In praise of the unheralded guys starting for the Milwaukee Brewers.
No one is going to mistake them for the 1970 Orioles, the ’97 Braves, ’05 Astros or even their 2011 incarnation. They’re not household names (at least, not outside the borders of Wisconsin.) They were much-maligned heading into 2018, a key reason why Fangraphs crapped all over the Brewers’ 2018 with their projections and, ahem, tepid hot stove analysis.
While the Brewers bullpen is taking Baseball by storm–and understandably so–not a lot of attention is being paid to the guys who get the Crew to the middle innings. You can’t have Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel and company locking games down without the starters. And the starters haven’t dominated; the Brewers haven’t needed them to.
Indeed, you can’t finish if you never start.
The ragtag bunch of Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, Junior Guerra and Brent Suter, with special guest appearances by top prospect Brandon Woodruff, pitching phenom Freddy Peralta and Spring Training sensation Wade Miley have been perfectly adequate for Craig Counsell.
We’re still sunburned from the Memorial Day weekend, but let’s take a look at the five National League leaders and their starters (entering play 5/29, per Baseball Reference):
Chicago Cubs: 1.96 K/BB | .232/.325/.392 | 1.33 WHIP | .275 BAbip | 8.4 K/9 | 268.1 IP
Washington Nationals: 3.73 K/BB | .211/.275/.359 | 1.067 WHIP | .270 BAbip | 9.9 K/9 | 326 IP
Colorado Rockies: 2.54 K/BB | .255/.320/.419 | 1.32 WHIP | .300 BAbip | 8 K/9 | 301 IP
Atlanta Braves: 2.27 K/BB | .246/.326/.394 | 1.35 WHIP | .303 BAbip | 8.8 K/9 | 285 IP
Milwaukee Brewers: 2 K/BB | .240/.320/.416 | 1.30 WHIP | .267 BAbip | 7.2 K/9 | 284 IP
My response is the same as yours probably is: Wait, what? Yep, if you take out the Nationals and their all-universe rotation, the Brewers have pitched their way into early postseason consideration. It’s not just the bullpen and it’s not just the offense: Brewers starters are more than perfectly adequate, they’re getting the job done and keeping pace with their much-more celebrated counterparts at the season’s first turn.
This is all without the work of Brewers ace Jimmy Nelson, who has been relegated to cheerleader status while continuing to recover from a shoulder injury suffered at Wrigley Field during their postseason hunt last season. As effective as the rotation has been, adding Nelson will be as good as a trade, further bolstering David Stearns’ position of strength as summer baseball heats up.
And, to be sure, none of this makes a lot of sense on its face. The rotation is both more effective than many recognize and still has a number of significant question marks. The peripherals are good and yet not good and yet the Brewers have the best record in the National League despite being shut out nine times this season. How is any of this happening? If we’re looking strictly at metrics, we’re not going to find transcendent starters with dominant start after dominant start. We have to zoom out from the metrics and peripherals and look at a more overarching strategy.
To borrow from the immortal Larry Zbyszko, it’s a game of human chess.
The Brewers understood that they weren’t blessed with a Scherzer-Strasburg front end of the rotation, but had good, complementary pieces in place until Nelson returned from injury. Also, bear in mind that Knebel was lost early, so the Brewers had to rely on the bullpen. Instead of having the starters pound the strike zone going for strikeouts, the strategy is to get opposing hitters to hit to contact. This would explain why the woeful defense early on bit the Brewers as hard as it did. Once Counsell knew what he had in his bullpen–and Hader and Jeffress started blowing everyone away–he started utilizing the shorter leash.
Remember, this is a team that lived on bullpen games down the homestretch in 2017 and is considered around the league as being on the bleeding edge of bullpenning on the whole. Whereas a bullpen traditionally tries to get out of jams, induce outs and bridge to a closer, the Brewers starting rotation is acting as a team of middle relievers to get to the bullpen that attacks lineups much in the way a dominant starting rotation would. The Brewers have apparently flipped the script and that strategic change is confounding opposing hitters. The analytics-heavy Brewers front office turned analytics on its head and that, I would argue, has catapulted them to the top of the NL Central.
Starters BAbip: .276 on 67% in play with 78% contact. Further to the point, Brewers starting pitching seldom gets ahead in counts (22.8% of counts get to 0-2.) The relievers–save for Hader due to use–don’t even make the qualifying measurements. They’re playing to their strength and relying on the defense to rack up put-outs. When Nelson returns to the mound, how or if this strategy changes or is tweaked will be something to watch.
It’s the Brewers version of rope-a-dope, and it’s working. It’s time to give some credit to the guys who make the way for the ‘pen.
You can’t finish if you never start.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.