Week in Re-brew is a new series. It looks at the Milwaukee Brewers’ prior week. In the process, it also may or may not wander into other territory. It’s really pretty self-explanatory. Enjoy.
Last 7 days: 3-3
Next 7 days: At Padres, At Cubs
In 2019, Devin Williams was a raw big leaguer with a FIP approaching 5, a WHIP over 1.75 and yielded 12 hits per nine innings.
In 2020, Devin Williams unleashed a new changeup on the National League, lowering his FIP below 1, a WHIP of 0.63 and an ERA+ of (not a typo) 1375. Sure, it was the pandemic season — and a season I personally do not acknowledge — but Williams bent air to the tune of a Rookie of the Year award, a top-ten finish in Cy Young Award voting and became a social media sensation courtesy Pitching Ninja Rob Friedman.
2021 looks more like Devin Williams’ 2019 than the year that catapulted him into a merch-selling lights out phenomenon. And it’s fair to wonder if the talented, 26-year-old reliever has been overexposed.
It stands to reason that tech-forward front offices can use social media, too. And all those devastating swords and buckled knees and crapped pants can be examined, re-examined and re-reexamined to see grips, release points, arm slots, ball trajectory…
Williams, per Brooks Baseball, has a three-pitch repertoire, but as 2020 lumbered on, his slider all but disappeared in favor of that physics-defying change. Even his four-seam fastball, which regularly trafficks in the upper 90s, was sidelined in favor of the changeup.
Now, with a full offseason and plenty of GIFs and video out there, and the changeup not necessarily responding the way we’ve come to expect, Williams looks exceptionally human out there in high-leverage situations. The changeup, which in 2020 was darting down and off the plate, is staying up. With a two-pitch pitcher, if one pitch fails, hitters can time up the other. With fellow Brewers pitcher Freddy Peralta, for example, hitters figured his two pitches out too easily. With significant investment this past offseason into a slider as a legitimate third option, Peralta is rejuvenating his career as a starter by including a pitch that allows his already-impressive fastball to shine.
Of course, relievers aren’t starters, comparing Peralta to Williams isn’t fair for any number of reasons. But Williams’ changeup isn’t Trevor Hoffman‘s circle change or Mariano Rivera‘s cutter. He can’t rely on a single pitch in the surveillance era, and he almost certainly doesn’t have mastery of it yet. Williams also may not be 100% after very limited action in Spring Training. But the hard hit rate is worrysome, the chase and swing rates are trending downward and a quiet inning Sunday afternoon against a pedestrian Pittsburgh Pirates offense isn’t enough to dissuade me from those concerns.
The bullpen was touted as a strength of the Brewers club going into 2021, mostly because of Williams, Josh Hader and the rubber-armed, crafty Brent Suter. Only Hader has lived up to billing, but he’s mostly stranded while the starters have been turned into inefficient but effective six-inning hurlers. Without someone to step up and bridge the gap — Brad Boxberger and J.P. Feyereisen are early feel-good stories, but Drew Rasmussen and Eric Yardley have struggled, while Craig Counsell experiments with recent promising, yet raw call-up Angel Perdomo and hopes Williams can regain that 2020 form — expect more heartbreak from the third and fourth times through opposing teams’ lineups.
Your top-five hitters last week
Just as everyone predicted: Jackie Bradley Jr., Avisail Garcia, Billy McKinney, Travis Shaw, Keston Hiura.
That’s the list, according to MLB, which adds this little nugget: To qualify, a player must have 3.1 PA per team game played. Welp.
Bradley seems to be growing comfortable playing everyday, which would make sense for a guy who has played over 90% of his club’s games per season since 2016. He’s also leading the qualifiers in slash line categories and strikeouts (nine). There was also that ugly 7th inning five-pitch at bat in the Brewers loss to the Cubs Monday where he tapped back to the mound for an easy 1-3 putout, leaving the bases loaded and squashing a budding rally. Since then, Bradley has acquitted himself well in the absence of Lorenzo Cain, and, like Cain, is a strong clubhouse presence capable of making Gold Glove-grade plays. He’s not really a lead-off hitter, lead-off hitters might be overrated, but no one else in the lineup is particularly suited for the role. We pray to the patron saint of not-really-lead-off-hitters, Brady Clark, for the 1 slot on the lineup card.
Brewers lead-off hitters thus far are slashing a not-great-but-not-bad .217/.319/.400 on the season, with unexpected pop in their bats (6 XBH of 13 total hits). I’ve suggested on Twitter that Cain should remain atop the lineup when healthy: Kolten Wong was a lead-off hitter for the plodding 2020 Cardinals by default, as Bradley is right now, didn’t hit particularly well then or now with no outs, struggled then and now with the pitcher ahead in counts and the pop in his bat is better suited for the 2, 6 or 7 hole, all spots where he has enjoyed more success in his career than at 1. This is not to say I don’t like Kolton Wong; he’s a good-to-very-good defender at second and I do like what he could bring to the table as a doubles machine, say, cleaning up in the 6-7 spot.
I also prefer baseball players when they’re healthy, and it does warrant mentioning that losing three starters and going .500 isn’t the end of the world.
Speaking of the bottom of the order:
Rogers Urias notwithstanding, 7 and 8 hitters — including Luis Urias, Omar Narvaez, Daniel Robertson, Jace Peterson, Billy McKinney and Manny Pina, went 8-38 last week, good for a .210 average, 13 strikeouts, nine walks (six from Urias) and two XBH. Granted, at that spot in the lineup, the point is to get on base by any means necessary so that the pitcher can get cycled through and reset the lineup, but the balance between putting weaker hitters there and getting batters on base is the difference between three typically easy outs and and anywhere from 6-9, or up to three full innings of outs. In the same way that a strong bullpen shortens a game, so does a shortened lineup card. Urias’ awakening has been crucial, but sustaining that at the 7 and getting literally anything from 8 (where they rank amongst the worst in Baseball with a sOPS+ of 16, per Baseball Reference, with 100 representing the mean) will be a bellwether for the Brewers’ success as the year progresses. Trading Orlando Arcia away shouldn’t result in net neutral offense.
Carousel of progress
I’m going to go ahead and say this much: it’s entirely probable the Brewers have a rotation that may go down as the most effective in franchise history. Better than 2011, better than 2008, 1987 or even the beloved, crusty 1982 crew.
The Brewers’ history with aces is checkered at best: Teddy Higuera was never the same after injury. Don Sutton was a hired gun with an established reputation, as were Zack Greinke and CC Sabathia. Ben Sheets‘ arm just about came flying off and consistently lacked run support. Yovani Gallardo never became the ace fans hoped he would be, but showed promise. Jimmy Nelson, too, was snake-bitten by injuries, which is too bad, because we could have had a dominant Jimmy and Woody in the same rotation and fought the urge to giggle for years to come.
All giggling aside, they’ve never had two dominant, homegrown aces, and that’s potentially what we have in Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, whose work this season speaks for themselves.
Adrian Houser was understandably frustrated getting pulled in the fifth inning for Suter, who promptly gave up a two-run triple to Brewer Killer Adam Frazier and, two batters later an RBI double to the wildly underrated Bryan Reynolds, scoring the aforementioned BKAF. (Frazier has 18 career triples. Five of them have come against Brewers pitching.)
Suter is best when the bases are empty and he can focus on directing his fast-paced style against hitters rather than overthinking the situation and hanging pitches like the breaking ball that didn’t break against Frazier. This is all beside the point: Houser almost literally couldn’t have fared worse than Suter did, had logged a high-ish 71 pitches and just came off a strikeout against his counterpart, JT Brubaker. Pulling him then instead of allowing him the opportunity to get out of the jam with that tailor made for DPs sinker was a mistake.
While Woodruff and Burnes were doing their thing with six-inning, double-digit strikeout totals and missing bats with impunity earlier in the week, Brett Anderson went seven, decidedly unsexy innings Saturday, but made Pirates hitters pound balls into the ground, to the point where one could see hitters beginning to press as the game went on. Peralta could only go five innings Sunday — control and pitch efficiency has always been an issue — but kept the team in the game until middle relief let him down.
Why Counsell went to Williams and Hader for the 8th and 9th as though the team had the lead was beyond me; the Brewers showed little life at the plate in the middle innings (1-10, 2 BB in innings 4-6) while the aforementioned 7 and 8 hitters (Pina, Robertson) went 0-7 with a walk for the game. If anything, it seemed like Feyereisen should have come in in the sixth, with Boxberger, Williams and Hader slid back to cover extras. Everything about the game — Brewers tying the game at 3 in the 3rd, then tying the game again in the 7th courtesy Daniel Vogelbach‘s second dinger of the day — had an extra innings feel. How that didn’t get picked up in the dugout was beyond me.
Overall, the sense I got from the weekend series was that the Brewers simply looked past the Pirates this weekend, after capping off a high-intensity series against their hated rivals and staring down the rivals to the NL West throne in San Diego later tonight. It’s a failure of leadership to keep the team focused and game-ready, particularly in the absence of three starters and more-than-adequate starting pitching.
The Pirates had nothing to prove: they’ve got good components, but they’re not expected to do anything this season or the next (or the next after that.) The Brewers, on the other hand, were a dark horse favorite to make noise in the chase for the NL Central, and should have taken care of business against a lesser, albeit talented, opponent. Don’t blame Colin Moran for Sunday’s loss: the Brewes didn’t assert themselves and needed home runs to keep up.
Now they run into logistical hell, playing nine games in ten days in two time zones. We’ll see how things land in a week’s time.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville. Statistics come from Statcast, Baseball Reference and my own scorebook.