Aceless in Milwaukee

With two losses in a row to the Cubs, the Brewers have fallen out of first place in the National League Central. The National League West looks a lot like the American League West: Whichever team of top two teams in the West does not win the division very probably will be a very good first Wild Card team. If the current standings hold, the Brewers would be the second Wild Card team.

The second Wild Card spot is not nearly as desirable as winning the division, of course, but it is still much better than sitting at home during the playoffs. Moreover, the Brewers are just one game behind the Cardinals. A roughly one-in-three shot at winning the division (and one-in-two of making the playoffs) is not bad at all.

Milwaukee was not projected to be terrible, so this year has not been totally out of nowhere. Like the Royals, for example, they projected to be a roughly .500 team in a division that was not terribly strong. Still, the Brewers’ long stand on top of the Central this season was pretty surprising. As with all teams, there have been various surprise performances (on balance good for the Brewers).

One particularly intriguing aspect of the Brewers’ success in 2014 is their lack of an obvious “ace” – which is sometimes said to be necessary for a team to be successful – in their starting rotation.

What is an “ace,” anyway? The obvious answer is that an ace is an outstanding starting pitcher, but we want to be a bit more specific. Some might say the best starter on each team is an ace by definition, but that is not really what most people mean when they say that a team needs an ace. With all due respect to Wade Miley and Josh Collmenter, the Diamondbacks’ two best starters this season, I do not think most people would call either of them an ace.

It is probably uncontroversial to say people think of an ace as being one of the top pitchers in the league who also pitches a lot of innings over the course of a season. Performance above some baseline (average or replacement level) times playing time is pretty much the definition of value in contemporary sabermetrics.

Some will say only the top 10 or 15 pitchers in baseball are true aces. But let’s use a more inclusive definition. There are 30 teams in baseball, each of which typically has five starting pitching slots. Say that the top 30 starters in baseball are performing like “number one starters,” 31-60 are “number two” starters, and so forth. This breaks down for various reasons at the back of the rotations where pitchers are in and out more often, especially at the fifth spot, but that is not our concern here. This has been done before in a more sophisticated manner, but we just want a basic baseline with which to work.

How do the Brewers’ starters stack up? Looking at the current WAR leaderboard, the Brewers have no pitchers in the top 30 pitchers according to FIP-based WAR. Some dislike FIP-based WAR, and the list of the top 30 has some interesting differences if one uses RA9-WAR. What is not different is that there are no Brewers on the top 30 of that list, either. At the moment, from what I can tell, no team currently slated to make the playoffs has the same combination — no starters in the the top 30 in baseball according to either FIP-WAR or RA9-WAR.

So even using a broad definition of “ace” as a number one starter (one of the top 30 pitchers in baseball), the Brewers do not have an ace either according to FIP-WAR or RA9-WAR. It is fair to say that the Brewers’ starters have not been overwhelming this year. FIP-WAR has Milwaukee’s starters as roughly middle of the pack in terms of value. RA9-WAR is more generous, putting then seventh.

I doubt anyone would think or expect that Milwaukee’s starters have secretly been dominant this season. But this is not to say that their rotation is bad, either. If one looks at the rankings among qualified starters further down, the Brewers have two starters – Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse – in the “number-two slot” of the FIP-WAR rankings, and two more – Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta -in the number three slot (61-90). Using RA9-WAR for qualified starters, the results are roughly the same, with Gallardo and Lohse in the 31-60 slot, and Garza and Peralta in the 61-90 slot.

Different baselines for innings or metrics, and those are legitimate debates, but not the focus here. The leaderboards just point out something with which most would agree: almost no one would identify any pitcher on the Brewers as a number-one starter. However, they do have a good group of pitchers. Garza, Gallardo, Lohse and Peralta all have ERAs under four. If one prefers FIP, then Peralta is not under four, but then Jimmy Nelson, who came up during the season and has started 10 games for Milwaukee, is on the list. Park-adjusted metrics have all of these pitchers with close to a league-average ERA or FIP or better, which is good for starters.

The underlying idea dividing the starters into five groups is to reflect some very rough idea that the typical number one is at least really good, the number two is above average, the number three is about average, the number four is below average, and the number five is, well, hopefully above replacement level. Using 2014 observed performance rather than projected true talent (appropriate, since this has been mostly retrospective on the season so far), and while the Brewers clearly do not have a number one starter, they do have three or four starters who have been average or better over a good number of innings. And that does not include Nelson, who has posted a good FIP, or Mike Fiers, who has been excellent in his five starts.

Any team would love to have a “true” ace. But such pitchers are not abundant. The Brewers’ long-term plan was probably never to go aceless. They did make a big trade for Zack Greinke a few years ago, and earlier in Gallardo’s career some thought he had the makings of a number one pitcher. Greinke is long gone and Gallardo has not been a Cy Young candidate, yet here the Brewers are, without an ace, in a fight for the division. And their starting pitching has done its part.

Gallardo and Peralta were both developed by the Brewers, as were Nelson and Fiers. Garza and Lohse were both late free-agent signings, and Lohse cost the Brewers a first-round pick. Leaving aside the draft pick issue for the sake of simplicity, the Brewers signed Garza and Lohse for a combined $83 million. Would they have been able to get a true ace for four years and $83 millilon? I don’t think it takes much research to answer that question. Teams have limited resources, and perhaps the Brewers could have thrown money at, say, keeping Greinke around, but then they would not have been able to make other additions. Specifically, it is hard to see how the team could have signed Greinke (or a similar pitcher) while also signing Garza, Lohse and Aramis Ramirez, all keys to the 2014’s team’s success.

Again, the Brewers probably did not plan things to end up this way, specifically. Nor is their rotation particularly daunting. But it is at least good. Garza, Lohse, and Gallardo are no slouches, and Peralta is better than most number four starters. The Brewers also have some good, low-cost pitching depth with Nelson and Fiers, both of whom have real potential (there is also Marco Estrada, though he is currently pitching in relief).

Milwaukee is far from the first team to have success without an ace. In a playoff series, one could make an argument that this gives them a disadvantage given that one can set up the rotation order to give the better pitchers more (likely) starts. Still, over the long haul of a season, giving up fewer runs than your opponent is the way to win, winning gets a team to the playoffs, and whatever the matchups, just getting to the playoffs makes a big difference. The Brewers are in the mix, and their rotation has held up its end of the deal, even without anything resembling an ace or number-one starter.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Three Little Birds
8 years ago

Ron Roenicke banned Fiers to the Minors last year for no reason other than he was enamored by Peralta’s velocity and didn’t like the fact that Fiers consistently pitches around 89-91 MPH. Roenicke is an absolute FOOL and not competent enough to be a MLB manager. Instead of bringing up Fiers when Estrada was replaced, he brought up Nelson. So, instead of bringing up the BETTER pitcher, Roenicke opted w/ Nelson and that decision has cost his team about 1 game in the standings. Then, we you factor in the fact that Fiers should have been in the rotation since DAY ONE, Roenicke’s poor managerial decision has cost the Brewers about 3 games in the standings. If the Brewers miss the playoffs it will be interesting to see of Milwaukee’s front office keeps around a manager who’s incompetence cost them a chance to go to the playoffs.

8 years ago

Do you understand how baseball teams are run? I’m sure that Roenicke has some input on the decision, but the final word on roster moves comes from the GM, not the manager.

8 years ago

Also, Fiers was pretty ineffective last year, and Nelson had a) better stuff and b) a similar level of performance in AAA. Nelson is probably also of greater long-term importance to the Brewers. I think they’ve probably been too risk-averse with Fiers, primarily because he’s seen as being a smoke and mirrors guy, but getting your facts right does help in these things.

8 years ago

Fiers broke his arm in May, effectively ending his season. I think that is a pretty good reason as to why we did not see him pitching for the Brewers.