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A deep dive into the pitching troubles for the Milwaukee Brewers, part one: loss of personnel

Whether injury or walking away in free agency, there are many missing arms this year.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Six Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

They say pitching wins championships in baseball. Whether that is absolutely true or not can be debated, but there can be no doubt that the Milwaukee Brewers made it to within one game of the World Series in 2018 because they had adequate starting pitching and an amazing bullpen. Unfortunately, the Brewers’ pitching has not been as effective in 2019 as it was in 2018.

The reasons are obviously multifaceted. Much of the fans’ blame goes onto pitching coach, Chris Hook. Overseeing the pitching staff in his first year, the results have not been as strong as those of his predecessor, Derek Johnson, who was enticed away to Cincinnati where he is building a pitching staff that is becoming one of the better staffs in baseball. Derek Johnson is probably one of the best pitching coaches in baseball. However putting all of the blame on Hook is unfair and unwise, especially since it is his first year in the position.

There are a multitude of reasons why the pitching has been less effective this season beyond, “It is the pitching coach’s fault.” As the first part of a three part series, we will examine why. While not an exhaustive examination, these three major areas likely have had a profound impact on pitching performance this season. They include: loss of important personnel, the defense not being as good, and pitcher performance and execution. Today we will look at quite possibly the most obvious of reasons, how the loss of important pitchers, either to free agency or injury, have affected team pitching performance in 2019.

A very important pitcher departs via Free Agency

The most obvious reason for poorer pitching performance overall in Milwaukee is the loss of important pitchers to injuries or free agency. Outside of Jhoulys Chacin, the most important starting pitcher in 2018 was probably Wade Miley. The Brewers picked up the veteran on the cheap in 2018, because, quite frankly, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball the previous couple of seasons. The addition of a cutter and whatever other devil magic the Brewers’ analytics and coaching staffs were able to impart seemed to do the trick for Miley as he performed really well in 2018 pitching to a 2.57 ERA and a 3.59 FIP.

David Stearns has received a great deal of criticism for not bringing Miley back for 2019. According to Stearns, he tried, but other reports call into question just how serious Milwaukee’s efforts to retain Miley were.

Instead of coming back to Milwaukee on an affordable one-year contract, Miley signed an affordable one-year contract with the Houston Astros. The results have been very similar to those he had in Milwaukee, except Houston has had the left-hander for the entire season of consistent and highly effective pitching. So far this season, he has pitched in over 138 innings and posted a 2.99 ERA. In 2018, he pitched just 80.2 innings. Miley would have been a welcome asset for the Brewers in 2019. Alas he made his way to Houston instead.

Injuries ravage the staff in-season

Injuries to pitchers have placed an even bigger burden on this team. The Brewers’ bullpen was its strength in 2018. In 2019, Jeremy Jeffress started the season on the IL. Corey Knebel would have to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season. When you look at what was lost in Knebel, especially in the second half of last season, it is substantial. Knebel pitched to a 3.58 ERA and 3.03 FIP for 2018, did not give up a run in the entire month of September, and he has not been adequately replaced since blowing out his elbow.

Would Knebel repeat what he did in the second half of 2018? He might not have, but he has been an effective shut down reliever for multiple seasons. The likelihood would have been a very effective shut down reliever to pair with Josh Hader. His absence is not just a loss of his spot in the bullpen, but a reverberating effect on the rest of the group. Josh Hader has had to take on more traditional closer duties as a result of Knebel’s loss. He is not being used as much in the high leverage, multi-inning role at any point in the game that he dominated within during 2018. And because the team did not sign or trade for another pitcher of Knebel’s trade record and ability, more pressure was put on the rest of a group of hurlers that, frankly, are not has good as Knebel.

The loss of Brandon Woodruff, Zach Davies, and Jhoulys Chacin have taken their toll, too. Woodruff was coming into his own, and appeared to be on his way to “ace-hood.” Zach Davies was sporting some of the lowest ERA numbers in baseball until his last few starts before going onto the IL (maybe not a coincidence). Jhoulys Chacin, who will get more robust treatment about performance in part 3 of this series, was the best and most consistent starting pitcher for the Brewers in 2018. He has been nowhere near that in 2019. Could injuries have had a role to play in his regression?

Brandon Woodruff was THE starting pitcher the Brewers could rely on in 2019. His loss for at least six weeks threw the rotation into turmoil. Even if the other starters around him were not effective, there was confidence that Woodruff would keep any long losing streaks from happening. Since April 27, Woodruff pitched to a 3.15 ERA. He was striking out over 10 per 9 and giving up 0.79 home runs per 9. Opposing hitters have not been able to barrel him up either as he was over the 90th percentile in exit velocity and hard hit percentage for all of 2019. Hitting 99 mph at points with his fastball, and his wFB pitch value of +22.1 runs since the end of April is exceptional. That is a significant consideration when you take into account wFB pitch values of the Brewers’s pitching staff overall, which I will go into more detail about later on in this series.

The loss of Zach Davies was a big loss as well. As I mentioned, Zach Davies was pitching at very high level for much of the season being one of the best in terms of ERA in MLB for much of the season. Things took a turn for the worse in his last three starts as he pitched to an 11.77 ERA over those three starts. It would not be surprising if Davies was pitching with an injury during that time period. Now he is on the shelf with a back injury in August.

In the middle of a pennant race in August, the Brewers are without their two best and most reliable starting pitchers for a significant time period. They are also without Chacin, who doesn’t appear likely to return before the start of September, either.

Other pitchers have spent time on the IL as well. Losing Gio Gonzalez to the IL after he had pitched so well to stabilize the starting rotation hurt. He is back now, however, and hopefully able to continue being “The Stabilizer” moving forward. Jeremy Jeffress has not been the same pitcher since the later part of 2018. His velocity is down and his split change has just started to come back to effectiveness. He spent the first month of the season on the IL and took time to get back into the swing of things. His performance loss, possibly related to his injury, is almost as painful as the season ending loss of Knebel. The losses due to injury have not just been many, they have been meaningful in the worst sense of the word.

With so many blows to the pitching staff, Chris Hook cannot be blamed unless some philosophy or technique he is advising is causing oblique and back problems. Whether the loss of Wade Miley is the fault of David Stearns or not is open for debate. What we now know, however, is that Stearns did make some sort of attempt to bring him back, as he did Derek Johnson. Sometimes you are just outbid, and Milwaukee cannot and probably will not endanger its future to overpay on contracts for veteran players or even coaches. At least that sort of cut-rate philosophy looks to be the case under the Stearns regime.

Next up in the series, we’ll look at the quality of the defense this season versus last. Stay tuned!

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant