Brewer Shutouts: Can They Be Stopped?

**This post, first published on my blog, ( seemed appropriate for Brew Crew Ball in the hopes of generating a discussion.**

In order for an airplane to reach a comfortable cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, alot has to go right in a mechanical engineering sense.  An airplane is a well-oiled machine whose separate parts can be programmed for complete synchronization.

A baseball player, on the other hand, is a human being and prone to a much more complex series of obstacles including downward momentum shifts fueled by doubt. In the baseball world, slumps stymie individuals and losing streaks slow down teams. Go and ask the Seattle Mariners who have now lost 12 games in a row. In the Brewer's case, it equates to being shutout 10 times over the first 100 games of a season..

A manager is hired to serve as a sort of puppet master, to pull the rights strings at all the right moments. This requires in part, a deep understanding of his player's patterns and frequencies. This is often understood in the language of statistics. The greater sample of games played, the more revealing the statistics will be as patterns clearly emerge. This goes a long way in determining what a manager does and does not do.

As an example, Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies is currently enjoying his 15th major league season.  He has stepped to the plate 7,197 times including yesterday's game against the Braves.  He's banged out 2,331 hits, good for a .324 career batting average. He's also walked 1240 times and compiled an on base percentage of .423. Helton has produced  Hall of Fame stats. We can deduce from the these numbers a fascinating fact. If he would somehow suffer a slump of such magnitude that for the remainder of this year and into next season,  he went hitless in 500 at bats, he would still at season's end, sport  a .303 career batting average.

Based on Helton's track record, a manager then makes a logical choice; he inserts him in his lineup every day. Or he could have just arrived from Jupiter and witnessed Helton in the batting cage for the first time and declared just the same..."This guy will be my #3 hitter.

The two options provide a glimpse into one of baseball's most colorful debates. A manager can pencil in the same line-up day after day and let the boys play. He has faith that a slumping player will eventually rebound and come September, his numbers will reflect output from previous years. Helton is a no brainer since he has been successful for so long. 

A manager can also be pro-active and follow hunches or instincts. He can react to different situations based on his gut and in doing so, make necessary changes as they arise.

A third option is to carry a laptop providing up to the minute statisitcal analysis as situations unfold. How has pitcher "A" performed in scenarios almost identical to the one staring the manager in the face? Is the sample size large enough to base a  decision on? What about the wind gusts suddenly coming off the lake? What about the stadium they are playing in? It features a short left field fence. What about the opposing batter's recent habit of opening up his right shoulder prior to the pitch crossing home plate? And on and on and on....

Most managers utilize all three options to varying degrees. They combine their own instincts with the latest technological/statistical revelations and ponder the situation at hand. No managerial decision can ever be perfect. They make mistakes. Teams experience rough patches. The Milwaukee Brewers have been shutout 10 times this season. It would be too easy to blame it solely on the road and too simple to chalk it up to human imperfection.

Let's take a closer look at these 10 shutouts and see if a pattern emerges.  Keep in mind the significance of the number 0.  Obviously, a team can't win if they don't score a run and that makes shutouts so glaring and downright depressing.  The Brewers have also lost seven times when they scored only one run, five when scoring two runs, and 10 times with three runs. In other words, the Brewers have lost a total of 32 times when scoring three runs or less. They have been held to three runs or less in 32 per cent of their games in 2011.

This of course fails to include games in which the Crew won with the same amount of runs. Fair enough. They have won with three or fewer runs eight times. But, in six of those wins, they scored three runs.

These numbers lead to a simple conclusion. The Brewers are a  Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde type team that experiences wild fluctuations. This becomes even more evident when you consider that they rank 10th in all of baseball in runs scored with 436 or an average of 4.36 per game. The Brewers are the only team that has played 100 games, so in terms of  runs per game, they fall two spots in the ranking behind the Mets and Indians who have played 98 and 97 games, respectively.

The Brewers actually survived the month of April without being shutout, enduring three losses in which only one run was scored. The first goose egg did not happen until Sunday, May 1st in Houston. Bud Norris and his power fastball struck out 12 and allowed only three hits in seven and a third innings.

Three days later on Wednesday, May 4th, Tim Hudson struck out six, walked one, and allowed one measely hit  in route to a complete game at Turner Field in Atlanta.

Before the Brewers had time to catch their breath, they were shutout again on Friday,  May 6th in St. Louis. Jamie Garcia tossed  a 2-hit, complete game gem in which he walked only one batter. Garcia was the first lefty to shutout the Crew. 

On Tuesday, May 17th, Hiroki Kuroda scattered six hits and two walks over seven and two thirds innings in Los Angeles. Two days later on Thursday, May 19th in San Diego, Aaron Harang and Heath Bell combined for the goose egg despite the Brewers banging out seven hits and walking twice.

Nearly one month later on Monday, June 13, Ryan Dempster and two Cubs relievers skunked the Brewers, allowing only four hits and walking two.

On Thursday, June 30th at New York, former Brewer C.C. Sabathia  became the second lefty to shutout the Brewers allowing six hits and two walks.

Fast forward to Friday, July 15th and the Brewers current road trip. Rookie Juan Nicasio scatterd four hits and walked no one in tossing seven shutout innings.

Last but not least, there was Arizona. On Monday, July 18, Josh Collmenter and his over-the -top, tomahawk change of pace deception  shutout the Brewers on three hits and no walks. Two nights later, former Yankee Ian Kennedy threw seven shutout innings, allowing four hits and two walks.

Of the 10 games, two were against lefties and other than the two games in mid- May when the Brewers left eight and nine runners on base, the opposing pitcher completely controled the tempo. Yet, there doesn't seem to be a trend in terms of pitching styles that handcuff Brewer batters.

The Brewers hard luck pitcher has been Randy Wolfe. He's been on the mound during  four of the droughts. Chris Narveson and Zach Greinke are next in line with three. Ahhh, it's good to be Shawn Marcum and Yovani Gallardo. But then again,the Brewers have scored 6 or more runs in 8 of Narveson's games and 3-5 runs in 10 of Wolfe's games.

The Brewers have been shutout every day during the week except Saturday, an interesting tidbit at best. It's well known that all 10 shutouts have occured on the road. However, the close proximity of their offensive struggles  in terms of dates has maybe been overlooked.

Between April 30 and May 8, the Brewers were held scoreless three times. In addition, in their five other losses during that stretch , they failed to score more than three runs in each game. In three of those losses, they managed only one run. The fourth and fifth shutouts were separated by only one game, a 5-2 win over the Padres. The two lone exceptions to this norm are June 13th and June 30th. Both of these shutouts were preceded and followed by above average offense. The last three shutouts on the current road trip  occured over a brief one week span.

Legendary manager Earl Weaver  followed one simple rule in his time as skipper of the Baltimore Orioles; ride the hot hand. In Weaver's classic book, "Weaver on Strategy," he said, "I don't care if the guy is in his fourth year, his first year, or his fifteenth year. The manager knows it's for the best of the club when he puts a player on the bench.....A manager may look at his stats and see that no one hits this pitcher. Why not try some players who have no stats against him?"(p.58)

Weaver never hesitated to make an unpopular decision. Ron Roenicke strikes me as a very loyal manager, maybe to a fault. He did however, recently tinker with the Brewers batting lineup. He shifted leadoff hitter Rickie Weeks to the five spot, replacing him with Corey Hart. In terms of wins and lossess since the change, the Brewers have done well, splitting two road series. Ironically, Weeks has not been much of a run producer in his new spot. Granted, there have not been too many opportunities due to Braun's injury and Prince Fielder's slow start following the All Star break.

Nonetheless, Roenicke's pro-active approach may have prevented yet another string of losses. Is the apparent road reversal a direct consequence of changing the batting order? It's too small of a sample size to draw a conclusion and anyways, there are far too many nuances to ever really know for sure, but the change can't be denied and is hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

The Brewers are in the heat of a pennant race. They can't afford the same type of prolonged offensive droughts that resulted in eight of the 10 shutouts this season. Intelligent moves will lower the odds of a similar tailspin.

As an example, the run Roenicke run philosophy has certainly helped this year's offense. On many occasions, batters have been thinking double out of the box and wound up in scoring position. But the Brewers aggressive style has also squandered a number of scoring opportunities. Roenicke and the Brewers need to pick better spots in which to be aggressive.

Another area in need of improvement is the bullpen. In terms of availability, there is certainly not a shortage of quality arms. The challenge now becomes when to use specific pitchers. The Brewers bullpen is not the San Diego Padres bullpen. There is no former Brewer named Mike Adams available. Roenicke cannot simply hand over the eighth inning to Kameron Loe anytime the Brewers lead and ditto for K-Rod because both pitchers, under the right circumstances are hittable. Mike Adams, in contrast, is not and therefore, appears in  the 8th inning of every game in which the Padres lead. Padres manager Bud Black may look like a genius, but really, the situation requires very little intelligence. The Brewers bullpen, on the other hand, is begging for situational relievers with closer John Axford being the lone exception. He is the solution to any threat.  

Bullpen aside, sometimes it might be best to leave things alone rather than forcing the issue. As a case in point, why was Narveson removed from Wednesday night's game? In the end, it didn't matter. The Brewers escaped with a victory, but over the course of a pennant race, bad decisions can do a team in. 

A few weeks of intelligent situational decisions and appropriate lineup changes will go a long way in helping the Brewers maintain a level of consistency. They can then cruise a bit more comfortably through the remainder of the season; one hopefully leaning towards postseason play.

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