It's been a rough go of it so far for the Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff through the season's first three weeks. The club's cumulative 5.71 ERA ranks last in the major leagues. Estimators like FIP (5.45, 29th in the league) and Deserved Run Average (4.45, 25th) don't show that they've been much better than their bottom line results, either. They've allowed the most hard contact of any team in the MLB (35.8%), the third most home runs (31), and walked the fourth most hitters (4.01 BB/9).
According to the metrics, it doesn't look like things will be improving for Milwaukee's current crop of arms anytime soon, either. Last year Jonathan Judge and Baseball Prospectus released the "Contextualized FIP" or cFIP pitching statistic. If you're not familiar with cFIP, here's a brief summary of how it's calculated and what it's used for, taken from the Hardball Times:
Building on the mixed-model approach we developed at Baseball Prospectus for Called Strikes above Average (CSAA), cFIP seeks to provide this missing context. Each underlying event in the FIP equation — be it a home run, strikeout, walk, or hit by pitch — is modeled to adjust for, as appropriate, the effect of the individual batter, catcher and umpire; the stadium; home-field advantage; umpire bias; and the handedness relationship between pitcher and batter present during each individual plate appearance.
cFIP has multiple advantages: (1) it is more predictive than other pitcher estimators, especially in smaller samples; (2) it is calculated on a batter-faced basis, rather than innings pitched; (3) it is park-, league-, and opposition-adjusted; and (4) in a particularly important development, cFIP is equally accurate as a descriptive and predictive statistic.
cFIP is a minus statistic based on a scale where 100 is the league average. Anything above or below 100 would be read as "X percent above/below average."
Over the weekend, our friends over at BP released the first cFIP numbers of the year for all pitchers across the league. Let's take a look at how the Brewers' staff fared and apply some context to their poor start.
Yikes. As a whole, Milwaukee's composite cFIP of 105 ties them with three other teams for 22nd best in baseball. While the Brewers have seven pitchers who are better than league average in terms of ERA-, according to cFIP only two of the 14 hurlers employed by Milwaukee this year have actually performed better than average: relievers Tyler Thornburg and Tyler Cravy (who is currently in AAA Colorado Springs). They are also the team leaders with a 6.0 and 5.0 K/BB ratio, respectively.
Since cFIP is also predictive and useful in small samples, it doesn't bode well for the Brewers that 11 of the 12 pitchers currently on the staff have a mark over 100. Each of the pitchers that are currently in the league's worst starting rotation figure to be between 10 and 25% worse than average going forward. That includes staff leader Jimmy Nelson who has posted a strong 3.46 ERA so far this year, but has struggled with walks (9.4% of batters this year) as well as allowing six home runs.
In the bullpen, Blaine Boyer's team-best 2.16 ERA is due for some major regression according to his 125 cFIP. It certainly doesn't help his case that he's walked more batters (3) than he's struck out (1) in 8.1 innings this season. He could join other struggling veterans like Sam Freeman or Carlos Torres on the next bus out of town as the Brewers may begin look to infuse some younger talent into the relief corps from the minor leagues.
The Brewers have gotten off to a non-terrible start of 8-11 so far in the 2016 season, but their record could plunge a lot lower if their pitching continues to struggle as it has to this point in the year. In the event that Milwaukee's current collection of pitchers live up (or down?) to their lowly projections, we'll most likely see a lot of personnel shuffling as the Brewers cycle through their pitching depth in order to see who will stick at the major league level.
In a rebuilding year, perhaps that may not actually be the worst thing.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs