Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Next Up: The Milwaukee Brewers

The Cardinals really are ridiculous. Last Monday, I noted that the Pirates, 3.5 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central, were starting a series of ten games against three of the worst teams in the National League, while the Cardinals had ten against teams with winning records. The Pirates have delivered, going 5-2 in the first seven games...and they've lost a game and a half in the standings. St. Louis has 31 more games. If they go 15-16 for the rest of the season, the Pirates will have to go 22-11 to pass them. That's not impossible--the team's a game better than that, 23-10, over its last 33 games--but the last time the Cardinals were below .500 over a 31-game stretch was July 5 to August 12 last year.

On a brighter note, the Pirates enter play tonight against the Brewers 5.5 games ahead of the Cubs for the first wild card and home field advantage for the National League wild card play-in game on October 7. 

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the last 30 days, the Brewers are 11-14, putting them exactly in the middle of the fifteen-team National League over the span. They've scored 4.5 runs per game, seventh in the league (one spot below the Pirates at 4.6) and allowed 5.2, the fourth most. An 11-14 record is about what you'd expect from a run differential like that.

What's Going Right? The Brewers' batters have hit .259, the sixth highest batting average in the league, over the past 30 days, with a seventh-best .421 slugging percentage, but their .313 on base percentage is twelfth. They've struck out an an above-average rate and walked at a below-average rate but they've generated the third-highest rate of hard contact in the league, resulting in 13% of their fly balls going over the fence, the fifth-highest rate in the league.

What's Going Wrong? The Brewers bullpen has been in the middle of the pack over the past 30 days--4.08 ERA, seventh in the league--but the starters have been bad. Their 5.51 ERA over the past 30 days is tenth in the league. That ranking doesn't sound too bad. But the National League over the past 30 days has had nine teams with a starters' ERA below 4.50 and the other six with a starters' ERA above 5.50. The Brewers are on the wrong side of that divide, as evidenced by the league ERA of 4.44--Milwaukee's been 24% worse. The starters have the highest walk rate and fifth lowest strikeout rate in the league. They've probably been a little unlucky--no team's stranded fewer baserunners--but they've induced opponents to swing at only 27% of pitches outside the strike zone, the second-lowest rate in the league. As a result, they've allowed the highest rate of hard contact on balls in play and the second-lowest rate of soft contact.  

Who's Hot? With center fielder Carlos Gomez traded with starter Mike Fiers to the Astros at the trade deadline, the Brewers' biggest remaining stars are right fielder/boo magnet Ryan Braun and catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Over the past 30 days, Braun's caught fire, with a .337/.400/.596 slash line, and Lucroy's slugged .512 with a .343 on base percentage. Left fielder Khris Davis has hit ten homers, slugging .584, but he's been all-or-none at the plate, with just a .225 batting average and a .283 on base percentage. On the mound, the exception to the Brewers-starters-haven't-been-good rule is rookie Taylor Jungmann, who's had a 3.12 ERA and 30 strikeouts over 26 innings over the past 30 days. Pirates fans will remember that Jungmann's first major league start came against the Bucs in June; he allowed one run over seven innings in a 4-1 Brewers victory. He'll pitch Wednesday. In the bullpen, the two primary setup men, Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress, have been good, with 28 strikeouts and a 1.23 ERA over 22 innings in the past 30 days.

Who's Not? Tonight's starter, Jimmy Nelson, hasn't been bad over the past 30 days, with a 4.03 ERA (but too many walks, 13 in 29 innings). Thursday's starter, Matt Garza, by contrast, has been bad (7.24 ERA). Closer Francisco Rodriguez has struggled, with a 6.10 ERA over the past 30 days. His peripheral numbers are good--13 strikeouts and just one walk over 10.1 innings, going eight-for-nine in saves--but he's given up three home runs, as many as any Brewers starter other than Garza. 

You gotta get on base to score runs, and much of the Brewers' lineup over the past 30 days has been an on base percentage sinkhole: third baseman Hernan Perez (who took over the position when the Pirates acquired Aramis Ramirez) .265, shortstop Jean Segura .272, Gomez replacement Shane Peterson .282, and the aforementioned Davis. Special credit goes to Perez, who has the fewest unintentional walks, three, of any player in the majors with at least 190 plate appearances this year.

What's the Outlook? At 55-75, the Brewers have the fifth worst record in the National League. The Pirates, though, have struggled against their National League Central rivals, going 21-29 in games within the division. That ties them with Milwaukee for the worst record in intra-division games in the Central. So far, the teams have split twelve meetings, and the Brewers hold a 4-2 advantage in games at Miller Park. The Pirates will try to narrow that advantage in advance of a weekend series in St. Louis. As has been the case all year, the key to beating the Brewers is building up a lead against their unreliable starting pitchers.

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