Coming into 2019, expectations were sky-high in the Cream City. After finishing one game shy of the World Series the previous October, the Brewers entered spring training with a roster containing many of the same faces, but also some key off-season acquisitions like catcher Yasmani Grandal.
133 regular season games later, things are looking and feeling much, much different. Just as a sample: Four of the Brewers’ five opening day rotation members are no longer in the starting mix, whether it be due to injury (Brandon Woodruff), poor performance (Corbin Burnes and Jhoulys Chacin), or a role change stemming from poor performance (Freddy Peralta). Few things have gone as expected for the Brewers this season, leading to a roller coaster ride for players and fans alike.
Starting with the offense: the Brewers started the season with a line-up that looked to be one of the most fearsome in the league, with free agent signing Yasmani Grandal adding a surplus of talent to a group that already included an MVP (Christian Yelich), multiple other all-stars (Lorenzo Cain and Jesus Aguilar), and a trio of established players with a history of success (Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas, Travis Shaw). The first seven spots in the order were filled with all-star caliber talent.
However, no one could have seen coming the struggles that caused the Brewers to trade Jesus Aguilar, demote Travis Shaw to Triple-A, and drop Lorenzo Cain from the lead-off spot. Some reversion to the mean was fair to expect for Aguilar after an other-worldly 2018 season, but for his OPS to dip nearly 200 points (from .890 to .694) was far and away from a realistic expected outcome at the outset of the season. The same goes for Shaw and Cain – Shaw’s OPS plummeted 250 points following two years of sustained production, and Cain has performed worse than all but six qualified hitters in Major League Baseball based on the wRC+ metric after being in the MVP conversation during 2018. Whether it is bad luck, poor coaching, or just a natural diminishing of skill level for all three, it would have been extremely hard and downright crazy to have reasonably expected all three to falter to the extent that they have. The three combined for 13.4 WAR in 2018. This year? A meager -0.2 WAR.
Unexpected and low probability outcomes have also played a part in some (but not all) of the Brewers pitching issues. Corey Knebel was slated to be Milwaukee’s ninth-inning relief ace until a spring training injury turned into Tommy John surgery. Jeremy Jeffress and Jhoulys Chacin have been shadows of their 2018 dominant selves, leading to Jeffress no longer handling high-leverage situations and Chacin’s recent release from the team. Throw in Corbin Burnes losing all sense of effectiveness, Brandon Woodruff’s oblique injury, and Freddy Peralta failing to establish himself as a reliable big-leaguer after a promising yet shaky debut in 2018, and you can see how the pitching staff is mired in much of the same unfortunateness as the offense.
Despite these unexpected struggles the pitching staff has faced, some of the blame in that area falls on the front office and their inability to adequately mitigate the risk of their pitching strategy. While starting pitching did not play as important a role on the 2018 Brewers as it did for other teams, that was because they had a shut-down bullpen that could effectively cover the majority of a game’s innings if need be.
The 2019 Brewers’ bullpen was not built to be that same dominant group, as important relief pieces Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff were moved to the rotation while Joakim Soria left via free agency. This made the bullpen’s margin for error very small. Throw in the injury to Knebel and the injury recovery of Jeffress and you have just a shell of what the Brewers needed for their starting pitching strategy to work, especially given the inexperience of the majority of their Opening Day rotation members (Burnes, Peralta, Woodruff). Once the injury to Knebel happened and the ineffective return of Jeffress became apparent, something should have been done to improve the staff and modify the model they used to get outs. A stronger starting rotation was certainly needed.
This season is just one iteration of a million possibilities concerning how it could have turned out. There are several things the Brewers can and cannot control. Unfortunately, most of what the Brewers cannot control has gone against them this season, revealing roster construction mistakes and playing a large part in their current struggles.