The Brewers and the Breakout Pitching Staff

You might’ve noticed that, even after adding Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers don’t project very well. That would seem to provide a pretty convincing argument against adding Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. The Brewers, obviously, think they’re better than Steamer does. Steamer just doesn’t like them, just as it didn’t a year ago. And, to be fair, ZiPS is higher on the Brewers, and that’ll be reflected when we get everything uploaded into our system. Between today and opening day, the Brewers’ team projection will improve, unless something catastrophic takes place.

But let’s spend a minute talking about the state of the team. To narrow down, let’s talk about the state of the pitching staff. Why is it that the Brewers believe they’re competitive, even while the projections are, shall we say, less convinced? The Brewers are signing free-agent reliever Matt Albers for two years and $5 million. He doesn’t explain anything, since that news just emerged Monday, but Albers is representative of something else. The Brewers believe in the breakouts.

Albers is 35 years old, and he’s never made as much as $3 million in a single season. Over his career, he has almost 200 fewer strikeouts than innings, and last year he picked up his first career save. There’s nothing wrong with the career that Albers has had. He’s pitched in the majors for more than a decade, and relatively few pitchers could say the same. But, you probably didn’t ever go on the internet looking to read about Matt Albers. You probably didn’t drool over looping Matt Albers pitch-type GIFs. He’s been a relatively unremarkable reliever. He didn’t do much to stand out from the pack.

Last season, over 63 appearances, Albers ran a 1.62 ERA. He finished with a top-25 expected wOBA allowed, where by “top” I don’t mean “highest”; Albers was tied with Ken Giles, Felipe Rivero, and Ryan Madson. Part of it is that Albers was among the league’s very best contact managers. Opponents found him dreadfully difficult to hit hard. But Albers also saw his strikeout rate skyrocket. Here’s a plot of 2016 and 2017 K-BB%, with Albers highlighted in yellow.

Albers was one of the game’s most improved relievers. Others have already gotten free-agent guarantees, like Yusmeiro Petit, Tommy Hunter, and Joe Smith. Before last year, Albers had signed a minor-league contract. A handful of similar pitchers simply took off. Albers has now been rewarded for his performance, even if the terms are somewhat modest. A $5-million guarantee beats the hell out of nothing.

As always, you go looking for an explanation. *Why* did Matt Albers get good? He didn’t make a major mechanical change. The only thing I could spot at all was an adjusted set position. Above, Albers set in 2016; below, Albers set in 2017.

Maybe it made a big difference that Albers raised his hands. Might’ve allowed him to simplify, or it might’ve just improved his timing. His hands had less distance to cover before release, so that’s just less of an opportunity for something to go off track. Beyond that, though, Albers pitched with greater precision against righties, staying down and away.

On the left, you see Albers against righties from 2014 through 2016. On the right, last season alone. There’s nothing unusual about righty pitchers staying down and away against righty hitters. That’s frequently the goal, especially for pitchers with sinkers and sliders. Albers’ far more dramatic change came against lefties. Perhaps not coincidentally, he struck out more of them than ever, save for 2011, when he gave up more walks and home runs. Here’s a similar image, but focusing on left-handed opponents.

It actually looks…bad, right? All those pitches in the middle of the plate. But heat maps like this can exaggerate that reality. The real takeaway here is that Albers took a whole different approach with a lefty at the plate. Compared to the season before, Albers moved his average pitch against lefties inside by about six inches. Only three pitchers in baseball moved inside by more. And compared to the season before, Albers moved his average pitch against lefties up by about five inches. Only two pitchers in baseball moved up by more. Albers pitched with more confidence up, and he pitched with more confidence in. There were a few little changes in which pitches he threw, but it was more about location. With basically the same weapons, Albers simply put them to different use.

And it worked. For at least one full season, it worked. The Brewers have elected to take a chance on a repeat. Every bullpen is forever in flux, but it looks like, when the season starts out, Albers will occupy a fairly high-leverage role. Prior to 2017, a team might not have wanted to do such a thing, but this is where Albers sort of fits in. Look the pitching staff up and down. Look at some of the most important pitchers on the roster. Albers should be important, and he just had a late-career breakout. Corey Knebel will close, and he just had his own breakout. Josh Hader seemed to have something of a relief breakout in the second half. In the rotation, Chase Anderson had by far his best season, and Jimmy Nelson seemed to blossom into one of the best starters on the planet, before injuring his shoulder.

We’ve all been conditioned to keep an eye on the longer-term track records. For good reason, I should say. Projection systems are always based on as much data as possible, because you need to be wary of the lies of small samples. Any projection system that looks at the Brewers is likely to come away unimpressed by the assortment of arms, because there just isn’t a strong history. What we also know is that projection systems are necessarily conservative, and there really is such a thing as a significant true-talent step forward. Not every improvement is a mirage, and not every major improvement requires substantial regression. Players can just get a lot better. The Brewers might have a number of them — players who recently raised their stock. You could say the present pitching staff depends on it being real.

There’s a question about small samples in the information era — are we better now about separating the signal from the noise, or do we just think we are, because we have more information than ever? I’m not sure anyone’s arrived at an answer, although I’d like to believe the industry’s improved. I’d like to believe that teams and players can use the information to generate step-function improvements, and I’d like to believe those improvements can be “sticky,” and easier to spot early on. I suspect teams feel the same way, but there will always be lies. There will always be random over- (and under-) performances. It’s just as crucial as ever to be able to know when the numbers aren’t telling the real truth. Entire team outlooks can rely on the proper decisions being made.

The way the Brewers have proceeded, they’ve expressed clear faith in a number of recent-year breakouts. Albers is only the latest to be included. They presumably know they could use another pitcher, and they’re presumably hard at work trying to find one. But there’s also that chance they really are more than one pitcher away from being legitimately good. The Brewers are acting based on the success they just had. One could argue it’s more of a risk than it seems.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

I went on the internet to read about Matt Albers

5 years ago
Reply to  Spuriosity

Jeff underestimates our baseball nerdiness!