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Brew Crew Ball Mailbag #10: Has Craig Counsell changed his management style?

Answering this week’s questions for the weekly mailbag

Milwaukee Brewers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to this week’s edition of the Brew Crew Ball mailbag!

This week, the Brewers continued what has become a season-long theme: signs of life followed by a frustrating showing.

The Brewers had an encouraging series against tough competition, splitting a four-game set with the Dodgers, and immediately followed it up with a disappointing 8-7 loss against the Cubs. They remain squarely in the hunt for a playoff spot, but they can’t seem to go on a solid run beyond a couple of games.

Potential promotions for Milwaukee’s outfield prospects continue to be a topic of discussion, so we’ll start there with this week’s questions.

Mtcunning3 asks:

What do you think CF should look like for the rest of the year between Taylor/Davis/Ruiz/Frelick?

It’s almost time to promote one of Esteury Ruiz or Sal Frelick and see what they can do. Unlike others, I say that not strictly because of Tyrone Taylor’s production, but because of his profile.

Taylor has continued to flash his raw power this season, but poor plate discipline has put a damper on his season. He has a high chase rate and a 5.5% walk rate, which has produced a ghastly .273 on-base percentage. Perhaps hitting in the bottom third of the order contributes to his over-aggressiveness, but it’s fair to wonder if Taylor’s ball-strike recognition is simply this poor.

Neither Ruiz nor Frelick possesses as much power as Taylor, but they have shown tremendous plate discipline this year. Taylor has a 0.22 BB/K ratio this year. Ruiz and Frelick have ratios of 0.76 and 0.79 in the minor leagues, respectively.

If the Brewers promote one of their outfield prospects, cutting Jonathan Davis and switching to a timeshare arrangement with Taylor up the middle makes the most sense.


Someone asked this last week, but with another week of data, I’ll ask it again: Sal Frelick or Esteury Diaz? Or both after 9/1? And, why haven’t the Brewers called up Jace Cousins yet, given that Jason Alexander is still in the bullpen?

I think Ruiz is still more likely to get the call first, but Frelick’s left-handed bat and immediate success in Triple-A make him a tempting option. If the Brewers promote him, it would probably be because they think he can play a major role right now. Frelick will either be promoted soon to ensure he is eligible for postseason rosters or not at all this season.

Cousins’ numbers in Triple-A look strong, but stuff is more important than results in rehab assignments, and he doesn’t have his A stuff back yet. He has reportedly been sitting in the low-90s after averaging nearly 96 mph with his fastball last year.

The Brewers probably won’t bring Cousins back until he starts to look more like himself. At this point, optioning him to Triple-A after he completes his rehab appears just as likely as a return to the big-league roster.

Duhawk Steve asks:

Who has been the most disappointing position player this year? Willy Adames and his .318 wOBA after a .349 last year and a .335 projection but still leading the team in fWAR (2.8) or Luis Urias and his .317 wOBA after last year’s .340 and a .337 projection putting up only 0.9 fWAR?

Based on my expectations for both players entering the season, Urias has been the greater disappointment.

I anticipated some regression for Adames. He provided a spark with an exceptional 135 wRC+ and .377 wOBA in his Brewers debut, but a 110 DRC+ and .332 xwOBA indicated that he was significantly over-producing based on the quality of his plate appearances. He was going to be closer to a solid hitter than a great one, so a 99 wRC+ is more of a mild letdown than a great disappointment.

Meanwhile, I had high expectations for Urias. Last season, he completely revamped his stance, made dramatically more hard contact, and learned to elevate the ball. This led to a career-best 23 home runs and 111 wRC+. He also emerged as a strong defender at third base after the Adames trade shifted him there on a more permanent basis. Urias racked up 6 Defensive Runs Saved above average in just 508 innings at third, a pace of 14 runs in a full season.

Urias just turned 25 this season, and his youth made me optimistic that he could take another step forward. I hoped he could nudge his offensive output into the 120 wRC+ range and continue his excellent glovework at third, which would make him close to a five-win player.

Instead, he has hovered around league average with the bat while taking a step back with the glove (0 DRS). At this rate, he will barely eclipse 1 WAR on the season. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that a nagging thumb injury has hampered his offense. Still, a four-win difference from my optimistic expectations is tough to swallow.

leche10 asks:

The perception is it seems like Craig’s special powers with his management style has run its course... Is he actually changing the way he manages games and using more conventional decision making than he has in the past? And if he is, are we actually seeing negative outcomes related to that change in decision making? Or is this more just a perception issue and he’s managing well and outcomes are mostly in line with expectations?
If seems like in the past he would have done things differently and found more success but that could just as easily be my own mind cherry picking things to paint that narrative and either he was, and the success was more luck than anything and/or he still is managing the same way and the success just isn’t as notable and it’s getting overlooked

This is a great question. It’s hard to come up with a complete answer because there are only so many publicly-tracked statistics for managerial tendencies, but I’ll do my best.

Different roster construction and new rules in recent seasons have changed how Counsell has managed. In 2018, he masterfully orchestrated a pitching staff with a seemingly underwhelming starting rotation. He was strict about pulling veterans like Jhoulys Chacin or Wade Miley before letting them face the heart of an opposing order a third time because he knew that their stuff wasn’t suited for success deep into games.

Counsell knew that the 2018 team had a deep bullpen, and he did a fantastic job utilizing it. He wasn’t afraid to be unconventional. Counsell refused to designate a specific closer for most of the year. In the playoffs, he used a bullpen game in Game 1 of the NLDS, deployed veteran starter Gio Gonzalez for just two innings to kick off another bullpen game in Game 1 of the NLCS, and pulled the famous Wade Miley gambit just a few days later.

In the last two seasons, Counsell has had the luxury of a strong starting rotation. He also had to adapt to Josh Hader’s wish to be a traditional one-inning closer to boost his save totals and arbitration salary.

The result has been a more traditional management style. In 2018, Brewers starting pitchers faced 665 batters a third and fourth time through the order, the second-lowest total in baseball. They have been middle-of-the-pack in 2021 and 2022. Counsell also largely abandoned his matchup-heavy bullpen management in favor of traditional inning-specific roles late in games.

Meanwhile, the addition of the designated hitter in the National League has diminished his opportunities to manipulate lineups during games with pinch hitters and double switches. Counsell especially excelled at using substitutions in September with a 40-man active roster at his disposal. Significant roster expansion was done away with after the 2019 season, leaving him with fewer toys to play with down the stretch.

The impact of these rule changes is apparent. This season, Counsell is using pinch-hitters at a below-average rate for the first time in his managerial career. He is also using pinch runners at his lowest rate since 2016.

It’s hard to say how it has impacted the team’s win total, but I definitely think the way Counsell uses his roster now differs from in the past.

Dow Jones asks:

Forget the official odds, what is your opinion on the likelihood of the 2022 Milwaukee Brewers making the playoffs?

This team is good enough on paper to make the playoffs, but they haven’t been consistently playing up to their talent level since June. Most of the “official” odds give the Brewers a 50-60% chance of reaching the playoffs. I still think this group is capable of a hot streak, so I’ll be more optimistic and say 70%.

Thanks for your questions, everyone! Per usual, we’ll run it back next Friday.