What They Did: 96-66, 1st Place NL Central. Lost in NLCS.
Actual Runs: Scored 721 runs, Allowed 638.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 90.0 (6.0 below actual)
Restated: Scored 726 runs, Allowed 622.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 92.5 (3.5 below actual)
On December 26, 2010, just over fourteen months ago, I boarded a plane in Ontario, CA to fly to New York City for work while my family returned home to San Francisco from the Christmas holiday. Because no airline flies direct from Ontario, CA to NYC, a connecting flight to Las Vegas was needed. Upon landing in Las Vegas, I learned all airports in New York City were closed due to a storm and would remain so for the next three days. Fortunately, there is no shortage of hotel rooms or diversions in Las Vegas so this wasn’t the worst place to be stranded. A snow storm of such severity hit the East Coast that the NFL rescheduled Sunday night’s football game between the Minnesota Viking and the Philadelphia Eagles for Tuesday night.
On that, my third and final night in Las Vegas, the Eagles had been installed as a massive favorite vs. the Vikings who were starting a third- or fourth-string quarterback. The Eagles were being hailed as possibly the best team in the NFC and the most dangerous entering the playoffs, but as a life-long Eagles fan I knew better. When the Vikings were listed as a 9-1 underdog at game time, I put $100 on Minnesota. The Eagles lost and I had $1,000 in my hand after cashing the winning ticket. (As a result, the Eagles squandered an opening-round bye and subsequently lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in the first round of the playoffs. My Philadelphia friends are nodding grimly in recognition.)
Feeling like I’d been gifted $900 I took the winnings plus the $100 stake and looked to baseball futures to place a $1,000 wager before I flew home. I saw the Milwaukee Brewers listed at 24-1 to win the NL pennant and I recalled they had just traded for Zach Greinke and signed Shawn Marcum as a free-agent. Since both pitchers were long-time fantasy favorites of mine, and I knew Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder were as potent a 1-2 batting punch as existed in the National league, I thought 24-1 on making it to the World Series seemed like very favorable odds. I bought the 24-1 ticket with my newfound $1,000 and didn’t expect to give the baseball season much thought other than knowing I had a lottery ticket on the Brewers.
Shortly after arriving back in New York City, while crossing the street as a pedestrian, I got run over by an ambulance, suffered a massive leg injury and found my career path as a Wall Street trader permanently altered. During my ensuing recovery last spring, it turns out I had nothing but time to follow and analyze the 2011 baseball season, and suddenly, I was a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Milwaukee management knew it had one year of service left from free-agent-to-be Prince Fielder in 2011 and, to its credit, did everything possible to surround the prodigious hitting first basemen with enough talent to challenge for a title. It worked. Milwaukee won the NL Central, and once the Phillies were eliminated in the NLDS, the Brewers entered the NLCS vs. the St. Louis Cardinals as -150 favorites (implied odds of 60%) to get to the World Series. Thinking of my lottery ticket in financial market terms, I had bought a stock at $4 in December that traded at $60 as the NLCS started in October. My 250 shares of that stock would be worth $100 or $0 at the end of the series. Of course, St. Louis won that series and I contend Milwaukee’s management, so forward thinking in constructing the 2011 roster, panicked on the eve of the playoffs and I wrote about it here: http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2011/10/1/arizona-vs-milwaukee.html and here: http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2011/10/17/the-birthday-paradox-applied-to-baseball.html.
Now that Fielder has departed, what sort of team is Milwaukee left with in 2012 compared to the squad that came within two wins of its first World Series appearance in nearly thirty years? In terms of year-to-year projections, the loss of Fielder hurts Milwaukee much more than the loss of Albert Pujols hurts the Cardinals. Not only was Fielder the better player in 2011, by about 1 ½ wins, but while the Cardinals are effectively replacing Pujols with Carlos Beltran, the Brewers have turned to a little-known, former third base prospect, Mat Gamel. Over the last four seasons, in nearly 200 plate appearances in the major leagues (three-quarters of them in 2009) Gamel has posted a batting line of .222/.309/.374 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). Fielder’s on-base percentage last year (.415) is higher than Gamel’s lifetime slugging percentage.
While the drop-off in production at first base is going to be quite pronounced, the Brewers addressed an area of weakness in 2011, third base, with the signing of free-agent Aramis Ramirez. There are concerns about Ramirez’ rather extreme home/away splits over the last couple of seasons, but even if some of his production was Wrigley Field-induced, his performance in 2012 will almost certainly be an improvement over Casey McGhee, whose batting skills disappeared last season.
Even with Ramirez’ improved production and the hope that former Braves’ shortstop Alex Gonzalez can match the hitting of Yuniesky Betancourt while providing a better glove, the Brewers are going to acutely feel the loss of Fielder and some regression from Ryan Braun’s MVP campaign. I expect they’ll move from an above-average scoring team (11th in MLB in 2011) to a just below-average unit in 2012 (17th is my guess.)
It will therefore be up to the pitching staff to keep the Brewers in contention for a post-season bid. The Brewers starting rotation features three pitchers (Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum) as good as any trio, ex-Philadelphia’s, in baseball. Greinke is my dark horse pick for the 2012 NL Cy Young Award and even if that has a low probability, for fantasy purposes, he carries tremendous value if he’s not being drafted right after Halladay and Lee. (His counting stats, so important in fantasy, suffered from making five less starts than his elite counterparts, but his rate stats were second-to-none.) The problem for Milwaukee is that the rest of the rotation is very weak. It’s going to be hard for a low-scoring version of the Brewers to string together victories if 40% of its games are started by pitchers who project to have ERAs in the area of 4.50 like Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson do.
The Brewers were fun to watch last year and everything fell into place, from Fielder and Braun peaking in the same year, to John Axford converting 43 saves in a row to end the season, to Nyjer Morgan’s emergence and the injection of enthusiasm into the entire line up he provided, and even to the Cardinals losing Adam Wainwright for the season, It isn’t likely Milwaukee can have that same run of fortune this year especially without Fielder’s bat. The may have caught one break however; the advent of an expanded Wild Card format may be the good fortune they need this year to reach the playoffs. (Make that two breaks: The repeal of Braun's 50-game PED suspension probably preserved any post-season hopes.) Thanks to Braun and the trio of starters at the top of the rotation, the Brewers have just enough firepower to contend for the Wild Card, even if Milwaukee finishes half-dozen games behind St. Louis this year, instead of ahead as in 2011.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: The Brewers total wins over/under, at 84 ½, is exactly the same as the line for the St. Louis Cardinals. The pitching staffs are very similar – top-heavy with two journeymen filling out the remaining slots. I don’t see how you can project Milwaukee to have a run-producing unit anywhere close to that of the Cardinals.’ I think Milwaukee is fairly valued and as such, faced with similar expectations, all the value lies with the Cardinals.
86-76 – Second in NL Central
686 Runs Scored 644 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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