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Underachieving Brewers need more consistent performances across roster in second half

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The team has struggled, but they're still in the thick of the race.

2019 MLB All-Star Game, presented by Mastercard Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Christian Yelich has staved off regression and continued to play like an MVP. Josh Hader shook off some early home run issues and has pitched once again like a reliever-of-the-year candidate. But beyond that, the first half of the 2019 MLB regular season was a mixed bag for the Milwaukee Brewers.

There were a few other strong performances around the roster, of course. Milwaukee had another trio of All-Stars beyond Yelich and Hader, marking only the second time in franchise history (after last season) that five players from the Cream City were named to the Midsummer Classic. Mike Moustakas (25 HR, 125 wRC+) and Yasmani Grandal (19 HR, 130 wRC+) have been worth every penny of the free agent contracts they signed this past offseason. And then there’s Brandon Woodruff, who has been a breakout stud atop the starting rotation (3.67 ERA, 65 FIP-) on the way to getting named to his first All-Star game, replacing Hader when he pulled out with a sore back.

The problem is that outside of that quintet, the team has failed to get consistent performances from most of the rest of the roster. It starts with the unforeseeable cratering of Travis Shaw’s offensive production. Counted on to be the cleanup hitter when the season began, Shaw has since been relegated to the minor leagues after an atrocious .164/.278/.290 slash line in 57 games, making him one of the worst overall hitters in baseball. For much of the first half, Jesus Aguilar was right there with Shaw, slumping so badly that he lost his starting job at first base. Where would this team be without Eric Thames and his 13 homers and 125 wRC+? Thames has gotten the bulk of the playing time at the cold corner against right-handed pitching, though Aguilar’s late flurry before the break may help un-bury him from the bench and earn him more playing time in the second half. The team could certainly use his right-handed power if he’s on his way to getting right with the bat again. Then there’s Lorenzo Cain, who has not hit for average, power, or gotten on-base consistently while batting mostly at leadoff. He’s been dealing with a thumb issue that required cryotherapy, which has hampered his hitting to the point of a .246/.309/.352 line for a 73 wRC+, roughly a 50-point drop-off from last season. At least he still rates as one of the league’s best center fielders.

Ryan Braun this year is about the same as Ryan Braun last year; despite stated efforts to join the launch angle revolution, he remains roughly league-average bat on pace to top 20+ home runs yet again. Orlando Arcia has found his power stroke, mashing 12 dingers so far, but he’s still around the bottom of the league in hitting when it comes to regular shortstops in baseball this season (80 wRC+) and he has lost playing time recently due to degraded defensive play. Rookie Keston Hiura has had his moments during two big league stints so far, but his .257/.318/.475 batting line (104 wRC+) is accompanied by a significant number of strikeouts that could eventually become an issue. Ben Gamel has been solid as a fourth outfielder (87 wRC+), but Manny Pina and Hernan Perez have underwhelmed as bench pieces, with Perez getting the ouster via DFA and an outright to the minor leagues.

The Brewers lead the NL in homers at 155 and are scoring 4.75 runs per game, an improvement over their total from last season. The problem is that seemingly everyone on the Senior Circuit is scoring more this year, meaning that Milwaukee’s runs per game total ranks only ninth-highest in the NL. And unlike last season, this year’s squad has not had the pitching to help overcome the offensive inconsistencies.

Milwaukee’s plan to begin the year with three young, unproven commodities in the starting rotation quickly turned into an unmitigated disaster. Woodruff has been impressive, to be sure, but both Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta struggled mightily and lost hold of their starting spots. The results have been improved for both out of the bullpen, but the starting depth has been significantly shortened because of their difficulties. Zach Davies has so far bounced back to being the dependable starter he was in 2016-17, and Gio Gonzalez looked good in six starts after signing in late April but he has been on the shelf since the end of May and is only just now on a rehab assignment. Chase Anderson has been inconsistent and doesn’t work deep into ballgames and Jhoulys Chacin has regressed greatly after his terrific 2018, turning into the worst command pitcher in baseball this season. The return of Jimmy Nelson was a flop and Adrian Houser has struggled as a starter while looking dominant as a reliever. The Brewers could use an addition in this area, and they’ve already been linked most of the available starting pitchers on the trade market.

If Craig Counsell had the dominant bullpen to lean upon that he possessed in 2018, perhaps the problems in the rotation could be overcome to some degree. But this year’s relief corps has not quite risen to the occasion. What made last year’s ‘pen great down the stretch was the domineering trio of Hader, Corey Knebel, and Jeremy Jeffress, each of whom could be called upon in any situation at any point of the game to get Milwaukee out of a jam. But without Knebel (Tommy John), and with Jeffress not looking the same after getting off to a late start with shoulder weakness, Hader stands alone as the one dominant arm in the bullpen, forcing him into a more prototypical closer’s role. albeit a multi-inning one. Jeffress (118 ERA+), Matt Albers (124 ERA+), Our Hero Junior Guerra (108 ERA+), and Alex Claudio (104 ERA+) have struggled at various points of the year but in general, have turned in above-average work. But one lights-out reliever, a handful of decent guys, and a couple wild-cards in Burnes and Peralta do not a contending bullpen make. As with the rotation, this is an obvious area for improvement.

The Brewers rank fourth from the bottom in the National League allowing 4.93 runs per game. Their initial out-getters are working the fewest innings per start in the league while coughing up a 4.82 ERA, and the bullpen has authored a combined 4.39 ERA — a surprisingly decent 7th-best in the NL — while shouldering the heaviest load on the Senior Circuit. Milwaukee’s 369.0 relief innings are 26.0 more than any other team in the NL.

The club has a -17 run differential on the year and Pythagorean W-L thinks that their 47-44 record at the start of the second half should be more like 44-47. And yet, even with all of these problems, our beloved local nine will begin play just a half-game out of the division lead. We can safely say that this team has underachieved to this point in the year; they have yet to hit that stride where both the offense and the run-prevention unit are firing on all cylinders. We can also safely say that based on the history of Slingin’ David Stearns as head of the organization, the roster that begins tonight’s game against the Giants will not be the same roster that the team deploys down the stretch during the pennant race. Reinforcements from the trade market will be coming sometime in the next two-and-a-half weeks before July 31st.

So who will those additions be? When will the Brewers go on that run where everything clicks in all phases of the game, if they do? Can guys like Moose, Yelich, and Grandal maintain their current level of play, and can the likes of Chacin, Shaw, Aguilar, Jeffress, and others find their previous form? The answers to those questions will begin revealing themselves tonight as the 2019 regular season re-opens after the annual midsummer break.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference