30 in 30: Milwaukee Brewers

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Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

by: Ryan Waldis

Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 20th team preview of the series, featuring the Milwaukee Brewers.

Quick Facts

Manager: Craig Counsell (4th season)
2017 Record: 86-76, 2nd in NL Central
Run Differential: 35
Top Position Player: Travis Shaw (3.9 WAR)
Top Pitcher: Chase Anderson (4.2 WAR)

2017 Review

Fun fact: this is the last team preview that features a non-playoff team! After several years of mediocrity following an NLCS appearance in 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers put together a solid campaign in 2017. The team started off well and held the NL Central lead as late as July 25th, remaining in playoff contention until the final days of the season. The offense finished 15th in the league in OPS (.751), while the pitching staff was one of the best in baseball as they posted the 9th-lowest ERA (4.00).

After a 4-3 walk-off victory over the division-leading Cubs on September 23rd, the Brew Crew found themselves just one game out of a Wild Card spot with seven games to play. If you read the first sentence of the 2017 review, you’d know the ending to this story. The Brewers went 4-3 over their final seven games, which unfortunately wasn’t good enough. The Rockies also went 4-3 over the same seven game stretch but, of course, had the one game advantage heading into the final week of the season. The Brewers would end up at home in October for the sixth consecutive season (and the 33rd time in the last 35 years).

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Photo: Justin Berl/Getty Images

Offense

While his performance at the plate wasn’t anything to write home about, backstop Manny Pina was a serviceable option at catcher for Milwaukee. The 30-year-old slashed .279/.327/.424 and contributed nine home runs in 359 plate appearances. Pina had a strikeout rate of 22.0% and a walk rate of 5.6%, ultimately posting a wRC+ of 94. He wasn’t bad behind the dish, either. Pina was 32nd in the league among catchers with a 3.1 adjusted FRAA tied for 39th with 0.7 Framing Runs.

Eric Thames was the talk of the league in his return to the majors. In April, Thames hit to an insane line of .345/.466/.810 while hitting 11 home runs in 84 plate appearances. As expected, Thames experienced regression from May onwards. His OPS over the remaining months of the season was .791, .669, .861, .691, and 1.004. Over the first half of 2017, Thames cranked 23 homers. Over the second half, he hit just eight. In June, July, and August, Thames posted strikeout rates of at least 33.7%. When all was said and done, Thames hit .247/.359/.518 with 31 home runs, a 29.6% strikeout rate and a 13.6% walk rate. He had a -1.2 UZR at first base and a -2.3 UZR in the outfield. Eric was solid in his first MLB action since 2012, if not unspectacular.

Jonathan Villar heavily regressed in 2017 after performing pretty well the year before. The infielder slashed just .241/.293/.372 after hitting .285/.339/.414 in 2016. The former Astro hit 11 home runs and stole 23 bases a season after hitting 19 and swiping 62. The strikeout rate (30.3%) went up by five percent while the walk rate (6.9%) decreased by five percent. Overall Villar posted a wRC+ of 71, which isn’t entirely appealing. He also finished with a -5.5 UZR at the keystone and a -1.0 UZR in the outfield. He provided more questions than answers, which wasn’t what was expected heading into the season.

After a pretty uninspiring rookie campaign, shortstop Orlando Arcia improved in many aspects in 2017. The 23-year-old had a triple-slash of .277/.324/.407, contributing 15 home runs and 14 stolen bases. He cut his strikeout rate (18.2%) by three percent, while posting a similar walk rate of 6.6%. His batted ball profile improved as well—the soft contact rate dropped while the hard contact rate improved, and he hit more line drives while hitting the ball on the ground less. The -2.3 UZR wasn’t intriguing, but Arica provided some reasons for optimism heading into the future.

The WAR leader among the Brewers position players, Travis Shaw broke out in 2017. After two years with the Red Sox, Shaw slashed .273/.349/.513 with 31 home runs, 10 stolen bases, and a career-best wRC+ of 119. The 22.8% strikeout rate represented a career-low, while the 9.9% walk rate was a career-high. The 31 home runs came despite Shaw’s FB% decreasing by seven percent from 2016. To his credit, his hard contact rate increased by four percent, while his soft contact rate decreased by seven percent. His defense (-0.4 UZR) fell off a bit from 2016, but it was still passable.

Former Tiger Hernan Perez racked up over 400 plate appearances for the second consecutive season, hitting .259/.289/.414 while putting up a 78 wRC+. He contributed 14 dingers and swiped 13 bags. His approach at the plate was less than ideal, though—the 17.2% strikeout rate and 4.4% walk rate left a bit to be desired. The biggest accomplishment for Perez was playing every position except catcher in 2017—yes, he even pitched for an inning. A trade from the Indians to the Brewers gave Jesus Aguilar a chance to prove he belonged, and the first baseman made the most of it. In 311 plate appearances, Aguilar hit to a line of .265/.331/.505, clubbing 16 home runs and posting a passable 8.0% walk rate. The 30.2% strikeout rate was obviously a little high, but it’s palatable when you consider Aguilar has the potential to hit over 30 home runs a season while getting on base at a somewhat respectable clip.

Once upon a time, Domingo Santana was an intriguing Phillies prospect who was accidentally traded to the Astros. In 2017, Santana was the best outfielder the Brew Crew sent out on a regular basis. The 25-year-old finished with a wRC+ of 126, slashing .278/.371/.505 with 30 home runs, 15 stolen bases, and a nice 12.0% walk rate. The -3.9 UZR grade in right field was a little rough (as is the strikeout rate which is close to 30 percent most of the time), but the 30/15 potential with the ability to get on base consistently is extremely appealing. Ryan Braun missed some time due to injury as he was only able to appear in 104 contests. In these 104 games, the polarizing Braun amassed 425 plate appearances, hitting .268/.336/.487 with 17 home runs and 12 stolen bases. The lifetime Brewer posted strikeout and walk rates close to his career averages of 18.4% and 8.2%, respectively while finishing with a 0.5 UZR in left field. Finally, Keon Broxton was not very impressive in the playing time he received. In 463 plate appearances, the young outfielder hit just .220/.299/.420 while posting a strikeout rate of 37.8%. He did reach the 20/20 threshold, but his issues in the field combined with his overall woes at the dish made him a pretty unappealing option.

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Photo: Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

Pitching

Somehow, Chase Anderson led the Milwaukee rotation to a top-10 finish in 2017, as the group pitched to a 4.10 ERA. That’s not meant to be a knock on Anderson; rather, it’s just surprising that a back-of-the-rotation arm somehow came out of nowhere after an injury to post an overall ERA of 2.74 (3.58 FIP). He posted a strikeout rate of 23.4% while walking 7.2% of the batters he faced. In 141.1 innings, the former Diamondback let up just 14 home runs. Now, some red flags—the 8.6% HR/FB rate was the lowest that Anderson has ever posted, as normally that percentage is double-digits. The 80.6 LOB% is a bit of a concern given Anderson’s history. Still, Anderson had a nice semi-breakout year, and if nothing else proved that he can be a reliable starter for the Brew Crew.

Speaking about pitchers who broke out, Jimmy Nelson surprised many in 2017. Take a look at these two charts:

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Notice anything in particular? Nelson changed his release point in 2017, and it showed in his results. Whereas before he was simply a passable arm, in 2017 Nelson proved that he can be a focal part of the Brewers rotation for years to come. On the year, he made 29 starts and pitched to an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 3.49/3.05/3.15. Zach Davies was okay but may have gotten a little lucky. Over a team-high 33 starts, Davies tossed 191.1 innings of 3.90 ERA/4.22 FIP ball. He allowed just 20 homers on the year, but the 15.2% strikeout rate and career-high 74.2% LOB is a bit concerning.

The rest of the starters who made double-digit starts weren’t very appealing. Southpaw Brent Suter was the best of the bunch, pitching to a 3.42 ERA and 3.75 FIP in 81.2 innings. However, the fact that the average velo of his fastball is approximately 86 MPH is a pretty big red flag considering his offerings aren’t all that superb. Matt Garza made 22 starts and finished with a 4.94 ERA and 4.91 FIP, while 32-year-old Junior Guerra finished with a FIP (6.58) that was over one run higher than his ERA.

The Milwaukee bullpen also finished in the top 10, placing eighth (along with the Rays) with a 3.83 ERA. They struck out 615 batters while walking 271. In place of a couple of paragraphs, I’ve decided to simply give the stats of notable relievers from the ‘pen in order to make the content easier to digest.

Corey Knebel: 76 appearances, 76 innings, 1.78 ERA/2.53 FIP, 126 strikeouts, 40 walks
Josh Hader (left-hander): 35 appearances, 47.2 innings, 2.08 ERA/3.03 FIP, 68 strikeouts, 22 walks
Anthony Swarzak: 29 appearances, 29 innings, 2.48 ERA/3.40 FIP, 39 strikeouts, 9 walks
Jared Hughes: 67 appearances, 59.2 innings, 3.02 ERA/3.93 FIP, 48 strikeouts, 24 walks
Jacob Barnes: 73 appearances, 72 innings, 4.00 ERA/3.88 FIP, 80 strikeouts, 33 walks
Oliver Drake: 61 appearances, 52.2 innings, 4.44 ERA/3.65 FIP, 59 strikeouts, 22 walks

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Photo: Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Offseason Recap

The Brewers had a pretty quiet offseason up until late January, when they made a big trade and a big free agent signing. They acquired Christian Yelich from the Marlins in exchange for Isan Diaz, Monte Harrison, Jordan Yamamoto, and Lewis Brinson. In an attempt to really revamp the outfield, they also signed former Royal Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract. Both players will be counted on to not only strengthen a lineup that was middle-of-the-pack in 2017 but also continue to provide plus-defense.

The biggest loss was Brinson, an outfielder who might end up winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award this upcoming season. A 1st round pick in the 2012 Draft, Brinson had the potential to become a focal part of the Brewers core for years to come. Instead, he’ll find himself on a much worse Miami squad in 2018 and beyond, hoping to prove the same.

All Additions: Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Michael Brady, Erik Davis, Jhoulys Chacin, Yovani Gallardo, J.J. Hoover, Boone Logan, Ji-Man Choi, Ernesto Frieri, Matt Albers, Nick Franklin, Wade Miley

All Departures: Lewis Brinson, Michael Blazek, David Goforth, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Anthony Swarzak, Neil Walker, Carlos Torres, Jared Hughes, Taylor Jungmann, Wei-Chung Wang, Andrew Susac

2018 Outlook

Best Case: On the back of a very formidable offense, the Brewers enjoy a heck of a season. While Manny Pina might not be incredible at the dish, the rest of the offense sure is. The outfield of Yelich, Cain, and Braun/Santana proves to be one of the best in baseball, while Villar and Arcia form an enviable middle infield duo. The corner outfield combo of Thames and Shaw impresses once again, and the offense is a top-seven unit. The pitching rotation is able to perform adequately until Nelson gets back, at which point they take their performance up a notch. The top three of Nelson, Anderson, and Davies won’t strike fear into many times, but they prove to be reliable. The bullpen is solid once again, and the Brewers win close to 90 games, locking up their first playoff appearance since 2011.

Worst Case: While Yelich and Cain pull their own weight, the rest of the lineup struggles. Thames proves that he’s an average first baseman at best, Villar doesn’t bounce back, Shaw can’t match his output from 2017, and Arcia has issues living up to his potential. Braun and Santana don’t hold their own in right field, and the lineup is towards the bottom-third of the league. The rotation essentially treads water until Nelson returns but is unable to take that next step despite his presence. The bullpen regresses a bit, and the Brewers finish under .500 for the fourth time in the past six seasons.

PECOTA Projected Record: 84-78, 763 RS, 734 RA

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