Contending Brewers Trade for Often Good Pitcher

The National League Wild Card race is nuts. Here’s the currently field of clubs competing for it, through Thursday’s games, with our playoff odds.

National League Wild Card Race
Team W L GB Proj W Proj L ROS W% Win Division Win Wild Card Make Playoffs
Cardinals 75 59 0.5 88.8 73.2 .494 4.1% 63.0% 67.3%
Brewers 75 60 0 88.7 73.3 .508 4.5% 61.8% 66.4%
Rockies 72 61 2 86.2 75.8 .491 14.6% 14.7% 29.4%
Dodgers 72 62 2.5 89.2 72.8 .616 56.4% 17.4% 73.8%
Phillies 71 62 3 86.2 75.8 .525 35.3% 6.2% 41.6%

That’s just nuts! In the American League, the next closest Wild Card team, the Seattle Mariners, is 4.5 games out of a playoff spot. The next closest team behind them is the eight-games-out Rays. The next closest NL team, as you might notice, is significantly closer than that. The NL has eight teams whose odds of making the playoffs are over 25%; the AL, meanwhile, has just five such teams.

And so, with the NL’s relative nuttiness in mind, the Brewers traded this afternoon for left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez to bolster a rotation that is still in search of reinforcements after losing Jimmy Nelson to a shoulder injury before the season started and Brent Suter to Tommy John surgery in July. In return, the Nationals will reportedly receive two minor leaguers, though at the time of publication, those players’ identities are still unknown. As such, we’ll evaluate this trade in terms of Gonazalez’s merits for the Brewers and what the trade signals for the Nationals’ late-season tear-down. We should also note that the trade, famously a disruptive event, was remarkably convenient for Gonzalez, who — as a result of the two teams playing one another today — simply had to walk across the field to the Brewers’ dugout.

For the Nationals, the picture is a sad one. Trading Gonzalez is just the latest concession in a series of white flags that started with moving Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, and Brandon Kintzler. Gonzalez was not the team’s only August deadline deal; they also traded reliever Ryan Madson to the Dodgers earlier today for minor league right-hander Andrew Istler. As Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reported, the five players and glove-throwing former-Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley constitute a combined payroll savings of about $13 million. It’s money that could theoretically be used in free agency this offseason, though that will likely be cold comfort to Nationals fans who harbored much grander ambitions before the season started.

And what are the Brewers getting in Gonzalez? Here is how he fits into Milwaukee’s rotation. (Pitchers listed with season-to-date numbers.)

Brewers Rotation, Now With Gio Gonzalez
Jhoulys Chacin 28 157.0 19.6% 9.0% 3.61 4.01 4.48 2.2
Junior Guerra 25 132.0 21.7% 9.2% 4.09 4.33 4.31 1.6
Gio Gonzalez 27 145.2 19.5% 10.8% 4.57 4.25 4.44 1.4
Freddy Peralta 14 73.2 30.0% 12.9% 4.40 3.85 4.34 1.2
Wade Miley 11 57.2 16.2% 9.1% 2.18 3.73 4.40 1.0
Chase Anderson 26 140.1 19.8% 8.8% 4.04 5.36 4.81 0.3

The way I’ve presented this is a touch disingenuous. Gonzalez has, over the course of his career, been a good pitcher. At times, he’s been a very good pitcher. At times this year, however, he’s also been a very bad pitcher. Through the end of May, he had a 2.10 ERA and a 3.11 FIP. He had a 23.2% strikeout rate. He was walking a bushel of batters (10.3%), but it hadn’t yet caught up to him. In the meantime, though, the results since have been decidedly more mixed. In June, his FIP climbed to 6.58; in July, it “improved” to 4.03, before climbing again in August to 5.20. His strikeout rate since May 31 has fallen to 16.8%, while is walk rate has climbed to 11.2%. In the midst of a largely disappointing season for the Nationals, Gonzalez was also disappointing.

But he’s been previously very good. He’s been previously very good this season, even, and the Brewers could use some previously very good. Look at that table above. It reveals a team in an absolutely nuts Wild Card race starting 2018 Wade Miley on purpose. That table has a lot of Chase Anderson. That table is headlined by Jhoulys Chacin. We don’t yet know what the Nationals received in the way of minor leaguers, and that could always color our opinion of this trade, but this has to be considered an improvement, even if Gonzalez settles somewhere closer to his July than his April or May, or his previously demonstrated talent. FIP, of course, endeavors to account for this, and single-season defensive numbers are fuzzy, but it can’t hurt that he’ll be going from the Nationals, at 21st in the league pretty bad defensive team by our metrics with -8.2 defensive WAR, to a really good defensive team in the Brewers, who’ve been fourth-best by our numbers and good for 31.2 WAR.

All of it matters. In a tight race, where the difference in the Brewers’ and Cardinals’ projected season win total is less than a game, any innings you can give to a competent pitcher who isn’t Wade Miley matter. The Brewers got better where they needed to.

If the playoffs started today, Milwaukee would be boarding a plane for St. Louis. By trading for Gonzalez, they’re hoping to shift the game about 370 miles north. At the very least, they tried to ensure that the rest of the nutty field couldn’t catch them.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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Since the break, he’s got a 6.55 ERA/.362 wOBA/4.82 FIP/5.07 xFIP. In 5 of those 8 starts he’s given up at least 5 runs. 22 walks and 32 k’s in those 44 innings. A lot of what he’s done there’s no defense for at all.