Hope is a dangerous thing

Wherein the writer examines the remains of the 2019 Milwaukee Brewers.

…[B]ut when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. — 1 Corinthians 13.10-13

Corinth was a weird kind of place. Situated on an isthmus, Greece could not be entirely conquered without taking Corinth out in the process. So it was raided and pillaged and destroyed and rebuilt time and again by succeeding ancient military juggernauts, and as such lacked a clear sense of identity. This ransacking would take place periodically until the 19th century. When the apostle Paul stayed in Corinth around 50 AD/CE, it was a thoroughly Roman city, a major regional trade center with its ports and trade roads and an astroturfed hub of Roman Imperial cult activity.

All the Corinthians knew was the business end of empire-building. It is no real mystery why they would eventually just take on the flavor of whatever tyrant’s banner was flying that week. This also exposed them over the centuries to all sorts of ideas, people, philosophies, religions. The fact that Christianity would find an early home here, Paul notwithstanding, isn’t particularly shocking. And Paul, being Paul, spoke the language of a people who were well-accustomed with being overrun and run over.

What’s left is faith, hope, love: the greatest, love.

Powers come and go, flavors and customs change; what remains are the things that keep us going when nothing else will. What anchors a person when everything fails? Faith, hope, love.

Incidentally, the three as a whole are greater than the sum of its parts: faith without hope or love is rigid and pedantic. Hope without faith or love is a bitter naivete or a life lived in a daydream, Love without faith or hope is impulsive and self-destructive. The three together are powerful; separated they are dangerous.

Hope is a dangerous thing.

At the end of the day September 5, the Milwaukee Brewers were 7.5 games out of first place and looked like the mediocre team their 71-68 record said they were. They were written off by most onlookers and insiders alike. My own faith in their ability to get back to October was deeply shaken, if not lost.

A profoundly mediocre team by raw wins and losses — 14-13 in April, 15-12 in May, 13-13 in June, 12-13 in July, 12-14 in August — the Brewers caught fire in September, taking care of business against contenders and doormats alike. When Christian Yelich went down in a heap with what would be a season-ending fractured kneecap, the Brewers proved they were more than “Yelich and company,” until they started showing the signs of running out of gas against Colorado that ultimately cost them against the would-be World Champion Washington Nationals.

And while it is some kind of backhanded consolation that they would drop the Wild Card Game to the eventual champs, it is yet a bitter pill to realize the Brewers could have not only not had to play in the Wild Card Game, knowing that so many opportunities from April through September slipped through their fingers, knowing that a shot at repeating as NLC champs escaped their grasp. The Chicago Cubs even pitched in, collapsing under the weight of bandwagon fans, a lame-duck manager and critical injuries to Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo. Further, they had the now-champs on the ropes in the Wild Card Game, until a number of flukes broke against them on a fateful October night in the District. A healthy Lorenzo Cain makes that catch; Trent Grisham had acquitted himself well as a major league outfielder prior to misjudging the ball that got by him, so on and so forth.

Baseball, man.

Brandon Woodruff proved to be the ace the team believed he could and needed to be. Naturally, he got hurt and missed half the season. I will not suffer disparaging talk of Corbin Burnes; what happened to him in 2019 was far less indicative of his raw talent than a severe Doomsday Device of bad breaks and mental anguish. Who knows if he ever recovers from getting shelled in his ill-fated debut as a starter? Actual Brewers fans should hope the best for the kid, not merely for selfish, laundry-based reasons but because the kid showed top-tier stuff and his livelihood depends on not succumbing to a brutal case of the yips.

Freddy Peralta showed why he’s most likely a set-up/closer type guy by abandoning pretenses of a third pitch. Chase Anderson flashed signs of promise but ended up beleaguered by an inability to sustain the mechanics that made him a rock in 2017. Zach Davies played a season-long game of craps to a hard-luck 10-7 record and K/9, FIP and WHIP figures more closely tied to a failed season than Davies’ run as the Brewers most consistent starter in 2019. Jhoulys Chacin, conversely, suffered the Opening Day curse and was DFA’d so hard he was starting games for the lost-cause Boston Red Sox in September.

Davies led the team with 159 IP. The patchwork rotation will have to be gutted and rebuilt if the Brewers want to hang and bang with the National League’s best in 2020. Jordan Lyles returned to Milwaukee mid-season and provided a spark. Getting him to return for 2020 might be a stretch, but couldn’t hurt.

Drew Pomeranz was plucked off the scrapheap and reinvented himself as a lights-out reliever. Alex Claudio was both shelled and a stopper. Matt Albers was more bad than good. Brewers pitching as a whole was 10th in home runs allowed (225), which flatters by way of unfair contrast — the 1927 New York Yankees hit a total of 158. To be more fair, the Brewers gave up well over a home run a game: when the run differential is only +3, the mistakes made, glorified tennis balls notwithstanding, are that much more pronounced.

When Josh Hader earned the second-most fWAR of Brewers pitchers while pitching shy of 76 innings and still giving up 1.78 dingers per nine, you knew there were problems. Further underscoring the point, Adrian Houser and Davies tied for third with 1.6.

If there was one reason for Brewers fans to feel hopeless, the pitching woes in 2019 would be it. If there were another, it was the return of the 2017 Brewers offense.

Team A: .246/.329/.438/.767 – 279 2B, 250 HR, 1563 K, 629 BB

Team B: .249/.322/.429/.751 – 267 2B, 224 HR, 1571 K, 547 BB

Team A is the 2019 Brewers. Team B is the 2017 Brewers that came one game short of breaking through to October.

The difference between the ’19 Crew and their ’17 iteration is simple: the 2017 Brewers didn’t have Christian Yelich (and as a team, they still hit marginally better than they did in 2019). While the walk totals are encouraging, the strikeout totals are virtually unchanged, despite the presence of a two-time hitting champion in the lineup (and if there is only a handful of flaws in Yelich’s still-ascendant game, his knowledge of the strike zone could certainly use some next-level improvement). The difference is more simple yet: a single, solitary game.

The Brewers as a team left the most men on base in total and on average of any club in MLB. (Interestingly enough, the 29th ranked team on average was the AL pennant-winning Houston Astros. The Nationals finished just above the bottom third at 19.) Eight of the ten October baseball participants finished the season above average: in descending order, the Brewers, Astros, Braves, Rays, Dodgers, Twins, Nationals and Cardinals. The Athletics finished just under league average (1093).

As an aside, If I’m in the Yankees analytics department, I’m worried by the fact that the club’s numbers are down with the dregs of the league, and I’m further wondering what might have been had the ball not been juiced in 2019. [Paging Dan Federico.]

Men on base tell you one of two things: one, that guys aren’t getting on base in the first place (dreadful clubs like the Blue Jays, the underwhelming Padres and Marlins round out the bottom three with the Yankees just behind them), or two, there were plenty missed opportunities to cash in. Anecdotally, even a casual Brewers onlooker could tell you that Brewers sputtered with runners in scoring position: but the Brewers managed a .237 average as a team, which isn’t necessarily terrible in the National League. Where the real problems arose were with the bases loaded or with two outs:

Bases Loaded

No outs: .232/.281/.378

One out: .306/.316/.484

Two out: .212/.295/.365

Two Outs

Bases empty: .230/.316/.397

Man on first: .274/.346/.450

On second: .232/.422/.419

On third: .200/.341/.347.

Two out, Men on…

First and third: .216/.326/.459

Second and third: .121/.282/.310

Finally, with two out, the Brewers struck out 505 times, roughly a third of their strikeout total for the entire season. When it mattered, or when they needed to apply pressure to opposing pitchers, the Brewers simply failed to put the ball in play. When seeing a nearly flat run differential, and then considering how many times the Brewers were blown out in 2019, these figures are quite telling.

And the Brewers were blown out a lot in 2019: they played 40 games in which the difference in the final score was five or more runs. They finished those games four games under .500 with a -31 run differential, which points to both problems with the offense and pitching. And some of these games were dropped to division rivals and league bottom feeders alike: it’s one thing to get beaten soundly once in a while by the Cubs or Cardinals, or doubled up as they did against the Nationals 16-8 on August 18. It’s another to get boatraced by the Reds 14-6, as they did on July 23.

Or the Giants, 8-3 on July 14, a game that, in person, wasn’t as close as the box score indicates, if you can believe it.

Or the gawd-awful 16-0 drubbing handed to the Brewers by the Marlins on June 4.

This team streaked to 89 wins on the back of an inspired homestretch run, but it couldn’t atone for too many games in which the Brewers simply mailed it in. Struggling out of the gate was to be expected going into 2019: they were handed a brutal April and May schedule. It seems the tone for the season was set at that point, and the Brewers — Craig Counsell‘s manager of the year-level leadership notwithstanding — were unable to change the tempo until it wasn’t an option.

How do we remember this team? As the team that made an improbable, incredible September run that put them in back-to-back Octobers? As the team that was a few extremely bad breaks away from toppling the eventual world champs? Or as a flawed team marked with deficient pitching or clutch hitting?

If the question going into 2019 was whether or not the Brewers felt they left something on the table having come so close to their first National League pennant, there can be no doubt a team with this much talent and tantalizing potential didn’t come close to the expectations set in either the front office or in the grandstands.

And that brings us to David Stearns. With a wave of departed free agents and no viable in-house answers for third base, catcher or the starting rotation, does Mark Attanasio open up the company coffers and let his organization get aggressive in free agency? With a system rife with raw, yet-to-be-developed talent and few, if any, budding prospects, trade options appear limited as well. With a fresh injection of blood money coming soon from a new stadium naming rights deal and the uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement, the Brewers might be in a very unenviable position: hamstrung by forces outside of their control with a currently-open window.

Worst case scenario, the Brewers are pinched as the 1994 Montreal Expos were (they certainly don’t have a Pedro Martinez, and barely a Ken Hill). Thankfully, their stadium isn’t a concrete deathtrap with a broken roof (the Brewers fixed that 15 years ago). And it took the Expos leaving for Montreal fans to truly appreciate what they had (like Wisconsin sports fans with the Packers, the Canadiens are their first love, the Expos are largely taken for granted).

The Brewers aren’t going anywhere, at least not geographically. The problem is that they barely went anywhere this season. So where do they go from here?

Faith without hope or love is rigid and pedantic. Hope without faith or love is a bitter naivete or a life lived in a daydream, Love without faith or hope is impulsive and self-destructive. For the Brewers, there is faith; the Stearns process has worked thus far. And there is love, as evidenced by the 2.9 million fans who turned stiles at Miller Park this year. Now, Stearns and company need to give fans reason to hope.

Even if hope is a dangerous thing.

Stats courtesy baseball-reference.com, unless otherwise linked.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville. 

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