From a pure run-scoring perspective, the Brewers' offense is essentially the same as last year. In 2021, Milwaukee scored 4.56 runs/game compared to 4.55 this season. However, the run-scoring environment in MLB is tougher in 2022, so the Brewers rank eighth in runs this season versus 12th last year. You can point to various issues with the offense and the number of games they score fewer than three runs, but overall it's hard to complain about a top-10 offense in baseball.
Turning to the pitching staff and many may be surprised by the mediocre numbers. The club's 3.87 team ERA is right in the middle of MLB pitching. While ERA doesn't tell the whole story, it says a lot that Milwaukee ranked third last season in ERA at 3.50 overall. For a team that's championship aspirations are built on dominating hurlers, a dip from third to 14th in ERA is devastating. Where has it gone wrong?
The first thought likely turns to the bullpen, where things have seemingly been more tumultuous than usual. Devin Williams got off to a terrible start, Brent Suter was below average most of the first half, and Brad Boxberger has looked worn down for much of the last couple of months. Throw in the usual spate of injuries, the shocking trade of Josh Hader (who was already scuffling), and the predictable issues of many others, and one would believe the relievers are the main problem. Without diving into advanced statistics, the numbers say otherwise.
This simple look at the bullpen basically puts them in the same range as last season. Part of it stems from manager Craig Counsell and his strategies to limit the use of his best relievers in low leverage situations. Perhaps the back end of the bullpen has been slightly less reliable this season, but it could also be that they have been put in too many tight spots to hold up. Some of that is a lack of run-scoring, but it also falls on the starting rotation to give the relievers some breathing room.
Milwaukee's starters have been the more significant problem - and it's not close. Led by Cy Young hurler Corbin Burnes, the rotation was expected to be among the best in baseball once again. It hasn't gone so well.
It's quite shocking to see the stats next to each other from the past two seasons. If we people told us the Brewers' starters would be a middle-of-the-pack unit in 2022, most would have felt fortunate if Milwaukee was even in the hunt for a postseason berth. The St. Louis Cardinals might be tough to catch at this point, but that doesn't mean the season's over. With a month to play and the Wild Card still easily in sight, a spot in the postseason will come down to better, more consistent starting pitching. With essentially the same rotation as last season, the drop in performance lies mainly with those returning arms and some areas they struggled in.
Now, when you scroll through these five pitchers and compare their ERAs from this year to last year, keep one thing in mind: the league-wide ERA is 0.28 lower this season than it was in 2021. So as disappointing as the ERA spikes have been, the drop in production is even more dismal than the raw stats show.
CORBIN BURNES - 2.84 ERA (2.43 in 2021)
The reigning Cy Young is allowing the highest fly ball percentage (FB%) in his career (36.5%). Opponents also have their best hard-hit percentage against Burnes since his disastrous 2019 campaign. Putting those two pieces together has played a prominent role in Burnes' disturbing trend of giving up gopher balls. Last year, Burnes allowed seven home runs for the entire season. With a month to go, he has already given up 19 dingers in 2022.
BRANDON WOODRUFF - 3.31 ERA (2.56 in 2021)
Woody has been terrific since returning from injury. However, when he has struggled, it has been due to walks. Woodruff owns a 7.2% walk rate (BB%), the highest in a season since 2018 for the righty. In each of the previous three seasons, he has finished with a 6.1 BB%. Allowing more bases runners and driving up his pitch count has led to the worse ERA and throwing the fewest amount of innings per start since 2018.
ERIC LAUER - 3.58 ERA (3.19 in 2021)
After getting off to a Cy Young-worthy start to the season, Lauer quickly fell back to Earth and has been about the same as last year. His biggest issue, like Burnes, has been the home run ball. Among qualified pitchers in MLB, Lauer has the highest home run per nine innings rate at 1.7 HR/9. With his BB% up and his K% down from last season, the long ball has taken a greater toll and dinged his ERA even more than in 2022.
ADRIAN HOUSER - 5.15 ERA (3.22 in 2021)
Houser has looked the worst of the five typical starters, even before his injury and one start upon return. His 5.15 ERA this season is driven by allowing the highest percentage of line drives and fly balls since becoming a regular starter. As a pitcher who relies heavily on getting ground balls with his sinker, when opponents get more balls in the air, they tend to be hit well and cause plenty of damage.
FREDDY PERALTA - 3.56 (2.81 in 2021)
Fastball Freddy has only thrown 68.1 frames due to time on the IL with a strained right lat. However, it also sticks out that his strikeout percentage (K%) is easily the worst of his career. At 26.9%, his K% is five percent below his career mark. It's difficult to fairly evaluate Peralta having had so much time off, but the dip in strikeouts during his brief time has taken away from his potential dominance.
As you can see, the starters haven't been able to keep up the near-historic performances they displayed in 2022. While many of the numbers are still solid or respectable, the dip impacts the outcomes of games. Especially, as noted earlier, when it comes to the pressure on the relievers to be almost perfect on a nightly basis. Instead of handing the bullpen a 4-1 lead in the seventh inning this year, it's more likely a 4-4 game or 4-3 where the relievers have little-to-no margin for error. As much as people (like me) complained about President of Baseball Operations David Stearns's inability to acquire a bat at the trade deadline, maybe a starting pitcher would have been more valuable.
That is a moot point now. Ultimately, this is the group that has to put up or shut up. Because baseball has so many individualized aspects to it, people often forget it is a team sport where each performance and action impacts others on the club. Indeed, the offense could find a hot streak to carry the team down the stretch, or the bullpen could become a lockdown beast for a month. However, if the Brewers are going to find their way deep into October, keep an eye on the starting pitchers, as they will set the tone for everything going forward.
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