I’ve developed an affinity for the Milwaukee Brewers over the last few years. It doesn’t hurt that they are almost like the National League complement to my Cleveland Indians. They reside in a drinkin’ town with a lot of resilient, blue-collar people. The city sits on a lake and could do a lot more with its waterfront. The fans are passionate and use any excuse to tailgate. And I’ve been there and been to Miller Park and loved it. (It’s now American Family Insurance Park, which, meh.)
Milwaukee comes from an Algonquian word meaning “good land”. Cleveland doesn’t actually mean anything except the name of the man that founded the town, but there are a lot of names in and around the city that are inspired from Native American words, including Cuyahoga, the river that notoriously caught on fire multiple times and the county that Cleveland is in. (Cuyahoga stands for “crooked river”, for what it’s worth)
Alright, fine. You’re not here for a history lesson or a biopic about my life. The comparison between Cleveland and Milwaukee is largely to point out that the two cities are similar in market size. Therefore, they are similarly restricted financially and have to find edges, improvement at the margins, and competitive advantages from within.
“Consistent contention as a small-market team is hard.” That’s what I said about the Brewers. It’s a feeling that I know all too well. So, I gravitated towards the Brewers and made a lot of money on their season win total lines. They exceeded expectations in a big way in 2017 and that’s when everybody got on board. Their season win total was 70.5 and they won 86 games. In 2018, their season win total was 84.5 and they won 96 games. In 2019, their season win total was 86.5 and got bet up. They won 89 games.
Last season’s introduction to the Brewers was centered around how, for the first time in four seasons, I wasn’t bullish on the Brewers. I wasn’t excited about their prospects of continuing to thread the needle as a small-market team to be a factor in the playoff chase.
There were concerning signs. Relief pitching had been a market inefficiency for a while. The Oakland A’s, who find a way to be at the forefront of seemingly every emerging trend in baseball, started it by spending their meager finances on relief pitchers around 2014-15. Other teams followed suit. One was the Brewers, who developed from within and also targeted trade acquisitions and free agent relievers to help the cause.
Cracks in that armor began to show in 2019. Jeremy Jeffress had been used and abused and the wear and tear took a toll. Corey Knebel had been in the trainer’s room a lot. Even unhittable cyborg Josh Hader lost his command for stretches.
The margin for error is so thin when you can’t throw money at the problem. Teams that have blank checks at the ready for free agents to serve as a panacea don’t have to worry about much of anything. The Brewers had a bullpen problem. They had a starting pitching problem. They posted a ridiculous month in September 2019 without Christian Yelich to hide some of their impending areas of regression.
The 2019 Brewers were on an 82-win pace before finishing 89-73 because of a 20-7 month of September. Betting markets are smart. The Brewers were priced at 83.5 for 2020, which was more in line with their alternate standings metrics.
This is a new season. Some of my concerns and questions remain. Some have been answered. A team that was an auto over for me has now become a team whose projection keeps me awake at night.
Where will they end up when all is said and done for 2021?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|St Louis Cardinals||+100|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+2 (4.12/4.08)||+45 (5.03/4.75)|
|3rd Order Win%||30.3-29.7||86.7-75.3|
|Record in One-Run Games||11-5||27-18|
Additions: Travis Shaw, Brad Boxberger, Jordan Zimmermann, Kolten Wong, Carl Edwards Jr., Blaine Hardy, Daniel Robertson, Pablo Reyes, Dylan Cozens, Hoby Milner, Zach Green, Luke Maile, Derek Fisher, Leo Crawford, Tim Lopes
Losses: Ben Gamel, Alex Claudio, Jedd Gyorko, Eric Sogard, Ryan Braun, Corey Knebel, David Freitas
The Brewers had a quiet offseason, but they did add the best player of this list in Kolten Wong. Wong will man second base, while Keston Hiura moves to first and Luis Urias takes the first crack at third. We’ll see if it goes with Hiura at first, but Wong is a terrific defensive player.
Brett Anderson is not listed, but he signed late in the free agency process. The Brewers also added Jordan Zimmermann late and will take a look at Travis Shaw and Derek Fisher.
They did lose Miller as a sponsor for the ballpark and will now play at American Family Insurance Park, so I’m calling that a loss as well. Jedd Gyorko was a pretty valuable player, but not much else stands out.
|Batting Average (BA)||.223 (26th)||.246 (20th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.313 (21st)||.329 (9th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.389 (23rd)||.438 (12th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.307 (23rd)||.324 (12th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||89 (24th)||97 (14th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.278 (22nd)||.296 (17th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||26.6% (28th)||24.8% (24th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.1% (11th)||10.0% (2nd)|
Boy, did this offense take a tumble in the short season. The Brewers fell out of the top half of the league in a lot of categories and wound up being a borderline bottom-five offense. It didn’t help that Christian Yelich went from MVP candidate to just a regular guy during the 2020 shortened season. Yelich had posted wRC+ marks of 167 and 175 the previous two seasons. He saw a massive K% increase in 2020 that badly hurt his performance and then he ran into some bad luck on batted balls.
The biggest problem for the Brewers is that Yelich in a down year was still their best regular hitter. Daniel Vogelbach posted a .328/.418/.569 slash with a 164 wRC+, but he only had 67 PA. He is back this season as a bench option, but at bats will be hard to find with Hiura at first base and no universal DH. Beyond Vogelbach, Jedd Gyorko had a 119 wRC+ in his 135 PA, but he is now gone.
Yelich got no help from the regulars. He was the only player with more than 150 plate appearances to post an above average wRC+. Ryan Braun was the next closest with a 99 wRC+ in 141 PA. Of the 150+ PA group, light-hitting Orlando Arcia had a 96 wRC+.
Avisail Garcia was a bust. Justin Smoak didn’t hit. Hiura had some growing pains in his second season with some really concerning contact quality. Luis Urias was a poor offensive player. One reason why I’ve become increasingly anti-platoon is because guys can’t really get consistent reps and it takes a while to settle in for the season. The Brewers didn’t utilize platoons as much as they have in the past, but the part-time players were really bad and it was exacerbated by the fact that the full-time guys underperformed.
The Brewers struck out at the third-highest rate in baseball, so that didn’t help. They also hit too many ground balls and not enough fly balls. Their GB% was only 11th, but their 32.6% FB% was the third-lowest in the league. You have to live a BABIP-dependent lifestyle hitting lots of ground balls and the Brewers saw major BABIP regression that coincided with a decrease in balls in play. Put those two things together and you are just about guaranteed to have a low offensive ceiling.
The Brewers were in the middle of the pack in RHB (right-handed batter) vs. LHP (left-handed pitcher) matchups. They were 24th in wOBA in LHB vs. RHP matchups and that was with the second-highest BB% in that split. The first thing I notice is that there was some very bad luck in that split. Only the Diamondbacks and Dodgers had a bigger negative gap between batting average and expected batting average. The Brewers batting average should have been 30 points higher according to xBA.
I don’t like the ground ball approach. Shifts are so prominent nowadays and take away a lot of hits. Also, fielders are positioned better than ever before because of advanced scouting. Add a bad batted ball contact profile to the highest Whiff% in baseball and a really high K% and you’ve got a bad offense. And that’s what the Brewers were.
So the question is whether or not they can rectify this situation. Will they make a philosophical change? I’m not as smart as these MLB teams, and the Brewers have to have isolated something special about their strategy to employ something like this. The Brewers were 20th in FB% in 2019, so they did have a negative drop-off in that department last season that could be just a one-season outlier.
We can reasonably assume that Yelich will be better. What about the others? The player with the biggest offensive upside outside of Yelich is Hiura, who now has to contend with a position change. I don’t really love betting on an offensive profile with a position change, but Hiura was not good at all at second base. I have to think there’s some peace of mind moving away from that position. He slashed .303/.368/.570 in his 348 PA in 2019, which was more or less a continuation of his minor league track record.
Hiura hit 13 HR in 246 PA last season, but also batted just .212 with a .297 OBP. He had a huge K% increase and didn’t seem to adjust well as pitchers adjusted to him. In fact, he was a league average hitter in the first half, but 24% below league average in the second half with a K% spike. Hiura has to be good for this offense to be good. There is only so much that Yelich can cover for on the Brewers.
Lorenzo Cain opted out of the 2020 season and now returns a year older. I’m concerned about the defensive profile in center field as he ages, even though he’s been quite good there throughout his career. Cain also posted just a .260/.325/.372 slash in 2019 over the full season, so now he returns with his most recent data point the worst offensive season he’s had since 2013. I really don’t know how to project this profile, but the projection systems are not keen on a bounce back.
Kolten Wong is an outstanding defensive player and a good enough offensive piece. He has minimal power, but puts a ton of balls in play and will walk at a decent clip. He’ll carry value as a fielder and has a pretty good offensive profile for a second baseman, but we’ll have to wait and see if he can play at an above average clip with the bat. He’s only done that twice in seven seasons.
I really don’t like the rest of the lineup. Avisail Garcia was solid with the Rays in 2019, but has a couple of outlier seasons surrounded by a lot of mediocre ones. He was a guy that made some pretty good contact from 2016-18 with the White Sox, but fell off a bit in 2019 and bottomed out in 2020. There is really nothing that suggests that Orlando Arcia can hit at a decent clip. Omar Narvaez has been a solid offensive catcher more often than not. He was also the Statcast leader in Framing Runs from Extra Strikes, which I NEVER would have imagined with how atrocious he was with the White Sox and Mariners. I’m thinking that’s noise more than anything.
Luis Urias hit at every level in the minors, but the Padres were willing to give up on him. He didn’t show many signs for the Brewers last season, but he’s only 23. If there’s a hidden upside guy, it might be him, but he has a lot to prove this season to make it to being league average.
The phrase “league average” probably sounds like a negative. I’ve talked about this in other previews, but league average should not be considered in a negative context as far as baseball goes because there are a lot of players that simply don’t make it to that point. The Brewers are an example of what happens when you don’t have enough league average players. You get a bottom of the barrel lineup that overshadows what was a pretty good pitching staff.
I would venture a guess that this lineup is better than what we saw last season, but I don’t see this lineup’s ceiling being all that high. If the lineup is better, it will be because Yelich returns to MVP form and Hiura remembers how to hit.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.18 (11th)||4.40 (16th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||3.80 (4th)||4.46 (16th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||3.76 (2nd)||4.42 (15th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||28.1% (3rd)||24.0% (10th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.6% (11th)||9.1% (21st)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||70.5% (19th)||73.1% (13th)|
I pore over a lot of baseball statistics. It is pretty easy to know when something doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem right to me that the Brewers were 11th in ERA, but fourth in FIP and second in xFIP. Well, here’s your answer.
I’ve referred to the concept of Cluster Luck a lot. It occurs when a team is really good with RISP and really bad with the bases empty or vice versa. Sequencing means everything in baseball. The timing of hits and the timing of outs often defines a season. The better teams get more hits and walks and hit more home runs and get more opportunities than the bad teams. Whether or not they cash in on those chances will define the season.
When I see a big ERA to FIP gap like this, I automatically assume that something took place with the sequencing. That is exactly what happened to the Brewers. With the bases empty, the Brewers allowed a .215/.296/.349 slash. Their .286 wOBA against was the third-lowest in baseball in that split.
Their .318 wOBA against with men in scoring position was ninth-best, but the Brewers had the sixth-highest BABIP against with runners in scoring position. As a result, teams were able to capitalize on a decent number of those chances. The Brewers had the highest percentage of ground balls in that split at 47.1% and a good number of them must have found holes. Even though Hiura was bad at second base, the Brewers were pretty respectable overall in terms of infield defense. So, it looks as though they got a bit unlucky in that regard.
Isolating these sorts of things can really help paint the overall picture for a team. I just mentioned that I don’t see a big spike all of the sudden from the offense. That means that the pressure falls on the pitching staff for the Brewers for this season. That means that you want to look at the body of work from the previous season and see if there is anything that could regress or present an additional problem. To a degree, I see hope that the Brewers will actually improve with their sequencing and some of their bad luck.
As disappointing as the offense was last season, especially the young players, the pitching staff was quite promising. Brandon Woodruff continued to prove his worth as the ace of this staff with a K% spike and a higher percentage of ground balls than what he had in 2019. Woodruff’s swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) did go up to a rate that was consistent with an increase in strikeouts and consistent with what we’ve seen the last couple of seasons from him.
He even had an elite Z-Contact%, which is sign of how good his stuff and his command actually were. Projection systems aren’t as bullish on him as I am and I believe I’m right. He may even be a Cy Young candidate.
But, we knew Woodruff would be good. What we didn’t know was that Corbin Burnes would figure it all out. Burnes allowed 17 HR in 49 innings in 2019. He allowed two in 59.2 innings in 2020. Burnes shaved more than three miles per hour off of his average exit velocity against. He cut his Hard Hit% down from 40% to 34.4%. He always had swing-and-miss stuff, but the Brewers made a few very important changes.
Burnes went from throwing a four-seam fastball 52.5% of the time and a slider 31% of the time to throwing a sinker 33.1% of the time and a cutter 31.5% of the time. Burnes has elite spin rates on his pitches, but the development of the cutter was a massive separator for him. Opposing hitters batted .162 with a .203 SLG on the cutter. The slider was how Burnes attacked right-handed batters and had a 60.3% Whiff% on the pitch. Opposing hitters batted .108 with a .165 SLG on the pitch.
Then Burnes attacked lefties with a changeup. He had a high swing and miss rate on that as well with really good results on the small sample size of batted balls. In 2019, opposing hitters batted .425 against his four-seam fastball with a .823 SLG. Thirteen of the 17 HR he allowed came on the four-seam. So what did the Brewers do? They told him to stop throwing it.
Will Burnes post a 2.11 ERA with a 2.04 FIP? No. Probably not, but the projection systems putting him in the upper 3s for both don’t take into account the arsenal changes and what the Brewers did to improve his pitch selection. I think we can expect Burnes to be very, very good and a worthy #2 behind Woodruff.
The problem here is that, like the offense, it is hard to see much upside beyond the top guys. Josh Lindblom came over from the KBO and had lots of strikeouts and some bad luck, so maybe he’ll get a visit from the Regression Fairy after a 5.16 ERA and a 3.88 FIP. Maybe with Burnes officially fixed, the Brewers can work on Adrian Houser. Houser just doesn’t have the swing-and-miss profile of Burnes. He does have some promising exit velocity numbers, though, and the Brewers went the sinker route with him as well.
Sinkers are making a comeback to try to counteract the launch angle generation. It is interesting to see which teams opt to throw four-seamers above the hitting zone and which teams choose to go the sinker route. It is the sinker route for the Brewers. The reunion with Brett Anderson is another example of that. He’s an extreme GB guy.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of Drew Rasmussen this season for the Brewers. He’s another ground ball-heavy guy. Eric Lauer seems to be a JAG – just a guy. Maybe the Brewers can go the Wade Miley route with him and go heavy on cutters, but he missed most of last season due to injury. It could be Brent Suter that slots into the rotation. There are some options, I guess, but none of them stand out.
The bullpen should be solid again. Suter is probably ticketed for a bullpen role alongside elite setup man Devin Williams and strikeout artist Josh Hader. Hader had a down year last year, but I would think he can bounce back. Freddy Peralta misses a ton of bats and Eric Yardley is an uber-extreme ground ball guy like Williams. This is the strength of the team again and a good one to have.
Positives & Negatives
Depth is such a huge factor in my season win total handicapping and the Brewers have very little of it. They are an extremely top-heavy roster. I felt like that was going to be a contributing factor in their decline last season and it was the first time in several seasons that I had been against the Brewers.
Baseball is not basketball. It is extremely rare that a few star players can carry you to the heights that you need. I did see it with the Indians last season, but their rotation depth is greater than Milwaukee’s, to draw another parallel between the two teams like the introduction. Milwaukee has no margin for error with this sort of roster construction. Yelich and Hiura. Woodruff and Burnes. Hader and Williams. The bullpen at least has more depth, but how many leads will this Brewers team have to protect?
Milwaukee Brewers Pick & Prediction: Over 82.5
It would be pretty counterintuitive to suggest the Brewers to win the NL Central and not at least lean with the over, right? There are price elements to the +385 to win the NL Central that cannot be ignored. This is just a straight bet on over/under wins. It isn’t an almost 4/1 return on a division that is completely up for grabs.
The Brewers are a top-heavy team and that worries me. They need Yelich, Woodruff, Burnes, Hader, and Williams to carry them. Fortunately, all five are plenty capable of doing that. I do worry about the Brewers going outside of the division more frequently, given that they were effectively a .500 team against their own division last season.
The overall picture here for me, though, is a team that has a high floor and I find the floor to be pretty close to where the win total is. I’d have a hard time seeing the Brewers as a well below .500 team. I just don’t think their ceiling is that much higher than maybe 86-87 wins at the top of the market.
As such, this is a pick for the Guide and not an actual bet. I do believe the over is the right side and do believe that the Brewers could very well win the NL Central if they get to that 86 or 87-win plateau, hence the +385 shot on the future. I’d rather not double down with the win total here like I said I would with the Astros.