Even valuable players need to sit.
The Milwaukee Brewers fell short of a sweep of the Chicago Cubs Wednesday night, but the focus of Brewers social media was on the absence of Christian Yelich from the lineup card. Many on the Brewers bandwagon were convinced that Yelich, who has erupted into a legitimate MVP candidate in the back half of the 2018 campaign, getting a day off in advance of a scheduled off day was essential to the Brewers’ 6-4 loss at the hands of their archrivals.
Yelich did pinch hit in the losing effort, garnering a ninth-inning base knock and bolstering a quite-healthy OPS to .936, good for third in the National League. Having almost cemented his name into the second spot on the lineup card, Yelich’s replacements in the two-hole were Hernan Perez and the newly-acquired Curtis Granderson. They acquitted themselves well, as noted by beat writers on social media: 2-5 with Granderson’s two-run homer. Yet, Yelich’s absence persisted in the minds of many.
I won’t bury the lede more than I already have: the argument that Yelich not starting cost the game is a flawed one. If anything, starting pitching–heralded on this site as an overlooked bright spot this season–is what was most responsible for the loss. Yelich doesn’t pitch, Jhoulys Chacin did; his fourth-inning meltdown (the worst start he’s turned in in over a month) and that inning’s Brewers Keystone Kops routine in the field, both keyed the defeat. Take away those four runs and the complexion of the game changes entirely.
Further, if we know anything about Craig Counsell‘s lineup management, it’s that he is heavily (and, if we’re being fair, almost to a fault) focused on match-ups. After facing lefty starters in Cole Hamels and Mike Montgomery, with Jose Quintana starting, it is understandable and justifiable to start Mike Moustakas ahead of Travis Shaw at third (Moustakas and Quintana having faced each other regularly when they were both in the AL Central, and Shaw’s regression against LHP this season), Jonathan Schoop at second (LH-RH match-up, and Schoop’s notable recent improvement at the plate) and sitting Yelich in favor of Hernan Perez in RF (Perez being the owner of a .874 OPS over the seven games prior). Some of Counsell’s decisions are open to scrutiny: this is not one of them.
Yelich has raked since July 3, slashing .343/.397/.648 with 16 HR. He has also not had a single non-scheduled day off since. He was in the All-Star Game and didn’t have the benefit of a break. He was on track to play as many games as he has the past two seasons, plus likely October baseball. Giving the man an extra day off now, after two-plus months of regular work, with the Brewers having already secured a series victory and a Thursday off, makes all the sense in the world.
Even presuming he’ll stay healthy and play out the remainder of the season, Yelich will have been in at least 146 games this season. It’s not like he isn’t being utilized. Unlike another major professional sport played to the north of Milwaukee, one player does not make or break a team’s aspirations. This isn’t Rodgers to Hundley, and Craig Counsell isn’t Mike McCarthy. (And, for that, we can all be grateful.)
Also, it’s worth considering that Yelich struggled to a .755 OPS last September, .796 the September before that. Like many ballplayers, or athletes in any sport, Yelich shows signs of fatigue toward the end of the season. Only 23 other major leaguers played more games than Yelich did in 2017. The iron man days of baseball are over. If anything, analytics and sabermetrics have underscored the need for clubs to be smarter with player utilization. At some point, the axes of lineup presence and baseball proficiency converge. Players can be overworked. The goal, with a reasonably-secure grasp on a postseason spot and chasing a division title, is to keep these players fresh. This is why we have September roster expansion, why the Brewers went out and got a veteran and playoff-tested Granderson from the Blue Jays. If Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain or Yelich show signs of wear, Counsell has the luxury of using Granderson or Perez or Domingo Santana. And that’s exactly what he did.
Zooming out, there is a bigger picture message here: Counsell is signaling to his team they are good enough to hang with the Chicago Cubs even without Christian Yelich. And, aside from an inning that Yelich couldn’t have factored into, they did just that. The Brewers are strong enough to contend with the best in the National League because they are amongst the best in the National League.
The only people who don’t seem to believe that are Brewers ‘fans’. Brewers faithful, it’s time to believe.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville. Baseball Reference was essential to building this fact-based counterargument.