There’s only four more days until Opening Day! Even though the Milwaukee Brewers aren’t projected to be competitive, there is still plenty of intrigue surrounding the team. Here are three narratives that I’ll be keeping a close eye on during the 2017 Championship Season:
The Exit Velocity Kings
Two-thirds of the starting outfield to begin the season will be comprised of young sluggers Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana. Both players had stellar stretches of roughly half a season last year, with Broxton batting .242/.354/.430 (109 wRC+) with 9 homers and 23 steals in 75 games and Santana hitting .256/.345/.447 (111 wRC+) with 11 home runs in 77 games. Both players have a penchant for striking out, but when they do make contact, they hit the ball HARD. Both players finished in the top 10 in exit velocity last season and piqued the interest of the folks over at Fangraphs. Domingo Santana was the subject of a piece called “The Brewers’ Potential Breakout Slugger” while Broxton was the topic of a post entitled “How Keon Broxton Looks Like the Brewers’ Best Player.” Both players were among league leaders in the StatCast metric “barrels” as well. If that quality of contact and level of production can carry over to a full season’s worth of at-bats for each player in 2017, the Brewers may very well have already established their “outfield of the future.”
Though he began last season in the minor leagues and off of the 40 man roster, Hernan Perez quickly seized an opportunity to demonstrate that he should be a part of the team going forward. Functioning as a utiltyman, Perez appeared at every position except pitcher and catcher while batting .272/.302/.428 (89 wRC+) with 13 home runs and 34 stolen bases, capturing the hearts of the Milwaukee faithful along the way. Perez figures to function in a similar capacity this year and will begin the season as the primary backup at third base, shortstop, and second base as well as operating as the club’s 5th outfielder.
Perez’s nifty (though still below-average) batting line belies some concerns going forward, however; he sported an elevated .322 BABIP with an essentially league-average hard contact rate (31.9%), swung at 41.2% of pitches out of the strike zone (league average 30.2%), swung and missed at a 13.1% rate (league average 10%), and struck out in 21.9% of his plate appearances while walking just 4.2% of the time. Perez is a terrific baserunner but possesses only average speed, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect him to be able to sustain a high BABIP going forward. Will regression hit Perez like the projection systems seem to think (ZiPS: .693 OPS, Steamer: .678, PECOTA: .656), or can he make some adjustments to his approach and continue to be an integral part of the Brewers’ position player group? We’ll have to see this season.
Junior Guerra’s 2nd Act
The #2016BrewersAce took the league by storm last year, posting a 2.81 ERA with 7.40 K/9, 3.18 BB/9, and a 45.3% ground ball rate in 20 starts during his rookie campaign. This at age 31, after spending the previous 7 years out of affiliated ball pitching in places like Italy, Spain, Venezuela, Mexico, and even Wichita, Kansas. Guerra was only the 4th Brewers’ starter to post a sub-3.00 ERA in over 100 innings this century, speaking to how rare a pitching performance like that has been for us Brewer fans.
David Stearns elected to hang on to his ace despite receiving plenty of reported trade interest last season as well as over the winter and Junior was recently named as Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter. Will he be able to continue having success on the mound, or were his triumphs last season a simple matter of catching lightning in a bottle? The peripheral stats (3.71 FIP, 3.87 DRA) suggest that Guerra should at least be capable of performing at a #3 starter level, and his shifting arsenal and batted ball profile indicate a level of comfort in making adjustments at the game’s highest level and adapting to the best hitters on the planet. Junior Guerra won’t catch anyone by surprise this year, but if he can stay healthy I expect that he will anchor the pitching staff and should be able to post an ERA somewhere in the range 3.40-3.60.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus