Brewers Bring Back a Pair of Familiar Faces

In a pair of low-cost moves, the Brewers brought back two players who helped them to playoff berths in recent years. Sinkerballing southpaw Brett Anderson, who spent most of last season as a member of Milwaukee’s rotation, agreed to a one-year deal, while infielder Travis Shaw, who spent last season with the Blue Jays after three years in Wisconsin, agreed to a minor league contract.

The 33-year-old Anderson, who has been beset by injuries for much of his 12-year major league career, made 10 starts with the Brewers in a season bookended by recurrent blisters on his left index finger. Placed on the injured list on July 20, he had to wait out a few days of COVID-19-related postponements before debuting on August 3. The blister problem reared its head again in his final start on September 27 and kept him off the team’s postseason roster, though the Brewers were swept in the Wild Card Series by the Dodgers. Still, it marked the second season in a row that Anderson was mostly available, which given his litany of injuries both freakish (a stress fracture in his foot, a hit-by-pitch–induced fracture in his left hand) and chronic (elbow woes culminating in 2011 Tommy John surgery, a bulging disc that required surgeries in ’14 and ’16) counts as a victory.

In between his two bouts of blisters, Anderson pitched to a 4.21 ERA (94 ERA-) and 4.38 FIP (99 FIP-) in 47 innings. As he had to build up his pitch count, it took him until his fourth turn to go longer than five innings, but once he reached that plateau, he made six straight starts of five or six innings. As usual, he generated a ton of groundballs, with a 57.7% rate that ranked third among NL pitchers with at least 40 innings (teammate Adrian Houser was first at 58.5%). His 15.8% strikeout rate wasn’t much to write home about, but it was his highest mark since 2014 and well above his 12.1% in ’19 with the A’s. Likewise, his 10.9% strikeout-to-walk differential was his best mark since 2013 in Oakland.

Statcast-wise, Anderson’s season was a bit worrisome. His 89.1 mph average exit velocity placed him in the 35th percentile, his .323 xwOBA in the 31st percentile, and his 48.1% hard-hit rate way down in the fifth percentile. The first two marks were fairly consistent with his 2019 season, when he made 31 starts totaling 176 innings with the A’s, but his hard-hit rate of 40.0% from that year placed him in the 20th percentile. More encouraging is that his 6.4% barrel rate placed him in the 58th percentile.

Anderson is a pitcher who gives up a lot of contact, and some of it is hard (exit velos of 95 mph or greater), but much of it is groundballs, allowing him to limit the damage. Over the past two seasons, his .350 xwOBA on groundballs of 95 mph or greater places him in the 86th percentile. His barrel rate, which captures very-hard-hit balls (98 mph or higher) with specific exit velo/launch angle combinations that can do the most damage, is probably the better indicator to use, as it jibes with the other inputs that tell us he’s more or less a league-average pitcher, such as his three-year ERA- (95) and FIP- (102).

If you’re looking for another data point regarding the way the pandemic-related loss of revenues and the comparative glut of players available into February are pushing salaries down, both Anderson’s guarantee ($2.5 million) and potential bonuses ($1 million) are half of what they were compared to last year’s one-year deal with the Brewers. Even so, it’s still $1 million more than he received two years ago, at a point when he was four years removed from his last healthy, 30-start season.

Anderson could be the lone lefty in a rotation that includes Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Josh Lindblom and Houser. Lefty Eric Lauer and righty Jordan Zimmermann, the latter of whom signed a minor league deal after a dreadful five-year run in Detroit, are below them on the depth chart. For what it’s worth, the upgrade from Anderson to Lauer in our Depth Charts projections — from 0.7 WAR to 1.1 — helped nudge the Brewers (81.9 wins) past the Cardinals (81.4 wins) in our Playoff Odds projected standings, though the slightest change in assumptions could swing that in the other direction. It looks like this one is going to be decided on the field, folks.

Worth much more as far as mid-February projections go is the likelihood that Anderson’s cause, and those of his fellow pitchers, should be aided by an improved defense behind him. Most notably, he’ll have two-time Gold Glove winner Kolten Wong playing second base behind him. Wong’s defensive metrics in 2020 (3.8 UZR, 6 DRS) are a vast improvement upon those of last year’s regular second baseman, Keston Hiura (-4.0 UZR, -8 DRS). On a per-150-game basis using the past two years of stats (since Hiura debuted in 2019), the swing at second could be as much as 37 runs based on DRS (-16 for Hiura, +21 for Wong). The likelihood of Wong sitting against at least some lefties will cut into that, as will the plan for Hiura to play first base, a new position. In more positive news, Lorenzo Cain returns to center field after opting out last year.

As for the rest of the infield, its configuration could have plenty to do with whether Shaw, who turns 31 on April 16, shows enough life in his bat to suggest that he can reverse a dismal two-year slide. He thrived with the Brewers in 2017 and ’18, hitting a combined .258/.347/.497 (120 wRC+) with 63 homers and 7.2 WAR as the regular third baseman the first year and then splitting time between third and second the next. Between a pair of injuries to his right hand — first a contusion via a hit-by-pitch and then a wrist strain — and a minor swing change that produced too many harmless flies and too much swing and miss, he sank to sub-replacement level in 2019 (.157/.281/.270, -0.8 WAR) and was subsequently nontendered.

Shaw’s rebound with the Blue Jays last year was partial at best, as his .239/.306/.411 line was good for just a 92 wRC+. His 8.9% walk rate was his lowest mark since 2016 with the Red Sox, down from 11.9% in his first stint with the Brewers. His 12.1% swinging strike rate was only a hair better than in ’19, and his 27.8% strikeout rate, while a drop from the previous year’s 33.0%, was well above the ~20% rates of his first two seasons in Milwaukee. Though his 90.9 mph average exit velocity was his highest of the Statcast era, and his 44.7% hard-hit rate placed him in the 78th percentile, his 7.9% barrel rate was only good for the 50th percentile, and his .310 xwOBA for the 42nd percentile; the last of those was down 43 points from 2018. Defensively, his metrics at third base were mixed but in the vicinity of average (1.3 UZR, -2 DRS, -1 OAA), though he’s generally been a slight plus there. The Blue Jays didn’t see enough to bother tendering him a contract, and so here he is.

Shaw’s presence sets the stage for Orlando Arcia and Luis Urías to compete for the starting shortstop job. The latter was acquired from the Padres (along with Lauer) in a November 2019 deal that sent Trent Grisham and Zach Davies to San Diego. The idea was that Urías would supplant Arcia at shortstop, but a positive test for COVID-19 delayed his debut until August 10, and he hit just .239/.308/.294 (67 wRC+) in 120 PA. With Arcia having by far the best offensive season of his career (.260/.317/.416, 96 wRC+ and 0.7 WAR, his first positive showing since 2017), Urías wound up making 20 starts at third base, seven at second, and four at shortstop.

With Milwaukee declining Jedd Gyorko’s option, Urías was penciled in at third base, but his offensive profile doesn’t fit the position, and even as a shortstop, it’s a work in progress. Through 422 major league PA, he owns a 76 wRC+ with just six homers, and last year’s combination of a 26.7% strikeout rate and no homers suggests that the contact/power tradeoff he made a couple of years ago in the minors still needs significant tweaking, perhaps at Triple-A. If that’s the case, then Shaw’s presence allows for it, and allows utilityman Daniel Robertson to keep his roster spot. Shaw’s contract is a minor league deal that pays $1.5 million if he’s in the majors, with $1.5 million worth of additional incentives. He has a March 15 opt-out date if he’s not on the major league roster.

While the additions of Anderson and Shaw aren’t earth-shaking moves, and aren’t even really on the same scale — the former signed for guaranteed money with a plan that he’ll be part of the starting five, while the latter needs things to break right to get a roster spot — they nonetheless help to shore up the roster for a dogfight in the NL Central.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Jason Bmember
1 year ago

Man, there is just not much about the Brewers that makes me think they will edge the Cardinals out at the top of the Central. A yelich bounce back would be required, and Cain playing well after a year off (both of which seem like decent bets but hardly a given). Otherwise that rotation looks pretty pedestrian, as does the infield.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jason B

Depth Charts has the Brewers SP & IF projected for 12.4 & 5.5 WAR, respectively.

The Cardinals SP & OF are projected at 10.2 & 3.9 WAR, respectively.

I can see about 33 ways the Brewers could win the NLC, 31 ways the Cardinals could win it, 19 ways the Cubs could win it & even 17 ways the Reds could win it. (sorry Pirates fans)

Introspective Baseball Fanmember
1 year ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

Good points. Brewers also have a good bullpen. Cardinals have declining stars with bunch of holes in pitching staff; not exactly a winning combination.

Jason Bmember
1 year ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

Fair points all. I think there’s not a lot separating the top 4 teams…Vegas has them within about 5 wins, too (84 for StL down to 79.5 for CIN, if memory serves). That bunched up, a 65th or 70th percentile performance from any of em may do the trick.