Friday, April 29, 2011

Braun's Incredible April

There was little question coming into this season that Ryan Braun was a very good hitter. He has always shown an ability to hit for high average, high slugging seasons. However what Braun has been able to do so far in 2011 is only expanding his reputation as one of the game's elite.

The biggest knock on Braun throughout his career at the plate has always been his inability to so elite patience. Sure, no one is saying Braun never walked, but to be on the level of baseball's best, Braun had some work to do. In his first four pro seasons, Braun posted walk percentages of 5.9, 6.3, 8.1 and 8.2 in order. While trending up in the base on ball category is always a good sign, Braun has taken it to a new level this season. Through his first 24 games, Braun is walking 14.8% of the time. What makes this even more impressive is the way Ryan has accomplished this.

In 2011, Braun is seeing first pitch strike at a higher rate than any other point in his career (67.6%). What Braun has been able to do to combat that is go deeper into counts and foul more pitches off. Only 59.9% of pitches that Braun has seen have gone for strikes. In 447 pitches this season, Braun has swung at just 42.2% of them. That again is a career low.

Even better, Braun has done incredible damage in the limited number of times he has swung the bat. His line drive percentage sits at a staggering 25.7%, which is more than 6% higher than any other point in his career. Of the 26 fly balls Braun has hit, nine have left the yard for an unbelievable 34.4% HR/FB ratio. Can he maintain those numbers, obviously not, but Braun has some things going for him.

His BABIP in 2011 currently sits at .353. While that is surely high, it's not that far off his career average of .336. His pitches per at bat currently sits at 4.14, which again is a career high. These are numbers that Braun could maintain and would continue to mean incredible success at the dish.

All said, in the month of April, Ryan Braun, along with Prince Fielder have carried the Brewers offense. In just 90 at bats, Braun has already produced a 1.4 WAR. While that is pretty unheard of, think of how tough that is with the defense Braun plays. According to UZR, Braun's defense is already four runs under league average this season. If he was just producing at a league average rate, the Braun's WAR would be right near two. Wow. If Braun is even a shell of what he produced this month, Brewers fans are in for quite a show.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Brewers Extend Braun

The Milwaukee Brewers announced Thursday, they have agreed to a five-year extension with left fielder Ryan Braun. The contract, which locks up Braun through 2020, is for $105 million.

I think every Brewer fan would be lying if they said they saw this coming. The biggest flaw in this deal is Braun was already locked up cheaply through 2015 (age 32). Essentially, the risk just is too steep. Extending Braun an additional five years was just not that necessary.

Contrary to what you may think after reading this article, Ryan Braun is one of my favorite players. The point of this article is not to say Braun is a bad player, he isn't. The point is not to say this contract is a terrible waste of money, it isn't. However, the point of this article is to analyse the strategy the Brewers used in locking up their young superstar.

To start, let's look at where the Brewers and Ryan Braun stood prior to Thursday's extension. Braun had $40.5 million and five years remaining on his old contract, which Braun signed in 2008. Now of course, Braun would be worth more money when that contract would've ran out assuming he stayed healthy and kept a similar performance up.

The breakdown of this article is not saying the value isn't there. Again, if he stays healthy and keeps a similar performance level up, this is a bargain. Where my problem is with this deal is was it really necessary? Braun was already locked up through his prime at a very reasonable price. I question the reasoning in rushing to sign Braun for his age 33-37 seasons for $21 million annually.

The biggest problem with the signing is the things the Brewers just don't know. Sure, Braun's doesn't have a history riddled with injuries, but what's to say he's going to stay healthy throughout the entire contract. In addition, there has to be some concern about Braun's ability near the end of his career. Sure, we aren't talking the same risk of an Alfonso Soriano type contract, but that's not to say some uncertainty isn't there.

Could Braun remain an incredible hitter throughout the rest of his time with the Brewers, yes. Could Braun also fall off and have a large contract with average production near the end of his career? Yes. That's the problem with this deal. There is some reward if everything works out until the end. However, that reward doesn't outweigh the potential problems that could arise.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cause for Concern: John Axford

There are many out there who immediately diagnosed John Axford as trouble after the first game of the season against the Cincinnati Reds. Axford blew a three run lead and the Brewers lost their opening game 7-6. The scrutiny didn't really seem all that warranted considering just how effective Axford was last season. After all, it was one inning. That's pretty simple to shake off.

What transpired over the next couple of outings is where concern really starts to set in for Brewers fans. The problem seems rather easy to diagnose: he's not throwing strikes. However, that really isn't the problem at all, which leads to even more confusion.

At the moment, Axford has thrown a total of 136 pitches this season. Of those 136, 82 have gone for strikes, or 60.3%. While that isn't the highest strike percentage, it's not that bad. Take Axford's 2010 for comparaison. Last season, Axford threw strikes on 607 of his 989 pitches. That translates into 61.4% pitches thrown for strikes. Sure that is better than this season, but really doesn't seem to be the problem.

Axford seemed to have a tendency to get batters to swing at pitches out of the zone last season. To the naked eye, that ability has eluded him this year. However, again, this doesn't seem to be the problem. In fact, Axford has actually gotten hitters to swing at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone this year (33.9%), than last year (32.1%). It's not like the hitters aren't chasing pitches, they are. Where Axford's problem lies is what happens when the chase those pitches.

This season, despite getting hitters to chase balls, they are making contact with them. This surely has a direct correlation to where Axford's pitches have been. Axford has seemed to lose control of the slider that was so deadly last season. Time and time again, Axford has left his slider up this season. When it's up and possibly missing the strike zone, it's much easier to make contact than when it's sharp and diving out of it. So far this year, batters are making contact at a 89.5% rate of pitches thrown out of the strike zone. Last season, those same pitches were only hit 57.3% of the time when the batter swung.

Are Axford's six walks in 6.1 innings a concern? Sure. Were Axford's control troubles in Philadelphia Monday apparent? Yes. Outings like Monday are going to happen for pitchers like Axford. Where my concern lies in is where Axford is throwing pitches. A floating slider is easy to hit, even if it is a ball. Pitches are going to walk batters if they are unable to get batters to swing and miss at pitches out of the strike zone. Until Axford is able to regain the biting slider from last season, the ninth inning will be a concern for Brewers fans.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Production Without Main Pieces

When the Milwaukee Brewers broke camp just two weeks ago, they were without some very big members of their club. Starting the year on the disabled list were newly acquired ace Zack Greinke, the power hitting right fielder Corey Hart and starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy. The goal for many was to simply keep the boat afloat until those clogs returned. That proved pretty tough in the beginning.

The Brewers started their season in Cincinnati, getting swept in the process by the Reds. After an opening day loss to the Atlanta Braves, the Brewers then found themselves 0-4 and having many questions to answer. Was this team really capable of making a run at the division? Was the bullpen really improved? Could they be okay for the time being until their weapons returned?

What this team has over the past eight games in answer all those questions with a resounding yes.

In an offensive where Carlos Gomez, Yuniesky Bentancourt, Erick Almonte and Mark Kotsay receive regular playing time, a lot of responsibility falls squarely on the backs of the pitching staff. That pitching staff has taken that responsibility and ran with it. Over the past eight games, Brewers pitchers have thrown a combined 72 innings. Of those 72, 52.2 innings have come from Brewers staring pitching. That's an average start of just under 6.2 innings per start.

If there is one thing that has troubled the Brewers over the past couple of seasons, it has been inconsistent pitching that has led to the bullpen picking up too many innings. Sure the Brewers starters struggled last season, but them wearing out the bullpen had just as much to do with the 26th ranked 'pen in baseball as those relievers did. The formula for success is simple. Good starting pitching leads to good relief pitching. If the Brewers are able to pitch deep into games, they have plenty of arms down in the bullpen who are talented enough to get batters out. Over the past eight games, that is why the Brewers are winning. Here are their numbers respectively.

Brewers Starters: 6-1, 52.2 IP, 2.22 ERA, 40 K, 14 BB

Brewers Bullpen: 1-0, 19.1 IP, 1.39 ERA, 14 K, 9 BB

That's equates to a very impressive team ERA of 2.00 over that eight game stretch. With no coincidence, the Brewers are 7-1 in that same span and have climbed two games above .500.

What's even more encouraging is where this team could go. Keep in mind, this is all without the Brewers best starting pitcher, starting right fielder and best catcher (played just last two games). When Greinke returns, the Brewers, in my opinion, will have the second best rotation in baseball. When Hart returns, he takes the place of a platoon, Kotsay and Almonte, currently hitting .152/.222/.273/.495.

These are all very good signs to see out of a ballclub who was just looking to tread water until their big guns came back. If there pitching staff is able to pitch anywhere near there until then, treading water should be no problem. In fact, playing winning baseball should be the new goal.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Randy Wolf's Rough Start

It's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking Randy Wolf is back to his old antics after two very rough starts to begin 2011. He's back surrendering home run after home run and looks to be dealing with some of the problems that caused him a rough start to 2010. Well, looks can be deceiving.

Let's start with the obvious statement. The defense played behind Wolf this season has been pretty bad. In his last start against the Northsiders, Wolf allowed six runs, but only two were earned. It started in the fourth inning when Rickie Weeks dropped a pop up off the bat of Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez then scored on a home run from Geovany Soto. Later in the inning, Wolf surrendered a three run HR off the bat of Jeff Baker, which broke the game open. A case could be made that those runs would have never scored had Weeks caught the ball.

I don't really subscribe to that style of reasoning, but the argument could be made.

For me, Wolf's start has had some encouraging signs, but has been marred with unfortunate numbers with little chance of continuing. The first start that jumped off the page to me was the amount of fly balls that are leaving the park against Wolf. Wolf has allowed 11 fly balls this season, four of which have gone for long balls. That equates to a ridiculous HR/FB% of 36.4%.

What I take from that is something completely different and positive. When Wolf has gotten into trouble, he has allowed too many balls in the air. This season, Wolf is currently sporting a very nice 1.55 GB:FB ratio. If Wolf is able to stay anywhere near there, he will have a very good 2011.

Another good indication for future success is Wolf's continued control. After a miserable first half in 2010, Wolf was able to significantly improve his strikeout and walk numbers in the second half. He has managed to maintain those numbers after a very shaky spring training. Through his first 10 innings this season, Wolf has struck out ten batters, while walking just three.

Take Wolf's start for what is it. Any pitcher can have two bad outings. What makes a pitcher successful is prolonged success. If Wolf is able to keep up what he is doing currently, things will turn around. However, if he reverts back to his first half of 2010 form, the Brewers could be in trouble. During his time in Milwaukee, you really don't know what Randy Wolf is going to show up. One thing is for sure, facing the Pirates is a lot easier than the Reds and Cubs lineups which can thrive against left handed pitching.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Conundrum in Center

Just 10 games into 2011 and there seems to be an interesting storyline developing. Who should start in center field this season for the Milwaukee Brewers?

The job was handed this offseason to Carlos Gomez early. The Brewers made it known that center field was not up for grabs and Gomez was going to start everyday. While I still feel this is the thought with many of the Brewers officials, fans don't seem so convinced. In the first two weeks of the season, they have seemed to side with Nyjer Morgan and his hot bat and good defensive plays. While the play of Morgan has been exciting, I'd argue the excitement surrounding Morgan has just as much to do with the early struggles of Gomez.

It seems like the same story year after year for Gomez. An inability to get on base, with far too many strikeouts and good defensive ability. While I'm not arguing that his defense isn't valuable to the team, I don't think it should solidify him into the everyday lineup batting second. Gomez has proved time and time again he should be nowhere near the top of the order and his value lies pretty much entirely in his glove.

In theory, that would mean Nyjer Morgan would be a lock for that job, but a closer look would suggest Morgan also has some issues. He also excels with the glove and is a better hitter than Gomez in my opinion. However, his ability to take over in center full time is hampered by his inability to hit left handed pitching. Morgan's numbers against lefties over the past three seasons are as follows.


Morgan vs LHP:

2008: .240/.321/.320/.641, 25 AB's
2009: .175/.283/.223/.507, 103 AB's
2010: .200/.280/.252/.532, 135 AB's

Simply put, Morgan should never be allowed to face left handed pitching. Easy solution, right? Gomez is a righty and would make an ideal platoon option with Morgan. Well, it's not that simple. Here are Gomez' numbers against lefties during that same time frame.

Gomez vs LHP:

2008: .270/.310/.403/.713, 159 AB's
2009: .204/.275/.333/.608, 108 AB's
2010: .196/.271/.309/.580, 97 AB's

Obviously, those numbers are better than Morgan's but still not something a team would want in their everyday lineup. However, one thing that is impossible to overlook is Morgan's numbers against right handers.

Morgan vs RHP:

2008: .304/.349/.385/.734, 135 AB's
2009: .344/.395/.434/.829, 366 AB's
2010: .273/.333/.337/.670, 374 AB's

While those 2010 numbers aren't impressive, that was his worst season during his career. Despite that, it seems rather obvious that against righties, Nyjer Morgan should be starting over Carlos Gomez in center field. I understand the Brewers still want Gomez to succeed and still want to give him a chance, but starting him over Morgan against righties is not justifiable. Sure Gomez may struggle mightily against lefties, but that is where he should get his playing time. If he reverts back to his 2008 form against them, it would be a huge lift to the Brewers. In the meantime, the recipe for success seems pretty obvious: Morgan vs RHP and Gomez vs LHP.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Wil Nieves Experiment

When the Milwaukee Brewers signed Wil Nieves this offseason, I thought little of it. The Brewers had two catchers who were clearly better than Nieves and he would likely play in the minor leagues, if at all for the Brewers organization.

That was until Jonathan Lucroy fractured his pinkie and had to start the season on the disabled list.

That injury left the Brewers with just one healthy catcher on the roster (George Kottaras) and hoisted Nieves into relevance. Just how relevant he would be was up for debate though. Based on his prior ability to perform in the major leagues, Nieves couldn't have expected much playing time. At age 33, playing Nieves has hardly any upside. So why is he getting at bats over George Kottaras?

Last season, Nieves had an absolutely terrible .244 OBP in 158 at bats for the Washington Nationals. While that may be a small sample size, Nieves has never really been known to have anything other than a strong defensive presence. His wOBA over the past three seasons are .285, .277 and .241. Those kind of numbers don't belong in the major leagues regardless of how good that player is defensively.

What also should come into question is just how good of a defensive catcher Nieves is. Over the past three seasons, base runners have stolen successfully on Nieves 75.9% (104 SB, 33 CS) of the time. Nieves' throw out percentage of 25.1% is right around the league average.

It's understood the Brewers have a problem at catcher until Lucroy returns. The problem with it is how they are handling that problem. Playing Will Nieves over George Kottaras everyday is the wrong decision. Kottaras is a superior hitter over Nieves and should be getting regular playing time. Sure, Kottaras struggles behind the plate defensively, but with Corey Hart and Lucroy out, the Brewers need every offensive option in the lineup. Starting Wil Nieves against right handed pitching just confuses me.