After finishing with 86 wins and one game out of the playoffs, the Milwaukee Brewers have high hopes for 2018. However, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have them projected to win just 83 games and finish third in the NL Central. As these projections will send Wisconsinites screaming for the hills, there are several reasons not to put too much belief in them.
1. Travis Shaw falling off a cliff
Let’s be clear. The projection system is not suggesting that the breakout third basemen will actually fall off a cliff, but it might as well be.
Baseball Prospectus has Travis Shaw projected to post a WARP of 1.9 next year, a season after finishing at 4.25. To put this into perspective, the Shaw would go from ranking as the 43rd best hitter to the 145th best in terms of WARP in 2017.
Why such a pessimistic outlook on the Milwaukee Brewers third baseman? Last year was a breakout season that not many people saw coming. Shaw went from unwanted by the Red Sox to a critical cog in the Brewers’ machine. His quick ascent from Boston cast-off to All-Star snub may keep fans from going all-in. Yet his statistics suggest otherwise.
Going back two years to 2015, Shaw came into the league and shocked the baseball world. His rise from relative unknown to possible franchise corner-infielder was what the third base-needy Red Sox needed. His 13 home runs and .270 average through a third of the season projected to be a quality hitter at the hot corner. However, he ran into trouble in his first full season in the majors, suggesting that his 2015 cup of coffee was an aberration.
Yet looking at his peripherals from last year, Shaw’s 2017 breakout looks legitimate. His strikeout rate dropped around two percent from 2016, matching his 2015 rate. Additionally, Shaw’s walk rate also increased by almost two percent. It has risen each year since he entered the majors, showing growth and ability to make adjustments. Along with that, Shaw’s batting average on balls in play has stayed around his career average. All of this suggests that Shaw is more of the .270 hitter from 2015 and 2017.
Looking at his power numbers, Shaw seems likely to keep pace as a middle of the order hitter. His isolated power ended at .240 last year. This was significantly higher than 2016 and higher than a 2015 season in which he was on pace for over 30 home runs. This increase may be attributed to his hard contact rating skyrocketing since he entered the league, going from 29.2% to 37.1%. These underlying statistics point to Shaw consistently putting up 30 home runs in the hitters haven that is Miller Park.
Overall, Shaw’s offensive numbers from last season look very repeatable. In addition to being an above average defender, the PECOTA projection is preparing fans for something that may never come.
2. Brewers’ putrid pitching staff
It’s no secret that the Milwaukee Brewers need to add pitching this year and it shows in their rotation’s forecasts. Milwaukee doesn’t have a single starter projected to take the mound over ten games with an ERA under four. Even if that projection doesn’t come to fruition, it still highlights the main obstacle that needs to be addressed. The Brewers need to add a quality starter through a trade or free agency if they want to make a deep run in the playoffs.
3. Milwaukee’s lack of a second basemen
Baseball Prospectus seems to be as confused as everyone else with the second base situation. They currently have three Milwaukee Brewers are projected at over 100 plate appearances at the position, with Jonathan Villar leading that group. If anything, the projection system is probably foreshadowing some move this off season for help at second.
After a brutal season, Villar seems to have somehow held onto the starting spot. The Milwaukee Brewers need Villar to get back to his 2016 form, a season that saw him swipe 62 bases and post a .369 on-base percentage. If the speedy middle infielder can’t produce like he did that year, Milwaukee will be looking to Eric Sogard and Hernan Perez to patch up that position.
The only alternative is something outside of the organization, but there aren’t many appealing options. The free agent that looks most promising is Neil Walker while there are a few possible trade targets. This only makes Milwaukee chasing extra outfielders instead of opting to use their assets to fill this hole all the more confusing.
4. Outfield alignment
The PECOTA system currently has Lorenzo Cain taking most of the reps at center, with Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun flanking him at left and right field, respectively. This is interesting as Cain is older and more injury prone than Yelich, and playing center field doesn’t help with that. It may make more sense for Milwaukee to take the minimal defensive hit and stick Yelich in center to keep Cain healthy.
The PECOTA projections has Braun receiving 358 plate appearances in left to Domingo Santana’s 246. Baseball Prospectus also projects Braun at 500 total plate appearances next year. Whether that’s forecasting an injury or more rest with the plethora of outfielders is a question that will be answered during the season. It’s clear that Milwaukee has three too many quality outfielders. But the ability to rotate in Santana, the third best offensive player last season for the Milwaukee Brewers, to rest a typically injury-prone Braun is an amazing problem to have.
5. Will Cain be worth it?
Milwaukee invested heavily into getting some consistency in their outfield this year. Trading for Yelich was one of those moves, getting a young, reliable hitter with room to grow. On the other hand, the organization also threw a five year, 80 million dollar contract at a 31 year old center fielder.
Cain had been a valuable player while in Kansas City. However, his year-to-year consistency has not been as great as one would hope. The center fielder has struggled with injury issues, logging one season with over 140 games in his career. Giving a soon-to-be 32 year old that lengthy of a contract is a huge risk considering his lack of health.
Additionally, his WARP according to Baseball Prospectus has also been a rollercoaster of a ride since 2014. Cain has sat between two and three in even years and finished above 5.5 in the others. PECOTA currently projects him to finish at 3.5, however there’s a lot of room in either direction for him to drop or rise to. If he can finish with anything near his odd years, then Milwaukee Brewers fans will be pleased.
The Milwaukee Brewers are projected to finish in the middle of their division ignoring the possibility of further additions. That would be a disappointing season considering the acquisitions Milwaukee has made this off season. However, there is hope that these PECOTA projections are just what they are: projections, and not reality.