Lifting the Blueprint

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Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers have been on quite a tear these last few weeks and it’s been hard not to get caught up in all the fun. They can hit, they can run, they like to flash the leather and they can pitch. For us Royals fans, this team looks oddly familiar.

Sure, there are the familiar faces littering the roster. It’s easy to get wrapped up in watching Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and even Erik Kratz (Erik Kratz!!) have postseason success. Throw in Joakim Soria, Jeremy Jeffress and even Manny Pina and at times it feels more like a Kansas City reunion than an October playoff run.

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But maybe more than all of that is Milwaukee’s focus on their bullpen. The Brewers have had no qualms in October with pulling their starting pitching early and letting the pen take over the game. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell has figured out how to utilize his relievers and configure them to help achieve the wins needed to parlay that into a trip to the World Series.

Hold on. That sounds really familiar. What other team rode one of the best bullpens in baseball all the way to the World Series? Yes, it would be the Royals. In fact, many within the game believe Kansas City’s use of high power arms in the back-end of the game was a precursor to about every single postseason team that has followed. The latest to steal the Royals formula are the Brewers and so far, so good.

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But that begs an interesting question: If the Royals are the template, has Milwaukee improved on the original? Watching the Brewers roll out Josh Hader and Jeffress and Soria and Corey Knebel has really sparked a question of the two bullpens and just how comparable they really are. So lets figure out which is the better pen…

For this project I had to make a decision on which year would I go off of for the Kansas City. After some studying it appears we are going with the group from 2014, which was slightly better according to fWAR. This would also coincide with the Royals first appearance in the postseason this decade, as it is for Milwaukee.

Joakim Soria
Credit: Associated Press

Let’s start with some base numbers to start things off: Milwaukee relievers threw 614 innings this season, compiling an ERA of 3.47, an xFIP of 3.47 while striking out 10.38 batters per 9 innings. Meanwhile, the Royals pen only through 464 innings back in 2014, posting an ERA of 3.30, an xFIP of 3.54, while striking out 8.65 batters per 9. If we are talking WAR, the ‘Brew Crew’ had 7.1 while Kansas City only had 5.1 wins above replacement.

Going by the early numbers, it is already apparent the drastic shift in bullpen usage over the last couple of seasons. Milwaukee relievers threw 150 more innings this season than the Royals did in the 2014 campaign. Even going off of the 2015 Royals pen, the Brewers still tossed 75 more innings than the world championship squad. So in just four short years, there has been a noticeable difference in how pitchers are being used in the regular season, a change that is probably slightly attributed to how the Kansas City relievers were utilized in those two Octobers.

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Credit: Getty Images

With that said, the early numbers paint a picture of the Milwaukee pen being slightly better, as they had a slightly better xFIP, slightly higher K’s per 9 and a 2 win bump in WAR. But one can make the argument that the increase in WAR could be due to the massive difference in innings pitched, since WAR is an accumulative stat. The more innings you pitch, the more chances you have to increase your wins above replacement.

The strike outs are also interesting here, since most tend to go more off of K rate rather than per 9. The Brewers strike out rate this year was 27.6% (best in the National League), while the ’14 Royals put up a 23% rate. Considering the increase in strike outs across the league over the last couple seasons and how more batters work on elevating the ball while hitting for more power, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see how these numbers panned out.

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Credit: Getty Images

But how do the strike outs compare to the walks allowed? Going off of Walk %, the Brewers had a higher percentage, 9.5% compared to 8.8% by the Royals. When it comes to K-BB%, Milwaukee shines again as they posted a 18.1% while Kansas City had a 14.3%. Once again, part of this could be chalked up to the increase in strike outs. But it does appear on the surface that the Brewers are a pen built on more strike out relievers than the Royals.

That is backed up simply by looking at how many of the relievers on these two teams had a strike out rate over league average. League average in 2018 is 22.3% and Milwaukee had seven relievers with a rate higher than that. In 2014, the league average was 20.4%, and the Royals had only three relievers over that threshold. If we are talking the highest strike out rate, Josh Hader had 46.7% this year while Wade Davis had 39.1%. In fact, Hader and Corey Knebel both had a higher rate of punching out batters than Wade Davis did back in 2014.

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So the numbers appear to skew a bit closer to Milwaukee’s side at this point, but we are not quite done breaking down the numbers. When it comes to WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched), the two teams are almost identical, as Milwaukee has a 1.25 and Kansas City pulled in a 1.24. This means the two teams were almost uniform in how many base runners they were allowing per innings pitched, which would essentially phase out the innings difference.

They were also similar when it came to Batting Average on Balls in Play, as the Royals posted a .293 batting average, while Milwaukee’s was .297. While a part of me wondered if the Brewers relievers were throwing slightly harder (based off the higher use of power arms in bullpens now compared to then and Milwaukee’s higher strike out rate), the truth is that the two teams had an almost identical average fastball velocity. Back in 2014, the Royals relievers averaged 93.5 mph while the Brewers this year averaged 93.9 mph.

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Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

In fact even if you tossed in fastball usage, the Royals relievers actually threw their fastball more on average than Milwaukee. The Royals relievers back in 2014 threw a fastball 63.2% of the time while the Brewers only threw it 61.8% this year.

I wondered if maybe Milwaukee was throwing more breaking balls than Kansas City did, but once again it was pretty close. The Royals used a slider 18.5% of the time and a curveball 7%. On the other side of the coin, Milwaukee used a slider 17.2% this year and a curve 10% of the time. While each team used a different breaking ball more often, the numbers are close enough to where they could probably meet in the middle.

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Credit: Jamie Squire / Getty Images

If we really want to break things down, you start factoring win probability into the equation. In a very unsurprising development, these two teams were once again are ‘neck and neck’ in WPA; the Royals posted 8.09 win probability in ’14 while the Brewers had 8.06. In a bit of a shock though, the two teams RE24 showed a big gap. Milwaukee posted an impressive 59.96 RE24 this year while the Royals had 31.10. Since run expectancy is another accumulative statistic, I do wonder here if the extra innings compiled by the Brewers relievers played a factor in the almost 29 point difference. If so, you wonder how closer the two teams would be if they had thrown the same number of innings.

There was one final factor I wanted to venture into and that was the defensive aspect of this conversation. It was very well known that the 2014 Royals squad had a great defense and there was no way the pitching didn’t benefit from that defense. With that said, this Milwaukee team has also put up a solid defensive campaign, with Cain and Moustakas obviously being the two comparable links.

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If we are going by defensive runs saved, it is no contest: the Brewers had 112 DRS while the Royals put up only 34. But there is also Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF), which measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average. If we are comparing each team’s DEF, the Royals win easily over Milwaukee, 65.5 compared to 29.9. I’m always a bit hesitant when using defensive metrics but the one thing you can take from these numbers is that both bullpens benefited from the glovework done out on the field while they were in the game.

So which pen is better? It appears to be a very close race and I almost feel skeptical in picking a winner. But if I absolutely had to, I would probably say Milwaukee’s is slightly better, with a few more weapons at their disposal. The one thing we can agree on is that we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if not for how Dayton Moore built his teams to weigh so heavily on the shoulders of the relievers. That template has become a staple all around baseball and not just by the Brewers.

It will also be curious to see where Milwaukee ends up. The Royals bullpen got them all the way to Game 7 of the World Series in 2014, and then a world championship the following year. Will the Brewers ride their pen to the World Series or will the high usage of their relievers be their downfall? It is a question we will know the answer to soon enough.

Stay Golden, PonyBoy

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Last night I watched my Kansas City Royals go out there and…well, they looked like crap for 3/4 of the game. No patience. Made Carlos Carrasco look like Cy Young himself and did everything in their power to not win that game. Funny thing is, the Indians didn’t seem keen on winning either, and alas lost the game to Kansas City. The Royals are back at .500, but things are far from perfect for this ball club. Probably the two biggest questions asked last month was ‘Why are Chris Getz and Jeff Francoeur still employed by this team’? Okay, that is one really long question. But you could ask the same question individually for these two, right? Never mind, these two don’t deserve two separate mentions. It’s a question that has been asked for awhile now, and the answer is pretty simple: Dayton Moore loves his ‘Golden Boys’.

Jeff Francoeur press conference

Let’s start with ‘The man they call Frenchy’. Before the 2010 season was even over with, it appeared Moore was going to make a play for the former Brave. To be honest, it wasn’t going to be hard to convince Francoeur to come to Kansas City. Frenchy had spent most of the previous seasons on the bench for the New York Mets and Texas Rangers, so it wasn’t like teams were climbing over each other to be able to sign him. I remember knowing this was going to happen and just hating it. Francoeur was awful at this point, a guy who had a giant reputation as a great clubhouse guy but also a giant reputation for being a bad hitter. In my mind, there was no way this was going to end well. In 2011, Francoeur made me look bad, as he had a really good season and showed all the ‘experts’ that he still had some gas in the tank. Even Dayton was fooled, as he signed him to an extension that summer for two more years. So what had originally looked like a genius move started to look like a colossal problem waiting to happen….and boy did it happen! Francoeur had an awful 2012, a season where no part of his game was solid. Even his defense took a hit, as he went from being a solid defense guy with a great arm to one with no range or mobility…and a great arm. As good as a 2011 season Frenchy had, it was just as equally bad in 2012. It appeared as if THIS was the real Frenchy, not the guy who came to play in 2011.

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On the other hand, you have Chris Getz. Getzie, as his manager and Rex Hudler love to call him, was acquired by Dayton Moore in the winter of 2009 as part of the Mark Teahen trade to Chicago. No big deal at the time, as he was just a middle infielder who had played the previous few years for the White Sox. Early on it was evident that Dayton and manager Neddy Yost loved this guy. Every time he was brought up, they gushed about how he was “mistake-free” and did all the little things that don’t get credit. Injuries plagued Getzie and if that wasn’t enough, he just didn’t supply much on offense. The running joke was that it would take a miracle to even get him to hit a ball to the warning track, let alone over the fence. Bottom line, it appeared that AT BEST Getz was a backup, with that being even questionable since he could only play second base. Despite all of this, Getzie continued to get playing time, even over former prospect Johnny Giavotella. It was more than apparent that Royals management loved a guy who did a lot of things average and very little above that.

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Now just looking at what I have supplied so far, it would appear that if the Royals were serious about contending in 2013, Dayton Moore would have at least looked into possible replacements for these two in the offseason, right? I thought so too, even if it was just as a safety net. Instead, once Wil Myers was traded to Tampa, it appeared the Royals were pretty much done for the off-season and Getz and Francoeur were the early favorites for their respective positions. Dayton had even said that he felt Frenchy could bounce back this year and Getzie would battle it out with Giavotella for second. As expected, both started the year as starters in the Royals lineup.

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Not only have these two not performed better than last year, both have regressed even more. I feel dirty writing out the stats so instead I will link Getz’s and Francoeur’s. Both are putrid numbers, numbers that shouldn’t be accepted by any major league team. Both guys have pretty much been relegated to the bench, but even that seems like it is too much. So why do these two still have jobs? Because Dayton loves certain players, players with intangibles. Frenchy and Getzie fit that bill. They aren’t even the first of their kind, not even close.

Jason Kendall

Jason Kendall was signed a few years ago by Dayton Moore, almost as a stopgap till some of their younger catchers(Read: Sal Perez and Manny Pina) matured enough to take over behind the dish. Now, Kendall wasn’t the worst player the Royals could have signed. He still knew how to handle a young pitching staff and worked well behind the plate. Sure, he couldn’t really throw anyone out, but for a guy in his late 30’s, he was fine for then. The thing is, he probably should have been a catcher who caught around 120 games a year, tops. Instead, he was in the lineup–every day. To make matters worse, he also was a regular near the top of the order, since he had a reputation of being a solid bat. Well, he had a solid bat in his prime. By 2010, he was a .250 hitter with his speed gone and was a singles hitter at best. In other words, the only way he should be near the top of the order is when he bats 9th and views the lead off hitter in the on deck circle. If it wasn’t for a career ending injury late in that season, who knows how much more Kendall we would have seen. The Royals love this guy so much that they have kept him in the organization. Hell, I’ve even said jokingly(or at least I think it’s a joke) that we could see Kendall as the Royals manager some day. Was Kendall good in his prime? Of course, he was an all-star. But by the time Dayton grabbed him from the land of misfit toys, he was a has-been. But they loved him–for his intangibles. A hard-nosed, gritty, playing the game the right way kind of guy. Which is fine–if he produces.

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Willie Bloomquist was another Moore favorite. Willie was a career backup before he came to the Royals, a guy who played a lot of positions, but none good enough to play every day. He was the definition of a utility player, or a super-sub. Now, I had no problem with the Royals signing Bloomquist. Actually, I liked the signing. But that was because I thought we were getting a solid backup infielder. Instead we got a guy who played every day, at a myriad of different positions. A guy who had only had one season of more than 250 at bats, got over 400 in 2009, his first with the Royals. Once again, great guy, good glove and a solid bat. But he played waaaaaay  too much and (gasp) didn’t produce.

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So we are back to the current day Kansas City Royals, a team that management thinks SHOULD be contending, but seems very poorly constructed. For every good acquisition Moore has(Shield, Santana) there seems to be an equal amount that fit the idea he has of what a winner really is(Getz, Francoeur). So for every step forward, there is a step (or two) back. What Dayton should be looking for isn’t a guy who can bunt really good, or one who loves being Captain Nut-Tap. It’s simple–he should be looking for good players. Players who can get on base, players who know how to pitch in pressure situations. Players who don’t hurt their team on defense, or can only be average at best. What Dayton Moore needs to realize is what he values(small ball, good character, hard-nosed, old school baseball players) doesn’t matter when you bring in players who aren’t good.   If they are serious about winning, bring players in who are good and know how to win. Then we can talk and I can be serious about this team. Until then, stay golden, Ponyboy.

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