Step back from the ledge: Brewers pitching better than most think

After a whirlwind January where the Milwaukee Brewers added outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and reliever Matt Albers, something still feels amiss between the talking heads and Brewers fans alike. If chatter in baseball circles is any indicator, it seems that nearly everyone expected the team to make a big push for a frontline starter, going so far as to say the Brewers aren’t a true contender until they address their rotation.

The misappropriation is understandable. In a league where 70 percent of organizations regularly spend over $100 million in payroll a season, it’s easy to grow expectations to the point where it’s ‘reasonable’ to unload nearly every financial asset possible to obtain players who will hopefully fulfill a winning formula.

Milwaukee is not part of that 70 percent. In fact, since 2011, they’ve averaged only $96 million a year in total adjusted salary and topped out around a $120 million in total spending capacity. Fortunately, they’ve also figured out a way to win without spending anywhere close to the $200+ million big market teams are able to afford. In 2011, when they made the last great push, they won the division with a 96-66 record on a budget of $94 million — well below the league average. In the post-Melvin era, things seem to be shaping up even better, as the team muscled their way to a record of 86-76 in 2017, this time on a league-low budget of only $83 million — which is exactly where they’re starting the 2018 season, with four major additions including January’s signing of starter Jhoulys Chacin.

So what is this all to say? Money be damned! This is the era of analytics and if anyone knows how best to play the game, it’s a team that is forced to be frugal and exceptionally insightful in the front office. And that is the perfect reason why adding an aging starter isn’t going to put the team on a fast track to success. If that’s not enough of a reason, here are some other names and numbers that might help to change the narrative.

Jake Arrieta

Since coming to the Chicago Cubs, Jake Arrieta has undoubtedly turned his career on its head from the 5.46 ERA and 1.472 WHIP he amassed back in Baltimore, replacing it with 2.73 and 1.034 respectively along with adding the illustrious Cy Young and a World Series ring to his trophy case in the process. He’s easily been one of the most popular names connected to the Brewers this offseason, which has done nothing but stir the pot of discontent, especially after the Cubs went out and added Yu Darvish.

But since that Cy Young season, Arrieta has been on a steady decline. In the last two years, his walk rate has risen, his strikeouts have started to fall, he’s thrown considerably more wild pitches than ever before, leading the league for two consecutive years. More importantly, his home runs allowed have also risen. Adding walks and home runs while transitioning to hitter-friendly Miller Park doesn’t really sound like a successful formula. Yes, he did finish 2016 with a 3.10 ERA and 2017 with a 3.53 ERA, but he also finished both seasons with a FIP half a run higher, indicating that he was the beneficiary of good luck — something pitchers in Milwaukee aren’t able to cash in on with such regularity.

To put it into perspective, here’s a quick comparison of regular season numbers from 2017:

Jake Arrieta – 3.53 ERA – 1.218 WHIP – 4.16 FIP – 168.1 IP – 1.2 HR/9 – 2.9 BB/9 – 8.7 K/9
Zach Davies – 3.90 ERA – 1.354 WHIP – 4.22 FIP – 191.1 IP – 0.9 HR/9 – 2.6 BB/9 – 5.8 K/9

For anyone who is not a total baseball nerd, it shakes out like this: Based on FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) which is what a pitcher’s ERA should have been based on their performance alone, Davies pitched similarly well in terms of run prevention, pitched more innings, gave up fewer home runs and walked fewer batters. He did have a lot fewer strikeouts, but since they do little more than provide additional insurance against balls that make it into play, he still pitched admirably. What’s more, is that he is already in Miller Park, is only 25 and is seemingly on a path to improvement. Arrieta, on the other hand, would be moving into Miller Park, meaning he’s not yet even felt the disadvantage, let alone compensated for it, is 31 and seems to be trending in the wrong direction. There’s also the point that Arrieta cost $15.6M in 2017 compared to the $546,000 Davies took home.

Lance Lynn / Alex Cobb

Of course, that’s not to say that adding the extra arm wouldn’t be beneficial, especially with Jimmy Nelson sidelined for at least a few months. But dealing with a frugal organization that most likely has more long-term view than the public is able to see means that an investment of that type needs to be more than a shot in the dark based off of name value alone. Considering that Lance Lynn’s numbers were even worse (4.82 FIP, 1.3 HR/9, 3.8 BB/9 in 2017), Alex Cobb’s were close minus his good walk rate (4.16 FIP, 1.1 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9 in 2017), and that both will cost a pretty penny, there should really be no question as to why the Brewers weren’t willing to make a stronger push to empty their pockets — a trade could still happen, however, and seems much more likely given the positional logjam at first and in the outfield, but again, Stearns is prudent, he wants to win the deal or close it nearly even at worst, not just make a trade for the sake of clearing space.

Brent Suter

For any talking head who didn’t actually watch the Brewers last year, Suter is a name that will rarely, if ever, grace a list of potential starting options. In reality, Suter was a fantastic fill-in last year, acting as an effective swingman. He pitched both out of the bullpen and in the rotation, often on odd days of rest, and still registered himself as more than just serviceable. His home run rate (0.9 HR/9) walk rate (2.4) and strikeout rate (7.1) were all good and his 3.75 FIP wasn’t much higher than his ERA (3.42), all of which slots him as a safe starter should they choose not to toss him in the bullpen until needed.

Brandon Woodruff

Woodruff got his first cup of coffee at the end of last year and, although the end-of-season numbers don’t bear it out, he actually pitched pretty well. Although his final line doesn’t indicate it (4.81 ERA, 1.326 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9, 6.7 K/9), Woodruff’s minor league numbers — even in Triple-A mind you — indicate that he has a lot more to prove at the major league level. In fact, most of his MLB numbers were marred by the month of September, a month into which he never previously pitched, which could mean that he was simply getting gassed after a long season. In his four major league starts prior, he held a 1.52 ERA and struck 20 batters out in 23.1 innings and that includes facing the Rockies, Twins and Nationals.

Those numbers aren’t far off of what he was able to manage in the minors either. Based on the last two years, he’s much more likely to strike out closer to eight or nine batters per nine innings, walk three or less and give up less than a home run per nine with an ERA in the high threes — and that includes what he did in the brutal confines of Colorado Springs.

Aaron Wilkerson

While he’s far less likely to be considered a viable option for the rotation early in the season, Wilkerson shouldn’t be forgotten about either. He did see quite a bit less time than Woodruff did, but it’s safe to say he made an impression with his limited opportunity, posting a 3.48 ERA and striking out seven while walking only one in 10.1 innings of work. In fact, Wilkerson is even more impressive in his minor league numbers as well, never jumping above a 3.73 ERA during his entire minor league tenure, never posting a walk rate higher than 3.0 since rookie ball, and never posting a strikeout under 9.0 outside of his short stint in the majors.

It should also be noted that Wilkerson is now slated as one of the first pitchers to begin Cactus League exhibition games on Friday.

Junior Guerra / Yovani Gallardo

Realistically, Gallardo’s return to Milwaukee is more of a feel good story than a reasonable option for the starting rotation, although that hasn’t kept uninformed analysts from pegging him as a number four or five anyway.

In the last two years, Gallardo posted some of the worst numbers of his career including a 1.7 home run rate and a 4.7 walk rate, neither of which will play well upon re-entering the confines of Miller Park, even if his FIP has been marginally better than his consecutive 5.00+ ERAs. He apparently regained a bit of his velocity, but he seems a much more likely candidate for long relief than a starter, even if he happens to make the team (which is not a given.)

Guerra might be a more sensible option, with a stellar 2016 season even if his 2017 numbers and injury pushed him back off his game. In the offseason, Guerra seems to have found himself again, pitching to a 2.98 ERA and 1.18 WHIP while striking out 30 and walking 17 in 48.1 innings of work in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Regardless, it stands to reason that the Brewers have not made any large acquisitions over the moderate addition of Chacin. They have more than enough in-house options with considerably more upside at a much lower price than those yet on the market or those who would still command a fair share of talented prospects in return via trade. Additional benefits surface further when it’s taken into account that the experience for their young pitching staff proves to be much more beneficial in the long view than spending 15-20 times more on someone who will almost inevitably regress in the next few years.

If nothing else, seeing what they have currently on the roster also means they’ll have that much more leverage come the mid-season deadline, should they choose to cut bait and go all-in on a market that is sure to widen once the winners and losers become a much clearer picture around June and July.

So for anyone who follows baseball, and specifically the Brewers, it might be wiser to continue the endless patience that has already been amassed after over 45 years of being an underdog and realizing that the current administration seems to be much more savvy than those of years past. If nearly making the playoffs on the lowest salary in the league with significant further improvement on the horizon isn’t enough evidence that this regime is doing their best to bring a championship to Milwaukee for the first time since the Brewers came back to town, it might be time for you to stop watching baseball.

Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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