Tuesday, June 19, 2007

evaluating the brewers: the conditions of a rational hope

a few days ago this page noted:

there is, it seems, a setup of probability for the brewers to re-establish some of their lead -- the most recent period of incremental expansion (may 28 to june 1, games 49-52 for the cubs, where the club lost 2.5 games on the leader) came when milwaukee had already marked its low in macd (on may 27) and began to rebound as the cubs were still finding a bottom (finally on june 2). as the cubs may be finding their top and the brewers appear perhaps not yet to have, a similar event of reversed causation may be in the offing -- but of course such narrow and specific speculations remain highly variable and represent only the very mildest likelihoods.

this writer has been alternately satisfied and disconcerted at the verity of the outcome as, in the four days since, both the chicago cubs and milwaukee brewers have done exactly what the probability of trends would have suggested. the brewers have won three of four, narrowly missing a road sweep of minnesota and defeating the giants at home last night. the cubs, on the other hand, lost two of three to san diego amid a fracas. the result has been to see the lead of the division leader pushed back out to seven games -- just one game shy of the season highwatermark -- reinforcing once again, in the face of widespread popular disbelief, just how very difficult and rare it really is to close such a gap.

part of the reason for that disbelief, if this writer may take time to speculate, seems to be a hangover of expectation regarding this milwaukee club. it is one of humanity's inveterate failings to consistently project the shallowest lessons of the most recent past into the future, and given the performance of milwaukee clubs of recent vintage -- no brewer club has broken .500 since 1992 -- a willingness to disbelieve out of an irrational biased hope for the cubs finds a teasing but invalid confirmation in a reduction of history. but history shows more than just how bad the brewers have been.

many took a 2006 second half -- in which milwaukee went 31-41 -- as reason to disallow projections of their rising quality as misguided. lyle overbay had been moved to open a spot for prince fielder at first, and a final two months of 235/345/444 were enough to encourage eager skeptics. when carlos lee was traded away midseason for platoon-worthy kevin mench and closer francisco cordero, many took it as signal that small market financial limitations would do the club in -- particularly as 24-year-old corey hart foundered to a .316 obp in the aftermath of the trade. ben sheets continued to recover from the effects of 2005 soft tissue injuries early in the year, and his brilliant second-half run went unnoticed by many.

the offseason saw more changes made. centerfielder brady clark was moved to open space in the infield by transferring bill hall to the outfield, and 24-year-old j.j. hardy -- who had struggled through an injury-marred 2006 campaign -- was given free rein at shortstop. journeyman starter jeff suppan was secured to replace davis in the rotation. catcher johnny estrada was brought in to replace the ageing damian miller by trading control-plagued starter doug davis and prospect dana eveland. the few cub fans who considered these changes at all commonly dismissed them as they drooled over alfonso soriano and ted lilly.

but the season to date has revealed the potential of these moves in combination. fielder, now 23, has begun to realize his massive potential, clouting 26 homers while compiling a 289/373/643 line. the 25-year-old hart has as well, going 299/379/515 with 8 hr and 12 stolen bases. hardy has shocked many (including yours truly) by translating power that developed late in his minor league career to the majors, clouting 17 home runs in 280 at-bats and posting a 282/333/507 line. sheets has re-emerged as the staff ace, notching a 3.31 era.

this is not to make the brewers out to be a juggernaut -- they aren't. defense is a problem. while the bullpen -- particularly cordero and 23-year-old future starter carlos villanueva -- is certainly good, it is volatile; the starting staff -- suppan, dave bush, chris capuano -- have underperformed expectations, though babip is a culprit of varying degree in all three cases. the club is 3rd in the league in offensive run rate at .124 per plate appearance, but 7th in run rate allowed at .117. still, these are massive strides on even a year ago, when the club placed 10th in run rate scored and 15th in run rate allowed.

many continuing skeptics will wonder how sustainable this performance is. hardy, for example -- how likely is he to hit 35 home runs? can fielder really slug .600? how of claudio vargas and his 3.86 era?

this page wouldn't argue that every individual trend will continue -- but it will argue that, as a team, the brewers are also likely to get improved performances from other players even as the early stars cool off. dave bush and bill hall are particularly notable candidates among the veterans.

but the most compelling two reasons to suspect continued or even increased quality from the brewers are their midseason additions. 23-year old third baseman ryan braun was probably the best overall hitter in the minor leagues in 2007 before he joined the big club on may 25, going 342/418/701 in the pcl. he has since posted a line of 295/333/523 in his first 96 plate appearances while hitting largely third in the order. in replacing a third-base-by-inept-committee situation that saw craig counsell and tony graffanino split time there, braun has markedly improved the brewer offense.

the second reason made his major league debut last night. since tim lincecum was called up to the giants, 21-year-old yovani gallardo has been the most dominating pitcher in the minors, laying waste to the pcl by fanning 110, walking just 28 and giving up 53 hits in 77.2 innings. he was impressive against san francisco as well, particularly following a jittery first inning, cruising from the second to the seventh when he began to tire and was lifted at 102 pitches.

rookies are rookies, and it has to be the hope that both braun and gallardo struggle to adjust to their new roles at the center of a major-league club. but these are very special prospects that milwaukee has called on, with finer skills and higher ceilings than any to emerge from the cub system to play for the home team in a very long time. if they both make the transition smoothly -- as braun seems already to be doing -- milwaukee goes from being an club equal to or perhaps slightly better than the cubs (a club that, after all, put up this persistent lead) to a team that is simply better and which may well pull away. given how little ability the cubs have shown to date to catch up with the unimproved brewers, how is one to evaluate their chances are catching the new-and-improved version?

so for cub fans everywhere who hold out more hope than this page, it seems here that it has become imperative to see a collection of coincidental events:

all of these events have associated probabilities, some large and some small, but the conditional probability of hitting them all is of course quite minimal -- which is the basis of this page's continuing pessimism. nonetheless, it seems to this writer that these conditions are the near-minimum (not accounting for the possibility of a string of injuries afflicting the brewers, an event equally as likely to hit the cubs). let that be the basis of a rational hope, if one can be found.

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