April 24, 2015
Of Signals and Sausages
Since expansion pushed the MLB schedule to 162 games, 29 teams have begun a season by winning three or fewer of their first 15 (in non-strike years). Of these, the 1996 Red Sox are the only club to finish with a winning record, at 85-77. Only nine of the 29 won even 70 games; the average record for the group was 64-97. Isolate the 12 previous teams who started 2-13 or worse, as this year’s Brewers did, and you find only one team who avoided 90 losses—the 81-81 1973 Cardinals. Eight of the 12 lost at least 97.
I lay out these facts not to revel in the Brewers’ badness, but to make sure we have a firm foundation under foot. The Brewers’ playoff chances are functionally gone; only the Phillies keep them out of the NL cellar in our Playoff Odds report. Their chances of being anything this side of disastrously bad are perhaps 35 percent, even if we account to some extent for the fact that no one really expected Milwaukee to be this bad. (Indeed, whatever you thought of the Brewers before the season, keep in mind that many of the teams who started similarly were expected to be better, too.) It’s probably time to blow up this roster, and in due course, I want to begin a sketch of how and why. Before that, though, I want to address two broader, more urgent and (happily) more answerable questions: How much is this lost season, and the prospect of more to come, going to hurt the Brewers? And should we have seen this coming?
The answer to the first question is that, if history is any guide, it’s going to hurt a lot. It might even hurt the Brewers more than it would hurt any other team in the league. Part of the reason is that the team is not really prepared for a rebuild, and will not be able to get one up and running for at least a few months. Another is Brewers fans. There’s elasticity to the demand for Brewers baseball nearly unmatched throughout the rest of the league. It’s not just about attendance, though the gap between ticket sales when the Brewers are good and when they’re bad is unusually large. It’s also about general interest. When the Brewers are winning, the state of Wisconsin drapes itself in the team’s colors. Merchandise is everywhere: on the backs of kids in every school, on racks of clothes sold even at the grocery store, in the windows and on the flag poles of more bars than the government even knows to exist. The Packers and Badgers rule the state year-round, but Wisconsinites make a lot of room in their hearts (and on their chests) for good iterations of the home team.
When the Brewers are bad, they cease to exist outside a 50-mile radius of Miller Park. Striking up a conversation about the team becomes impossible. There are a lot of other things available to the people who make up the Brewers’ core fan base, and when the team doesn’t do enough to capture attention, they lose it, fast. This season is going to erase a lot of currency with fans, painstakingly stored up over seven seasons of more or less competitiveness.
Milwaukee Brewers, Record and Attendance
It is in that spirit that GM Doug Melvin has stretched the team’s budget near its breaking point just about every season. He’s never taken his foot off the gas. The Brewers have made a fistful of surprising free-agent acquisitions under Melvin, and they’ve happily given contract extensions to players like Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Ryan Braun. Melvin traded Zack Greinke at the trade deadline in 2012, but he never trades a real asset unless they’re as close to free agency as Greinke was—a few months of meaningless games away. Milwaukee has invested in the likes of Kyle Lohse, Aramis Ramirez, Matt Garza and Francisco Rodriguez (more than once), demonstrating its commitment to the short term by adding players who won’t be good for much longer. They’ve also kept their money on the field with the parent club, using what few strong prospects they acquire mostly for trade bait, trading the future for the present.
Alas, that led to the Brewers ranking 26th on our organizational prospect rankings this spring. It’s also led to the aging, injured, underperforming roster they have at the big-league level, and to the team-record $104 million owed to that roster for this season. When I alluded to the team being ill-prepared for a rebuild, this is what I was talking about. That’s not the tenor of the front office. It’s not reflected in the composition or distribution of talent within the organization. Like the 2011 Cubs, 2012 Marlins and 2014 Diamondbacks, these Brewers entered the season expecting to hang around, hoping things would fall right and allow them to outrun certain clear deficiencies. As they did for those teams, things went badly wrong, instead, and as those teams did, the Brewers will have to limp through this season before beginning their reconstruction in earnest. I call these bootstrap teams: brash, intent on willing themselves into winning position. When the bootstraps break, though, there’s no safety net left, and the way forward is hazardous and unclear. (It’s also, usually, traversed by different personnel.)
In case the failure to foresee the fall of the Brewers turns out to be a fatal flaw for Melvin, then, and since there’s not much point in wringing our hands over the next step before even the team has plotted one, let’s try to answer my other question above: can Melvin fairly be blamed for not seeing this coming?
In The Signal and the Noise, Baseball Prospectus co-founder Nate Silver wrote up the recent financial crisis as a massive, devastating failure of prediction. (We all see the world through the lenses we like best.) In so doing, he talks about the ratings agencies who grossly underestimated the risk associated with collateralized debt obligations, both because they had so little incentive to properly estimate it (they were paid not for the accuracy of their ratings, really, but for the ratings themselves), and because they couldn’t see the domino effect the housing bubble would have on the rate of mortgage defaults. Forecasting the existence of the bubble wasn’t the problem; grasping its scope and reacting correctly to it was.
That’s about where Melvin and the Brewers were one year ago. Though they’d been projected to finish third or fourth in the division again, with the Cardinals considered a clear favorite to win, Milwaukee shot out to a 10-2, 15-5, and 20-7 start. They were out over their skis, with a run differential suggestive of a 15- or 16-win team even at that 20-7 mark, but more broadly, they were outplaying their own potential. Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Lucroy and Gomez were all healthy and hitting. They’re all good hitters who can be counted upon to deliver big production when healthy, but they’re not a group that should be counted upon to stay healthy for long. Indeed, Braun developed a nerve problem in his thumb, and was hampered throughout the second half. Ramirez missed three weeks in May with a hamstring strain, and showed his age thereafter. Gomez played through back and wrist soreness, and saw his power and BABIP sag as the season wore on.
Surely, Melvin could see that the offensive bubble that quartet was creating would pop at some point, just the way S&P knew the housing bubble would grow, then pop. Like S&P, though, Melvin had no real reason to stop the thing from playing itself out. Fans were pouring into Miller Park: there were 32,152 fans at their home game on Sunday, April 13th, but 45,286 at the next Sunday home date, April 27. For a team with an aging core, tempering expectations would have been counterproductive. With no brighter tomorrow to which to point, the team happily sold its fans the present.
The more interesting question is whether Melvin foresaw the way that the bubble would negatively impact the players who comprised it, or the way the individual players’ misfortunes would interact with one another, compounding the accumulating problems, and pushing the entire franchise backward. Braun played through that thumb injury, but acknowledged after the season that he wouldn’t have done so had the team not been in the playoff hunt into September. Lucroy started 133 games at catcher, and another 16 at first base. Both players continue to struggle with injuries even now, and that’s not good, because they’re the two prospective cornerstones of the franchise for the next several years. Ramirez will retire at the end of this season, and Gomez should be trade bait this summer, if he can get healthy and prove himself still to be a star. The fact that Gomez and Lucroy are both injured has had an outsized effect in the early going, and a big reason is that Melvin chose to leave the same pillars in place, building the roster the same way: strong at the top, weak at the bottom, weaker still in the minor leagues.
I’m guessing Melvin knew what he was getting his team into. He just chose to take his chances, with Lucroy and Braun, with Gomez and Ramirez, with Lohse and Garza. He’s in a position not so different from that of Billy Beane, but whereas Beane is always thinking about the next four years, Melvin chooses to fight for the moment. Beane would probably not have even taken the 2014 Brewers into the season the way Melvin did. He would have moved more pieces around, gotten cheaper, reshaped and reloaded on the fly. His version of the Brewers probably would have won 82 games last season, too, just without the hot start and cold finish. His Brewers would have lacked the upside of Melvin’s crew, but a year later, they’d be a deeper and stronger organization, and would have won many more of their early-season games.
Quickly, now, a rundown of what the Brewers can do this summer, to get a rebuild off the ground:
· Trade Gomez. Due for free agency after 2016, Gomez’s window for helping the Brewers reach October at less than a full market price is closed. Milwaukee is in no better position to compete next season than this season. They should trade Gomez in a blockbuster, and avoid the traffic jam of outfield talent that dampened the returns for Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes over the winter.
· Trade Lohse. He’s a free agent at season’s end, so this one is obvious. He needs to pitch well for a month or two to build value, but the Brewers should be able to jump the market and trade him before arms like Johnny Cueto even hit the market, since the Reds figure to hang around the fringe of the race longer than the Brewers.
· Repeat last year’s draft. It’s hard to stockpile high-upside guys when drafting from the middle of the first round, but the Brewers did it last year, using their competitive-balance pick to add Jacob Gatewood and basically double up on first-round profile. They pick 15th and 40th this year, and their strategy—one few other teams with competitive-balance picks have employed—seems to me a good one. It’s certainly a good way to show a serious commitment to rehabbing the farm system.
Unlike previous broken-bootstrap GMs, Melvin looks like he’ll survive this catastrophe and stay in charge of the Brewers. If he wants to really earn his new contract, though, he needs to begin by admitting that the last set of good Brewers teams he built are gone, and begin construction on the next set. That’s going to start with a wrecking ball.