearly outplayed them in every facet during the weekend, with one lone exception; bullpen. That seems odd, but the Cardinals bullpen actually has a higher ERA than the Brewers bullpen. Most of that is thanks to Cards "closer" Mitchell Boggs, who was shaky on Friday and awful on Sunday. The Brewers relievers, on the other hand, pitched 7 2/3 innings and giving up two runs (zero earned), keeping them in two of the games. 

Friday's game was a pitching duel between Kyle Lohse and Shelby Miller, with Shelby Miller coming out on top as the Brewers' bats failing to show up. Saturday was more of the same, except Yovani Gallardo pitched poorly (as he does against St. Louis) while his counterpart Adam Wainwright threw a brilliant 4-hit shutout with a whopping 12 strikeouts. Both Miller and Wainwright were terrific, but for their part the Brewers' bats swung at too many bad pitches. No offense in baseball was getting to Wainwright on Saturday, but Miller threw a lot of pitches over the plate and the offense couldn't capitalize.

Sunday seemed like a variation on the theme, as the offense couldn't muster anything against Jamie Garcia's soft pitches (his fastball dipped as low as 84 mph during the 5th inning) and Brewers starter Marco Estrada couldn't keep the Cards' bats off the board. The offense finally woke up in the 8th against flamethrowing reliever Trevor Rosenthal, when Ryan Braun hit a two-run oppo-taco to score the first Brewers runs of the series. They added a run in the 9th to tie, and probably should have had more were it not for a series of poor management decisions that led to a popped-up bunt and a baserunning blunder. Lucroy's tater in the 10th gave them the lead, and the combo of Brandon Kintzler, Mike Gonzalez, and Burke Badenhop got through the bottom of the 10th with a big assist to the defensive shift that Carlos Beltran grounded into for the final out. 

All told, it was a pretty poor series for the Crew despite Sunday's win. The offense as a whole was pretty awful despite some solid pitching performances. The Cardinals are obviously a very good team and beating them at home is not easy, but even with how good St. Louis' pitching was it's hard to excuse how bad the offense played. But the bullpen pitching better was a good sign, and both Lohse and Estrada performances were impressive against a tough Cardinals offense. All told, there wasn't anything to be learned from this series besides the Brewers missing Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez a whole lot. That and the Cards are better at playing baseball.

MVP: Jonathan Lucroy

I almost gave this to Lohse, who threw an excellent game on Friday, but after some further research I had to go with Luc. Aside from his game-winning homer and an excellent tag to nail a runner at the plate, his pitch-framing was unbelievable. Just look at some of these called strikes (click to embiggen).

Obviously not all of it is Lucroy's framing, what with umpires being human and all, but the Brewers lead baseball in extra called strikes and we already know Lucroy is a pitch-framing wizard. Even with only one noteworthy game at the plate in the series, Lucroy's impact behind the plate was evident in every game.

LVP: Yovani Gallardo
Gallardo pitched poorly for the third start in a row. If he's trying to pitch to contact to be more efficient, it's not working. His fastball isn't moving enough at this point to get away with throwing it in the meaty part of the zone. He's still racking up high pitch counts and isn't getting enough whiffs. On the positive side, he's not had a big problem with walks and there's almost certainly some bad luck with balls in play, but he needs to pitch better. He had a tough task in facing a potent lineup on Saturday, but threw too many pitches over the plate and eventually it cost him. Three starts is a very small sample, so there's still plenty of time to turn it around.

Play of the Series
Luc's homer won Sunday's game, but it wouldn't have happened if it weren't for Braun's two-run shot. Extra points for going opposite field off a tough reliever. 

What's Next:

The Brewers begin a six-game homestand against the Giants and Cubs on Tuesday. San Francisco comes into town first, and are off to a good start. Milwaukee is fortunate to avoid Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, but there are some interesting pitching matchups nonetheless. Hey, we get to face Barry Zito! 

4/16 - Peralta vs. Zito
4/17 - Fiers vs. Vogelsong
4/18 - Lohse vs. Cain

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Brewers/Cubs series review - We Won a Game!

This review is brought to you by The Goat Emporium. Goat Heads: Because what else would you expect?

Will the rain ever end? The weather finally caught up with the team and washed out the would-be final game of the series tonight, meaning that this bad boy is over, baby.

What a hum dinger this series was! And when I say that, I mean it was about as good as an episode of "Keeping Up the Kardashians" (I know, how 2012 of me!). It actually wasn't that bad, they did win a game after all, but it feels like they should have won both. To sum up this series – the offense looked good for the first 11 innings, the starting pitching looked worlds better (even if it was the Cubs), and the bullpen appears to be as bad, if not worse, than last year. The hot topic in Brewer Nation today surrounded Roenicke's decision to use John Axford for an additional inning after bringing him into a tie game in the 7th to get the final out. And right in line with the rest of his 2013 season to date, Axford bombed again, promptly loading the bases before being pulled in favor of Alfredo Figaro, who allowed all three baserunners to score (et tu, Alfredo?).

I made my own thoughts pretty clear last night on Twitter as to what I thought of Roenicke's decision to stick with Axford, so I'll try to be a little more even-keeled here. I get what he was thinking: tie game, have a somewhat tired bullpen, just lost Narveson to the DL, and don't want to go into extras burning two relievers against two batters. I get that. The question I'm wondering, more or less, was why he even used Axford in the 7th to begin with? In case you've been living under a rock recently, John Axford has not been good so far this season. Some think it may be a change in his release point, others pointing to dips in velocity, but whatever the reason is, he's been really off and getting absolutely bludgeoned. He's been getting hit so hard, in fact, that Roenicke removed him from the closer role just a couple days ago. So why did he go with Ax if we're not even sure whether or not he actually trusts him? Your guess is as good as mine. The facts are these: John Axford has been mostly ineffective this season, and whether or not he'll eventually figure it out, he probably should be kept away from high-leverage situations for a long while.

So, what could have been a pretty good series ended on a sour note, despite a good showing by the other facets of the team: offense and starting pitching. And actually, if we want to get technical, the offense may not have even scored more than one run yesterday if not for some rough defense by Starlin Castro (which isn't terribly unusual). Even still, Estrada and Peralta both looked on top of their games, giving the team at least 6 2/3 innings on back-to-back nights. Maybe this little bit of success will spread through the Brewers dugout like a raging case of Good Luck Pox? Or maybe they'll just spread Chicken Pox. Wouldn't that be the worst?

Okay, enough blather, it's awards time.

MVP: Wily Peralta

I know. Braun was 5 for 9, and Aoki has been on fire. But guess what? Ryan Braun will often be 5 for 9, and I want to save giving this honor to Aoki for that one series he'll have this year where he'll somehow hit 3 home runs, including 2 in one game.

The big question coming into this season was the pitching, and after the first 6 games, things we're not looking good for anyone outside of the usual suspects. If the Brewers hopes for this year and beyond fall on anyone in particular, though, it's this young man. Peralta has been rated as the Brewers top prospect by pretty much every baseball analyst out there, and he sure looked the part last night. He had his fastball topping out at 96 mph, moving away and in on hitters like it was being pulled by a string. Yes, it was the Cubs, and on top of that, it was a cold night. But you know what? Peralta already has the stuff to put away top-level hitters regardless, and there's little questioning that. What he needs to find is consistency in his control, and 62 strikes out of 94 pitches is exactly the kind of thing that will lead to long term success. Very nice to see out of a young pitcher like Peralta.

And on top of everything else, he was 1-2 with a walk. Eat your heart out, Yovani!

LVP: The Bullpen

I've got the fear, you guys. I've got it real bad.

Okay, bit of an overreaction there. As poor as the bullpen has looked so far, I'm going to predict that things get straightened out sooner rather than later. A common trend with early struggles is that they either fix themselves quickly or are eliminated through replacement. It's highly unlikely Axford sees a save situation again any time soon, and aside from a couple struggles this series, Kintzler, Figaro  and Henderson have looked better than decent. I'm all aboard a bullpen by committee, because when you don't have a dominant relief pitcher, you're better off riding the hot hand.

Don't believe me? Just look at the last two World Series champs. The Cardinals and Giants we're having some rather troubling bullpen issues until they hit the final stretch towards the playoffs. And you know how they did it? Handing the ball to whoever was throwing the best at the time. Sometimes, it's just that easy.

Play of the Series:

Fun fact: Marco Estrada is averaging one hit per start, and has an many RBIs as Aramis Ramirez so far this season. Pitcher hits are always the best.

What's Next:

The Brewers road trip continues into the cannibalistic Ozarks of St. Louis. Reformed baby-eater, Kyle Lohse, will be starting the first game of the series against his former team and his replacement, Shelby Miller. The Cardinals are 5-4 to start the year, but have just lost their closer, Jason Motte ,to the DL for what might be the season. That's not to say their new closer, Mitchell Boggs, is much worse than Motte, especially coming off of a nice year playing 8th-inning guy for manager Mike Matheny, but his Axfordian start to the season may give way to some pretty wild ninth innings throughout this series. Oh, and did I mention that the Cardinals eat babies?

We don't discriminate on species.

Till Friday, folks. Keep the faith!

Why does Ron Roenicke trust John Axford?

The Brewers lost again Tuesday night, and unsurprisingly, John Axford was prominently involved. Axford has contributed significantly to three of the Brewers' losses so far, and blew a lead in one other game that the team still managed to win. Axford was a bad pitcher in 2012, and has been even worse in 2013. Ron Roenicke removed him from the closer role after the Diamondbacks series, only to put him in a high-pressure spot against the Cubs two days later where Axford predictably failed. I've been a Roenicke supporter, mostly because I think his positives far outweigh his negatives, but I can't support his decision to turn to Axford in a close game. It was huge a mistake that likely cost them the game.

Instant fan reaction is that Roenicke is a bumbling idiot, trying to lose games, is the worst, and should be fired and replaced by someone who totally won't do the same thing. Any intelligent fan knows that none of those things are likely true, but the continued reliance on Axford is puzzling nonetheless. But this is not just a Brewers problem. It's a problem that every fanbase has endured at some point; managers showing too much trust in their players.

Another example happened in the same game Tuesday night. Cubs manager Dale Sveum put similarly broken pitcher Carlos Marmol into a tied game in the top of the eighth inning, the difference being that Marmol got away with a few meatballs and survived a two-out triple to get out of the inning unscathed. Marmol has been a mess for even longer than Axford has, but has basically never been removed from high-leverage situations. San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy has watched starting pitcher Tim Lincecum melt down for over a year now, and still trots Lincecum out there every fifth day. Lincecum was once one of the best pitchers in all of baseball and has back-toback Cy Youngs to his name, but his velocity has decreased to the point where his fastball is useless and it's made all of his other pitches worse. He's shown for over a year now that he's no longer an above-average player. The same has been true for Ryan Howard in Philadelphia, Jose Valverde in Detroit, Jeff Franceour in Kansas City. With the exception of Franceour, all of the aforementioned players were among the best in baseball at their respective positions. They earned their managers' trust. They're also all players that can no longer produce like they once did, but are continually put in positions to do so by their loyal managers. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances for some of these players. The Cubs are probably trying to trade Carlos Marmol, the Phillies are paying Howards buckets of money, the Giants don't have any starting pitcher depth, etc. But most baseball teams are trying to win games and trusting broken and/or ineffective players seems to fly in the face of that goal. If it were all about money or trade value, Vernon Wells and Juan Uribe wouldn't have been riding the bench the last couple years. Money may play a part, but I'm willing to bet there's more to it than that.

Some fans and analysts mock the idea of clubhouse chemistry and managers showing faith in struggling players. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else. While it's certainly true we cannot quantify clubhouse chemistry and no team should build solely around it, dismissing it completely and claiming it's meaningless is bullshit. For us it's all about results, nothing else should matter. It's a business, after all. But we don't have to walk around the clubhouse every day, we don't have to look players in the eye, and we certainly aren't personally invested in them. We're constantly reminded that players are human beings, not robots that play for our enjoyment and satisfaction. But it's still easy to forget that they're not only people, but people who are trying their hardest to succeed at a sport they love. John Axford is not trying to pitch horribly, and his manager and teammates want to see him succeed. We look at Roenicke placing Axford in a tight spot as setting him up to fail, but I have no doubt that Roenicke views it as an opportunity for Axford to succeed. Demoting him to a mop-up role or sending him to AAA may be the right move from a baseball standpoint, but it could destroy whatever confidence John Axford has left as well as alienating him and other members of the locker room. We don't know, which means we probably shouldn't speculate, but it still means that we don't know.

Ron Roenicke knows John Axford better than any of us ever will. He's seen Axford's successes as well as his failures, and from his perspective it's probably easier to remember the success. That's almost certainly led to him making poor choices in how to use Axford, but he's not alone. Every manager in the history of the game is guilty of it. By design, managers are taught not to be swayed by what we call recency bias. That does not necessarily make it okay, especially with clearly declining players, but I think it's important for us to stop and understand why they do it. It's not to spite us, or to lose baseball games, or to beat a dead horse, even if it seems that way. They want to win, but they also want to maintain their locker rooms and player relationships. The players have to be accountable to their manager, but in turn he has to be accountable to the players. They need to know that one rough stretch won't place them on the bench. Tim Lincecum has years of dominance that in his mind have earned him the right to continue starting. If Bochy buries him in the bullpen because of one bad year + two starts, it sets a dangerous precedent. Players don't really think like fans and talent evaluators do, they'll believe they can work their problems out forever. What player would want to play under Bochy in the future if he makes someone who was as good as Lincecum a relief pitcher after just one rough season?

Fans can pick and chose their loyalties, but managers cannot. And it's not a cold business to them, like it is to front offices and owners. They're hired specifically by those front offices to handle the players on a personal level, and we probably shouldn't be surprised when they act accordingly. We still have the right to be frustrated and upset, but let's stop pretending that we can put ourselves in their shoes.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Brewers/Diamondbacks series review - Everything is broken

The Brewers were lucky to get out of the Arizona series alive, and by that I mean they got swept and three of their best hitters got hurt but at least the bus to Chicago didn't crash. The series went about as bad as it possibly could, although I suppose the D-Backs winning every game 20-0 would have been worse. The pitching continued to struggle, with Mike Fiers and Yovani Gallardo getting knocked around in their starts and the bullpen giving up at least two runs in every game. Gallardo looked a little better than he did on opening day and was the victim of some bad outfield defense, but Fiers was blasted from the start and couldn't draw swings-and-misses. Kyle Lohse had a terrific debut on Friday night, but got little support from his offense and bullpen.

Much of the talk around the series thus far has centered around the failings of the 13-man pitching staff (which led to Kyle Lohse pinch-hitting with the game on the line in Sunday's game), but injuries have taken their toll on the team. Ryan Braun injured his neck prior to Friday's game and sat out the whole series, Aramis Ramirez ended up on the DL with a strained knee, and young shortstop Jean Segura had to leave Sunday's game with a bruised left thigh he sustained from a take-out slide by Gerardo Parra. Segura and Braun are only day-to-day at this point, but with an already short bench it's probably not the last time a pitcher will be forced to pinch-hit at some point.

John Axford blew up again in Sunday's game, escaping the 10th inning despite some loud outs and finally caving in the 11th by giving up a double to a crappy hitter in Cliff Pennington followed by a two-run shot by another crappy hitter in Eric Hinske. Manager Ron Roenicke claims Axford is still his closer, which is pretty incredible, but it's hard to imagine his leash being much longer after giving up four home runs in just 2 2/3 innings.

Awards time.

MVP: Jean Segura

I had a hard time picking between Segura, Lohse, and Nori Aoki, but I ultimately went with Segura despite him being knocked out of Sunday's loss. He hit his first career dinger on Friday, a big shot to straightaway center that ended up being the team's only run. He followed that up with another big game at the plate on Saturday, including a run-scoring double. All told, he went 4-for-9 in the series with a walk, and played fine defensively for the most part.

LVP: Burke Badenhop

Badenhop wins this prestigious award by contributing significantly to two losses. He was charged with two runs on Friday in 1/3 of an inning by giving up a walk and a hit, and while Michael Gonzalez (and Jonathan Lucroy, I guess) allowed those inherited runners to score, Badenhop's job is to get outs and the one out he did get was courtesy of a sacrifice bunt. Burke then followed that up on Sunday by allowing a base hit and a homer in the span of three pitches, putting the Brewers behind by two runs in a game they would lose by one. A pretty forgettable series for the sinkerballer who's ball is not sinking very well.

Play of the Series: It basically came down to Segura's homer and Logan Schafer's sweet throw on Sunday, but I'm going with Segura because first career taters are pretty sweet and Jean's reaction while rounding the bases was priceless. While it was obviously more than one play, Kyle Lohse striking out five straight to start Friday's game was a cool moment as well.

What's Next: The Brewers hit the road for their first trip outside of Miller Park this year. They are fortunate to not have to face Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija in any of the three upcoming games, but with how banged up the lineup is it's difficult to say the Brewers have any kind of edge, even if the pitching comes around. It's too early to declare anything a must-win game or series, but the team needs to take advantage of weak opponents and getting at least a couple wins against the Cubbies would be nice.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fan Overreactions: A History

We'll have a series recap later, but for now, the Small Sample Size Clinic for Super Reactionaries proudly presents this short timeline of events to help put the 2013 Brewers situation into perspective...

April 4th, 2011: "An 0-4 to start the season? You gotta be kidding me! I knew this was too good to be true, we'll just always be on the outside looking in."

July 12th, 2009: "First place at the All-Star break! Nothing can stop us now!"

May 18th, 2008: "20-24...really? This team is completely hopeless with Melvin at the helm. Seriously, just fire everyone, we're never going to make it back to the playoffs with this regime running things."


December 25th, 2006: "Hey, did you hear? We signed Jeff Suppan! Finally, the big name starting pitcher we needed!"

June 1st, 1982: "This is ridiculous. We're 23-24, we just fired our manager, and now we expect the hitting coach to lead us to the World Series? Yeah, I'll believe that as soon as Pete Rose gets shut out of the Hall of Fame."

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Aramis Ramirez to DL, lineup sucked into wormhole

Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez was put on the 15-day DL today with a sprained left knee, essentially re-aggravating a prior injury while trying to stretch a single into a double Friday night. Ramirez's incredibly poor baserunning decision not only cost the Brewers an out and a baserunner in a tight game (which they lost), but a huge bat in their lineup for at least two weeks. Utility infielder Josh Prince was called up to take his spot, which means the Brewers now have one more hitter on the roster who can't hit. Combined with Ryan Braun's muscle spasms and Corey Hart's absence, tonight's Brewers lineup against the Diamondbacks will look something like this;

But seriously, Alex Gonzalez hitting cleanup and Yuni Betancourt playing first base.

As for Prince, he's a former third-round pick who sports a .253/.333/.334 career batting line. He's a non-prospect who's unlikely to stick but Justin Sellers and Pete Kozma have major league jobs so who knows. 

"Look Mom, I'm a baseball player!"

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Brewers/Rockies Series Review – "We Want a Pitcher!"

If AirTran Airways asked "How far did it fly?"for every home run this past series, they'd probably have broken the scoreboard.

So much for that revamped pitching, hey kids? Your Milwaukee Brewers gave up a grand total of 19 runs off of 41 hits (8 of which were home runs) to the powerful Colorado Rockies. To be fair, I think the Rockies can swing it a little better than most people will give them credit for. A good portion of their offensive ability can be credited to that bandbox in Denver, but it's not like these guys are the Astros or something. The most surprising part of this series was just how badly the Brewers arms got knocked around. None of the starters made it through 6 innings, which is a tad more forgivable with 13 pitchers on the roster, but still should be considered a luxury instead of a necessity. The fear of the Brewers starters not being able to cover enough innings was well on display in these first 3 games, and the hope has to be that this game will be exception and not the rule.

It's hard to imagine the pitching continuing to perform as badly as they did, but John Axford looked far too hittable last night. I feel for the guy, as I've felt for every struggling closer in the Brewers past. It astounds me just how many relievers have had excellent years for Milwaukee, only to completely lose it in the season immediately following. First it was Derrick Turnbow, then Trevor Hoffman, and now John Axford. You might begin to believe there's a closer curse here in Brew City, starting back when Fingers got hurt in '82 and never looked the same after that (it should also be noted, for those not quite up on their Brewers history, that Fingers was so good in the year prior that he won both the AL MVP and Cy Young award). Perhaps they need to sacrifice a live chicken...or settle for a 16-piece bucket of extra crispy from KFC. Whatever is most convenient.

But back to the series, all was not doom and gloom for the Crew. The offense picked up right where they left off from 2012, scoring 12 runs of their own throughout the three-gamer, and it at least appears as though there won't be any early season woes this time around for Aramis Ramirez or Rickie Weeks. They were unable to keep up with the Rockies hitting parade, but 4 runs a game is still a nice output for the reigning #1 offense in the NL. See? There ARE reasons to be optimistic.

And now for some awards...

MVP: Alfredo Figaro

This award could have easily gone to Aramis Ramirez or Rickie Weeks, but being as Figaro was one of the only highlights from the pitching staff, let's talk about him. When I heard that Milwaukee were trying to get his rights from Japan, I assumed it was going to be a pretty inconsequential move. The right-hander turned in a really nice debut this first series by not allowing a run in 3.1 innings, sitting consistently between 93-95 mph with his fastball (even topping out at 96 a couple times). This could be the under-the-radar move that turns into Melvin's annual "diamond in the rough" acquisition.

LVP: John Axford

Sorry, Johnny. In the immortal words of The Doors, "this is the end, beautiful friend." I really do feel bad for Axford, maybe more so than I ever did for Hoffman or Turnbow. What was a really great story of his rise to fame has taken a sharp downward turn from last season to now. You can tell it's really killing him inside to not perform at the level he wants to, but that's just the way it goes in baseball. That's the way it is in sports as a whole, actually. Hopefully he'll find a way to keep the ball in the park before all is said and done, so that he can at least keep a role on the squad, if not the closer role itself.

Play of the Series: I had a tough time picking one out, because there were actually a couple really nice plays, even from yesterday's game. Ultimately, I decided to go with Ramirez's 2-run double from game one, because it was a turning point in that game that helped the Brewers salvage a win, and it broke the narrative early on of "A-Ram can't hit till June."

Here's to a good year, Aramis, and to false hopes that the Brewers will get a ridiculously good return for you at the trade deadline if their pitching doesn't get it together by then.

What's Next: The Brewers continue their homestand by kicking off a 3-game series against the Diamondbacks tomorrow night at 7:15 pm. Kyle Lohse is primed to make his "much anticipated" Brewers debut then against 2012 NL Rookie of the Year finalist, Wade Miley. As tough as the first series was, it's hard not to smile at the seemingly aimless decisions of Kevin Towers in Phoenix.

Till then, folks – God speed, and see you at the park!