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Brewers at the Break: Going Up?

The Milwaukee Brewers’ rebuilding project has hit the halfway point—of its first season, that is. Everyone knew it would be no quick fix, and the schedule heading into next week’s all-star break has been especially tough. But the Fairly Detached Obs

Jul. 5, 2016
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Frank: We’re conferring at precisely mid-season, with the Brewers 35-46. Your comment?

Artie: It’s only two games better than last year, but in April I said 70 wins would be a decent season.

F: Until their 1-5 week against the Dodgers and Cardinals they were on pace for my target of mid-70s in wins.

A: Cincinnati will keep the Crew out of last place. But there’s plenty of time for things to get worse.

F: Ah, the confidence of a fan who’s seen four playoff years in four-plus decades. Statistically, in terms of where they rank in the National League they’re quite similar to 2015.

A: Which ain’t saying much after a 68-94 year.

F: Yup, they’re mostly in the bottom third of the 15 teams. But this clubhouse has a revolving door; they’ve used 38 players already, 22 of ’em pitchers.

A: The starters have been, to put it mildly, unpredictable.

F: Two guys expected to anchor the rotation—Taylor Jungmann and Wily Peralta—pitched their way into the minors.

A: And two guys who weren’t on the opening-day roster—Junior Guerra and Zach Davies—have been the most consistent starters for weeks. But Jimmy Nelson hasn’t been very sharp, though he had tough luck Saturday in St. Louis.

F: Chase Anderson was bad for several weeks, then good for a while, then bad again.

A: And Matt Garza only got healthy recently so he could audition for a trade.

F: Among non-pitchers, the face of unpredictability is Domingo Santana.

A: The presumed rightfielder of the future has been present for only 40 games because of injuries.

F: As for the offense, I found one odd combination of stats. Through 81 games the Brewers’ on-base percentage was up almost 20 points from last year, at .326. That was largely because they were doing better in drawing walks—third in the league with 302. But their ranking in run production was down—12th in the NL with 326, compared to ninth in 2015.

A: Gotta have something to do with all their strikeouts.

F: Which have soared from an already high level in 2015. Through 81 games they’d fanned 769 times, the most in the NL. Last season they were 10th in the league with 1,299 K’s.

A: Chris Carter was on pace for 40 homers but also had 103 whiffs in 276 at-bats.

F: And Kirk Nieuwenhuis had 72 K’s in 182 at-bats.

A: More walks and more strikeouts. Seems like a contradiction—or Little League.

F: I guess when they do swing they miss a heck of a lot. But I’ll add this: For years we’ve criticized their all-or-nothing style.

A: The whole “Chicks and Doug Melvin dig the long ball” thing. They don’t manufacture runs well.

F: But that implies the Brewers are different from most teams. In fact they are utterly typical of how the major-league game is played these days.

A: Home runs are up...

F: And strikeouts are way up, to all-time levels. And singles have been dropping in recent years because of defensive shifts, the ever-expanding role of relief pitching...

A: So it’s harder to manufacture runs everywhere in the majors.

F: But the Brewers have some positives. The two wins at home over Washington were tough, tight games, and they prevailed. The Sunday loss to the Nationals was by one run, and it was the same the next night against the Dodgers. Then they pounded L.A., 7-0, behind Guerra, before getting smoked in the series finale.

A: So they were “in” five of six games against two likely playoff teams.

F: And last Sunday in St. Louis they scored four times in the ninth inning and had the tying run on base before losing.

A: They’re not boring and they play hard. And they certainly struck gold with Jonathan Villar.

F: Except for some misadventures on the basepaths.

A: But through 81 games he had 26 stolen bases—tops in the majors—and was tied for the team lead in hits (87) and runs (40).

F: So there’s no need to panic and call up Orlando Arcia, the shortstop of the future, before September.

A: And Aaron Hill has done well at third base—where Villar is likely to wind up. But at age 34, Hill isn’t in the long-range plans.

F: Which raises another issue: Whatever happens this year, it involves a lot of guys who may not stay. Is Carter the long-term answer at first, or Nieuwenhuis in center?

A: And what if they trade Jonathan Lucroy or Ryan Braun? The rest of this month will be very interesting.

F: In a way, this year doesn’t count because they don’t have all the pieces they want.

A: Or hope to have. But just because massive rebuilding worked for the Cubs and Astros, there are no guarantees.

F: Just like any individual season, it’s a game of Chutes and Ladders. You might be thriving and, oops, a major injury or bullpen crisis sends you sliding. But then the starting rotation might jell or a key prospect makes it big, and it’s up the ladder again.

A: Brewers fans are more used to the chutes, but you never know.

 

Trade a Big Name?

F: So how would you feel about trading Lucroy or Braun? GM David Stearns certainly hasn’t declared either of them “untouchable.”

A: If they could get some genuine big-time prospects, it’d be worth it. And there are some contending teams that could certainly use some offense. One of them is the Giants, but with Buster Posey there to catch it would be Braun as the likely target.

F: The Mets, I know, keep getting mentioned as a destination for Lucroy.

A: I sure wouldn’t be happy, though, with Martin Maldonado as the full-time Brewers catcher. He’s hitting all of .153 as we speak.

F: It’s a little weird. In his first full season, 2012, he hit a pretty solid .266 with eight homers in 233 at-bats. But he’s been dismal at the plate since then.

A: Another surprise team that might be a trading partner is Miami.

F: They’re suddenly back in the playoff picture despite an absolutely horrible slump that Giancarlo Stanton went through a few weeks back.

A: And Miami is one of the teams Braun could be traded to without his permission. Remember, he played there in college.

F: And that Biogenesis clinic is no longer around to, um, tempt him.

 

More of the Numbers Game

F: I’ve got a few more details of my statistical analysis through 81 games. The team ERA of 4.53 was a little worse than the 4.28 for all of 2015, with both marks 11th out of 15 NL teams. The team WHIP of 1.44 was 13th in league, compared to 1.36 in 2015, or 11th-best. And in “quality starts”—at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs—the Brewers had just 29, the fewest in the league. Last year they ranked 14th with 63 quality starts.

A: Enough already. I’m convinced the pitching needs help.

F: Unfortunately, another thing that has been consistent with the pitching for years is giving up homers. Through 81 games they’d given up 101, the third-most in the league. By comparison, the Cardinals had given up 71 homers, the second-fewest.

A: Is Braden Looper still hurling for the Crew?

F: Anderson has allowed 17 homers, Nelson and Davies 12 each.

A: Here’s another comparison using one of my favorite stats, run differential. Through 81 games the Brewers were at minus-67, the Cardinals at plus-82.


The Second Half

F: The schedule-makers didn’t do the Brewers any favors with the five series leading up to the break—Washington, the Dodgers, St. Louis, then the Nationals and Cardinals again.

A: What do they have coming out of the break?

F: They start on the road in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

A: The Pirates have been struggling with pitching problems and Andrew McCutcheon hurting.

F: Well, let’s see, they’ve got three, six, nine...12 games against the Reds in the second half. And three, six, nine...fifteen games against the Pirates. Also seven against St. Louis and 14 against the Cubs.

A: So that’s 48 games in the division among the 75 after the break.

F: If the Pirates keep struggling and the Brewers have some hot streaks, there’s a chance for my prediction of third place for Milwaukee.

 

 
And Now for Basketball…

F: Was Thon Maker, the Bucks’ first-round draft pick, on your radar?

A: I had heard of him, but in all the pre-draft stuff I don’t recall seeing or hearing his name come up.

F: And you’re someone who really pays attention.

A: But I remember last fall he got some buzz because of his highlight tape that was circulating on the various websites. Of course it’s all the great moments, but they were great moments.

F: Similar to Giannis, the Bucks’ rising star whose last name I’ll skip to avoid spelling errors?

A: Oh yeah, the kid from Sudan looks a lot like our “Greek Freak”—all that length but real slim, can handle the ball and really fly. His shot isn’t terrible, so it’s not like he can’t shoot at all. It’ll be interesting to see him play in the summer league, although it’s not like a lot of defense is played there.

F: The Bucks are in the process of turning Giannis into the most unique “point forward” in NBA history.

A: And with John Henson and now with Maker, it’s like they’re constructing a whole new kind of team philosophy—these long, fast guys with the big wing spans. How that can be used on defense to swarm all those three-point shooters out there.

F: How about the second-round pick, Malcolm Brogdon from Virginia? I know you must have seen him a lot watching college games.

A: That’s an excellent pick! The ACC player of the year twice, plays defense, just a good basketball player.

F: He has some size at 6-5. Good shooter?

A: I’d say a little better than average. There’s no question he’ll see some good minutes as the season goes on.

F: Giannis will play the point, but not guard the opposing point guy. So how do they do that? And again there’s the name of Michael Carter-Williams, as in where does he fit in...or does he fit in?

A: Well, they picked up a solid guard in Matthew Dellavedova from Cleveland.

F: The guy who gets under the opponents’ skin with his, um, enthusiastic effort?

A: Right. He’s the kind of guy you love if he’s on your team and dislike intensely otherwise. But he brings everything that they’re looking for—a defender, good shooter, court presence and just max-out effort.

F: Meanwhile, Jerryd Bayless got himself a big-money deal with Philadelphia.

A: The Bucks figured as much. Dellavedova is a little younger and made 41% of his three-pointers this past season. With Dellavedova here, it’s certainly worth a try to trade Carter-Williams.

F: Even though Jason Kidd would have to eat some crow, having pushed to get him here in the first place?

A: So what? Kidd has a nice new contract extension to give him piece of mind.

F: What about the other pickup, Mirza Teletovic from Phoenix?

A: I don’t know much about him because I hardly ever saw the Suns play. But he sounds good at 6-9 and just about 40% as a three-point shooter. Reminds me of Ersan Ilyasova.

F: It kind of sounds like the Bucks won’t try to keep Steve Novak, another tall outside shooter who had hardly arrived last spring before he wrecked a knee.

A: Yeah, he has some age and the injury, and doesn’t bring much on defense.

F: How about that other Marquette guy, Dwyane Wade, who scheduled a meeting with the Bucks?

A: A big thing would be how much money he wants. He’s kind of worn down physically over the years, but of course he still can make an impact. And would he accept a role as more of a situational player now? He’s probably using the Bucks as leverage with other teams, but it sure would be exciting if he was here.

F: Any other possible moves for the Bucks?

A: Well, this whole “long and fast” concept raises a big question about Greg Monroe. He put up some numbers as a traditional-type center last year, but compared to Giannis, Henson and now Maker, he slows the team down at both ends of the floor.

F: What’s the alternative?

A: Miles Plumlee, who really came on as a bench guy in the second half, is more in tune with how Kidd wants to play. Plumlee can really run the floor and he’s a good passer. And I sure hate to say that about a Duke guy!

F: Plumlee is a restricted free agent, but if they keep him they might move Monroe? 

A: I’d say so. I don’t know how happy he’d be if they told him his minutes would go down.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek’s rebuilding days are over.

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