First half in review: The Milwaukee Brewers

I’m a Reds fan, through and through. And most of the time, I spend my energy investigating the Reds’ players. However, with their season now gone kablooie, and in anticipation of this fall’s playoffs, I’ve embarked on a series of investigations of baseball’s contending teams. Below is an outsider’s analysis of the Milwaukee Brewers’ first half.

Milwaukee Brewers—first half in brief

Overall Record: 49-39 (.557; 4.5 games ahead of Cubs)
Series Record: 15-12-2
PythagoPat Record: 48-40 (.545)
Remaining Record Needed for 90 Wins: 41-33 (.554)
Remaining Record Needed for 100 Wins: 51-23 (.689)
5-yr Regressed Park Factor: 1.00
PFadj Runs Scored: 430 (4.9 r/g; 3rd in NL)
PFadj Runs Allowed: 388 (4.4 r/g; 7th in NL)
Team OBP: 0.332 (5th in NL)
Team SLG: 0.457 (1st in NL)
Team FIP: 4.05 (3rd in NL)
Team Fielding: +4 plays above average (7th in NL)

Overview
The Brewers, who have reached the playoffs just twice since coming into existence in 1969, were among the favorites in the division as the season began. And with good reason. Led by a core group of young, talented players, and augmented by several key veterans, this is an exciting team on the rise. Led by a powerful offense and an outstanding bullpen, they’re trying to turn this franchise around. Do they have what it takes?

The NL Central Race thus far
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Starting with a 7-3 victory over Pittsburgh on April 18, the Brewers went on a tear, winning 17 of 21 games as they took a commanding lead in the NL Central. They seemed to be fading after that streak, but they went on another tear in June to reaffirm their status as the team to beat in the division. Only a small swoon in the first week of July allowed the Cubs to get within five games entering the All-Star break.

Current key injuries

Corey Koskie—Post-concussion syndrome, return doubtful.
Bill Hall—High ankle sprain, return at end of July/beginning of August.

Hitting

The Brewers’ offense has been an asset this year, ranking third in the league in adjusted runs scored. Let’s break it down…

How they hit…

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Comparison of on-base percentage and isolated power, which identifies the two most important aspects of offense: getting on base and getting around the bases. Horizontal and vertical lines indicate league averages. The place to be is in the upper-right quadrant, though hitters in the upper-left or lower-right can still have offensive value.

  • The strength of the Brewers’ offense can be seen clearly in this figure, with eight of 14 hitters in the upper-right quadrant, and only one player in the lower-left.
  • The spectacular first half of Prince Fielder has been well-publicized, but I had no idea that Corey Hart and Ryan Braun were hitting as well as they are—albeit with fewer at-bats. They have certainly earned more playing time in the second half.
  • J.J. Hardy had an amazing first two months, though a cooler June makes his excellence seem a bit less dramatic in this figure. Is he Brian Roberts, or is he Jeff Kent? He’s missed a lot of development time the last few years, but is only 24 years old…
  • Geoff Jenkins has, thus far, exchanged power for on-base percentage in the first half.
  • Damien Miller also has been very impressive, thanks in large part to his high batting average.
  • Kevin Mench comes out looking pretty bad in this figure—his power has been average—but he has been well below the OBP Mendoza line. He’s expected to contribute his worth via power, but a .291 OBP? Yikes.
  • Craig Counsell is still an excellent defensive player, but he hasn’t contributed much with the bat for a few years now.

Strike zone management

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Walk rate plotted against strikeout rate, which serves as a diagnostic of hitter type, though not necessarily quality. Horizontal and vertical lines indicate league averages. Excellent hitters can fall in any quadrant, though they are perhaps less frequent in the bottom-right (low walk, high strikeout). Hart, Tony Graffanino and Tony Gwynn Jr. overlap near the center of the graph, while Mench and Johnny Estrada overlap in the bottom-left.

  • Counsell is one of those rare hitters who can deliver good walk rates while keeping his strikeout rates down. Unfortunately, that represents the bulk of his offensive contribution.
  • Fielder, Weeks and Hall all show above-average walk and strikeout rates. This is common for power hitters, and usually represents a net positive contribution to offense.
  • Jenkins and Braun show up in the bottom-right quadrant. Jenkins has long fallen into this category, but Braun might yet move up into the upper-right as his career progresses. Or not.
  • Estrada and Mench both have been extremely aggressive hitters, swinging early enough—and making sufficient contact—to avoid running out the count. In both cases, this approach has resulted in a sub-par on-base percentage, though perhaps it contributes to their power(?).

Surprises vs. disappointments

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How do this year’s performances stack up against what we expected of these players? To evaluate this, I’ve plotted players’ actual OPS against the expected OPS in based on PECOTA projections in the Baseball Prospectus 2007 Annual. PECOTA projections are far from perfect, but they usually are close enough to my assessments to make for a good comparison.

The diagonal line indicates a perfect match between PECOTA projections and actual performance; players above the line have outperformed expectations, while players below the line have underperformed expectations.

  • Braun stands out as the biggest surprise here. No one could have expected him to hit as well as he has in his first 180 plate appearances, but the 23-year-old is a legitimate prospect who may anchor the hot corner in Milwaukee for years to come.
  • Miller, Hardy and Fielder have also outperformed expectations by roughly 100 OPS points. With Fielder, the sky’s the limit, of course, but how could one reasonably predict the season he’s having? Hardy’s power surge over the first few months was certainly one of the season’s early surprises, though Miller’s AVG-heavy contributions have been valuable as well.
  • Hall, Weeks, Mench and Graffanino are among the biggest disappointments. Hall, in particular, has been disappointing, given his excellent season last year. And everyone had hoped that Weeks would continue to show great progress. The modest power’s been there, but the OBP has not. Weeks’ wrist has been bothering him this season— maybe he can rebound when it has healed.
  • Hart, on the other hand, seems to be performing right in line with BPro’s projections. It’s good to see him breaking through.

Good performance, or just good luck?
Surprises and or disappointments can be caused by changes in player performance, or by luck. One useful tool for identifying lucky and unlucky players is J.C. Bradbury’s PrOPS statistic:

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PrOPS estimates actual OPS based on a player’s batted ball stats, and thus is less susceptible to chance events on the field (ground balls “with eyes,” or hard-hit balls right at a fielder) than traditional scorebook stats. The diagonal line indicates a perfect match between batted ball estimates of OPS and actual OPS. Players above the line probably have been a bit lucky, whereas players below the line have probably been a bit unlucky.

  • Hart, Braun, Miller and Gwynn all show up as being a bit “lucky” in this analysis. The latter three, in particular, also have BABIPs in the .345-.390 range, while Hart’s .326 BABIP seems high given his 18% LD percentage. Assuming no change in their skills, we might expect some decline in their production in the second half. Nevertheless, PrOPS estimates that Braun normally still would be hitting at a .900+ clip anyway.
  • Fielder, amazingly, actually may have underperformed a touch, given his batted ball stats. His BABIP is just .278.
  • Counsell, Graffanino and Gabe Gross all may have underperformed as well. Gross, who has the fewest plate appearances of any Brewer, appears to have had the most dramatic run of bad luck, as evidenced by his .217 BABIP.
  • Unfortunately for the Brewers, the disappointing seasons of Weeks, Hall and Mench seem largely in accordance with their batted ball statistics. Doesn’t mean that they can’t improve, just that one can’t attribute their struggles to ill fortune at the plate.
Pitching

One of the Brewers’ greatest strengths has been their bullpen, which posted a 3.50 ERA in the first half. Their rotation has not been spectacular, but still has had a solid 4.39 ERA thus far. Let’s break down their pitching as we did their hitting. In all of the following figures, I required at least 20 innings pitched.

How they get hit…

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ISO allowed vs. OBP allowed. The place to be is in the lower-left part of the figure: low power against, and few people on base.

  • The spectacular half-season of the Brewers’ bullpen is very apparent in this figure, particularly among Francisco Cordero, Derrick Turnbow, Matt Wise and Carlos Villanueva. Brian Shouse, the sole lefty in the pen, in limited innings, also has been quite good at preventing offensive production. Villanueva deserves special recognition, as he has already thrown 55 innings across 35 bullpen appearances.
  • The rotation has been less consistent. Ben Sheets has had a fine season (and has been healthy!), and David Bush has been dead-on average, but Jeff Suppan, Chris Capuano and Claudio Vargas have struggled.
  • Yovani Gallardo has been excellent since his promotion. If he can perform at even league-average levels in the second half, it would be a huge boost to this team’s pitching staff.

Strike zone management…

Perhaps even more so than with hitters, a comparison of walk rates and strikeout rates can help identify pitcher types and potential problems:

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Horizontal and vertical lines indicate league averages. The place to be in this figure is in the bottom-right (high K, low BB), but pitchers can be effective in the upper-right and lower-left. Capuano and Vargas overlap in the top-right, while Wise and Sheets overlap near the bottom.

  • Cordero, Bush and Sheets are the only players in the bottom-right part of the figure, though Wise, Chris Spurling and Gallardo are close enough. Cordero has been phenomenal.
  • Suppan‘s walk rates are right in line with his career numbers, but his strikeouts are down a touch so far this season—and when they weren’t high to begin with, that can mean trouble.
  • The walk rates of Capuano, Vargas and Turnbow have continued to be high this season. Capuano’s might be the most disappointing, as he seemed to have made strides in that area last year.

Surprises and disappointments

Now that we’ve seen their performance, let’s look at how they’ve fared vs. expectations:

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  • Bush shows up as the biggest disappointment here, and that may seem odd given how good he looked in the previous two figures. More on him below.
  • Capuano also shows up as a disappointment. As mentioned above, his walk rate seems to have increased again this season, and that may be the difference.
  • On the surprise side, almost the entire Brewers bullpen shows up. They have been outstanding thus far, but I always get a bit concerned when players deviate that dramatically from projections. PECOTA isn’t perfect by any means, but one might expect some regression toward the line by the season’s end… particularly if the peripherals also indicate some luck is involved (see below).

Good performance, or just good luck?

To evaluate the fortunes of pitchers, we’ll compare ERA to Fielding Independent Pitching:

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Fielding Independent Pitching, which estimates ERA based on the peripherals of walk rate, strikeout rate, home run rate and HBP-rate, compared to actual ERA. The diagonal line shows a perfect fit between FIP and ERA. Pitchers above the line probably have been a bit fortunate; pitchers below the line probably have been a bit unlucky.

  • Bush shows up as being very unlucky so far this season. His peripherals compare very well to Sheets’, and yet he has nothing but a high-fours ERA to show for it. It’s reasonable to expect a strong second half from him.
  • Speaking of Sheets, I wonder if we should be mildly concerned about him. His strikeout rates are down significantly from previous seasons, and his walk rates, while still excellent, are also up.
  • The news for the surprising Milwaukee bullpen is mixed:
  • The outstanding K-rates and HR-rates for Cordero and Turnbow actually peg them as being a bit unlucky in this figure. I’m not sure how well FIP works when K-rates start to exceed 10 K/9, but at the least it indicates that their surprising seasons thus far have been legit.
  • On the other hand, Villanueva, Wise, Shouse and Spurling all probably overachieved a bit given their peripherals. That said, FIP is still estimating a mid-threes ERA for all but Spurling, which is perfectly acceptable for quality relievers. I don’t see reason to predict a bullpen collapse here, though a small regression would not be surprising.
  • Vargas‘ ERA ranks him second among Brewers starters (not including Gallardo), yet his FIP is terrifying, thanks to very high home run allowed rates and high walk rates. He is probably not to be counted on in the second half, unless he can significantly improve those numbers.
Fielding

The Brewers’ defense has ranked slightly above average on the season, with THT’s batted ball fielding stat rating them +4 plays above average. Overall, Zone Rating pegs them at 22 plays below average on balls within players’ zones, but 33 plays above average on balls hit out of players’ zones, for a net +10 plays above average. Let’s look at the individual players:

The infield
Below I’ve converted the THT ZR data to a +/- plays format, and plotted plays made in the zone (defined as regions of the field where average fielders at a particular position make plays 50% or more of the time) against plays made outside of the zone:

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The best fielders will be in the upper-right (good both in and out of the zone), but contributions can be made in the upper-left and lower-right. Fielder and Hardy overlap in the upper-left, while Counsell (at 2B) and Graffanino (at 3B) overlap slightly in the upper-right.

  • How important is Counsell to the Brewers’ defense? With him, as a team, the Brewers are 10 plays above average. Without him, even as a part-time player, they drop to eight plays below average. If only he could still hit…
  • Hardy and Fielder fall into the intriguing category of players who are good out of the zone, but struggle a bit on balls hit closer to them. Hardy’s an athletic fielder, and given how much time he has missed the past few seasons, one can hope that he might improve. Fielder also shows surprising athleticism for a big man, getting to enough balls out of the zone to be rated just about average overall.
  • Braun hasn’t been a complete disaster at 3B, as many had feared, but he hasn’t been particularly good either. If he’d played all season, he probably would rank among the five or six worst players in baseball at his position. But he also probably wouldn’t be last: Akinori Iwamura is currently running away with that title, 19 plays below average despite missing substantial time due to injury.
  • Weeks currently ranks fifth from the bottom in baseball at 2B, though his RZR is actually up from prior seasons (.721 in ’05, .765 in ’06, and .781 in ’07), so he’s improved. Still, with a team in a pennant race, Weeks could lose time to Counsell if he can’t get his offense back to where it was last year.

The Outfield

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  • Gross seems to be the team’s best all-around defender in the outfield, leading Brew Crew outfielders in plays above average despite limited playing time.
  • Hall has made the transition from SS (where he often excelled) to CF quite well this season. He has struggled at times with balls hit relatively close to him, but that is to be expected for someone learning a position. Nevertheless, his excellent athleticism has allowed him to make a good number of plays out of the zone. If he can come back from his ankle injury at full strength, I’d expect him to continue to get better defensively.
  • Mench also has shown good range for a left fielder, though he has been less impressive in right.
  • Most other players seem to have more or less average range, with no players showing exceptionally good or (most importantly) bad defensive skills.

Catching

There are a lot of intangibles and confounds that go along with the evaluation catching, but research has shown that the one consistent way catchers can influence the game is controlling baserunners. Therefore, we’ll consider catchers’ abilities to throw out runners and prevent them from advancing via wild pitches or passed balls.

  • Estrada and Miller are similar defensively. Both have had WP + PB / G rates below league average, which indicates a good job of keeping the ball in front of them. On a team with as many strikeout pitchers as the Brewers, that’s saying something.
  • They also are well below average in terms of throwing runners out. Both have contributed offensively above replacement level this season, which helps offset this. But caught-stealing rates below 20% are difficult to stomach.
Looking forward to October

The Brewers, like many teams, have their share of underachieving and overachieving players. Still, enough of their success looks legitimate that there’s no obvious reason to expect them to decline dramatically, provided they can stay mostly healthy. They seem unlikely to top 95 wins this season, but 88-90 wins are very much within their capabilities. It will likely be up to the rest of the NL Central to catch up to them—and are any of the other NL Central teams capable of 90 wins?

Key Players in the Brewers’ second half:

Pitchers: Sheets, Gallardo and Bush
Position players: Hall, Braun and Weeks

References & Resources
All statistics current through the All-Star break, and almost all were pulled from The Hardball Times. Team plus/minus fielding data are based on Dave Studeman’s batted ball plus/minus statistics. My player ZR plus/minus conversion methods can be found here, though expected rates for plays in zone and plays out of zone are based on 2007 data only.

Park Factors were provided by U.S. Patriot at his website. I also drew information from the following sources: Baseball-Reference, CBS Sportsline, Baseball Prospectus 2007 Annual, and David Hannes’ first-half report card on the Brewers.

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