OOTP Brewers: Escalator Up, Elevator Downon September 8, 2020 at 4:45 pm

OOTP Brewers: Escalator Up, Elevator Down

When we last checked in on our Out Of The Park Brewers experiment, the season hung in the balance. We had fallen two games behind the Pirates — that’s bad! — but were mere days away from welcoming Christian Yelich back from the Injured List — that’s good! The sprint to the end of the season figured to be a high-leverage thrill ride.

For about two days, that played out. On August 19, the Brewers hit a season-high 16 games above .500 and pulled within a half game of the Pirates. Yelich was back. Everything was coming together nicely. Then the team lost seven straight games while the Pirates went 5-2. Just like that, it was a 5.5-game deficit in the Central, with the Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies now locked in a dead heat for the second Wild Card.

How does something like that happen? Reasonably easily, to be honest. Not every playoff contender has a seven-game losing streak, but the margins are slim. Two of the games were one-run affairs, while another featured a seven-run meltdown in the ninth inning to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. A 3-4 stretch would have looked extremely different than 0-7.

Things were still fine, though. The Pirates weren’t quite out of reach, and based on the fact that I called it a seven-game losing streak, clearly the team won the next day. Now the Wild Card race was a dead heat, and Yelich was settled in. Surely this would be a turning point.

It wasn’t. The Reds took the last two games of that series, the Pirates beat us 3-1 in a four-gamer, and the Dodgers, already sitting on a preposterous 95 wins, have won three straight, with the last game happening today. That’s a 1-8 stretch to follow the previous 1-7 stretch, and that’s not the kind of performance you can escape from. The team is now only three games above the .500 mark and four back in the race for the second Wild Card. The division is all but decided.

What happened? Merely saying “baseball happened” feels insufficient for a 2-15 slide. The immediate culprit is the starting pitching. Over that fateful 17-game stretch, they averaged only four innings per start. Josh Lindblom made three starts and never completed four innings. Jeff Samardzija made four starts and finished five only once. Even Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser each had clunkers, though they each also finished six innings once, which should be enough given the Brewer bullpen.

The Brewers aren’t built for starts that short. Though the bullpen didn’t completely fall apart, aided in part by September call-ups, the offense didn’t do enough to carry the team through trouble. Yelich has been exactly replacement level since his return, carrying a 77 wRC+. Brock Holt has finally turned back into a pumpkin; he’s down to a 113 wRC+ for the year after running an ice-cold 60 during this losing streak.

Injuries haven’t helped, either. Lorenzo Cain is out for the year after spraining his forearm making a catch. He could theoretically return in the second round of the playoffs, but that hardly seems realistic at the moment. With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, that leaves minor leaguers to man center, and Corey Ray and Tyrone Taylor have been about as expected there; somewhere between terrible and unplayable. I’ve experimented with putting Yelich in center against lefties to find Ryan Braun some playing time, but the whole mix is awkward; not enough defense with Bruan in, not enough offense with him out.

At this point, that’s all water under the bridge. There are 19 games left to save the Brewers’ season, to at least pull out a Wild Card berth. The standings aren’t encouraging:

That doesn’t mean it’s over. For one, seven of our remaining games are cupcakes; four against the Giants and three against the Orioles. Both of those teams are somehow worse than we are since the All-Star break despite the recent losing streak. Four-game deficits aren’t insurmountable, though those looming Padres are certainly doing us no favors.

To simulate a real team, though, we need to do something to shake up the monotony. That’s what happens in real life when teams get in a funk like this. We’ve already discussed one possible change — the all-offense lineup with Yelich in center field. Let’s go through a few other options before completely giving up on the season.

First, we could reinstate Freddy Peralta to the rotation. He’s a valuable reliever, and he’s run a preposterous 39.5% strikeout rate out of the bullpen, but the starters have been awful in this recent stretch, and Lindblom in particular has fallen apart. The game now rates him as a current 35/80 as a starter, and that simply won’t cut it. Samardzija has been nearly as bad, but Lindblom has made eight starts and has a 9.73 ERA. Samardzija checks in at a svelte 8.79 ERA in seven Milwaukee starts.

Heck, maybe we could reinstate Peralta and Eric Lauer to the rotation. Lauer has been hurt off and on and was only middlingly effective as a rotation fill-in, but nothing like those two disasters. Maybe a burst of young energy would do the team well.

If that isn’t it, maybe openers could hold the key. With rosters now at 28 for the remainder of the season, our bullpen is awash in high-stuff relievers. Five of our arms — Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Corey Knebel, Ray Black, and J.P. Feyereisen — have stuff grades of 65 or higher. Put two of those pitchers on opener duty, and maybe our starting pitching woes will disappear.

At the very least, something needs to be done. If we aren’t making one of the above changes, I’ll simply shuffle the lineup into some wild permutation. Yelich leading off? Omar Narvaez, having a scintillating season (137 wRC+ and 4.4 WAR), batting second behind him? We have to at least try something, or multiple somethings. So what will it be?

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In two more weeks, we’ll be back to see the damage. This could, in theory, be the start of a dramatic reversal, a thrilling return to prominence after a quick gaze into the abyss. It could also be a swift ride to .500 and an offseason of what-if’s. Either way, I’ll be back to chronicle it.

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