“According to the analytics, ... our pitchers are going to perform well above replacement level.”
-Mark Attanasio, February 2018
The Milwaukee Brewers have spent this season defying expectations. Pegged as a possible Wild Card contender by the prognosticators and projection systems, the team instead captured a franchise record-tying 96 victories, although it did take 163 tries this time around. The result of that extra regular season contest - a 3-1 triumph over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field - was the title of National League Central champions and an automatic ticket to the NLDS. The Brewers quickly dispatched of the Colorado Rockies by completing a three-game sweep, locking them into a battle with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL pennant.
The Brewers wouldn’t be in this position without the incredible performances of last winter’s major acquisitions, of course. Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich combined to form the most productive outfield duo in club history, and many expect that Yelich will shortly be crowned as the Senior Circuit’s most valuable player because of his superlative performance. But make no mistake about it: the biggest reason that the Brewers are in this position is because of the willingness of manager Craig Counsell and GM David Stearns to defy conventional wisdom in how they deploy their staff of “out-getters.”
Craig Counsell: “It’s no secret that we’re going to use our pitching a little differently than the traditionalists would like.”— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) October 11, 2018
Nationally, the conversation surrounding the Brewers has long centered around the notion that they are perceived as being “a starter short.” Even locally, fans, radio hosts, and writers (like me) advocated for a splashy move like getting a Cobb, Arrieta, Darvish, or Archer. But instead of building a pitching staff in the traditional sense, Stearns and his front office created a pitching philosophy and assembled a “run prevention unit” that delivered baseball’s fourth-best earned run average during the regular season (3.73, tied with Arizona) and has thus far yielded only seven earned runs across 37.0 postseason innings while producing four victories and no losses.
It starts with Milwaukee’s collection of “initial out-getters.” Rather than expend significant capital on one of the perceived “front-line starters,” the Brewers put together a group of inexpensive, interchangeable arms and worked with pitching coach Derek Johnson to highlight their individual strengths.
For roughly the same cost as the $25 mil earned by Jake Arrieta himself this season, the 11 hurlers that started games for the Brewers in 2018 (Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Junior Guerra, Wade Miley, Brent Suter, Freddy Peralta, Zach Davies, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Wilkerson, and Dan Jennings) put together MLB’s 11th-best starting pitcher ERA (3.92).
The Brewers received a steady performance from Chacin, their nominal ace and most costly pitching investment last winter, all year long as he took 35 turns and logged 192.2 innings with a 3.50 earned run average. Chacin highlighted his outstanding slider and added a splitter to his repertoire to keep hitters off-balance. They also got ace-level run prevention from Wade Miley when he was healthy; the crafty left-hander made only 16 starts and pitched 80.2 innings, but he did so with a sparkling 2.57 earned run average. In his case, it was an increased reliance on the cut-fastball that resurrected his career.
Beyond those two, the Brewers shuttled pitchers in and out of the rotation as needed. Junior Guerra was a front-line presence for 17 starts first-half starts - thanks to increased sinker usage and a new curveball - until a forearm injury changed the course of his season. When his ineffectiveness pushed him to the bullpen, Gio Gonzalez was acquired and inserted into the pennant race, and the team won all five of his September starts while an improved changeup helped him produce a 2.13 ERA. Brent Suter ate up quality innings before Tommy John surgery cut his season short, but shortly thereafter Zach Davies was back to full health from shoulder and back ailments and started five games with a 3.91 ERA during the season’s final month. Rookie Freddy Peralta pitched a series of solid starts before the Brewers started to get concerned with his innings total, and Chase Anderson fought through home run problems to make 30 starts with a 3.93 ERA before he too was pulled from the rotation. Woodruff and Wilkerson contributed some spot starts throughout the year, too.
Increased velocity is en vogue around baseball right now, but Milwaukee’s cavalcade of no-name game beginners was one of the softest-tossing groups in baseball. Not surprisingly, they were also at the bottom of the league in whiffs and relied on more of a “pitch-to-contact” approach to induce outs. The earned run estimators aren’t typically fans of that style of pitching, and that was indeed the case with Milwaukee’s staff; their starters had the league’s third-widest gap between their ERA and FIP (0.40 runs) and metrics like FIP (4.32) and DRA (4.77) would normally lead to the conclusion that “this production cannot be sustainable!”
But instead of simply eyeing up the numbers and saying the pitchers are primed for regression, we should instead be asking this question:
“Why have the Brewers been able to beat their peripherals all season long?”
A strategy for the initial out-getters became evident early on in the season. Rather than sticking to the antiquated “let your starter go 100 pitches” philosophy, Craig Counsell focused on the amount of batters faced and times through the order. By now the ‘third time through the order penalty’ is a well-known sabermetric fact - just about every pitcher in baseball sees a dramatic decrease in effectiveness when navigating through a lineup for the third time. But the Brewers were one of the teams that asked the least of their starting pitchers - their group logged only 847.0 innings, the third-lowest amount in the National League. A “starter” only faced a batter for the third time in 659 plate appearances in 2018, according to Sports Illustrated; that was the third-lowest total in baseball this season, and the lowest amount by any team that has ever made the playoffs.
Not only did Stearns and Counsell conspire to avoid over-exposing their cadre of arms to awaiting offenses, they also surrounded the staff with an elite unit of defenders to secure the outs made available by pitching to contact. The Brewers finished second in baseball with +89 Defensive Runs Saved, receiving significant contributions from Cain (+20), Keon Broxton (+11), and Yelich (+4) in the outfield as well as Travis Shaw (+9), Jesus Aguilar (+6), and Orlando Arcia (+3) on the infield dirt. As a group, Milwaukee finished fourth in baseball with a 0.721 Defensive Efficiency Rating (the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs), and their .279 Batting Average on Balls in Play was the second-lowest in the National League. A big part of that is the frequency and effectiveness with which Milwaukee deployed a shift. No NL team shifted more often than the Brewers, and only one such club held opposing batters to lower wOBA than the .281 that Milwaukee’s pitchers allowed when the defense was in the shift.
The pitchers got tons of help from behind the plate, too. Milwaukee ranked sixth in baseball with +13.4 framing runs according to Baseball Prospectus, with both Manny Pina and more specifically Erik Kratz thriving at adding extra strikes where they might not have otherwise been. This was especially useful when command-oriented pitchers like Davies and Miley toed the slab, hurlers who created symbiotic relationships with the strike-stealing Kratz to get the most out of what they bring to the mound.
But while the initial out-getters and outstanding glovemen played major roles in Milwaukee’s run prevention unit, the real star of the show was the relief corps. Unlike the starters, the bullpen was one of the hardest-throwing (93.9 MPH, 7th) groups in the league and missed more bats (27.3% K rate) than any other National League club. Milwaukee’s shut-down ‘pen held opponents to a 3.47 ERA (MLB’s 5th-best), and it wasn’t just the All-Stars - Jeremy Jeffress (1.29 ERA) and Josh Hader (2.43 ERA) - that shouldered the load, either.
Where would this team be without the contributions of rookie sensation and spin-rate darling Corbin Burnes (2.61 ERA)? What of the huge late-season performances delivered by Corey Knebel (16.1 scoreless innings in September), Woodruff (0.73 September ERA), Xavier Cedeno (1.13 September ERA), and Joakim Soria (7 scoreless appearances to finish the season)? Even guys like Dan Jennings (3.23 ERA), Jacob Barnes (3.33 ERA), Taylor Williams (2.65 first-half ERA), and yes, Matt Albers (3.45 first-half ERA) served in integral roles at various points during the season, although none of them have been seen in the postseason.
The common refrain among these pitchers is the versatility to work within multiple roles and the ability to pitch multiple innings. Eight different pitchers recorded at least one save for the Brewers this season, and among the 25 men who saw time on the mound, 15 of them averaged more than one inning per appearance. The fact that Counsell knows he can rely on guys like Hader, Woodruff, Burnes, and even Jeffress (among others) for more than three outs is the reason why he can be as aggressive in pulling his starters as he has been all year long.
The national voices remain skeptical and slow to accept the legitimacy of the run prevention system that has been designed and implemented by our Menomonee Valley Nine this season, even as their out-getters defeated traditional ace Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in last night’s NLCS game one. That’s nothing new for the Milwaukee Brewers though, who have defied convention and expectations all year long. They may not play the brand of baseball “the traditionalists” grew up watching, but their revolutionary pitching strategy has gotten them this far. In the words of Craig Counsell, following his squad’s sweep of the Rockies:
“Damn that pitching staff is good!”
In the words of Craig Counsell...— IKE Brewers (@IKE_Brewers) October 8, 2018
DAMN THAT PITCHING STAFF IS GOOD pic.twitter.com/gh5F61g3E6
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs