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Milwaukee Brewers Midseason Grades: Management

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My subjective view of the Crew and their leaders.

Craig Counsell faces a tough task in the second half for the Brewers to reach 70 wins.
Craig Counsell faces a tough task in the second half for the Brewers to reach 70 wins.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Grading the management of the Brewers is much more difficult than the individual players. I intended on separating game management from team management, but the current situation makes that almost meaningless.

PLAYER MANAGEMENT

I like Craig Counsell as a game manager. He is trying to get the most out of the players that he has, and uses his roster fully. Everybody plays, and everybody plays in "game" situations. Sure, he has his closer, but he hasn’t been afraid to use the non-essential arms in the pen in close late game situations. If players don’t perform in their tasks, they are DFA’d or sent down. This has been true for veterans of the team or newcomers. Of course, that isn’t all on Craig, but he seems to hold people accountable.

He generally manages the pen well. Not much over-work going on here, but when little is expected of your team you have that luxury. Starters get days off; their pitch counts don’t get too high; relievers get breaks, and are rarely left out there to "take one for the team."

There have been comments that they sac bunt too much, and they do rank third in the NL in that stat. Is that hurting the team? Hard to say - it is generally accepted by advanced metrics that sac bunts are less productive than swinging away, but the Brewers bunt less than once every two games, and mostly by pitchers, so I don’t know if that has cost the Brewers many runs, if any.

Intentional walks have also been discussed, more about timing than how many. The Brewers have the sixth most in the NL with 20, but that’s only seven more than the team with the fewest. And 16 less than the team with the most - the Braves have issued 36 so far this year.

I can’t truly judge how well the team buys into his leadership. I think that leadership matters; you can’t win just going on statistical analysis. It is important to be at the forefront of that metric, but getting players to perform at their best requires a strong knowledge of human nature. And the ‘human nature’ of the elite athlete is not the same as the ‘human nature’ of an old guy watching baseball games and talking about them - they are prouder, have always been told how wonderful they are, and are likely to tend towards a ‘me first’ attitude. (Except for the 'always being told how wonderful they are' part, I guess I’m not much different after all.) From afar, it seems like a relatively loose yet committed team. They don’t like losing, and still seem to be fighting for wins.

So if forced, I’d give Craig Counsell a ‘B-’. He has exceeded my expectations to this point, but not by a lot. That’s probably about all you can do. I mean, look at the genius that Joe Maddon was earlier this season, and how stupid he is now.

CLUB MANAGEMENT

If grading player management is hard, grading the David Stearns regime on the club management is nearly impossible.

I am an unabashed fan of how David Stearns is going about rebuilding the Brewers. I also know that none of us will know if the things he is doing are the right things - or more accurately, if they will be successful things. Sometimes you can do the right things and they don’t work; sometimes the wrong things and you look like a great GM.

Stearns has been aggressive in acquiring players in almost every way possible. He has made waiver claims; he has signed free agents; he has made trades; he has entered the International Player market aggressively - at least in quantity; quality to be determined - and rolled the dice on ten kids; he has participated in his first amateur player draft with the organization; he has moved players up and down from the minors. The ‘big’ trades have not happened yet, and there is no guarantee that they will, but it seems just a matter of time. He has already flipped a veteran throw in for two prospects.

But it will be about five years before the results are truly in.

So I thought that I would look at some raw numbers and see if this year’s team is different from past Brewer teams...have the stated goals of the team started to change things, and have the changes been positive. This will give us some parameters to judge where we are going, and is it the right place to be headed for.

Since I feel it will take five years to figure out how Stearns is doing, I looked back five years, and selected several areas in both hitting and pitching to see where the team is headed. I am looking at them in relation to the rest of the National League...that is, I am just giving you the NL rank in each of the categories. A rank of 1 means that team was the best in the NL in that category, so for instance you would rank number 1 if you hit the most home runs and number 1 if you allowed the least. I used the 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2016 seasons to try and get a trend.

HITTING 2011 2013 2015 2016
OPS 2 9 11 10
OB% 5 10 13 9
HR 1 6 9 9
BB 12 15 12 4
SO 3 5 11 15
RUNS 5 8 9 12
SB 12 1 9 1
BABIP 2 9 8 11
WINS 96 (2) 74 (11) 68 (11) 38 (11)
PITCHING 2011 2013 2015 2016
xFIP 3 10 9 14
RUNS 6 9 11 11
HR 8 14 11 13
BB 2 7 12 10
SO 5 14 8 14
WHIP 3 9 11 12

For the purposes of this discussion I will treat 2016 as a full season.

Hitting:

The 2011 team was a good team (both pitching and hitting). They hit for power and scored runs. They had a high BABIP because they hit the ball hard and far. They didn't walk much, but because they didn't strikeout much they had a high OB% and a high OPS. They didn't bother to steal bases.

The 2013, 2015, and 2016 teams all ranked at 11th in wins. In both 13 and 16 they led the league in stolen bases. But we have seen a steady decline in making contact, to the point where the Brewers now strike out more than any other NL team. We have seen a dramatic increase in walks this year, and patience at the plate was preached to the Crew at the start of the season. But it was part and parcel of getting the pitch you want to hit and then driving it.

Whether because it is a new approach for some of the players, or because the players available just aren't good hitters, the team is not hitting the ball often enough or hard enough. They strike out the most, and are only 11th best in BABIP. This is not a formula for success, and the lower OB% despite the jump in walks is concerning. It's the first year of this new approach, and it seems that it is being stressed in the minors as well...a future look at those results will most likely show the same trends.

Of course, all of this might just say they need some better hitters.

Pitching:

First, I used 'runs' instead of 'earned runs' because that means the defense (or lack there of) is figured into the equation. Perhaps these should be titled 'Offense' and 'Defense'.

In any case, this is alarming. The David Stearns era has been left a mess of a pitching staff. The 2011 group was comprised of acquisitions from other organizations with the exception of Yovani Gallardo. All eight remaining pitchers that threw 48 or more innings came from other organizations, and only Chris Narveson and Marco Estrada spent  time in the Brewers minor league system. The staff was a bunch of hired guns to try and get the strong group of hitters to the promised land. It almost worked. But the dismantling of this group has left the pitching staff of 2016 woefully thin.

The Brewers are still relying on pitchers from other organizations to man the staff.  There have been many more failures than successes coming up through the Brewers system on the mound. This must be evident to the front office, and I feel even more strongly now that the team MUST hold out for top pitching prospects in dealing at this break. Whether they are trading Ryan Braun, Jonathon Lucroy, any of the relievers, or even a Jonathan Villar or Junior Guerra, young, live arms need to come back. No success will come until they can have pitching developing in their own system.

And that developmental system needs a total overhaul. My hope is that it is underway already.

(If It Makes You Feel Better Department: The Reds pitchers this year rank last in xFIP, last in runs allowed, last in home runs allowed (and might give up 275 this year!), last in walks allowed, have struck out the 12th most (Silver Lining Award), last in WHIP, last in saves/holds combined, and have hit the most batters. Oh my.)

My judgment: the rebuild isn't as far along as what I had thought. A detailed study of what the pitching is like in the system is complicated by Colorado Springs, but my guess is that the powers that be are working long and hard to start revamping the whole approach and the personnel.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs