clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

After uneven 2019, Brewers appear to be relying on internal development while rebuilding pitching staff

A strong core group of pitchers was largely thwarted by poor depth.

Miami Marlins v Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee Brewers President of Baseball Ops David Stearns stands in the middle of his first truly testy offseason with the fanbase. Milwaukee fell one game short of a pennant in 2018 and surged to the Wild Card in 2019, but the club has thus far shredded payroll; cut or neglected to re-sign half of their players with 200 plate appearances or more in 2019; traded or neglected to re-sign five of seven pitchers with 10 starts or more; and cut or neglected to re-sign six relievers with 20 innings of more. As of this writing, 14 of the players on the 40-man roster are newly acquired; 19 of the players on the 40-man roster did not appear with last year’s Brewers club.

Needless to say, Stearns is completely remaking the roster, but he arguably has a mandate to do so. An alternate read on the club’s success would note that the Brewers basically were a .500 team at best in 2019. If you use the team’s Run Differential (Runs Scored/Runs Allowed) to analyze the club, the 2019 Brewers would have been expected to finish below .500 after 110 of 162 games. As late as September 5, the Brewers were a 76 win club, with a -43 run differential (649 RS/692 RA). Beyond the MLB roster, the club also maintains one of the worst farm systems in baseball, and recent drafts, International signing periods, and player development trends have not improved the level of impact talent in the pipeline. Even if the Brewers are a club that does not exactly need a rebuild, Stearns had a relatively clear opportunity to remake the club entering 2020.

What is most perplexing about the GM’s offseason moves thus far is the quality of defensive players acquired, and the refusal to keep impact pitchers and rotation mainstays. If Stearns is known for anything as a GM, he ought to be known for his ability to design effective run prevention systems. According to the Baseball Prospectus Defensive Efficiency statistic, the Brewers defensive performance improved each year from 2016 to 2018, when the club peaked as a top five defensive unit; the club was certainly not elite in 2019, but remained a better than average defensive unit. Moreover, the Stearns Runs Prevention machines are often baffling for their lack of wipeout pitchers, instead opting for scrappers like Junior Guerra (2016) and Wade Miley (2018); mid-level breakouts like Chase Anderson (2017), Brandon Woodruff (2019), and Jimmy Nelson (2017); and “soft” pitching profiles like Gio Gonzalez, Zach Davies, and Jhoulys Chacin. Coupled with typically excellent bullpens, the Brewers have recently been known to blend depth of pitching, odd profiles, strong defense, and great relievers to successfully prevent runs from scoring.

Ranking all of the Brewers seasons by basic Runs Prevented, which compares team Runs Allowed to the MLB average Runs Allowed per Innings Pitched, one can see that Stearns’s clubs are consistently among the best in franchise history (which also says a lot about the club’s typical ability to build successful pitching staffs).

Runs Prevented by Brewers Pitching Staff

Best Brewers Pitching Total Runs Prevented 10+ GS Starters Depth SP Bullpen
Best Brewers Pitching Total Runs Prevented 10+ GS Starters Depth SP Bullpen
2008 69 57 11 2
2018 68 23 8 37
1992 64 47 -18 35
2017 58 43 -30 44
1988 53 23 -10 39
2011 51 21 -1 31
2005 46 14 5 27
2019 23 60 -43 5
2000 21 6 -30 44
1997 20 -6 -14 41
2004 20 34 -27 13
1978 11 31 -28 8
1974 9 -23 9 23
1980 9 23 -7 -6
1971 5 13 -14 6
2014 3 -16 13 6
2007 0 -7 11 -4

To help read this table, here are the MLB Expansion Era averages for each category. The typical pitching staff “zeroes out” to average; however, within the typical club, the strongest areas of the pitching staff were core starters (10+ GS) and relievers, with depth starters (1 GS to 9 GS) being the weakest area of the average club.

MLB Average Runs Prevented

MLB Average Typical Staff 10+ GS Starters Depth SP Bullpen
MLB Average Typical Staff 10+ GS Starters Depth SP Bullpen
Expansion Era (1962-present) 0 6 -16 9

By dividing team Runs Prevented totals into categories, it is possible to discern why Stearns decided to completely makeover his pitching staff. Below, consider the club’s regular starting group, which consists of all the arms that made more than 10 starts.

Brewers Rotational Core Runs Prevented

Best Brewers SP 10+ GS Starters
Best Brewers SP 10+ GS Starters
2019 60 (Runs Prevented)
2008 57
1992 47
2017 43
2004 34
1978 31
1988 23
2018 23
1980 23
1979 22
2011 21
2006 15
2005 14
1971 13
2012 13
1991 10
2000 6
1976 3
1994 2
1987 0

If you’re wondering how to read this, using run differential theory, “one win” typically averages a 10 run improvement or so. Thus, if all things were held equal between two teams, adding the 2019 Brewers core starters to one team (60 Runs Prevented) would be expected to improve that team by approximately 6 wins.

The 2019 Brewers pitching core was among the best in franchise history. What is particularly jarring is how quickly Stearns retooled the club. Jordan Lyles (13 runs prevented!), Adrian Houser (11), and Gio Gonzalez (11) were not a part of the opening day rotation. Gonzalez joined the club in late April, while Houser did not regularly start games until late-June, and Lyles was not even with the club until the trade deadline. There are many lessons here, ranging from potential criticisms of Stearns’ inability to construct a workable rotation to open the season, to Stearns’ incredible willingness to quickly move on from failed pitching options and ability to make mundane acquisitions (like Gonzalez and Lyles) shine.

Top Starters by Runs Prevented during David Stearns Era

Best Stearns Era SP Brewers Team Age Runs Prevented
Best Stearns Era SP Brewers Team Age Runs Prevented
Chase Anderson 2017 29 26.8
Junior Guerra 2016 31 21.1
Brandon Woodruff 2019 26 16.8
Jimmy Nelson 2017 28 16.5
Zach Davies 2019 26 13.3
Jhoulys Chacin 2018 30 12.8
Jordan Lyles 2019 28 12.7
Wade Miley 2018 31 12.1
Gio Gonzalez 2019 33 11.2
Adrian Houser 2019 26 11.1
Zach Davies 2017 24 9.9
Brent Suter 2017 27 9.7
Chase Anderson 2019 31 8.1
Chase Anderson 2018 30 7.6

Perhaps the most jarring offseason moves involve the trades of Chase Anderson and Zach Davies, two of the most reliable pitchers on recent Brewers teams, and two of the best starting pitchers in franchise history. Both pitchers have their warts and (sometimes injury-related) performance fluctuations, but they are typically rotation workhorses that exemplify how “mid-rotation arm” can be used in a positive sense. Anderson and Davies were worth 298.7 innings and 21 runs prevented to the 2019 Brewers, ample production that Stearns is simply going to have to find elsewhere for his 2020 team.

If the strange top of the rotation production for the 2019 Brewers provides some lessons for roster construction, the remaining starting pitching group raises significant questions.

Brewers Depth Starters by Runs Prevented

Worst Brewers Depth SP Depth Starters
Worst Brewers Depth SP Depth Starters
1984 -48 (Runs Prevented)
1987 -46
1991 -44
2019 -43
1990 -42
2006 -38
2001 -35
1996 -34
1989 -33
2010 -32
1986 -31
1993 -30
2000 -30
1973 -30
2017 -30
1998 -29
1978 -28
2004 -27
2002 -27
1979 -24

To help read this table, recall the Expansion Era averages posted earlier. If the typical “depth SP” on a team is approximately 16 runs below average, these Brewers depth teams are quite bad.

For as good as the 2019 core were to Milwaukee, their remaining starting pitching group was among the worst in franchise history. Aside from the emergency starts by Drew Pomeranz and Jacob Barnes (-1 Runs Prevented total), the club received terrible performances from homegrown/player development arms like Jimmy Nelson, Freddy Peralta, and Corbin Burnes (-44 Runs Prevented). These performances were particularly difficult to stomach, as Nelson was finally reaching the mound to comeback from his freak shoulder injury; Peralta and Burnes were effective arms for the 2018 contenders; and both Peralta and Burnes demonstrated significant increases in velocity, a player development strategy that has also worked well for Brandon Woodruff.

Frankly, it is difficult to look at the uneven split between homegrown/player development arms like Woodruff, Houser, Nelson, Peralta, and Burnes, and draw valuable conclusions for predicting success in 2020. I have previously profiled Woodruff and Houser, who have underlying pitching statistics that one would expect foretell success. Yet, their scouting profiles also arise from the mid-to-low-rotation mold, and neither pitcher has weathered everyday MLB workloads of a full season starter. The big backward steps for both Burnes and Peralta leave me scratching my head about those intriguing prospects that threw in the low-90s, grabbing workable MLB roles based on fastball deception (Peralta) and a deep pitch mix (Burnes). There is no question that Woodruff, Houser, Peralta, and Burnes will be crucial depth pitchers for the 2020 team, especially as the more dependable workhorses like Anderson (3 seasons of 150+ IP) and Davies (3 seasons of 150+ IP) are gone.

Total Runs Prevented during David Stearns Era

Stearns Summary Runs Prevented 10+ GS SP Depth SP Bullpen
Stearns Summary Runs Prevented 10+ GS SP Depth SP Bullpen
2019 23 60 -43 5
2018 68 23 8 37
2017 58 43 -30 44
2016 -13 -26 -2 15

What may be most concerning about the 2019 Brewers is the bullpen, which as a group prevented only six runs. For reference, the average MLB bullpen during the expansion era (1962-present) prevented approximately nine runs per season; not only were these Milwaukee relievers underwhelming compared to their 2017 and 2018 counterparts, they were an underwhelming relief group according to history. Indeed, they were the worst bullpen of Stearns’s tenure in Milwaukee. The bullpen featured bright spots like Josh Hader (17 Runs Prevented), Junior Guerra (10), Brent Suter (9), and Alex Claudio (5), but unfortunately that was about it; and even that top of the bullpen was quite bad compared to previous pairing. The 2017 bullpen featured Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, and Jared Hughes for 49 Runs Prevented; the 2018 bullpen was even better, with Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader preventing 43 runs on their own. In 2018, the Brewers had the best reliever in the National League (Jeffress); in 2019, there were three relievers that were better than Hader.

Top Brewers Relievers by Runs Prevented, 2016-2018

2016 - 2018 Relievers Brewers Year Age Runs Prevented
2016 - 2018 Relievers Brewers Year Age Runs Prevented
Jeremy Jeffress 2018 30 26.1
Corey Knebel 2017 25 24.7
Josh Hader 2018 24 17.4
Carlos Torres 2016 33 15.3
Tyler Thornburg 2016 27 14.6
Josh Hader 2017 23 13.9
Jared Hughes 2017 31 10.2
Jeremy Jeffress 2016 28 9.4
Corbin Burnes 2018 23 7.9
Anthony Swarzak 2017 31 6.1
Jhan Marinez 2016 27 5.5
Corey Knebel 2018 26 4.5
Jacob Barnes 2016 26 4.4
Rob Scahill 2016 29 4.2
Jorge Lopez 2018 25 3.8

These declines at the top of the bullpen were matched with a lack of depth, and very bad performances at the bottom of the pen. For reference, across 2016, 2017, and 2018, Stearns collected eleven relievers with -3 Runs Prevented or worse, and six of those pitchers appeared during the rebuilding 2016 campaign (Corey Knebel, Ariel Pena, Ben Rowen, Sam Freeman, David Goforth, and Michael Blazek for ~95 innings). In 2017, that group was whittled down to Jhan Marinez (-3) and the ill-fated Neftali Feliz gamble (-8); in 2018, Hernan Perez (LOL), Mike Zagurski (-7), and Matt Albers (-12) were the bottom end of the bullpen (~38 innings). Despite contending aspirations in 2019, the Brewers endured seven rough seasons in the bullpen, comprised of Deolis Guerra (-4), Jeffress (-4), Burch Smith (-4), Aaron Wilkerson (-4), Alex Wilson (-6), Jacob Faria (-7), and Taylor Williams (-9) across ~117 innings.

Given this bullpen performance, it’s interesting to see that Stearns focused so heavily on remaking the rotation. Gone are Anderson, Davies, Gonzalez, Lyles, Chacin, and Nelson; newcomers Brett Anderson, Eric Lauer, and Josh Lindblom might be expected to start. Stearns inexplicably allowed Junior Guerra to walk, which is particularly confusing given the lack of quality performances across the bullpen. Instead, it’s time to dream on successful injury returns from Corey Knebel and Bobby Wahl; and a few depth acquisitions might be expected to appear in relief (J.P. Feyereisen, Angel Perdomo, and Eric Yardley).

What makes the Brewers offseason so intriguing, and perhaps puzzling, is that just as David Stearns is apparently dismantling the defensive quality of his runs prevention machine in the field, his pitching staff will require several internal roster options to step forward into larger roles. Corbin Burnes, Jake Faria, Adrian Houser, and Freddy Peralta could each contend for impact starter or relief roles. It goes without saying that Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff are expected to maintain their top of the staff roles. Ray Black, Deolis Geurra, Devin Williams, and Taylor Williams have a chance to build impact relief roles.

In these recitations, one hears so little room for error, and perhaps the biggest gamble by Stearns during his tenure. Perhaps the lessons of four years of designing and improving those runs prevention machines provided the GM a set of tools to effectively assess internal options. Thus the Brewers stand in the middle of the hot stove banking on player development success more than ever.

Sources

Baseball Prospectus. Pitcher stats with team stints, All years [CSV Download]. Retrieved and downloaded from Baseball Prospectus on December 29, 2019.

Baseball Prospectus. Team Defensive Efficiency. Retrieved December 30, 2019 from https://legacy.baseballprospectus.com/sortable/.

Baseball Reference. Sports Reference, LLC.. Retrieved December 30, 2019. [Specifically, sorting Brewers 2019 Plate Appearances and Innings Pitched, and verifying individual player stats when needed].

Milwaukee Brewers Official Website. Retrieved December 30, 2019. [Specifically, “40-man Roster” and “Transactions” (October through December, 2019)]