The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers tied a franchise record with 96 wins, came within a game of the World Series and have virtually all of their top performers returning for 2019, including likely National League MVP Christian Yelich. They have some work to do this winter but, on the surface at least, they appear poised to contend again next season; unless you believe the projections.
FanGraphs’ first wave of projections for the 2019 season is out, and they have the Brewers in line for a massive step back. They have Milwaukee at 80-82, a potential 16-game drop from their 2018 win total. They’re tied for the 17th best projected record in baseball, and they’re behind the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates in the National League Central.
This continues a long trend for FanGraphs, one of baseball’s most respected analytics sources, of being low on the Brewers. Before the 2018 season their projections had the Brewers as a 79-win team, a mark they eventually exceeded by 17 games. Their readers responded by selecting the Brewers as the site’s most underrated team. Two years ago at this point they had the Brewers as the worst team in baseball for 2017. That Brewers team won 86 games, again exceeding the projections’ expectations by 17 wins.
The projection models are never perfect, of course: Luck and injuries and breakout seasons and collapses are impossible to predict with any level of certainty. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the Brewers have outplayed the projections by 34 games over the last two years and, instead of making an adjustment to their model, the folks who make the Steamer projections are doubling down and predicting a rough year for Milwaukee again in 2019.
The Brewers’ non-traditional approach to pitching has a twofold impact on these projections. First, as noted previously, the Steamer projection model uses pitcher velocity as a factor in their calculations as a representation of the quality of the pitcher’s repertoire. This has previously hurt notable Brewers starters like Chase Anderson and Zach Davies and now it also applies to Jhoulys Chacin, whose fastball sat in the low 90’s at best through much of 2018. FanGraphs estimates that Chacin’s 2018 performance was worth 2.6 wins above replacement but Steamer projects him to produce just 1.2 wins in 2019.
With Chacin, Davies and Anderson all potentially filling prominent roles for the Brewers going forward, the Brewers project to have a low-velocity and low-projected value rotation again in 2019. Chacin also outperformed his peripheral numbers in 2018, posting a 3.50 ERA despite the fact that context-adjusted metrics like FIP and xFIP suggest it should have been closer to 4.03 and 4.47, respectively.
Second, the projection models generally estimate teams’ performance based on relatively traditional usage patterns. The Brewers have demonstrated the capacity and willingness to buck that trend a bit, relying significantly less heavily on their starters and turning games over early to an excellent bullpen. As such, the Brewers’ 2019 projections have them allowing 4.55 runs per game despite the fact that they gave up just 4.04 with mostly the same talent in 2018.
The Brewers have gotten a lot of mileage over the last few seasons out of bucking MLB’s growing trend of high velocity starting pitchers, then lifting them early and relying on their strong bullpen to help decide games in the middle to late innings. It remains to be seen if this will be effective in the long term, but at present recent history and the Steamer projections differ on what to expect going forward.