For a team that ended up with nearly 90 losses in 2016, there were still plenty of positives that came out of this Milwaukee Brewers season. Yesterday we discussed a few of those important bright spots and how they will affect the direction of the rebuild going forward. However, when you lose as much as our local nine did in 2016, there is bound to be no lack of negatives, as well. Here are three things that went wrong for this year’s club:
Throughout their history the Brewers have generally been an offense-first franchise, but this year the pitching carried the team. The Brewers ranked just tied for 25th in the MLB with 671 runs scored and tied for 11th in the National League with 4.14 runs per game. The lineup was a bit lacking for firepower coming into the year, and it didn’t help matters either that Jonathan Lucroy and Aaron Hill were both traded mid-season and Domingo Santana spent half the year on the disabled list.
Seven Brewers got more than 100 plate appearances while posting less than a 100 wRC+ and too much playing time was given to the struggling Ramon Floreses and Alex Presleys of the world. The club faltered during scoring opportunities, posting an 85 wRC+ (t-28th in MLB) and 24.2% strikeout rate with men on base and an 89 wRC+ (24th in MLB) with a 25.5% strikeout rate when there were runners in scoring position.
The Brewers set the Major League record for most strikeouts as a team this year, but that’s not inherently a bad thing if it’s the result of being selective. Milwaukee paired their high K totals with the league’s 3rd-best walk rate (9.9%). In order for their offense to be successful, however, Milwaukee’s next team will need to be better at putting the bat on the ball when there are scoring opportunities. Some more talented players would obviously help, too.
Jimmy Nelson’s Regression
The pitching staff as a whole was listed as a positive for this year’s club, however the work of Jimmy Nelson simply cannot be viewed in such a light. After adding a curveball to his arsenal and posting a solid season in 2015, many (myself included) were hoping to see Jimmy take that next step this year and become the leader of the starting rotation.
Instead, Nelson saw his strikeout rate plummet while his walk rate and subsequently his earned run average skyrocketed. Jimmy struggled with his release point all season:
(Courtesy of Brooks Baseball)
His first-pitch strike percentage fell a few points this year and as he was consistently falling behind hitters, he relied more and more on his hard pitches while getting away from his offspeed. Jimmy threw his fastball or sinker a combined 71% of the time this year, almost an 11% increase from 2015, while minimizing his slider/curveball combined usage to 28% from 38% last season. Batters have never typically had much trouble against Nelson’s hard stuff, but according to Pitch F/X only Edinson Volquez’s had a worse wSI (weighted sinker runs above average) among qualified pitchers than Jimmy’s -17.4 runs.
Jimmy finished the year with a 4.62 ERA, 7.0 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9 in 179.1 innings pitched. His -17 runs prevented ranked 403rd out of 418 pitching seasons in the National League in 2016. Nelson is a former top prospect with outstanding makeup, but he’ll have to work hard this winter to overcome his mechanical issues and re-establish himself as a big part of this starting rotation going forward, lest he get lost in the shuffle of arms that are already in the upper minors or at the big league level.
A Bad Time to be Bad
The club has been very transparent about their goal of “acquiring, developing, and retaining young, controllable talent” since David Stearns has taken over as GM and the team added little in the way of big-league talent prior to this season, yet still managed to win 73 games. Of all the years to be rebuilding ballclub, however, this may not have been an ideal time for the Brewers to be losers.
Only six of the 15 teams in the National League posted winning records this season, and it only took 87 victories to qualify for a playoff spot. Just one team, the juggernaut Cubs, made the playoffs from the Central Divsion. The standard deviation for wins in a season is 6 victories, meaning an 87 win team could absolutely be a .500 team with a couple things that broke their way.
The team the Brewers put on the field this year could conceivably have won as many as 79 games, but perhaps if the team had held on to someone like Khris Davis rather than moving him last winter before it was entirely necessary, and was a little more aggressive in free agency by signing someone like David Freese, the outlook of the season could have been totally different. Neither of those moves would have set back the rebuilding effort, as Davis still had four years of club control left and could have still been traded for a solid return, and signing Freese to a one-year deal like he eventually found with Pittsburgh wouldn’t have cost a draft pick and he could have been a candidate to be flipped at the deadline if the Brewers were too far out of it.
Milwaukee had the money to spend on personnel upgrades without harming the direction of the team and simply chose not to, and because of it they missed an opportunity to take advantage of a non-competitive National League this season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference