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What went wrong for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019

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Young starters fail, electric dudes not present and accounted for, sluggers don’t slug, and an MVP not available at most important time

Minnesota Twins lose 5-4 to Milwaukee Brewers at Target Field Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images

In a year when the Milwaukee Brewers make the playoffs, the focus should probably be more on what went right than what went wrong. Unfortunately the Brewers had a lot go wrong in 2019. In fact it is a testament to the resiliency of this team that they were able to make their September run and get to the playoffs. With that said, the Brewers were still hindered mightily by what went wrong. The list below is not exhaustive, but it captures those problems, disappointments, and mistakes that intruded upon Milwaukee’s endeavor to win the NL Central and contend for a World Series title.

Burnes and Peralta flounder in the rotation

Corbin Burnes and Fastball Freddy Peralta were a breath of fresh air for the Brew Crew in 2018. Their performances in that year opened the door for them to start the season in the starting rotation. Those samples of strong production as well as their “stuff” gave the front office confidence in going with the two of them as well as Brandon Woodruff while letting Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Lyles move on to other teams.

Giving the young pitchers that chance proved to be the wrong decision in 2019. For whatever reason (not ready mentally, not refined enough, command issues, in need of more development, change in pitching coaches), Burnes and Peralta were atrocious.

Peralta was able to right the ship in the bullpen later in the season, sometimes looking like a lights-out closer. Unfortunately his time in the rotation to begin the year was bad. At least he had the start in Cincinnati early in April where he went eight innings while striking out eleven and not giving up a run. Otherwise he just did not fare well. As a starter in 2019, Fastball Freddy allowed opposing hitters to slash .301/.355/.551 along with a .377 wOBA. He posted a 7.07 ERA allowing nine home runs across 35.2 innings. Compare that to his time as a reliever where hitters slashed just .219/.314/.377 with a .298 wOBA. Peralta is still only 23 and has time to return to the rotation, but might he be of greater service in the ‘pen?

While Peralta found effectiveness in the bullpen, Corbin Burnes struggled throughout the season in both roles. The optimism around Burnes coming into 2019 was palpable as many saw the Brewers’s future ace taking his first step. Unfortunately that first step was one that went right off a cliff and onto the pitching carousel between San Antonio and Milwaukee. As a starter, Corbin Burnes pitched across 17.2 innings. That number is so low because he could not get very far into a game. In those starts he gave up 11 home runs, allowing opposing hitters to slash .380/.437/.848 with a .515 wOBA. While he showed flashes once he started pitching in the bullpen, he was unable to find sustainable success as opposing hitters slashed .301/.359/.489 with a .358 wOBA. At this point, one has to ask whether the early results affected his psyche. If it did, let’s hope he can use 2019 to fuel a better 2020.

Down to one “Electric Dude”

The three relief pitchers that made up the “electric dudes” played a huge role in the 2018 results of the Milwaukee Brewers. Unfortunately in 2019, only Josh Hader approached his 2018 performance level. As everyone in Brewer Nation is aware, Corey Knebel was lost for the year due to Tommy John surgery. Jeremy Jeffress started the season on the injured list and never really returned to his 2018 form. As a result, Milwaukee released him early in September.

The impact was most felt by Josh Hader. Hader was utilized in 2018 as a high leverage out-getter that Craig Counsell inserted into situations where the game was most critical. Hader thrived in those situations. As a result of Knebel’s year-long absence and Jeffress ineffectiveness, the Brewers’ front office and coaching staff felt compelled to use Hader in a more traditional closer role. No one in the Brewers’ organization could pitch as well as Hader did in 2018 in those critical high-leverage situations, but they were able to replace it effectively at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Drew Pomeranz, and in September with the addition of Brent Suter coming back from Tommy John.

Something to think about, if Knebel and Jeffress pitch well in 2019, do they need to get Pomeranz? If they do not have to trade for Pomeranz, is Mauricio Dubon still in the Brewers’ organization? Even if he is not, what might the Brewers’ have gotten to improve the club otherwise? Just questions to ponder.

Sluggers fail to slug

Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar were impact bats and two of the primary run producers outside of Christian Yelich in the Brewers’ lineup in 2018. With the additions of Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal, the Brewers looked like one of the most potent offenses in all of baseball coming into 2019. Shaw and Aguilar did not reprise their run producer roles however. In fact, they were just plain bad.

Travis Shaw slashed .157/.281/.270 in 2019. While he performed well in San Antonio, at no point did he play well at the major league level. His frustration was apparent. While producing at a high level in 2017 (.273/.349/.513 and 31 home runs) and 2018 (.241/.345/.480 and 32 home runs), his 2019 performance held what should have been a vaunted offense back significantly. He was awful enough at the plate that the Brewers’ front office has to question whether they should bring him back, especially at a projected arbitration salary of $4.7 mil.

Jesus Aguilar failed to perform as well, although it might have come as less of a surprise. Aguilar’s first half of 2018 put him on an MVP trajectory. He was unable to keep that performance up in the second half of the year. In 2019 he continued his decline. In a Brewers’ uniform, Aguilar slashed .225/.320/.374 with just eight home runs. With Eric Thames picking up the slack, Craig Counsell had difficulty even finding at-bats for Zeus. David Stearns ultimately decided to trade the big man to the Tampa Bay Rays for Jake Faria.

The Brewers filled the voids created by Shaw and Aguilar in the forms of Keston Hiura and Eric Thames. In fact, Milwaukee might be better in the long run because of it, especially with regards to Hiura. Yet what might have been if those two sluggers had slugged?

The MVP goes down

The most devastating news that could be heard by Brewer Nation was heard in early September. Christian Yelich hit a foul ball off his knee cap and broke it. The fluke injury was the first major injury to occur in the reigning MVP’s career, and it created a universal depression across the fan base. It just so happens that Craigtember would not be denied.

While the Brewers did go on their September run, they did it against competition that was looking to 2020 more than 2019 at the time. Outside of St. Louis, Milwaukee played sub-.500 teams. When they went to Colorado, they faced a context that did not work out well for Milwaukee (bullpens blowing up quite possibly because pitchers’ stuff failed to play up in the Denver air). Christian Yelich may have influenced the outcomes of those games with his bat and presence. It is hard to imagine that he would not have influenced the outcome of the NL Wild Card game against Washington for the very same reasons.

The injury might just keep Yelich from winning his second straight NL MVP award. While his numbers certainly make him MVP worthy, he did not play down the stretch, and many MVP voters, fairly or unfairly, will penalize him for it. Having a two-time MVP in Milwaukee would build the pride of the fan base as well as shine the spotlight on a franchise that is disproportionately ignored by the national media.

The Milwaukee Brewers had a lot more go wrong than what was listed. What might have been if Brandon Woodruff had remained healthy all year probably should be on the list. Orlando Arcia’s continued inability to hit while not performing at an elite level defensively causes real question marks. Lorenzo Cain failed to hit and battled injuries all year long. Josh Hader’s home run woes resulted in losses that were critical. A hit-by-pitch on Victor Robles that should have been called a foul ball started a nightmare inning that ended in a mysterious bounce that allowed a ball to get away from Trent Grisham resulting in the end of the Brewers’ season.

A lot went wrong, but the Brewers faced it as they always have under Craig Counsell — with resilience.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs