Brewers Midseason Report Card
We’ve hit the All-Star break, passed the mathematical midpoint of the season last week, and Milwaukee sits at 40-45, 8 games back of division leading Pittsburgh (yeah, I can’t believe I wrote that either) and 6 games back of a wild card spot. Last year at the break the Brewers were 49-43 and in a first place tie with the Cardinals, but were about to embark on a brilliant second half that propelled the team to a division crown. That was a team that wildly exceeded expectations, but had its fair share of first half problems too. As much as this year’s squad? Certainly not. Time to hand down some grades.
Starting Pitching: B+
Not only has this group has overcome injuries to Chris Narveson and Shaun Marcum and a downright bad first half from Randy Wolf, they have met the standard they set last year and become one of the team’s most consistent bright spots. Milwaukee’s starters boast the highest strikeout rate in the MLB, are 11th in all of baseball in WAR, and have the sixth-lowest FIP (explanations of those two stats here and here). Their walk rate and HR/9 are also right in line with the final 2011 figures. They really have weathered the injury/ineffectiveness storm quite well, and given the superb replacement performances of Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada (to a lesser extent) alongside Zack Greinke’s Cy Young-caliber season and Yovani Gallardo’s continued solidity, this rotation has quietly become one of the National League’s better starting staffs. After losing Narveson to rotator cuff surgery and Wolf to CAD (crappy arm disease, which I’m told strikes one in five pitchers), they’ve certainly exceeded my expectations.
Of course, the rotation’s struggles have been so often overshadowed by epic bullpen failure. Perhaps never was this more on display than last Tuesday’s 13-12 extra-inning victory over Miami, when the relief corp blew a staggering 7-run lead. They own 14 blown saves on the year, second-worst in all of baseball, and plenty of folks will remind you that had K-Rod or John Axford not blown a few, this team could be a game out of first. It’s not all those two either: Kameron Loe, Jose Veras, Tim Dillard, and Manny Parra have struggled often and are all a part of the scapegoat carousel. You may be wondering why I didn’t flunk the bullpen and bestowed the lowest passing grade upon them. The answer to that is mismanagement (see ‘coaching’ below) but for all the disasters we’ve seen, I think this group is bound to improve in the second half. Why? 1) Law of averages and 2) their BABIP (explanation) against is .341, by far and away the highest in baseball. Their line drive percentage is also off the charts at 24.5%. These are both so high above the NL averages that they’re unsustainable, and bound to regress. Right?
Jonathan Lucroy was perhaps the team’s second-best run producer when he was injured, and offers solid backstop D. To everyone’s amazement, Martin Maldonado filled Lucroy’s offensive shoes quite well to go along with his highly-touted defensive work in the minors. George Kottaras is now the most interesting piece to this puzzle. Because GK’s status as “Randy Wolf’s Undeserving Personal Catcher” is safer than a Brinks truck, I anticipate a three-catcher roster once Lucroy returns in a few weeks. But Kottaras hasn’t provided much value with the bat since April: though he can still get on base at a high-clip and draw important walks as a PH, his power has all but disappeared (0 HR and just 3 doubles since 4/13). With Maldonado’s emergence as a quality MLB backup, Kottaras makes an interesting case as a trade candidate. Sorry, ladies.
Rickie Weeks’ abysmal start was blown out of proportion a bit. While yes, he did look completely lost at the plate for nearly two months, his timing is back: a few weeks ago the average started to climb (now at .199) and just recently the slugging followed (.343, up 60 points from this time in June). Most think he’s in line for a resurgence, and his numbers in July (.345/.424/.690) seem to agree. Unfortunately he slightly resembles the pre-2009 Rickie defensively, both based on the eye-check and stats (-9.7 UZR). That’s a significant part of what has been pretty poor infield D, which I believe to be a big reason behind all the bullpen struggles. Aramis Ramirez and Cody Ransom are not known for their gloves or range, and Cesar Izturis, who is known for both, has been somewhat error-prone. Thankfully Ramirez has begun his characteristic June wake-up at the plate and is the productive cleanup hitter the Brewers needed. To my surprise, he’s even second in the NL in doubles.
It’s obvious that Corey Hart saved the first base situation. He’s hitting as well as usual, and the increased power he’s flashed so far this year is very palatable at first and the ugly platoon of Ishikawa/Green/Kottaras/Conrad is a distant memory. Hart and Ramirez provide the pop the team was lacking at the infield corners, pop that Travis Ishikawa can’t provide. Speaking of Ishikawa, he’s been poor off the bench: 3 for 19 pinch-hitting with a double and 2 walks. Seems like injuries and lack of better options are the only reasons he remains in Milwaukee at this point.
If only the team could plug someone in at shortstop: the devastating loss of Alex Gonzalez left a huge void that probably won’t be filled. In my opinion, Ransom should start every day if only for the fact that he is not a complete offensive liability like Izturis is. At least Ron Roenicke knows when to pinch hit for Izturis, because he really should never start. And he hasn’t used Izturis as a PH since May 19th, an action for which there is little to no excuse. If it weren’t for the obvious problems at short, this infield would be decently satisfactory.
The NL leader in home runs, Ryan Braun is having an even better season than last year’s MVP campaign, and that’s really all that needs to be said. I can’t understand arguments that he is not a top 5—or even top 3—player in all of baseball. Opposite him, Norichika Aoki is without a doubt the team’s best newcomer. He impressed in limited PAs early in the year allowing Hart to move to first, amidst all the injuries, and allowed Aoki to prove he is a legitimate everyday MLB player. Even better, he’s shown that he’s the Brewers’ most natural lead-off man through his continual ability to work counts and get on base. Though I’m concerned about his arm strength in RF, he absolutely needs to be in the lineup every day from here out. Offensive success depends on it.
I would have granted the outfield an A+ if Nyjer Morgan even slightly resembled the player he was last year. While I don’t think 2011′s Morgan is the real Morgan, he’s done little in 2012 to justify a spot on next year’s team, especially considering Aoki’s ability to play center. With Carlos Gomez even getting the start against righties, T-Plush is becoming a bit redundant. A big second half might not even save him from the Casey McGehee treatment.
I won’t go into a full diatribe about my distaste for bunting and small-ball, since I’m convinced Ron Roenicke will never stop. So here are two more reasons why RRR still has much to learn as a manager: bullpen management. In the first half of 2011, Milwaukee did not have K-Rod or a healthy Takashi Saito to bridge the gap to Ax, so Roenicke turned to Kameron Loe almost always. He completely ignored the sinkerballer’s struggles with lefties, sticking with Loe against the Vottos and Bruces of the league and turning Loe into everyone’s favorite scapegoat. Meanwhile proven set-up man LaTroy Hawkins sat in disuse, pitching only low-leverage innings. Once K-Rod arrived, RR could just plug him into the eighth and go with Loe, Saito, or Hawk in the 7th, and the bullpen was great because really no management was required. This year, Roenicke’s rigid inning roles have failed because he doesn’t have that kind of talent to work with. So instead it’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, bullpen-by-committee where sometimes Parra pitches three days in a row and Dillard sits for a week, Axford is put in after a week of no save opportunities just to get some work (and often throwing 30 pitches doing so), or Veras is left in for multiple batters despite having no semblance of command. Roenicke is known for sticking by his players and supporting them, but in doing so he does more harm than good.
Front Office: B-
Doug Melvin has done a fine job cobbling a decent team together after losing two key everyday players and a starting pitcher. Since losing Gonzalez on May 5th the Brewers have gone 28-30, which isn’t terrible considering the replacement-level talent moved in (worth noting that their Pythagorean record suggests they should have gone 30-28, though). But his actions in the next week or two will have far-reaching effects into this franchise’s future when it comes to trading Zack Greinke and perhaps others. Though I’m not firmly on the “sell” bandwagon yet, I don’t understand Melvin’s deadline approach. He’s told interested teams they will make a buy-or-sell decision after the next two or three series, all against NL Central opponents ahead in the standings. But why bother waiting when even a 7-2 stretch—a long-shot to be sure—would merely get the team back to .500? Greinke’s value is only decreasing the longer he stays in Milwaukee, so now is not the time for inaction. Now is the time for a methodical, organized approach to Greinke. Make one last effort for an extension (and even make some concessions, after all he’s a once-in-a-generation pitcher), and trade if that fails. It’s rather simple; forget the schedule and get cracking now.
Kevan Feyzi blogs on the Brewers for PocketDoppler.com. He led the league in grass-stains and smeared eye-black in 2011. He can be followed on Twitter @fevankeyzi.