The Milwaukee Brewers accomplished something really hard to do last season. They led the NL Central for 159 days and still lost the division by eight games. Milwaukee’s second half wasn’t as ugly as, say, the Cincinnati Reds, but it was pretty brutal. The Brewers hit the All-Star Break with a 53-43 record and a one-game lead in the NL Central. By the end of July, it had ballooned all the way to 2.5 games. By the end of August, they were tied. By the end of September, the Brewers barely finished over .500. On June 28, the Brewers were 51-32.
What could have possibly happened to lead to such a dramatic decline in the span of three months? For starters, the Brewers stopped scoring runs. Over their first 96 games, the Brewers averaged 4.4 runs per game. Over their final 66 games, the Brewers scored 3.6 runs per game. Nothing else really stands out. The Brewers were 36-40 against the NL Central, 42-39 at home and 40-41 on the road, and a perfectly adequate 33-33 against teams that were .500 or better. There was nothing ridiculous about their 23-19 record in one-run games.
The Brewers also started pretty healthy for the most part. Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez had first-half injuries and Matt Garza missed some second-half time, but other than that, there’s nothing injury-related. There’s also not a whole lot in the first half and second half splits to suggest that the Brewers overachieved in a big way in the first half. They did post a .280 BABIP in the second half compared to a .301 BABIP in the first half, so batted ball luck was a factor. All in all, it was a perplexing season for the Brewers and, as a result, they are a tough team to gauge for 2015.
Oddsmakers at BetOnline have the Brewers win total sitting at 78.5. Bovada is also on 78.5, but with juice to the over. 5Dimes is at 79. Once again, it’s interesting to note that no team in the NL Central is lined below 77.5, and that’s the Cincinnati Reds. Parity is expected to be the theme of the NL Central this season.
Key additions: Adam Lind, Neal Cotts, Chris Perez
Key losses: Zach Duke, Francisco Rodriguez, Tom Gorzelanny, Marco Estrada
Doug Melvin sat on his hands this offseason, opting to rely on his in-house options rather than shell out big dollars on the free agent market. The additions for the Brewers have been of the depth variety, outside of the trade with Toronto that brought Adam Lind over to balance out a right-handed heavy lineup.
Neal Cotts is a fine acquisition to fill the loss of Zach Duke. Chris Perez is not going to put up similar production to Francisco Rodriguez, but it is nice to buy very low on a guy like him after his escalating salary in arbitration wound up costing the Indians and Dodgers entirely too much money.
Why bet the over?
There’s a ton of position player talent on this team. We’ll start with Jonathan Lucroy because he provides a ton of defensive value in one of my favorite aspects of the game – pitch framing. Lucroy is a great offensive catcher as well, coming off of a .301/.373/.465 season with 13 home runs. He wound up leading the team in fWAR with 6.3 wins above replacement player and his defensive prowess is a big reason why. As a catcher, his offensive numbers were significantly above average at the position, but it’s defensive value that gets overlooked in these win totals. Lucroy is a tremendous talent and he walked almost as much as he struck out. He also bashed 53 doubles to set the record for a catcher. This type of offensive performance has been evident in each of the last three seasons and there’s no reason he should be worth at least five wins again this season.
Speaking of value both offensively and defensively, Carlos Gomez won’t be winning any Mr. Congeniality awards, but the kid can play. Gomez added the long ball to his speed two seasons ago and he added more walks to the package this season. The end result was Gomez’s best all-around offensive season with a .284/.356/.477 slash, representing a 16-point spike in on-base percentage. The defensive metrics weren’t as favorable in 2014 as they were in 2013, but he’s still one of the National League’s most valuable players from a WAR standpoint.
Even though nobody else on the Brewers stands out like Lucroy and Gomez, there are some players that traditionalists will appreciate. Aramis Ramirez is still getting it done no matter how long his teeth get. Ramirez hit 15 home runs and posted a solid .285 batting average with good contact rates and decent defense. Khris Davis clubbed 22 home runs, but a lack of walks negated his sabermetric value. Scooter Gennett is not going to draw many sabermetric supporters, but he hit .289 and managed to be four percent above league average at a bad offensive position.
Ryan Braun still has talent in there somewhere. He was 14 percent above league average last season, which is well off the pace he used to perform, but there’s some hope for a return. Braun had the second-highest line drive percentage of his career last season. He stopped walking and started chasing more, but those look a little bit anomalous given his career averages to date.
Speaking of bounce back players, Jean Segura could be one of them. Segura was a fantasy baseball darling in 2013 with a .294/.329/.423 slash, 12 home runs, and 44 stolen bases. That made him one of the better fantasy shortstops in the game. This season, the .326 BABIP fell to .275. The power left. With a 48-point drop in batting average, the stolen bases went with it. Segura made contact just as often and actually hit more line drives. One would think that his offensive performance would come back up. Segura also experienced an enormously devastating personal tragedy last season with the unexpected death of his infant son in July. He actually played better in the second half when he returned, so there’s hope that he will carry that over into 2015.
Adam Lind is a nice addition to the lineup. With Ramirez, Braun, Gomez, Davis, Segura, and Lucroy, the Brewers are extremely heavy on the right side of the batter’s box. Lind is coming off of a strong .321/.381/.479 slash line in 318 plate appearances. The BABIP is unsustainable, but Lind goes from Rogers Centre to Miller Park, which is relatively even in terms of power production. The 23 home runs he hit in 2013 could make a return this season.
A dependable rotation of innings eaters doesn’t yield a whole lot of upside, but one guy with some helium is Mike Fiers. Fiers was terrific in the second half of the season for the Brewers in somewhat of a small sample size. Over 64.2 innings, opposing batters hit .173/.222/.288 and struck out 29 percent of the time. Fiers had a 2.79 FIP and a 2.94 xFIP. Whether or not that’s sustainable over a full season and not just in a small stretch remains to be seen, but Fiers will be firmly in the rotation with the trade of Yovani Gallardo and he has the most upside of any pitcher in the rotation.
Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza are what they are. Garza strained an oblique in August and missed some time, but he posted a 3.64 ERA and a 3.54 FIP in 27 starts. Lohse saw a mild regression in his walk rate to post a 3.54 ERA and a 3.95 FIP. Neither guy strikeouts out more than seven batters per innings, so the fact that Milwaukee has a very good defense is helpful.
Wily Peralta may have some remaining upside after 198.2 innings last season. His 3.53 ERA was overshadowed by a 4.11 FIP due to a marginal K/BB rate and a slightly elevated home run rate, but his 3.64 xFIP suggests that he can be above league average if he cuts down on the dingers.
With Marco Estrada and Yovani Gallardo on new teams, Jimmy Nelson gets the first crack at holding down the fifth starter gig. Nelson flashed some good upside in the minor leagues by missing bats and his 69-inning sample at the big league level is a little misleading thanks to a very high BABIP against and a low strand rate. He could be an adequate fifth starter.
Jim Henderson will return from injury and the Brewers have a pretty decent bullpen if Jonathan Broxton can hold down the closer’s role. Will Smith and Neal Cotts are two very dependable left-handed arms in the LOOGY (Lefty One-Out-GuY) role. Jeremy Jeffress is a good name to watch here because he can rush it up there into triple digits. Health is a big issue here, with Broxton’s thick medical folder and Henderson off of a lot of time spent on the DL.
Why bet the under?
Wily Peralta can run it up there in the mid-to-upper 90s, but his heavy usage of a slider and lack of a third offering hurt his ability to be an above average starter. The two-seamer is heavy with ground ball action, but the changeup is essentially useless and hitters can hit velocity. He’s one of several question marks with the Brewers rotation.
When does Kyle Lohse start to lose his pinpoint control? Lohse is 36 now and has thrown over 2300 innings in his career. We saw the walk rate go up last season from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent. That still rates well above league average, but Lohse’s value is tied entirely to his ability to not issue walks and change speeds. His Zone% (percentage of pitches in the strike zone) has declined in each of the last four seasons. Hitters chased more last season, but Lohse’s 4.05 xFIP as his 2015 ERA doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch.
Matt Garza has now failed to make at least 28 starts in each of the last three seasons. His strikeout rate went down last season and he walk rate went back up from the career-best he set in 2013. Hitters chased more, but they also made more contact and the velocity is starting to tick down. Garza’s SIERA cracked 4.00 for the first time in four seasons and he could be on borrowed time.
Yovani Gallardo was an average pitcher as his velocity declined, but the trade with Texas leaves Milwaukee with 192 innings to replace. Gallardo posted a good ERA at 3.51 and a solid xFIP of 3.64. Solid in the sense that it plays well in a rotation full of guys in that area. The depth behind Nelson and Fiers is pretty lacking, especially with Tyler Thornburg off of platelet-rich plasma therapy for his arm injury last season.
Not to take anything away from Mark Reynolds, but Mark Reynolds had a higher fWAR than Ryan Braun last season. Braun was bad defensively and his walk rate fell. He swung and missed more, chasing 39 percent of the time, with a swing rate above 50 percent. Braun is declining. Whether it’s the injuries or the lack of PEDs, it’s really hard to rely on Braun for much of anything outside of a slash line around 10 percent above league average.
Jonathan Lucroy is already hurt with a hamstring strain. Hamstring strains tend to linger and they’re especially bad for a player that sits in the crouch for over 1,000 innings per season. Be very careful with your expectations for Lucroy. He should be fine by Opening Day, but this is a precarious situation because of the nature of the position that he plays. If he’s not able to play six times a week and navigate this mediocre pitching staff through choppy waters, the Brewers are going to suffer.
Aramis Ramirez managed to stay healthy for the most part last season, but he will turn 37 in June and plays one of the toughest positions on the diamond for a player on the wrong side of 35. The bat speed and the contact still seem to be there, but the power is starting to go away slowly. The Brewers don’t have a whole lot of depth among the position players and it’s tough to pencil Ramirez in for 550 plate appearances, since he hasn’t done that since 2012.
I’ve mentioned it with some other teams, but it has to be a consideration with the Brewers. Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez are so much more valuable than anybody else on this team that any long-term injury to those guys is going to really cripple this ballclub. There’s not very much depth on the roster and Lucroy, as mentioned above, is already injured. With a rotation that will be league average at best and a bullpen that will probably have a hard time protecting leads, the margin for error is very thin in a division that should be very competitive.
Pick: Under 79
The Brewers didn’t exactly lose anything significant and Adam Lind will be an upgrade at first base, but this is a team that lacks an identity entering the season. The Brewers should be pretty decent defensively, but this is one of the few times where a team’s defensive prowess has been factored into the win total line. It’s indirectly factored in because the Brewers rotation is so defense-dependent that most of them overachieved last season to give the illusion that the group is above league average.
Like I’ve said in some other win total analyses, you have to look for teams that have the potential to fly over their win total. The Brewers don’t have that potential. In fact, I think their ceiling is in the 80 to 81 range. That gives me very little confidence that they can get over this number unless absolutely everything goes right. I really don’t think that absolutely everything goes right.
There are some teams in the NL Central that I really like to go over the total and that’s part of the problem here as well. I think the Reds are undervalued. While I picked under for the Cubs, that’s obviously a team that has the potential to fly over their win total. The Pirates and Cardinals have proven just how good they can be and I think they’re the class of this division. That leaves the Brewers as the team that needs to lose in order for that to happen.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
If a pattern that started six years ago holds true, the Milwaukee Brewers are in line for a big season in 2014. Back in 2008, the Brewers snuck into the playoffs as the wild card with a 90-72 record and were promptly dispatched by the Philadelphia Phillies. The following year, the Brewers were unable to replicate that performance and finished 80-82. It got worse in 2010, as the team fell to 77-85. In 2011, the Brewers bounced back in a big way, winning the division with a franchise record-setting 96-win season. Since then, records of 83-79 and 74-88 have prevented the Brewers from experiencing the postseason.
The Brewers were 28-33 with Ryan Braun, but managed just a 46-55 without their top offensive force. Braun was in the lineup for the first two months and a week of the season before a bruised thumb and then a suspension kept Braun from being with the Brewers. Braun played in four games after the thumb injury and missed the final two-and-half months of the season. With Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart missing significant time, the losses of Braun, Ramirez, and Hart handcuffed the Brewers offensively and they scored 136 fewer runs.
The Brewers actually allowed 46 fewer runs in 2013 than they did in 2012, but the offensive losses coupled with a top-heavy National League Central Division with three teams that won 90 or more games made for tough sledding for the Brewers. The Brewers also had a lot of difficulty with left-handed pitchers, posting a 16-28 record against southpaw starters. Without the offense to compete, the Brewers were 34-56 against teams .500 or better, including a 21-36 mark against the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds.
What was particularly interesting about the Brewers season is that their home-field advantage evaporated. Miller Park is widely-known as a good hitter’s park. The Brewers were 49-32 there in 2012 and a staggering 57-24 in 2011. The Brewers were just 37-44 at home in 2013 and were outscored by 44 runs. That’s something to keep in mind as you read through this analysis on the Brewers.
The oddsmakers are expecting an improvement with Ryan Braun back. BetOnline.ag and 5Dimes.eu both have the Brewers win total lined at 80, with 5Dimes juicing the under at -125. BOL is at -115 both ways. Bovada.lv is at 79.5 with -115 both ways. BetDSI.eu is at 79 with the over juiced at -115.
Key additions: Matt Garza, Mark Reynolds, Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith
Key losses: Norichika Aoki, Burke Badenhop, Yuniesky Betancourt, Corey Hart, Mike Gonzalez
Not included in the key additions is Ryan Braun, who missed the final 65 games of the 2013 season due to a suspension from the Biogenesis scandal and the subsequent circus that followed his drug test. He might as well be listed because he’s a huge bat, but this section is mostly reserved for offseason transactions.
Mark Reynolds is a very intriguing bat for hitter-friendly Miller Park. Reynolds had a tumultuous 2013 after having a ridiculous April for the Indians and then falling off the face of the earth. He landed with the Yankees and played well over the final couple of months of the season. He’ll likely have the starting first baseman job to himself and it’s his to lose.
Francisco Rodriguez and Will Smith add depth to a bullpen that desperately needs it. Rodriguez will replace Burke Badenhop, who made 63 appearances for the Brewers last season. Will Smith is likely going to be a matchup lefty for the Brewers, but he could add starting depth. That role belonged to Mike Gonzalez, who led the Brewers in appearances last season.
Matt Garza is the big-name acquisition for the Brewers. Twelve different pitchers made starts for the Brewers, even though three pitchers made 31 or more starts, so Garza’s addition is huge for both the rotation and the starting pitching depth.
Norichika Aoki is the biggest loss from that list. Aoki did a lot of things well to set the table for the middle of the order, with a high batting average, good contact skills, and a little bit of speed. His departure creates the biggest hole for the Brewers.
Why bet the over?
This is a pretty talented team that got a real bad rap last season. Between the Braun, Ramirez, and Hart injuries, the back-end of the rotation was in a constant state of flux. Fifteen different players spent time on the disabled list for the Brewers including Alfredo Figaro, Chris Narveson, Hiram Burgos, Marco Estrada, Mark Rogers, Tom Gorzelanny, and Yovani Gallardo. That would wreck any team’s pitching depth and the Brewers were no exception. Aramis Ramirez spent 63 days on the DL. Corey Hart missed the entire season. Injuries decimated the Brewers.
The return of Ryan Braun is a big deal. We’ll see what he looks like without the performance-enhancing drugs, but Braun has five seasons of 30 or more home runs and was coming off back-to-back seven fWAR seasons before the suspension. Even with a drop in production, PED-related or not, Braun should still be a four or five-win player for the Brewers, a big jump from the 1.7 fWAR he accumulated in 2013.
Aramis Ramirez seems to be a forgotten part of the Brewers offense. Whether that’s because of his consistency or his injury problems, Ramirez still posted a .366 wOBA last season, the fifth-best mark among third basemen with 300 or more plate appearances. He’s still productive when he’s in the lineup and hits lefties very well. Between he and Braun, the Brewers should improve on their record against southpaws. There’s a chance that Mark Reynolds could spot start at third base sometimes to keep Ramirez fresh. If Ramirez can manage 500 plate appearances, he should be worth two or more fWAR.
Carlos Gomez had a coming out party last season as he turned himself into one of the game’s most valuable players. He stole 40 bases, hit 24 home runs, and posted a slash line of .284/.338/.506. His .344 BABIP will probably come down, but the power numbers will continue to be park-supported and stolen bases create additional run scoring opportunities. Furthermore, Gomez was one of the game’s top defensive players. He was worth 7.6 fWAR for the Brewers, almost doubling his career nine fWAR entering last season. Even with the potential for regression, Gomez could easily be worth five wins this season. Having Braun to drive him in will help the offense.
Another player who opened a lot of eyes last season was shortstop Jean Segura. His production gradually fell off throughout the season, but it was his first full season in the Majors. He was a plus hitter and plus defender en route to 3.4 fWAR. Segura’s true value is somewhere between what he did in April and May and what happened in August and September. He’s a valuable piece who should improve in his second year and with more familiarity with MLB pitchers. His combo of steals, home runs, and above average defense is tremendous for the Brewers.
Jonathan Lucroy wasn’t as good with the bat in 2013 as he was in 2012, but he is an outstanding pitch framer. His caught stealing percentage still leaves something to be desired, but his impact in the crouch cannot be undervalued. Per StatCorner.net, Lucroy was 31 runs better than the average catcher at getting his pitchers additional strike calls. Between blocking pitches and framing, Baseball Prospectus puts his value at 35.9 runs saved. A more talented, more consistent pitching staff will benefit the Brewers immensely with Lucroy’s defensive chops and his ability to help the pitchers.
The aforementioned Mark Reynolds could be an interesting player for the Brewers. Miller Park was the fifth-best environment for run scoring and home run hitting according to ESPN’s Park Factor data. That plays right into Reynolds’s skill set as a free-swinging corner infielder with excellent power. With above average walk rates and a chance to get a full season worth of plate appearances, Reynolds could easily chip in 30 home runs and replace Corey Hart in the lineup. Like Braun and Ramirez, Reynolds will help against lefties.
Khris Davis has 30 home run potential as a big bat in left field. With the Aoki trade, Braun moves to right field to open up a lot of plate appearances for Davis. The Brewers could come close to leading the league in home with Reynolds, Braun, and Davis all in the everyday lineup.
The Brewers rotation is much improved just by the addition of Matt Garza. Garza fits nicely into the middle of the Brewers rotation and if he can bring his ground ball rate back to its 2011 and 2012 levels, he could be a very valuable starter. Health is the concern, as Garza has made just 42 starts since 2011, but he’s better than the collection of guys the Brewers were forced into last season.
Yovani Gallardo is the wild card of this rotation. There’s a reasonable chance that Gallardo pitched through some discomfort because the Brewers had pitchers dropping like flies throughout the season. Gallardo’s velocity dropped dramatically and strikeouts dropped with it. The velocity drop led Gallardo to be more of a ground ball guy, which certainly has its perks in Miller Park. With an offseason to rest and consider mechanical changes, Gallardo has a track record that lends itself to a bounce back season.
Kyle Lohse continues to be underappreciated as guy who possesses excellent control and can stay away from the barrel of the bat. He’s been durable throughout his career and was able to outpitch his FIP for the third straight season. He’s not flashy or dominant, but the Brewers offense will be better and Lohse will benefit.
Wily Peralta went through some growing pains last season, but his strikeout rate improved in the second half and his repertoire leads to a lot of excitement. He’s a fastball-slider-change guy with a heavy 95 mph sinker and a slider that he got more confident in throwing as the season wore on. He was a little bit unlucky with when he gave up hits, with a left on base percentage of just 66.6 percent. The National League average was 73.6 percent last season. Expect that number to improve and with it, Peralta’s performance.
Marco Estrada was outstanding in the second half of last season. He posted a 2.15 ERA in his 58.2 innings of work and posted a ridiculously good 5.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s a guy that advanced metrics love because of his above average strikeout ability and tremendous control. His career 4.17 ERA is offset by a 3.81 FIP and a 3.37 SIERA.
With Mike Fiers, Johnny Hellweg, and Tyler Thornburg serving as the starter depth, the Brewers need to stay healthy, but going through 12 starters again seems highly unlikely.
The bullpen is a bit of a question mark but has talent. Jim Henderson struggled late in the season but has been tabbed the closer to start the year. Henderson used a fastball-slider combo to strike out over 30 percent of the batters he faced. Francisco Rodriguez will be the primary setup man and closer-in-waiting in case Henderson falters. He’s still a very effective reliever. Brandon Kintzler wound up being a pleasant surprise. He doesn’t have the prototypical reliever stuff, relying on control, ground balls, and a fastball hovering around 92, but he was durable and effective in 51 appearances.
Will Smith will be the chief matchup lefty for Ron Roenicke’s team. If healthy, Tom Gorzelanny may slot into the second lefty or in a long relief role. Beyond that, there are some depth concerns, but the big four of Henderson, Rodriguez, Kintzler, and Smith will be the ones pitching in the high leverage spots and that’s very promising.
Why bet the under?
If you don’t anticipate a drop-off for the Cardinals, Reds, or Pirates, finding an upgrade of six wins for the Brewers is hard to do. Over 35 percent of the schedule will be played against those three foes.
Starting with the lineup, there are concerns of injury and regression. Aramis Ramirez probably won’t see 500 plate appearances. Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez could very easily see drops in their BABIPs and power output. Nobody truly knows what type of hitter Ryan Braun will be after missing so much of 2013 and no longer being on the juice.
For the most obvious case of regression, look at Scooter Gennett. Gennett was fourth among position players in fWAR with 1.9 in just 69 games. Gennett had a .380 BABIP and six home runs in 230 plate appearances after hitting just 26 in 2,048 minor league plate appearances. Gennett’s plate discipline should improve, but don’t expect the impact he had in 2013 to be sustainable.
From the pitching side of things, the worst-case scenario, which is plausible, is that Garza gets hurt again, Gallardo continues to regress, and Peralta and Estrada don’t take the next steps forward. If that’s the case, the Brewers will have a below average rotation in a dangerous park. Gallardo’s velocity drop and control problems could simply be signs of deteriorating skills. Lohse’s home run rate climbed and his FIP was 4.08, 0.73 points higher than his ERA. A 4.08 FIP is below average in the National League, so Lohse’s BABIP and walk rate need to stay below averages for him to be effective. He also stranded over 79 percent of his runners, something that rarely happens with a guy so far below average at missing bats.
The bullpen is not deep and an injury to one of the three main righties has the potential to severely cripple that group. If Henderson, Rodriguez, or Kintzler go down, it will be very difficult to close out leads. Rodriguez is the oldest of the three at 32 and probably the most important of the three. He made just 48 appearances last season, which is certainly a red flag entering this season.
As a team, the Brewers saved 58 runs defensively, which doesn’t take into account what Lucroy saved as a pitch framer. The Brewers saved 14 and 16 runs, respectively, in 2012 and 2011. A drop-off in defense could make a precarious pitching staff situation even more dire.
Pick: Over 79 (-115, BetDSI)
It may just be me, but I’m really high on this rotation. I think it has plenty of potential, largely because of Estrada and Peralta. If they develop as they should, the Brewers rotation features five above average arms, which is more than a lot of teams can say. The offense looks much better with the return of Braun and the hope that Ramirez stays healthy. Even if he doesn’t, the Brewers will be better equipped to reestablish their home-field advantage with some power bats like Reynolds and Davis.
I also feel like the Pirates and Reds will come back to the pack, which should level the NL Central playing field. The Brewers are a darkhorse team to contend for a wild card spot if they stay healthy and the regression from some of their players is avoided altogether or gradual enough to be overcome.
Lucroy’s effect on the pitching staff is a huge deal that oddsmakers aren’t going to account for. The improvement in the win total is solely because of Braun’s return and the Garza signing. Plenty of upgrades and tweaks are unaccounted for in this line and the Brewers should be better than .500.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.