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Milwaukee Brewers are succeeding with deep, cheap starting rotation

Everyone was worried about the pitching before the start of the season, and so far it’s what has carried the team.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Arizona Diamondbacks Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Doesn’t it feel like just yesterday that we were quaking with anticipation for baseball’s 2018 Opening Day? Somehow the Milwaukee Brewers completed their 44th game yesterday, meaning that the season is already more than one-quarter of the way complete. Milwaukee entered the year with heightened expectations, and to this point their record has been able to match those hopeful conjectures - the team sits at 26-18 and a season-high eight games over .500. The Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates are perched atop the National League Central entering today’s action, with the St. Louis Cardinals skirting at their heels just one game behind.

The way the Brewers have arrived at this point in the year, however, doesn’t match up at all to preseason expectations. The offense became a bit of an afterthought after the additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich; no one was worried whether or not this team would be able to score enough runs. Back in Spring Training, the conversation around this team focused almost entirely on the pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation. The big question was if the team’s cache of arms would be able to prevent enough runs to consistently win ballgames.

Consider the script flipped. The Brewers have been one of the National League’s worst teams in terms of run-scoring through the season’s first six weeks, averaging just 4.00 runs per game. The offense has been shut out eight times on the year, already matching the team’s total for 162 games in both 2017 and 2016. Beyond Cain, Yelich, Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar, and the currently injured Eric Thames, the other individuals that make up the position-player group have underwhelmed grievously.

The saving grace for the Cream City Nine so far in 2018 has been the pitching staff. The oft-discussed bullpen deserves all the attention that it has been getting, and even missing Corey Knebel for more than a month didn’t slow the group down. Josh Hader has become perhaps the most valuable reliever in baseball, Jeremy Jeffress is having what looks like a career year at age 30, and four other relievers have logged at least 14.0 innings while posting earned run averages of 3.14 or lower. Milwaukee’s 2.60 bullpen ERA and 2.7 fWAR both rank #2 in all of baseball, and the relief corps ranks third overall with 10.12 K/9. I think most people thought the ‘pen would be a strength for this year’s club, but I doubt anyone could’ve envisioned this level of dominance.

What isn’t generating a lot of discussion, however, is the work that Milwaukee’s starting rotation has done to this point. Coming into the year, the rotation was seen as a major weakness by pundits both locally and nationally, especially when factoring in the injury to Jimmy Nelson and the uncertainty surrounding his eventual return. Various rumors connected the team to more than a dozen arms during the course of the offseason, including big names like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, and Chris Archer. But ultimately the team’s biggest outlay for a starter wound up being the two-year, $15.5 mil deal given to veteran righty Jhoulys Chacin. Slingin’ David Stearns and company didn’t identify any other “needle-movers” that in their collective minds, would have justified meeting the asking prices for other available starters, whether in monetary form or in terms of prospect capital.

I was as loud as anyone in advocating for Stearns and company to make a further addition to their starting rotation before the end of the offseason, and was indeed disappointed when nothing significant came to pass. But I didn’t let that color my thoughts on the team’s rotational strategy. Here’s what I wrote in this spring’s starting pitching positional preview:

On the surface, the starting five should have a decent floor and enough depth to get them through 162 games, but appears to be lacking for the type of top-end upside that one typically sees from a playoff-bound team. Stearns and Johnson have developed a strong track record for mining as much value as they can from under-the-radar arms, however, which hopefully is indicative of the org having developed an analytic and scouting strategy for the types of arms they can help to become successful. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to write off the cache of hurlers assembled by Stearns and company.

And I tweeted this a few days into the season:

One-fourth of the way through the regular season, the starting rotation’s performance has been right in line with where I thought they could be at the start of the year. After Brandon Woodruff’s solid performance yesterday, the team ranks right around the middle of the pack - 14th in baseball - with a combined 4.10 ERA from their starters. On a game-by-game basis, Craig Counsell’s “initial out-getters” are averaging a little less than 5.1 innings and giving up 2.36 earned runs per start. The starters have been doing exactly what Counsell needs them to - soak up some innings while keeping the score close, typically facing somewhere between 20-24 batters before turning things over to a deep, talented bullpen with a penchant for putting up zeroes. Here’s how each member of the group has fared individually:

Brewers Starters

Jhoulys Chacin 3 1 10 52 6.23 3.98 0.87 0.259 43.3 % 3.63 91 108
Chase Anderson 3 3 8 45.1 5.96 3.18 1.99 0.21 36.4 % 3.97 99 146
Junior Guerra 3 3 7 38 8.76 4.26 0.71 0.255 42.3 % 3.08 77 93
Brent Suter 1 3 7 35.1 6.11 2.04 1.27 0.317 32.5 % 5.6 140 106
Zach Davies 2 3 6 34 6.62 3.18 1.32 0.26 48.0 % 4.24 106 119
Brandon Woodruff 1 0 3 11.2 7.71 5.4 1.54 0.324 53.8 % 8.49 212 139
Wade Miley 1 0 2 6.1 5.68 5.68 0 0.211 47.4 % 1.42 35 91
Freddy Peralta 1 0 1 5.2 20.65 3.18 0 0.167 50.0 % 0 0 -12

The Brewers pushed back at their perceived lack of upside in the rotation prior to the season by extolling the amount of useful depth they had among their group of starters, and that depth is what has allowed them to be successful so far this season. In addition to Nelson’s injury, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Wade Miley have all spent time on the disabled list already, but the team hasn’t missed a beat. Junior Guerra, who didn’t even make the Opening Day roster, is the club’s ERA leader. Brent Suter and Woodruff have performed admirably in swingmen roles, moving from the bullpen to the rotation (and in Woodruff’s case, back and forth to the minors) as needed with all the maladies that have stricken the other arms. Freddy Peralta, one of the org’s top pitching prospects, dazzled in his record-setting 13 strikeout debut performance and earned himself another start this weekend. So far, Chacin has been the anchor that the club was hoping for when they inked him off the open market in December. And in case more help is needed at some point, top pitching prospect Corbin Burnes is throwing well in Colorado Springs and Aaron Wilkerson just came off the minor league disabled list. Nelson figures to return at some point too, though it sounds like that might not come until perhaps after the All-Star break.

Of all those other pitchers that nearly everyone (myself included) wanted the team to pursue, only Jake Arrieta (2.59 ERA in 41.2 innings for PHI) has really met or exceeded expectations so far. Chris Archer and Yu Darvish are both sporting earned run averages above 5.00, while Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb are sitting in the 7.00’s. Archer would’ve cost an arm and a leg in prospects, while each of the four hurlers from the free agent market are making somewhere between $12-25 mil this season; the eight starters that the Brewers have used to this point, plus the injured Nelson, will make a little over $20 mil this year combined.

The Milwaukee Brewers have the most wins in the National League, and their offense hasn’t even started to fire on all cylinders yet. The team has been carried by an outstanding bullpen that generates a ton of whiffs and a sturdy rotation built around depth. The defense has played a major role, as well; despite ranking 5th in MLB with 30 errors, the Brewers are the #1 team in baseball with +33 Defensive Runs Saved (next closest 26) and are ranked #5 overall with a +7.6 Ultimate Zone Rating. The club’s deft glove work has helped the pitching staff prevent runs at a higher rate than estimators like FIP would otherwise believe. It’s still relatively early in the season, of course, but so far it looks like David Stearns was prescient in sticking with his deep and cheap group of starting pitchers and trusting that his team would be able to prevent runs. Adding another starter for a hopeful run into the postseason no longer feels like a pressing need.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs