Wherein we temper our enthusiasm for the Brewers starting rotation with case-by-case insight
OK, we’re not ashamed of being homers here at BtB, but we’re not blinded by our love for our teams. While the Brewers’ rotation has been ‘perfectly adequate‘ thus far, it is far from being adequately perfect. The sum is greater than its parts, which isn’t to say the Brewers starters are overachieving or otherwise mediocre. Rather, the rotation still shows room for considerable improvement. This is a good team that can still be better and, if the organization and their fans are interested in, say, partying like it’s 1982, this is primarily where that can happen.
[This is a supplemental post to Wednesday’s piece you can read here.]
The Brewers breakout pitching star of 2017, Anderson hasn’t been an outright liability: the Brewers are 7-3 in his ten 2018 starts. He has had as many quality starts (four) as he had the first ten of ’17 and virtually the same OPS (.778, .777). He is not getting the strikeouts, tallying a full 14 fewer than last season.
Anderson’s last four starts have been particularly troubling: an ERA north of seven, 21 hits against 15 Ks, an OPS of .901 and has only reached the six inning mark once. Nevertheless, he’s also turned in some of the most dominant starts for the Brew Crew this season: an Opening Day gem in San Diego, a two-hit masterpiece in crappy weather at Citi Field locking down the Mets and a hard-luck loser after tossing seven dominant innings of one-run ball in Chicago against the Cubs.
Was 2017 a flash in the pan? Did he benefit from being protected in the rotation by Jimmy Nelson? Anderson got almost five innings worth of batters out of his own accord a year ago. Strikeout total alone does not a pitcher make: a .221 BAbip is betrayed by the fact that he has almost given up as many dingers in his first two months (13) as all of 2017 (14) with an unmerciful 6.28 FIP, nearly two full points above ERA.
While Brewers fans were worried about a Nelson-less rotation, few anticipated Davies’ 2018 struggles:
“Zach Everlasting uses a change as his bread-and-butter pitch, but he has routinely struggled controlling that breaking stuff, leading to first-inning struggles, short outings, pitch inefficiency and just plain getting hammered from foul line to foul line. When it’s working, it works really well. When it’s not, he taxes the bullpen.
“. . .To be clear, there is no obvious indication that Davies is concealing structural issues, but when finesse pitchers lose that finesse, it’s typically because there’s something physically wrong. Davies’ future rides on pitching healthy and pitching well in 2018.”
That was yours truly on March 29.
Davies’ struggles are well-documented. Tuesday night, exactly two months after I made that bold prediction, the change-up artist got shelled for five runs in five innings (including a four-run fourth), yielding eight hits (two home runs) and three walks. He settled down after the second, but the fact remains that he put the Brewers behind the eight ball with Brewer-killer Michael Wacha as his counterpart.
Tuesday night was fairly emblematic for Davies’ 2018. In seven starts prior to Tuesday, Davies amassed a 2-5 record with a 1.34 WHIP and five HRs against 27 strikeouts. While he has three quality starts, more troubling is the lack of run support: in the post from March 29, I cited Chris Capuano as another control pitcher whose arm troubles went unaddressed for too long while he got shelled. The other angle there, also, was a criminal lack of run support, forcing Capuano in that too-brief stretch from 2005-’06 when he backdoor cut the National League to death to press. The difference, of course, was that the Brewers offense in those years was anemic compared to the bevy of talent in the clubhouse now.
Change-up pitchers rely on control, as Craig Counsell reminded the press yesterday. Trevor Hoffman developed his change first as a way to keep hitters honest against his positively-unfair fastball, then rode that change to 600 saves. When he lost control of that change–Hoffman ended his career a Brewer and a shadow of his former self–each appearance may have led with Hell’s Bells, but opponents viewed him as a Godsend. Francisco Rodriguez followed the Hoffman template. Former Brewer Matt Wise (yes, he of salad tongs infamy) was, too, a change-up artist, and a good one there for a brief while.
Those guys, amongst others, found their home as bullpen artists. The Brewers don’t need help in the bullpen, and they certainly don’t need a banged-up Zach Davies in the rotation hanging breaking balls fatter than the phantom ones Sam Cassell used to boast after clutch shots down the street at the Bradley Center.
Something has to give.
Chacin’s signing in the offseason left everyone scratching their heads. Sure, there was that electric stuff and the slow starter stuff and the capability to pile up strikeouts stuff, but his first four starts weren’t exactly confidence-inspiring: the strikeouts weren’t there, neither was he in the mid-innings. He seemed to turn things around in start #5: 6 IP, 0 ER, 4 H, 3 BB, 5 K, reeling off five of his last seven starts as effective-to-dominant.
Perhaps there is something to the slow starter bit: in the last month, Chacin’s numbers in May have been markedly improved across the board and he has been the direct beneficiary of the improved Brewers defense (.297 BAbip in April, .237 in May, 4 GIDP.) Further to the point, he has only given up one May home run (at Coors Field.)
Jhoulys Chacin is rounding into the starter the Brewers wanted Anderson to be. Who knew?
[Full disclosure: This is where I admit I was not a Chacin fan after those first four dreadful starts. I stand corrected.]
In a move that was positively from the Doug Melvin golden age, David Stearns found Junior Guerra on the scrapheap about three weeks into his tenure with the Brewers. Guerra returned the favor in good faith, opening eyes with a solid 2016, going 9-3 with a 1.12 WHIP and 43 walks against 100 K.
Guerra’s 2017 was lost on Opening Day, as he never fully recovered from a leg injury suffered out of the batter’s box. The feel-good story seemed to be over before it really began. 2018 started with a cloud, seemingly passed up by Wade Miley for a back-end rotation spot. With Miley injured at the end of camp, Guerra got another shot and hasn’t missed. Through his first nine starts:
2016: 54 1/3 IP, .231/.298/.397, 23 ER, 45 K, 18 BB, 6 HR
2018: 48 1/3 IP, .214/.305/.347, 16 ER, 44 K, 20 BB, 5 HR
Guerra isn’t merely back to his 2016 form; he’s better, which is an unqualified bonus for Counsell any way one chooses to slice it. Wednesday’s performance, a six-inning, seven strikeout, four-hit gem, clinching a series win over the St. Louis Cardinals, lowered his ERA to 2.65 with a 1.12 WHIP. Guerra is back.
The Raptor got a big vote of confidence going into camp this spring with an assurance from Counsell he would be on the Opening Day roster. Shuttled between the rotation and long relief as he was in 2017, Suter has been effective in both roles as a fast worker keeping hitters off-balance and an arsenal of stuff that is neither junk or top shelf. Suter relies on guile and control. It hasn’t always worked (11 HR, OPS against approaching .800), and there’s room for improvement particularly against right-handed hitters (RHB slash: .284/.319/.517) but his FIP and ERA are virtually flat, indicating Suter takes his destiny into his own hands and, to his credit, he holds himself accountable. The attitude and quirky sense of humor make Suter a perfect clubhouse guy and one of the characters on a team full of characters.
Brandon Woodruff is racking up frequent flier miles getting optioned between Colorado Springs and Milwaukee and remains the Brewers top pitching prospect. Working as a spot-starter, Woody has a 1-0 record in three starts (his first win came in long relief on 30 April), but only went five innings once. He has ten strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings, but three HR and 11 ER. To be fair, he got squeezed more than several times by umpires (let’s be real, who hasn’t this season?) and sports a .309 BAbip. Regardless, Woodruff still has great stuff, the ability to get strikeouts (20 K in 19.1 IP) and, tellingly, a 4.31 FIP against a 6.05 ERA.
Woodruff is better than his stats and needs that rotation spot to settle in and develop a rapport with his battery mates. The dilemma is that the Brewers can’t swap someone like Davies out for someone like Woodruff who hasn’t proven his ability to hold his own this season, defensive issues behind him notwithstanding. The justification just isn’t there, leaving Brandon Woodruff (and the Brewers) in a tough spot. He’s better than AAA, but the Brewers are positioning for October and don’t have the luxury of experimenting more than they already are.
Freddy Peralta came up for an extended cup of coffee and in two starts more than held his own. His debut was nothing short of sparkling: 13 K in 5 2/3 IP, no runs, one hit. Whatever newcomer jitters he quelled in that debut jumped out in his follow-up, going four innings, yielding three hits, four runs and six walks. Small sample size aside, the ERA/FIP numbers are solid and his physical frame and delivery call to mind the late Yordano Ventura. The Brewers hope he can develop into a front-end rotation force and have the luxury of letting Peralta continue to develop in Triple-A.
Wade Miley made his long-anticipated debut on 2 May after injuring his oblique at the end of spring camp. He availed himself well, going six strong innings of one-run ball, striking out four and walking three. 18 pitches into his second start, Miley was pulled with another oblique issue. If Miley’s torso gets figured out, he can be an X-factor in the rotation with a good arsenal of pitches featuring a decent fastball and tight curve. Not bad for a guy signed on a minor-league flier.
No, none of these guys are going to get Cy Young votes or end up at the All-Star Game, but they’re getting the job done. Given the Brewers’ record, that can’t be viewed as anything but effective.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.