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Ron Roenicke: In Four Seasons, Has He Earned Another Year or a Ticket Out of Milwaukee?

by Tim Muma                                                             10/1/2014

**To be fair and honest, I’ve never been much of a Ron Roenicke fan. I’ll also admit I’d probably be critical toward the decisions of about 99% of the people the Milwaukee Brewers would select to become the next skipper.

Part of this comes from jealousy – I mean, who wouldn’t want to run a Major League Baseball team? Part of it stems from being able to “armchair” manage with no real consequences to my “decisions.” And lastly, the irrationality of being a fan means you often have unrealistic expectations.**

With that as a backdrop, I do everything I can to look at players, coaches and the manager with as much of an objective view as possible.

So the question must be asked, should Ron Roenicke be given another year or does he need to go?

Gene J. Puskar - Associated Press
The most difficult part of judging a manager’s value to a club is simply trying to figure out how much he actually impacts success or failure as opposed to the players’ talent. One could argue that a bad manager has more of a negative impact than a good skipper has a positive one.

Some people say that over the course of 162 games, the guy writing out the lineup card only accounts for 3-5 games at the most. It’s certainly true that players ultimately decide the outcomes, and those players are mostly selected by the general manager, not the field manager.

But, until a franchise takes the step of putting a computer in charge – maybe something Bill Veeck would have done now – you still need a leader to bring the talent together and make on-field decisions.

His job is, and always will be, to put those players in the best position to succeed. That could mean stroking egos, playing the numbers, favoring matchups and any number of behind-the-scenes or on-the-field determinations.

By all accounts, it sounds like Roenicke has always been well-liked by his players. He is a guy who keeps the clubhouse harmonious, avoids calling out players in the media, and generally has an even-keeled demeanor through thick and thin.

However, some recent comments by Jonathan Lucroy and Doug Melvin make you wonder if Roenicke has created too much of casual atmosphere that lacks accountability, urgency and intensity when it’s needed.

Gene J. Puskar - Associated Press
Lucroy, following the Brewers’ loss that officially knocked them out of the playoff race, said, “We were in the driver’s seat for a while, then we got complacent. We got what we deserved.”

There are few things more disheartening to hear about your team, especially a group that hasn’t won anything. For Lucroy to say that, a guy who grinds out at-bats throughout the season, is very telling and a huge knock against the manager.

Then Melvin questioned the motivation of some of the players, saying he wants to “find out who cares about winning and losing in the clubhouse. If there’s guys in there who don’t care about winning, they probably won’t be here.”

Another rather damning comment, this time from the man in charge of bringing in the talent. He wouldn’t have made that statement unless he had spoken with players or coaches who at least implied these guys existed.

How much that falls on the manager can be tough to gauge as you can’t necessarily alter someone’s reasons for competing. However, the question again has to be raised if Roenicke helps to incubate and cultivate this demeanor among some players.

Ultimately, the 2014 season came crashing down due to a team-wide offensive slump late and inconsistent play overall after June. Many (including myself) wondered if Roenicke should have been doing more to optimize the lineup and better utilize his hitters’ style and skill, which is an area Melvin and company mentioned as one item up for evaluation.

In the end, the manager has to be held partly responsible for not being able to halt such a long, ugly skid. He appeared to have the mentality of “sticking with the plan” as being the way to go because changing things up would be a sign of panic or a lack of trust in players.

His assessment was very wrong. And now, considering his last three years as manager have produced little but disappointment, Roenicke’s head is on the block.  

In his four seasons at the helm, the Brewers have gone 335-313 (.517), with three winning campaigns, one division title, and one playoff series victory. Outside of their NL Central championship, Milwaukee has finished in third place twice and once in fourth.

Of course, take away his rookie campaign and the record plummets to 239-247.

Roenicke’s first year leading the club was a huge success, though it ended with an NLCS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. That team won a franchise-best 96 games behind the pitching of Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, as well as the power bats of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart.
Morry Gash - Associated Press

Despite the terrific run, many had harsh criticism for Roenicke’s decisions in the NLCS.

Pitching Greinke in St. Louis in Game 5 of the NLCS, instead of in Miller Park in Game 6 where he was 11-0 with a 3.13 ERA in the regular season. The Brewers lost 7-1 to go down 3-2 in the series.

That allowed Roenicke to pitch Marcum for a second time in the NLCS when he had given up 12 earned runs in 8.2 innings (12.46 ERA) in his first two playoff starts. He gave up 4 earned runs in one inning of work as St. Louis knocked out Milwaukee to head to the World Series.

Not to mention, Roenicke also had Mark Kotsay start in center field in game 3, opting for the 35-year-old with no range who hadn’t played center in two years, instead of Carlos Gomez or Nyjer Morgan.

Thus, even in his most celebrated season, many wondered if the Brewers won in spite of the manager.
Then in 2012, despite the loss of Fielder, the Brewers looked poised to compete again. The offense finished the season first in runs scored, but the pitching was in the bottom third of ERA.

The starting pitching was still solid overall; it was the bullpen that struggled mightily. That is, of course, the area a manager has the most impact. Both during the game and throughout the course of a season, how the relievers are handled has many lasting effects.

The team got off to a slow start and battled back late, but they still fell short of their potential. How much blame falls on the manager for that season?

The 2013 campaign has to be a mulligan for Roenicke. Injuries to key players, Braun’s suspension and a host of other factors put the team behind the 8-ball all season.

However, 2014 was Roenicke’s chance to shine. A solid rotation, talented bats with lots of power potential, and a revamped bullpen all played in his favor.

The Brewers, for once, got off to a terrifically hot start and many pointed to the Crew’s late-season success under Roenicke as a sign Milwaukee had a clear path to the postseason. Even the Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds seemed to be giving the Brewers the division with a combination of poor play and injuries to vital players.

One spot not discussed as often this season was the use of the bullpen. It certainly looks like it was mismanaged again. Was overuse early in the season to blame for Tyler Thornburg’s injury? Signs definitely point to that as he appeared in 18 of the team’s first 34 games.

Then there was the ridiculous situation in Atlanta when Will Smith came into a game having not warmed up at all in the bullpen. He wasn’t the same dominating reliever after that incident.

Finally, tack on Roenicke’s stubbornness in having an “8th-inning guy” and sometimes a “7th-inning” guy, and no wonder the bullpen had ups and downs.

AP Photo - Associated Press
Ultimately, we all know what happened as the season wore down. An epic collapse like this one, where everything went wrong and took over like an avalanche, often leaves few survivors.

While the players need to accept responsibilities for their shortcomings, at some point, the manager – the leader – needed to find a way to pull his guys out from the impending doom.

He couldn’t do it. The Brewers wasted a golden opportunity and changes are on the horizon.

Though firing a manager shouldn’t happen because of one season, and many will continue to tell you he makes little difference, there is plenty of evidence from Roenicke’s tenure to say his time is up.

I don’t know what Melvin and Mark Attanasio will decide, but if they choose to let him go, it will have been earned.

Five Telling Statistics That Doomed the Milwaukee Brewers' Offense

by Tim Muma                                                          9/30/2014

Baseball lends itself to be consumed by numbers, twisting and bending the precise meaning of each statistic throughout one game, one month or one season.

AP Photo - Associated Press
There are times certain stats are deemed less important or more valuable depending on the circumstances. Managers, fans and the media are constantly trying to decipher the magical code of these numbers, hoping to discover the perfect formula for long-term, consistent success.

The Milwaukee Brewers' offense is an interesting case study. The 2014 group of hitters produced the second-most runs per game for most of the season. In fact, through 103 games - 64% of the season - the lineup averaged 8.8 hits and 4.44 runs per game.

Had they kept up that production, the Brewers would've finished 4th in hits and 2nd in runs in the NL. Instead, they scored only 3.3 runs per contest from July 25th to the end, dropping the club to 6th in runs and 9th in hits.

As everyone tries to determine what happened, the key lies in how the league adjusted to Milwaukee's style while the hitters failed to change their ways even slightly.

These five statistics should shine some light on their struggles late in the season, and some areas the front office may need to address moving into 2015. And here's a shocking spoiler alert: None of them have to do with strikeouts!

1) First-Pitch Swings
  • In what should be a surprise to no one, the Brewers swung at the highest percentage of first pitches in MLB, hacking 33.2% of the time. While it's true the first offering may be the best a hitter sees in some cases, pitchers certainly threw fewer quality strikes and fastballs to start off Milwaukee at-bats.
  • In the latter part of the season, it's reasonable to deduct this played a large role in the Brewers' issues. Weak contact, 0-1 counts and early outs all contribute to poor offensive percentages in the present inning and as the game wears on.

2) Percentage of 3-1 Counts 
  • Milwaukee saw the second-lowest percentage of 3-1 counts in all of baseball, reaching this pitch in just 6.6% of their plate appearances. The MLB average was 8.1% this year.
  • Naturally, swinging at the first pitch as much as they did, it severely limits the chances a hitter reaches a 3-1 count. It's one of the two best counts to hit in, as batters owned a 1.249 OPS in MLB this year. 

3) Grounding Into Double Plays
  • The Brewers hit into the highest percentage of double plays in the NL (2nd-highest in MLB), bouncing into a twin killing in 13% of their opportunities.
  • While this is partly a fluky stat, it also stems from Milwaukee's lack of plate discipline. With a runner aboard, opposing pitchers know they can induce weak contact on the ground with pitches out of the zone against the Brewers' over-aggressive mentality.

4) Runner on 3rd, Less Than Two Outs
  • Milwaukee owned the third-lowest percentage of driving in a runner from 3rd with less than two outs in the NL. Brewers' batters delivered 49% of the time.
  • Too many times hitters failed to make contact, drive balls through a drawn-in infield, or loft a deep fly ball to the outfield. Of course, manager Ron Roenicke didn't help by calling for the contact play with the infield in. He cost hitters extra opportunities to bring in the run.

5) Pitches Per Plate Appearance
  • In another non-shocker, the Brewers saw the fewest pitches per plate appearance in MLB with a mere 3.65 pitches each time up. The issues go back to first-pitch swings and a lack of hitter's counts. Seeing so few pitches has a cause and effect from the game's opening pitch to the final out.
  • The inability to draw walks, failing to wait for a mistake pitch, and allowing the starting pitcher to stay strong are all problems that arise from a lineup full of free-swinging sticks. 

AP Photo - Associated Press
These ugly statistics, when grouped together up-and-down the batting order, create the likelihood of slumps when teams effectively scout and execute.

The best way to remain consistent and avoid long droughts - aside from having a bunch of All-Star talent - is to reach base and take advantage of poor pitches.

While Milwaukee's .311 on-base percentage was basically average in the NL, that was buoyed by a couple of hitters.

Of the eight players with at least 400 plate appearances for Milwaukee, five hitters owned an OBP below .325 with three of them under the .300 mark.

The club was built on power, but that disappeared as the year progressed. The power outage was due in part to the poor contact, pitcher's counts and lack of discipline seen in the stats above. 

Ben Margot - Associated Press
Many point to the amount of strikeouts the Brewers supposedly rack up, but the truth is that Milwaukee's hitters struck out the third FEWEST times in the NL, going down on strikes in 19.7% of their plate appearances.

Remember, the Brewers saw just over three-and-a-half pitches per plate appearance, making it difficult to strikeout when you so often put the ball in play before you even see a third pitch.

This also limits walks, of course, where the Brewers finished 11th out of 15 clubs (7.0%).
When brought together in a lineup filled with similar hitters, the five aforementioned stats are a lethal combination that mightily contributed to the offense's untimely death.

Management needs to take a long look at the type of hitters on the club, and at worst, seek to balance the styles and mentalities holding down the spots from one through eight.

The 2014 Milwaukee Brewers Added to the Fans' Lack of Faith in the Franchise

by Tim Muma                                           9/29/2014

At 73-58, having recently swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in L.A., the Milwaukee Brewers appeared to be a solid structure built for the long season.

But as August turned to September, innocent bystanders watched in helpless wonder as the Brewers' foundation cracked, the roof caved in, and the entire creation imploded under the weight of raised expectations.
Tom Lynn - Associated Press

With the dust still settling on the franchise's disastrous 2014, it's only natural to wonder what it all means for next season and beyond. Though I'm not talking about the club's on-field performance.

Instead, how will this cruel finish affect the already cynical, pessimistic and downtrodden fan base?

For a franchise that has only appeared in one World Series (and lost) in its 45-year history, it would be difficult to put the loyal followers through more hardened times. Yet, somehow the 2014 version managed to put them through the wringer once again.

To hold onto the top spot in the NL Central for 150 days (slightly more if you count off days) and fail to not only take the crown, but in reaching the playoffs altogether, is beyond maddening. The collapse - and that's exactly what it was - is borderline historic.

Just four other teams in the divisional era (since 1969) held first place for at least 150 days in a year and missed the postseason. Of course, the Brewers had two Wild Card spots as fall back plans, but even that couldn't save them.

So now, as a fan of the Brewers, at what point will anyone trust this franchise to follow through with any promising start? Each time the Crew jumps out to a divisional lead in May, June, July or even August, the fingers will point to 2014 then they lost 25 of their last 36 games to close out the season.

Jeffrey Phelps - Associated Press
They'll direct the small pockets of hopeful followers to the standings on August 25, when the Brewers held a 1.5-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals, and a "stranglehold" 6-game edge over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Then they will fast forward to the final day where Milwaukee finishes 8 games behind the Cardinals and 6 below Pittsburgh.

Thus, the beaten, woebegone fans will ask, "If our beloved team can lose 12 full games to the Pirates and 9.5 to the Cards - in a mere 34 days - how can we ever believe this club will be victorious on the season's final day?"

It's hard to argue, though it will be quite a shame if folks can't enjoy the first 5 months of next season for fear of another bitter disappointment.

Even in 2014, many took the route of "doomsday preppers" when it came to predicting the end. It turns out - whether they did it out of habit, seeking to avoid the pain of failed expectations, or they truly believed it would happen - they were right.

Morry Gash - Associated Press
This only enhances the paranoid, skeptical and joyless way in which many people will watch throughout the coming years. It actually makes me sad to think about.

Baseball is meant to be followed daily, eagerly inhaling the aroma of its philosophical allure. By losing one's hope in May, fretting over the chance (again) of heartbreak in September, it's failing to appreciate the journey of a sport that most mirrors life.

My hope is that fans will see 2015 as simply another opportunity to discard the franchise's reputation. Each year brings with it new possibilities and the belief that childlike euphoria can be had by even the most indignant and apathetic individuals.

Sadly, the way the 2014 campaign crashed to ground makes next year all the more challenging to invest in from beginning to end...and it's difficult to blame people for continuing to feel such a way.

Brewers' Disappearing Offense to Blame for Late-Season Failures

by Tim Muma                                                     9/23/2014

For most of the 2014 season, the Milwaukee Brewers had been the second-best offense in the National League in scoring runs, trailing only the Colorado Rockies and their offensive "cheat code" of a stadium.

That is part of what makes the last month completely mind-boggling when it comes to the Brewers' bats, particularly when you're in the hunt for a postseason berth.

How does a team simply forget how to score runs?

Since August 26, a span of 25 games (through Monday), Milwaukee has averaged a puny 2.6 runs per game as the club went 7-18 during that time. Unless you have Clayton Kershaw manning three spots in the rotation, you're not winning many games with that offense.

Morry Gash - Associated Press
In the 131 games prior, the Brewers averaged 4.3 runs a contest, had a .728 OPS, and held a six-game edge over third-place Pittsburgh with a 73-58 record - third-best in the NL.

Since then their walks and strikeouts have been virtually unchanged, so they're putting the ball in play at roughly the same clip. And while the team's OBP is at a measly .294 over the last 25 games, it's really the power - or complete lack thereof - that has hurt the offense.

In those 25 games, the Brewers hit just 14 home runs (0.6 per game). During the first 133 contests, Milwaukee averaged 1 home run a game, a difference of 65 long balls over the course of a season. Furthermore, extra-base hits dropped from 3.1 per game to just 2 per contest in the last 25.

That would be 178 fewer extra-base hits over 162 games - a huge drop-off for a power team.

That is part of the problem with building a lineup around free-swinging hitters who don't work counts or draw walks. When they're getting base hits - and subsequently a few extra-base hits sprinkled in - they make up for the void in finding other ways on base.

The result has been 15 games where the Brewers scored 2 runs or less, or 60% of the time in the last 25 contests. They also had 10 instances of putting up 6 or more hits, but scoring 1 or 0 runs.

The combination of no power and a lack of situational hitting created the huge, frustrating divide between the offense that was, and the offense that came to be in late August and September.

Some will say, "The offense struggled for longer than the 25 games. Ever since the All-Star break they've been bad."

Not true.

In the 35 games from the All-Star break until these last 25 contests, the Brewers offense was scoring 4.2 runs per game with an OPS of .731, nearly the exact same numbers from games 1-131 on the year.

And while the experts who live and die by sabermetrics concepts tell you there's no such thing as a "hot" or "cold" hitter, and that hitting isn't contagious, and that players don't consistently do better or worse than usual in certain situations. I disagree to some extent.

Jeff Chiu - Associated Press
No, those types of things aren't predictive - which is the main (only?) issue they have - but to me, that doesn't mean none of it exists.

Take this 2014 Brewers' lineup who have nearly all plummeted into the depth of hitter hell over the past 25 games.

During that time, we saw the Crew go from 93% probability to make the playoffs to less than 1% in about four weeks.

Why have so many of them struggled at the exact same time? No one knows for sure, but perhaps their style and the contagious nature of hitting has played a role. Maybe as one dropped off, the others tried to do too much? Possibly, hitters do go "cold" for one reason or another.

As much as nobody has the answer, I don't think we can eliminate any theories either.

Below are five hitters who were the key contributors when Milwaukee's offense was playing well. You can take a look at their batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (AVG/OBP/SLG) and how the last 25 games have been a complete disaster.

Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez and Scooter Gennett all slugging below .300 - slugging, not batting. Everyone, except Gomez, also has an OBP below .300 during this time, and GoGo's OBP is inflated by his four hit-by-pitches.

None of the five have an average above .225 and their OPS totals from best to worst are:
.620 (Ryan Braun) - .608 (Gomez) - .580 (Khris Davis) - .544 (Ramirez) - .530 (Gennett)

Even leading into this horrible stretch, the quintet above were hitting the ball well overall. In the 35 games from the All-Star break until August 25th, all of them were slugging .440 or better and had an OPS of at least .739 each.

Ramirez was tearing it up with a .346/.385/.488 line in those 35 contests, while Davis slugged .515 during that span.

So what changed?

You could argue that all of them have reasons or excuses for their precipitous dip as the season neared the finish line.

Gomez - Wrist injury. Came back too soon. Took away his power and he pulls off everything.
Braun - Thumb/hand injury. Worsened over time. Didn't get enough days off. Couldn't hit inside.
Ramirez - A 36-year-old with wear and tear. Often dinged up. Legs tired. 
Gennett - Always a concern he could hold up (slight frame). Needed more days off vs. righties.
Davis - Lost playing time to Gerardo Parra. Inconsistent at-bats affected his performance.

I'm sure these all played some role, but it can't excuse the complete inability to knock in runs.

AP Photo - Associated Press

The Brewers continually failed to advance runners, put the ball in play with a man on third, and generally wasted the few breaks they received during this rough stretch.

Not to mention, over the course of the season, Milwaukee hit into the 2nd-most double plays with a man on first base. This despite having the 3rd-fewest plate appearances in that situation.

How many times did we see a leadoff runner get wiped out on a double play by the next hitter?

Certainly, it's a team sport and the pitching did have some late-inning issues that cost the Brewers two or three key games; however, when your pitching staff puts up a 1.85 ERA over the course of 11 games, a 6-5 record isn't acceptable. Neither is a 3-4 mark when the pitching owns a 1.76 ERA.

Those poor records with stellar pitching fall squarely on the offense, especially when you put up just 5 runs in that last 45 innings with the season on the line.

I'm not sure where the offense went, but it took the postseason with them.

Brewers Mix blog featured writers Tim Muma, John Linn
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