2022 was obviously a very disappointing and frustrating season. Fans came into the season with high expectations, after an easy NL Central title. Still, there was a feeling of pessimism, after a disappointing first round exit from the 2021 playoffs. The team did not make any major off season moves but still had what appeared to be an elite pitching staff and were favored to win the division. It turned out not to be that way. The Brewers failed to make the playoffs by a game and a half and lost out on the division by seven games.
As we enter the meat of another off season that has yet to see any substantial changes to the roster, it is helpful to understand what really went wrong in 2022. The narrative throughout last off season was that the Brewers pitching may be enough to carry them to the playoffs, but their offense was likely to let them down. In the end, it was exactly the opposite.
In 2021, the Crew was 3rd in runs allowed and 12th in runs scored.
In 2022 they were 17th in runs allowed and 10th in runs scored.
The offense actually improved its relative standing over their 95 win NL Central title winning team. The pitching, on the other hand, cratered. Why exactly did that happen? Many would look at the Josh Hader trade and think that perhaps the bullpen was the culprit. However, that does not appear to be the case:
The relievers didn't change all that much:
2021 RP: 4.02 ERA (ERA - of 96) with 27 blown saves for a 3.2 WAR
2022 RP: 3.94 ERA (ERA- of 97) with 29 blown saves for a 2.5 WAR
Instead, it was the starting pitchers that led to the downfall:
2021 SP: 3.13 ERA (ERA- of 75) over 847.2 IP for a 20.2 WAR
2022 SP: 3.75 ERA (ERA- of 93) over 849.2 IP for a 12.3 WAR
So why was their pitching so much worse in 2022 than 2021? Two reasons: (1) injury, (2) regression.
This is where a reader might say, "Obviously, those are always the two reasons." The reader would be right. But I think there is something enlightening within these two broad explanations for the struggles of the Brewers rotation.
First, let's look at the injuries. In 2021, the three-headed monster of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta combined to start 85 games and throw 488.2 IP. In 2022 that number fell to 77 starts and 431.2 IP. Additionally, the durability of the backend starters was not the same. In 2021 a total of 7 starts were made by people outside the six-man rotation. In 2022 that number was 16.
If you were to give the 2022 Brewers the same injury luck as the 2021 Brewers, their starting pitching rotation would have gone from 3.75 ERA to 3.68 and the starting pitcher WAR would have gone from 12.5 to 13.2.
Wait, that is not nearly the jump I was expecting. It seems like injury luck didn't have nearly as much to do with it as I thought (at least not in the direct way, there are other ways injuries may have hurt the Crew which I will discuss later).
That leaves the second cause: regression. Every Brewers pitcher got worse from 2022 to 2021:
This is the major culprit. The Brewers went from a five man rotation with everyone posting an ERA- under 80 to only three of the five doing so. At the top, the three headed monster went from a Cerebus
that could only be overcome as the final labor in an epic quest (16.2 fWAR), to Fluffy
a monster, sure, but one that could be bested by simply playing a harp (11.2).
Another main point of regression was in the Brewers sixth starter. Brett Anderson performed admirably in what would end up his final season as a big leaguer (though it appears he has not officially retired). His 101 ERA- and 0.9 fWAR look exceptional compared to Aaron Ashby's 110 and 0.5 last year.
It is interesting to note that while FIP is a better indicator of future performance, all of the pitchers listed above also put up a worse FIP in 2022, with the lone exception being Freddy Peralta who had the biggest inning drop-off (from 140 to 76). Outside of Freddy, only the bad FIPs posted by Adrian Houser and Aaron Ashby point to an ERA that may turn back around.
Using the reverse of the method from part 1 (above):
If the Brewers maintained the 2022 injury luck but had the 2021 level of performance, they would have gone from a 3.75 ERA to 3.17 and a 12.5 fWAR to 19.7.
Comparing the two, you can see that injury luck cost the Brewers about 1 WAR, whereas regression cost the Brewers 7! Some of that regression was to be expected, you don't expect Corbin Burnes to be a 9.1 fWAR pitcher, but to get regression from every spot in the entire pitching staff was certainly disappointing.
Also, as I stated above, some of this regression is intertwined with the injury challenges the Crew faced. In 2021, they were able to go with a six man rotation for nearly all of the season. In 2022, the major injury to Freddy Peralta and untimely injuries to Adrian Houser did not allow them to do so. This may have contributed to some of Corbin Burnes's regression. Furthermore, the stop/start nature of Brandon Woodruff's and Adrian Houser's seasons may have prevented them from performing up to their abilities.
Regardless, for the 2023 Brewers to be successful, they are going to need to have their pitchers look a lot more like 2021 than 2022.