After a fantastic start with multiple one run wins, the Brewers have lost four of their last five games and were victims of a three game sweep by the Los Angeles Angels that did not have the services of Mike Trout for a game and another half game. While their record is still good (8-5), there is cause for concern. While tied for first place in the NL Central with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brewers are -6 in run differential for the year. While not an absolute indicator of team success (the Brewers’ success in close games this year is not about luck, it is about Josh Hader shutting the door, and Alex Claudio and Junior Guerra being effective), run differential generally distinguishes between the good, average, and bad teams. If we look at current record, we see a good team. If we look at run differential, we see a an average to bad team.
Is there reason to be concerned? Not yet! To illustrate why we should not be overly concerned, at this time last year, the Brewers’ run differential was even worse (-15). However if a similar run differential becomes the norm over the course of the season we will become very concerned. As a caveat, run differential is not an “end all, be all” tool, but more often than not, the better teams score more runs at a higher clip than the other teams do. Take a look at the screen shot below coming from TeamRankings.com.
Not one playoff team had a negative run differential in 2018. Colorado was the worst with +25. Seattle is an outlier, because they were a good team, with a good record (89-73), and a negative run differential (-34). They won a lot of one run games in 2018 because they had Edwin Diaz in the bullpen, but were unable to sustain a playoff run.
If Milwaukee continues down the path they are currently on, it is conceivable to think that they end up very much like Seattle did in 2018. Seattle had a good lineup made up of Robinson Cano (at least for part of the season), Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz. They had a suspect starting staff, and they had one great reliever. It kind of sounds familiar. When the game is close, and the Brewers have the lead, Hader, like Diaz, shuts down the competition. This team is too talented not to be in the hunt, but if the pitching continues as is (young pitchers not taking next step, no outside signings, continued poor performances from certain members of the bullpen), I would expect results more like 2017 as opposed to 2018 results.
Right now the Brewers have a team ERA of 5.45, which is #24 in MLB. They are having difficulty preventing runs from scoring. And they are giving up way too many home runs.
One problem is that certain members of the bullpen have failed to keep games close when behind. That is especially so of late. The 2018 bullpen was one of the best in baseball. Unfortunately the Brew Crew lost a lot with the season ending injury to Corey Knebel, the fatigued shoulder of Jeremy Jeffress, and the transfer of Corbin Burnes to the starting rotation. At this point, the bullpen is a shell of itself. Outside of Josh Hader, Junior Guerra, and Alex Claudio, no one else in the bullpen as an ERA below 5.00. Taking away Hader’s innings, the bullpen has pitched 39.1 innings and given up 11 home runs. Granted 7 of the 11 have come off of Chase Anderson and Jacob Barnes. Hopefully the likes of Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Petricka, Josh Fields, and Adrian Houser can help, or some of the other arms can perform better. That is actually what occurred as the bullpen of 2018 evolved from to dominance.
The starting staff has had its woes too. As we all know, the Brewers took a leap of faith and put all three of the young guns (Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, and Corbin Burnes) into the starting rotation. In starts made by the three young guns, the Brewers are 3-4 (Brewers are actually 2-1 when Woodruff starts). In games started by Jhoulys Chacin and Zach Davies, the Brewers are 5-1. The veteran pitchers seem better able to avoid the big inning and/or the home run ball than do Woodruff (the 4th inning against Cubs and the 3rd inning against the Angels game), Peralta (the 1st inning of 2 of 3 games), and Burnes (6 home runs in 2 games). So the question is, should the Brewers reshuffle things, and bring in someone who is more experienced and more stable? We know Woodruff, Peralta, and Burnes are going to have ups and downs. The variance of those ups and downs is the big issue. Maybe the Brewers should bring in Dallas Keuchel?
This isn’t just me suggesting this out of left field. It is actually Jon Morosi coming out of left field.
As we’ve come to understand, reports like these often result in nothing. What it might indicate, however, that the Brewers’ front office is doing what it does best; thinking about how to make the team better. Bringing more stability to the starting rotation and utilizing one or even two (with the potential and hopeful addition of Jimmy Nelson to the rotation) of the young guns in the bullpen might be the best option for 2019. It certainly has to be weighed against giving the three inexperienced hurlers the opportunity to do their growing and developing as starters during a season where there is a legitimate shot of contending for a World Series title. Of course the price and length of contract would have to be palatable to David Stearns and company.
So what do you get from Keuchel that you can’t get from others in the rotation? First, Dallas Keuchel is very used to going deeper into games than anyone else the Brewers could pitch. He has pitched over 200 innings three times since 2014 including last season. Trickle down impact #1 - That takes pressure off the bullpen. Since 2014 his ground ball rate has ranged from 53-67%. Based on other acquisition, it appears the Brewers see something that might amount to a competitive advantage regarding ground ball rate. Keuchel is one of the best in that regard. While he is no longer the Cy Young pitcher he was, he is still good. For 2017 his pitching stats were ERA - 2.90, FIP - 3.79, xFIP - 3.32 and for 2018 were ERA - 3.74, FIP - 3.60, xFIP - 3.84. He doesn’t blow people away, but he knows how to pitch. He would be a significant addition to a very good team.
If, hypothetically, Dallas Keuchel were to join the Brewers’ rotation, I would imagine he would need some time to get ready. If he signed tomorrow, he would likely not pitch until May. That would provide for Woodruff, Peralta, and Burnes to get more development time (another 3-4 starts) as well as more assessment time for the Brewers. At the point Keuchel is ready, he slips into his first start. Trickle down impact #2 - One of the three young guns goes to the bullpen.
With what I’ve seen so far, I would choose Burnes as the most likely to return to the relief corp. His stuff would and has played up in a big way in the pen. He could dominate. Peralta’s problems in the first inning probably keep him out of the bullpen. If his spot in the rotation was taken by someone else, he would likely be sent to San Antonio and remain a starter.
While Peralta had the one amazing, ace-like, performance, Woodruff has been the most consistent of the three to this point in the season. My bet would be that Brandon Woodruff would be the last to leave the rotation. He has a 12.00 K/9. His FIP is 2.49 and xFIP is 3.25. He has a ridiculous BABIP of .385. That is sure to come down. At this point, with a small sample size to count on, I would think that Woodruff is the most prepared to offer consistent results as well as the most likely to break out this season.
If the Brewers were to sign Dallas Keuchel, the starting rotation in May might look like: Keuchel, Jhoulys Chacin, Zach Davies, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta. The bullpen would definitely have Josh Hader, Corbin Burnes, Junior Guerra, Matt Albers, and Alex Claudio. That leaves two bullpen spots for Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Petricka, Josh Fields, Alex Wilson, Adrian Houser, Jacob Barnes, Taylor Williams, and Chase Anderson. If Jeremy Jeffress comes back to form then he definitely gets one of the spots and will likely for a time anyway. One or more of those other gentlemen will emerge to pitch effectively. Petricka, Fields, and Wilson have the track record to suggest it of them. Houser has little track record, but the Brewers love him. Barnes, Williams, and Anderson need to turn things around. Trickle down impact #3 - The Brewers would have tremendous, quality depth in their bullpen.
This season is going to be really fun. The first 13 games have not disappointed in any way. The problem to this point is not scoring runs, it is preventing them. That is likely to remedy itself as the season progresses. Something that might quicken as well as heighten its occurrence would be the addition of Dallas Keuchel. He would likely stabilize the rotation and have a positive trickle down effect upon the bullpen and starting rotation. Dreaming on Corbin Burnes as well as a healthy and effective Jeremy Jeffress in conjunction with Josh Hader allows the rest of the relieve corp to play up in less high leverage situations. The starting rotation becomes just that much more formidable. The position player group will score runs, there is no doubt. Get the pitching right and that -6 run differential is likely to reverse to something more like +100 or +150 or +200 by the end of the year. If that is the case, the rest of the league had better watch out.
Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Team Rankings, ESPN, and Baseball-Reference as of 12 April 2019